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talk25-May-2016: Illness, the New Normal

Looks like it finally happened. The lung inflammation I did not get better from. I have joked about it so many times it almost feels like one more joke but this time by the doctors, not me. But it is real. It is in the numbers of the blood scan, the sounds of the stethoscope and the sudden fever spike that knocks me into bed coughing and sweating, even if five minutes ago I was ready to conquer on the world. There will be no more antibiotics. Both doximycin and amoxicillin have run their course. There will be no meds at all. Nothing. Just a strict low-carb and no sugar diet and an assload vitamin supplements. And finally weekly check-ups to record any ups and downs in the numbers. They are the footprints of a silent, elusive and potentially lethal enemy hiding somewhere, or perhaps everywhere within me.

Honestly, I am to pretend it is not there. Resume physical activities. Slowly increase aerobic exercise. Maybe the enemy withdraws, scared by healthier habits and a higher metabolic rate. Or maybe it gets lured out into the open, so it can be caught, diagnosed and perhaps killed. Without taking me with it. How long can this stand-off, or rather, a guerrilla war of small victories and defeats go on? Weeks? Months? Longer? Is illness my new normal?

Of course, the timing couldn't be worse. There is cancer in my family right now. Are we in a race, with the finishing line running along the edge of a grave? In some ways, the other person has a head start and a fiery steed. But his steed has been fairly dormant of late. I am riding an undefined and thus far incurable pulmonary inflammation on a morbidly obese patient, complete with a personal history of pneumonia and a family history of heart problems.

Place your bets!


talk15-May-2016: Achievement Unlocked!

I attend a number of games industry events and consider networking to be an important part of the job. Finns are not very good at it, so the whole thing has become almost a ritual: shake hands and tell your name and employer (usually with the help of name tags or shirts with names on them; business cards will do in a pinch). The next stage involves asking and telling what we do for our respective employers, in my case "Burger Games". When it is my turn, I tell them that I've been a freelance game designer and writer for the past five years and sell my services via Burger Games as B2B transactions. Usually, they give me a blank stare and then blurt out: "You can do that?"

This does not refer to my ability or lack thereof but to a paradigm shift in their understanding of how game industry jobs work, or what jobs there even are. But yes, I've been freelancer, a game design and writing consultant for five years almost to a day (the exact anniversary is May 11th, I think). For the moment, there is no end in sight, either. This was always supposed to be a temporary arrangement, with me taking care of the clients dropped by SC5 Online when they abandoned game development and went all-in on front-end development. But every time I thought the end was in sight and I would have to take up an honest job again, another gig came up. Then another and another, until here we are, five years later and with the most colorful portfolio in the industry. If you can name it, I have probably done it.

Of the more recent releases out there, I've had my hand in Alienation, AG Drive, Matterfall, Antidote, Minä Itse Osaan, Lola Panda, Pelikone.fi, Liigapörssi, Älypää, Slottis and a shitload of concepts still covered by NDAs and that I can only hope will see the light of day. I am beyond glad that Housemarque is finally coming out with their latest salvo of PS4 titles since I've had at least *something* to do with most of them, especially in the concepting phase. As for what I am doing right now? I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you. Or pay a six-figure sum for breaching my contract, so I'd rather just kill you. But you can also find me giving lectures about game design or the industry in general.

Many of my colleagues have expressed envy at how my every project and sometimes even working day is different from the last. Sure enough; after plowing through a four-year game project, having a new thing on your desk every month must seem fresh and exciting and to be honest, it kind of is. However, it has not all been smooth sailing. Freelancing involves dry spells, the constant nagging uncertainty about the future (well, that's games industry for you even if you are not a consultant), all the problems of a start-up heavy industry, having to do your own numbers and making sure that your clients pay on time and in full.

When things go wrong, they go wrong with a bang! Subcontractors tend to be at the epicenter of any explosion and the first the feel the bite. The worst cases still haunt me at night, making me question not just my skill but also my self-worth. It doesn't really matter if it wasn't your fault; you still go over the events again and again, endlessly turning them over in your head and wondering if there was something you could have done to save it. Crawling back from disappointments and not letting it affect your next contract is probably the hardest part of the job. 

"No one cares about your crises, dude! Show me the money!"

Of course.

Well, to quote Matkailua Pelialalla, being a freelancer essentially means you roll in dough when you have work and eat wallpaper off the walls when you don't. If you average my fees for the past 60 months, I've been comfortable. Nothing more and thankfully nothing less. The good spells make up for the bad and overall, a game industry consultant has to match his fees to the wallets of his clients. You can just forget the kind of payouts business consultants get. It is not going to happen. When on a job, you'll still earn more than your salaried colleagues but it is not really that much more, and not really enough to make up for the lack of longevity and stability. Trust me, a four-month dry spell is enough to rob this job of any romance and glamour.

Also, don't dis the value of mental and social capital just because you can't buy steaks with it. Game development is a team effort and when the time comes to walk out of a project, I am sometimes choking back tears. Good co-workers and team spirit can be wonderful things and very, very hard to let go. Like cutting off a piece of yourself.

So, have my five years as a freelance game designer and going against the industry grain and traditions been worth it? Hell if I know. Like all things, it is a balance of pros and cons. When things work out and the project is really good, I have the best job in the world, period. And when they don't, the silence is deafening, the loneliness is soul-crushing and the uncertainties draining. I am not going to lie; I have sent out a few  job applications these past few years. Didn't land one but those applications have a tendency to kick up subcontracting deals instead. Go figure. There have been moments when you could have employed me for a dime an hour. And at times, you could not have lured me away for anything less than six figures a month.       

I must confess that this 5-year milestone sort of crept up on me but it is a milestone nevertheless. No one, least of all me, could have believed I'd reach it. But who knows what the future will bring?

talk23-Apr-2016: Childhood's End

I loved the story of Peter Pan when I was little. The idea of being forever young while living free and independent really got to me. Not to mention the consolation of escaping to a fantasy island full of adventure. The real world, the adult world, was ugly and evil. It had teachers who were wrong half the time and still insisted they had authority over me. It had psychologists striving to prove I was a problem and to this day I have an urge to spit psychologists in the face. The adult world was full of responsibilities that made absolutely no sense, like attending religious services for social reasons. It had arduous tasks without a reward and unwritten rules entitling everybody to tell me how wrong I was to have my own ideas and hopes for my adult life. And there were violin lessons. Seriously, FUCK the violin lessons!

With all that, you'd think I had to fight my parents all the way. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were arguments and there were the fucking violin lessons but as a rule, my folks always had my back. They were supportive, if not always understanding. They might have been pushy about one agenda or another but they never let me down. Not once. Whatever our disagreements, when the teachers and psychologists were stomping on me and trying to squeeze me into their various molds, my parents were a rock I could lean on.

It all comes back to me as I watch the nurse. She is trying to fit the blood pressure sleeve around an upper arm about as thick as my wrist. I keep asking myself when did that happen. How did that arm get so thin without us noticing? She finally manages it (the velcro patches just kept missing each other) but the readings are off the charts. There is also some fever. The owner of the arm moves and responds slowly, with a weak and raspy voice. The tall rack of bags, pumps and cables besides the hospital bed reminds me of a really shitty Christmas Tree. The clear lines are for meds and hydration. The milky ones are intravenal nutrient feeds. Except for that one. It looks just like one but is actually a white plastic power cord for the pump. I find that morbidly funny for some inexplicable reason. The intravenal nutrient feeds are sorely needed as the patient has not been able to swallow properly for quite some time. Frankly, that white liquid may be the first proper meal in months.

The next day I learn that I was lucky. The patient was coherent and lucid during my visit. Now there are bouts of amnesia and confusion as to where, why or when. The nurses arrange for a new set of tests and are scratching their heads at the results. It's a whole new set of problems, both above their pay grade and outside their department. Of course, the old problems did not go anywhere. My hand trembles as I hold the paper. There is quite a bit of medical Pig Latin on it but I do recognize the essential terms. It is also a long statement and the new problems aren't even on it yet. Somewhere in this gigantic building, a team of doctors is looking at the same statement. Life and death decisions are being made based on cost-effectiveness and risk assessment. The odds have taken a turn for the worse. I can feel it.   

They send the patient home the day after. Perhaps to recover before the next round of necessary tortures. Or to wither away if the habit of eating cannot be restored. I scour the stores of Espoo for the right kind of wedge pillows, pick up a load of new meds and help stock on soft and gooey foods. Because I am the only one who can. My legs don't give out for climbing a single set of stars. I don't forget half of the shopping list when holding it in my hand. I have a driver's license, the best eyesight, the best reaction speed and the best spatial location awareness. I can lift heavy things, read foreign languages, use the Internet and give instructions on the use of new household electronics. They are coming to me with questions and fears, asking for my opinion, listening to my advice, clinging to my encouragement and accepting my judgement.

I am the rock. Lean on me.

And never mind that I am crying into my palms when no one is watching.     

talk08-Apr-2016: They Broke My Glasses...

On a few occasions, pro-GamerGaters have asked me why am I get worked up over their occasional harassment of female critics (and more recently, developers and script writers), while being simultaneously lukewarm to their more justifiable criticism of ethics in games journalism. The reason is that in my moral compass, rape threats, death threats, professional harassment and doxxing far outweigh anything the games journalists might be up to even on a bad day. Don't I think games are important? Yes I do, but as an industry professional who has been doing this full-time for 12 years, I will go on record to say they are not and never will be *as* important as the civic rights and safety of our fellow beings.

Also, call me old-fashioned and macho but it just pisses me off when a bunch of burly dudes at no personal risk to themselves pick on a girl. Rape threats and death threats are no laughing matter and whenever someone throws the "it's just the Internet" or "it is just the gamer culture" -defense, I don't have the muscle to facepalm hard enough. WE ARE THE FUCKING INTERNET! WE ARE THE FUCKING GAMER CULTURE! A decision to intimidate, harass or to reveal personal information on someone is done by an individual! The effect can be cumulative and collective but the responsibility lies with the individual! By doing it, the individual has confirmed himself to be an asshole. Anyone condoning it is stuck in the hole. Only the depth may vary.   

In other news, I made an optimistic comment about the lack of sexual harassment and gender bias in the Finnish RPG scene. My rose-tinted glasses got promptly stomped on. According to a survey by K. Pirttijärvi, 24% of the females have experienced sexual harassment in Finnish conventions. Even accounting for a possible responder bias, this is a huge number. Roughly ten times what I expected it to be. The Finnish scene might not be as bad as some others out there (small patriotic flags) but from now on I am going remove every single Rapecon flier I come across. Unfortunately my ass is too sensitive for me to use them for wiping but we must all do what we can.

The idea of harassment within the Finnish RPG scene gets to me because I am not a social person. Whatever social skills I have now, have been learned during my 20s and through trial, error and professional necessity. I have made all my friends, then and now, through my hobby and that includes Leena, my spouse of 21 years and counting. Our gaming group had the occasional female guest already back in high school. They never stayed for long and if they were harassed, which they certainly might have been, I would have been to socially unskilled and generally oblivious to notice. But it was exotic to meet girls interested in this strangely manly hobby (come to think of it, it should have been a girly hobby).

When I was a gamemaster, I considered it an honor to have one of these elusive beings in my group. So I would try to be the best gamemaster I possibly could and make them fall in love with the hobby (and not myself). They were almost invariably new to roleplaying, so while I already felt pride for being a roleplayer myself, I also felt an obligation to be the best possible face for it. The Great Totem Hippo knows I must have bungled it horribly time and time again but at least the attempt was sincere. I never lost the pride or the sense of obligation and eventually it must have worked. All my long campaigns since 1994, those that ran for years and I have been the most proud of, were co-ed. I might be wrong here but I don't remember ever having any issues with the gender of my players. Or any serious issues with the groups at all, for that matter.

Which is why I find threads like this painful, if also educational. Remember, these are only the experiences of the women who kept playing, larping and doing things in the scene after all they described had happened. Countless more potential players have been lost due to asshats... no, profanity is not going to cut it this time. I've insulted and cursed people in this blog before but a gaming session is sacrosanct. I might hate your guts but if you are at my table and I give you anything less than my best as a gamemaster, I have lost face. Noblesse oblige. In short, if you harass a another player, you suck! If you are the gamemaster and do not interfere when a player is harassing another player, you suck! If none of you intentionally harassed anyone but the affected player still felt that way, you all suck! And if someone new tried the hobby and quit due to your action or lack thereof, WE ALL SUCK but it is your damn fault!

Fucking behave!


talk28-Mar-2016: I Have A Dream

A recent Facebook discussion hinted that some RPG groups that play a campaign with traditional adventurer groups do not cooperate during character creation. If this is true, I have only one question: ARE YOU FUCKING MORONS? While it is fine for characters to have secrets and traits known only to the player and the GM, groups of professional adventurers did not spring into existence by chance. They have been founded for a purpose and any dead weight will have been shed long ago. The group as a whole is like an additional character, with its own personality, reputation, contacts and a role to play in the wider setting. You know, just like in real life, if you have ever worked with a project team of professionals.

All this requires that the participants communicate. The GM has to communicate the overall vision, with two goals in mind. Firstly, the players must become interested in what he is offering or there is no point in moving forward. Second, there needs to be at least a vague idea of what kind of characters are likely to get the most mileage out of the coming adventure. If that part fails, the campaign may still get started but the whole affair is likely to be a bad experience. Yes, this is elementary shit but Christ On A Bicycle if it doesn't keep popping up on Facebook and elsewhere! If people are not learning from their own mistakes, they should at least try to learn from the mistakes of others.   

Once the campaign expectations have been sorted out, it is time for the players to talk. I prefer to have it on a live session but it can be done over the Internet. The players will have to agree on the composition of the party, dishing out the roles and responsibilities they expect to need during the play. When that is sorted out and the players know what the party expects from them, they can start working on their own characters and go apeshit, as long as the needs of the group are met. Some players like to do this at home or with private consultation from the GM. Others like to do it in a live session with the whole team and just nudge the GM into the adjacent room when figuring out secret edges, flaws or backstory details. It all concludes with a grand parade, where the players describe their characters to each other (naturally leaving out the parts the others do not or cannot know). If they all agree that yes, this would be a good enough group to go adventuring with, you are ready to begin!

Just think about it logically. Would you found a start-up with complete strangers having random skill sets? If the characters have no control over the forming of the group (like when playing a random bunch survivors in the immediate aftermath of a zombie apocalypse), no such talks are needed. But then you would not be playing as members in a party of adventurers, would you?

I'd like to think this isn't a problem in Praedor or Stalker RPG since both settings rely heavily on professional adventurers and purpose-built groups. Yet the same can be said for every adventure-oriented RPG out there, not to mention all the OSR stuff! We really should not be having this conversation, not even for the first time. And yet, here we are. *sigh* 

Luckily, it is not all doom and gloom. Feast your eyes on this:


If you are into fantasy and can read Finnish, remember this cover. There are still some months before it comes out but I'd say the release is now pretty much guaranteed. And the cover image is gorgeous. Thank you, Petri!

Salaisuuksien kirja is making significant progress and I have just received the first pencil drafts of the cover. I have high hopes it will be in time for Ropecon. I am currently adding adventures to it, one for category of secrets. For now, they are done in the style I prefer, without any detailed maps or diagrams. While it is not on top of my list, I'll see if I can add a map or two before the release. Less experienced gamemasters seem to like those things. The only thing that can still stop this train is Petri Hiltunen. If he doesn't approve my take on Jaconian religious rituals, we are stuffed.

Once the writing got underway, Salaisuuksien kirja has been surprisingly fun and I find myself wondering why didn't I write stuff like this before. I know that I had tied the original supplement to the release of the next Praedor comic album and it effectively never happened (ironically, it is happening now that supplement has finally been decoupled from it). But there always were other things I could have written about: Katkeran Virran Maa, Varjojen Kirja, Hirviöiden Kirja, Ihmeiden Katu and so on (transl. Land of Bitter Waters, The Book of Shadows, The Book of Monsters, The Street of Wonders). Still, I did write Stalker RPG during these years, so it wasn't a total loss :)

Much depends on the sales of Salaisuuksien Kirja. RPG supplements tend to sell poorly in Finland unless they are about guns or equipment lists. I've set myself a sales target of 200 copies within a reasonable (but undefined) timeframe. However, if I get even 100 sales, I'll write another and that is a promise. In a perfect world, I'd release a supplement each year and this would inspire other Praedor fans to do the same. So far, the only third-party release has been Efemeros #2 by Sami Koponen but we could use another by now. Note that Sami gets a pass on not checking the content with me or Petri because Efemeros was technically his own RPG magazine. If you want to publish something under the official Praedor brand, show us what you've got and who knows, you might even get some help with publishing it.

In the early years, Petri loved to say that Praedor had no canon. In truth, we are struggling a bit with the Praedor canon right now. The RPG remains the official "Guide to Praedor" and the single largest source of setting information anywhere. However, 16 years is a damn long time and we are older, wiser, or at least very different from the people we were in 2000. There have been new ideas, new realizations and just plain changes after old decisions turned out bad. Petri has been very liberal with the canon regarding the novels and short story compilations by others, but he keeps me on a much shorter leash. I accept that; rightly or wrongly, for the average fan the canon is something defined by Petri, the Praedor RPG and me. 

To give you an example, both Petri and myself loved Käärmetanssija and its vibrant and detailed descriptions of the great city of Galth. But the paragraph about Galth in the rulebook, written somewhat hurriedly 16 years ago, is not only contradictory; it is garbage! And while we can say that from now on the description in Käärmetanssija officially supercedes the description in the rulebook, there are going to be more rulebooks than novels out there (unless I am successful beyond my wildest dreams). Note that even more changes are coming, especially with the next Praedor comic album that will update the world history by a few years. Afterwards the rulebook will be officially out of sync with the comics. So what will we do?

I don't know yet.  

In better news, Praedor RPG will also get the official Gamemaster's Screen this summer. How it is going to be sold and distributed is still unclear. Maybe I'll stick to my original but not-so-serious plan of carrying a stack of them with me. Every time someone brings me a copy of Salaisuuksien Kirja to sign (in Ropecon, Kokkocon or Tracon), he or she will get one for free. And there would be no other way to get it!  

talk14-Mar-2016: Are There Dragons?

I blinked and it was spring! Time sure moves faster as you grow older. And what a shitty spring it has been for the entire field of speculative fiction! J. K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter books, is under attack for her less than culture-anthropologically accurate inclusion of American Natives into the Potterverse. Cultural appropriation is bad! Because of... reasons! And all the white peoples are the same and therefore to blame! Because of... reasons! As you can see, instead of feeling my usual liberal outrage, I am facepalming. The prosecution makes their case here: http://nativeappropriations.com/

To me they come off as oversensitive wimps but feel free to draw your own conclusions. Personally, when in doubt over whether or not to take an offense for cultural appropriation, I have an easy test: does the setting have dragons? If yes, fuck off with your politically correct sensibilities! Fantasy literature has culturally appropriated the shit out of everything else since the genre was invented. And frankly, putting a stop to that would mean the death of a genre. I can see someone getting offended by the stereotypical or generalizing portrayal of their home culture in fantastical setting with some token connections to reality. I can even see them pointing out their grievances to the author. But go for anything more than that and my sympathy drops off sharply.  

And why Rowling? Where was this outrage over Laundry Files, or a multitude of Gaiman's works, or countless of other examples? More to the point, do you know what would have been even more offensive? To pretend that the Potterverse did not include any native peoples at all! I see this as an off-shoot of "safe space" thinking and if we authors can never, ever, risk offending anyone, we can't really do anything, can we? Which is something that The Women's Institute of Contemporary Media Culture in Japan has clearly understood

So, I am sorry, my fellow progressives and Social Justice Brothers-In-Arms (stupid gendered nouns). I've been with you in many scuffles but this is the one battle you'll have to fight without me. Or against me, if it ever comes to that. Just to make Jaconia, we pinched enough stuff from real world cultures to fill an entire novel. Now the list is even growing longer with every release. And having just supported the Kickstarter drive for the next version of 7th Sea, I am curious about how they've handled their Americas in the New World supplement. Theah is based on Earth in the 1670s and that was a really bad time to be in the Americas if human rights were your concern.   

In other news, my new Praedor campaign Katkeran Virran Maa is not covered by an NDA, so I'll be telling more about it in the future. To cut it short, I am sending my adventurers into the lost realms of the East, and in the process toying with new cultures and power-structures, hoping to break the shackles of occidental fantasy tropes while still within Jaconia's borders. I am also writing adventures for the Book of Secrets and have found myself a cover artist, so it looks like this thing is really going to happen. The supplement will be released together with a sturdy Gamemaster's Screen but the details are a little murky. Maybe I'll be at Ropecon with a bundle of GM Screens and anyone who presents me a non-signed copy of Salaisuuksien Kirja fresh from Fantasiapelit gets one?   

Stalker RPG
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Ville Vuorela - The Hollow Pilgrim – A Stalker RPG
                Novel: New Roadside Picnic #1, e-kirja
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Vanha Koira
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