Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)

The story so far: James Wallis, old hand in the British RPG industry, takes to Kickstarter to fund his return to RPG design. His campaign is very successful, based largely on his good reputation among gamers; he then pisses away that reputation on a massively delayed delivery process which involved multiple broken promises, several long stretches of total silence and non-interaction with backers, and an honest-to-goodness tie-in with Far West.

Eventually, some products crept out of the darkness, and in this part of the saga I am going to take a look at them and then offer some final thoughts.

Reviewing the Swag

Wait up, what’s going on? Wasn’t my pledge cancelled? Didn’t I receive sweet jack shit from this Kickstarter campaign?

Allow me to explain a little. See, it turns out that one of the stretch goals for the Kickstarter was freebie PDF copies of Hell 4 Leather for backers who put in at least £25. This isn’t as random as you might think; Hell 4 Leather has a dose of overlap with Alas Vegas, both in terms of its central story conceit and in terms of being a fancy indie story game with a tarot-based resolution system. So since I got that, I may as well review it.

In addition, someone who actually did get Alas Vegas was kind enough to let me look over their copy, and I’ve got a few points to make about it here.

Alas Vegas

I’m not going to do too much of a deep dive on this, just highlight a few things about the main Alas Vegas scenario which stood out to me. I’ll restrict my comments just to the core scenario too, because I don’t really have much to say about the Fugue system document which Ralph Lovegrove didn’t in his various writings on the subject, particularly his review of the system, and as far as the various bonus chapters go I think it’s kinder on the authors involved not to highlight their involvement with this contentious matter. It’s not that their work here was bad – what I skimmed was actually perfectly serviceable – it’s just that Alas Vegas is a project known more for its stint in development Hell, and if it disappeared from the other contributors’ CVs nobody would notice the difference given the far superior projects more or less all of them have been associated with.

To give you a quick rundown of the premise in case you’ve forgotten by now (and I would not at all blame you for that): the player characters are all amnesiacs who claw themselves out of shallow graves just outside of Vegas – not the Las Vegas we’re familiar with, but a weird version of Vegas with lots of tarot imagery strewn about the place. They have to work out who they are and what happened to them, their story nudged along by flashbacks and whatnot (see Ralph’s review for more detail on how flashbacks are intended to work).

Now, one of the central conceits of the Fugue system is that the job of refereeing rotates around the table, so in a group of 4 people each person will referee a single session of the Alas Vegas campaign. As Ralph notes, a lot of the trickier issues with the system, and with the design of content sets in particular, arise from this schtick. In fact, I’ll quote Ralph’s list of gaps in the system here (as presented in his Fugue Hacking mini-supplement for the system), since it looks pretty complete to me:

  1. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  2. How to hand over between sessions.
  3. How to weave flashbacks into the narrative.
  4. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

#5 is not really something I’d expect to be contained within a Content Set. It’s a bit of a shame that Wallis didn’t think to include an article on the subject in the book, to be honest; as it stands, Ralph’s Fugue Hacking document is the closest thing anyone’s come to giving a direct answer to that question (as opposed to a worked example, which Alas Vegas and the other Content Sets in the book are). It’s the sort of information which needs to get out there if the Fugue concept is to get any traction at all, but on the other hand I’m not sure Wallis ever intended it to get any wider traction in the first place; Fugue is fairly clearly designed to meet the needs of the Alas Vegas concept (right down to the tarot cards) and got put out as an open source thingy because that’s what’s considered hip in the indie designer crowd. Either way, you can’t really hold the lack of #5 against the Alas Vegas content set.

Wallis seems to have spent most of his energy on answering #3 for the purposes of the Alas Vegas story, but doesn’t give a general answer to the question. That’s fine, since I don’t think it’s the sort of thing which actually needs a single, definitive answer: how flashbacks are to be woven into the narrative is a question which is hugely dependent on the narrative and scenario at hand. In a game where the flashbacks are deliberately-induced events which you activate by taking a pill for something, for instance, it’s going to be very different from a game where they just happen on the spur of the moment. Moreover, the particular information to be revealed in the flashbacks will also largely determine when the appropriate time to activate them is.

Questions #1, #2 and #4 actually seem to present the biggest pitfalls to the concept, to my mind, with #4 perhaps being the thorniest issue of all. Alas Vegas addresses #1 briefly and not very satisfyingly – when you are refereeing you just run your player character as an NPC, optionally using them to drop necessary information if the players are stuck at a particular point. In most scenarios, that is a viable but not especially satisfying solution, but as I’ll discuss later there’s a nasty sting in the tail when it comes to Act 4.

With respect to #2, Wallis doesn’t offer much beyond “hand the book to the next referee”. At most, Wallis suggests having a quick conflab with the previous referee if they’ve taken the game shooting off into a really weird area which doesn’t really fit the plan, so you can ask them what the hell they were thinking and where they were going with that, but that’s more or less it. I think Ralph’s articles do a good job of substantiating why the handover process should probably be treated with a bit more thought than that.

As far as #4 goes, it’s a serious problem with the format and, I suspect, likely caused most of Wallis’ headache when it came to information flow over the course of the campaign. Even then, I am not convinced he has a solution for it, and am even less convinced that it’s a soluble problem for the purposes of some scenario types – said types including Alas Vegas itself.

See, Fugue is set up that each individual game session is run much as a traditional RPG, in the sense that you have the group of players each playing their player characters and the referee controlling the “rest of the world”. The problem is that three out of the four people refereeing a campaign of Alas Vegas, if they are running it as written (and, of course, I can only review the game as written, not some hypothetical altered game), are not going to have full information about the rest of the world, because crucial information and revelations are kept to Act 4.

[…] while you’re the Dealer the players are likely to ask you questions about the game-world and the people in it, and it will be better for this and future sessions if you genuinely don’t know the answers.

That doesn’t give you a licence to make shit up. This isn’t one of those indie games. Improvise by all means, but this is guided storytelling not a freeform bullshit session, and in each session there are two guides, you and me, and we’re in this together.

I’ve emphasised the last bit of it because it seems, to me, to be crucial to Wallis’ attitude to how to write roleplaying game scenarios, and is probably an explanation as to why I don’t like a single scenario he’s designed. (It’s notable that his most widely-acclaimed games – the card game Once Upon a Time and Baron Munchausen – are all those where not only does he not provide a prewritten scenario, but also prewritten scenarios would entirely defeat the point. The scenario he added to The Power Behind the Throne in the WFRP line was seriously unimpressive, as far as I’m concerned, particularly given its insistence in later articles discussing it that if the players in your group find messing about on a boat up and down the riverways of the Empire to be fun, then it was your job to deny your players their fun by sabotaging it rather than, you know, base your campaign around what the players enjoy doing.)

I’ll break that “two guides, you and me together” point down later, but for the time being let’s get back to the thorny issue of “what do you do as the Dealer if the players ask a question that you do not know the answers to?” Wallis’ answer to this dilemma is hard to interpret but it seems to me that he’s saying one or two things:

  • It’s entirely acceptable to say “I don’t know, the scenario doesn’t tell me” if a question comes up in a session. This is so alien to the basic assumptions of the traditional RPG referee-and-players format that it would be absurd for James to mean it.
  • James thinks that referees put in this spot should, somehow, improvise an answer without making shit up, an inherent contradiction in terms which is so alien to the basic principles of improvisation that it would be absurd for James to mean it.

In other words, James’ answer to this whole question is absurd and self-contradictory on its own terms. Ralph in his articles talks about the “never reject or contradict” principle – an idea from improv which is pretty much essential to running a tabletop RPG campaign which hangs together at all, because the internal consistency which comes from “never contradict” then the scenario just degenerates into arbitrary Calvinball, and without the principle of “never reject” when it comes to those areas a participant has freedom to make a contribution to the game then you’re not respecting the contributions of the participants. (In fact, James himself also endorses working with the “never reject or contradict” principle in his advice for refereeing Alas Vegas.)

The problem is that there’s another contributor at the table when you play Fugue which doesn’t necessarily respect that: namely, James himself, who as the quote above notes clearly sees himself as a co-participant in this whole process whose contributions are delivered via the information given in the content set. Personally, I think this is utter balderdash: James is not sat at my table with me and my gaming group, is not a participant, and doesn’t get to dictate terms, even though he’d like us to believe all of the above is true bar his actual physical presence.

The fact is that the Death of the Author applies doubly to RPG designers – once a roleplaying game’s out in the wild and in someone’s hands you don’t have the designer right there to interpret them for you, all you have are dead words on a page that the participants have an absolute right to interpret and reinterpret as they wish. In fact, they must interpret, reinterpret, change and add to if they are going to adapt it to the particular circumstances of their gaming group and the action of the game. Wallis, in his design of Alas Vegas, somehow doesn’t seem to understand this at all, and seems very keen that you should treat him as this rockstar auteur game designer (a pose not unfamiliar from the way he marketed the Kickstarter campaign itself) whose word you should follow as closely as possible.

The basic problem Fugue seems to have is that it seems to be to be extremely easy to get into a position where there’s a flat contradiction between “never reject or contradict” and continuing to use a content set as written, because for instance the players established something in chapter 1 and reinforced it in chapters 2 and 3 that is shown as being absolutely incorrect in chapter 4. Precisely because whoever’s refereeing acts 1, 2 or 3 hasn’t read act 4, they don’t know that that revelation is there, and it is wholly possible for them or the players to perfectly innocently and reasonably establish something which seemed to be wholly consistent with everything they are so far aware of only to be sidelined.

This problem also means that it’s near-impossible to judge how NPCs will react to situations which the scenario as written didn’t anticipate – because players being players they will, sooner or later, come up with an unexpected course of action. A persons actions and motivations are going to depend on their knowledge, but if you don’t know what the major NPCs know or what the truth behind their motivations are, how are you supposed to decide what they are going to do?

Now, there’s ways to design around these problems. You could front-load all the major revelations into chapter 1, and then make the subsequent 3 chapters revolve around how the player characters adapt to that information, make use of it, and eventually resolve the crisis they’re in. Alternatively, you could make the game very episodic, with each session telling a self-contained story in a continuing story arc. Gareth Hanrahan’s Yet Already is a time-travel based scenario which, by virtue of the way time travel works in it, neatly avoids contradictions between different referees’ sessions being a problem because, hey, time travel is going to generate paradoxes anyway, right? (It’s also a good example of how a Fugue content set can put a lot of material up front in the first session or introductory material but still have a few twists and turns later on.)

Alas Vegas does not take any of these escape routes: it tells a single continuous story with major revelations cropping up right to the end. So, not only does the Fugue system set up this pitfall, Alas Vegas steers directly into the crash. (Meanwhile, I am again left with the impression that Gareth Hanrahan is actually a better Fugue designer than James Wallis is, and indeed this only makes me suspect more that James didn’t want to release Yet Already to backers without the Alas Vegas content set, even though he could have done so and that would have given backers an actual game they could play during the long wait, because on some level he didn’t want to be upstaged by Hanrahan’s work.)

Given that Fugue has these pitfalls, and Alas Vegas has a concept which falls directly into the Fugue system’s pitfalls rather than smoothly evading them and playing to the system’s strengths, it’s no wonder James found himself with a bit of a writing problem on his hands.

Now, if Wallis had found a pleasing, elegant, workable way to square this particular circle, that would go a long way towards substantiating his supposed game design chops. Unfortunately, his solution is to make the scenario highly railroaded, to the point where the flow of individual scenes is highly choreographed, thereby limiting player freedom and through this reducing the odds of the referee being asked a question they can’t answer or the players asking to go somewhere or talk to someone that the referee doesn’t have information on or whatever.

This is the oldest lousy trick in the book, and is usually considered bad form, since it undermines the whole point of an interactive form of entertainment. Whilst some play groups are likely to be happy to play through a linear, railroaded scenario in some contexts, I suspect most participants would like to know that ahead of time, and the extent to which the scenario is railroaded is, of course, only evident once you read it – which of course you shouldn’t do if you’re going to play it.

In addition, in talking up his “indie” game design credentials in the marketing for the Kickstarter campaign, Wallis is targeting a game-playing demographic which is very big on shared control of the direction of the narrative. In principle, in its rotating-referee setup and with the prominence of flashbacks, Fugue is quite good for that, but the Alas Vegas scenario is so keen to snatch narrative control away from players and referee alike and keep them in Wallis’ hands that I suspect that anyone who’s really into indie RPGs and storygames could probably name a dozen games which offer more satisfying interactivity than Alas Vegas does.

A major part of the problem here is the way the scenario is structured, wherein there’s two narratives – the backstory of the player characters as expressed in flashbacks and their exploration of the mysteries of Vegas in present time – and a) one of them is set in stone and b) the one which you would naturally expect to be set in stone, given the generally-accepted premise that the past is immutable and the present is where we are able to make a difference, is not in fact the one which is meant to be set in stone. Aside from a very few concepts (like flashbacks which give you kewl powers), Wallis is happy for people’s flashbacks to go anywhere, whereas the investigation in present time is highly railroaded. Whilst it’s nice that he uses the Fugue system to give players a free hand in an area they might not expect to have it (the past), he does so at the cost of robbing them of nearly all their freedom of action in the arena where they would reasonably expect to have it (the present day).

A particularly galling example of the game’s railroading revolves around how whichever sucker got lumped with the job of refereeing act 4 gets fucked over when it comes to the destiny of their player character. You see, as you might expect the last act of the story involves a climactic scene in which the ultimate fate of the player characters is determined. You might expect that, even though the current referee’s player character is run by them as an NPC for that session, they’d still get to have some input on what that character does, how they go into that climactic sequence, and how they come out of it. There might be some constraints put on them there to encourage them to play fair and give their character a reasonable chance of failure (perhaps they get to nominate someone else to referee their character’s actions in the final scene or something), but it’s only fair, right?

Wallis isn’t here to be fair, though. In fact, Wallis steps in here and instructs the referee for Act 4 to have their PC take actions which massively betray the other PCs, make their PC look like a total heel, and condemns the PC in question to eternal damnation.

If that’s more or less in line with how you have played your PC so far – or a plot twist which you think is cool – that’s fine. But if it isn’t, you have just been supremely fucked over, because you’ve had your character snatched away from you and dumped in the bin to serve Wallis’ story and you don’t get any real say on it.

Whilst in general it might feel acceptable to have your player character act as an NPC for the space of the session you are refereeing, I think it’s only fair to expect to be able to dip into player stance at least momentarily in the final session when it comes to making the crucial decisions about how all this is going to end, or failing that to at least have a comparable level of freedom in choosing what happens to your player character in the end than the other players do. This solution means that you actually have less freedom to choose your character’s ultimate fate than the other players do if you are refereeing the final session; not only does your PC become an NPC for the session in question, but they’re an NPC whose control is specifically taken away from you by Wallis, stepping in to overrule your decisions about what your character is like and what they would and would not do in any particular situation in order to get some cheap heat.

(OK, sure, you’re always free to ignore that – but, again, once you do that you are no longer playing the scenario as written, and Wallis has actively encouraged you not to do so. Plus, of course, I’m discussing the scenario as written here, not the scenario as some random person might modify it.)

The worst thing about this shitty decision on Wallis’ part is that, of course, if you didn’t read the scenario beforehand – in other words, if you have followed Wallis’ instructions and are playing the game as it is designed to be played – you won’t realise this is going to happen until you read over chapter 4 in preparation for running the final session.

That’s what really makes this decision terrible, in my eyes. It would be one thing if you had indications that something like this would happen, and if you were told at the start of the process of setting up the campaign (when, presumably, you are making your decisions as to who will referee which session) that whoever’s running act 4 had better be someone with not much emotional investment in the fate of their player character. That would at least be something.

(Then again, that warning may lead to problems finding someone willing to run act 4; I find that it’s rare in my circles for players not to have some sort of emotional investment in their own player characters (reasonable enough, they’re their personal creative contribution to the game after all), and those who are not very emotionally invested in their character are unlikely to be the sort of player who goes in for high-concept mystery games about exploring your fractured memories in a weird version of Las Vegas. Generally, they’re more keen on using their player characters as game tokens to move through a dungeon and collect treasure.)

As it stands, for the sake of conserving his precious mystery, Wallis springs his trap on your player character as a total surprise, more or less guaranteeing that if you are unhappy with this prospect, you are going to be super-ultra-extra unhappy with discovering this turd at the bottom of the punchbowl when the group is already three sessions deep into the game.

Oh, yeah, and the big twist? That big ol’ twist? That one which Wallis tore his hair out working out how to reveal? The real central conceit of the whole thing? The explanation for all this oddness? It’s… you know. That one. You know, the most trite and obvious plot twist you can think of given the premise of the story. You know the one. It’s the same one the creators of Lost kept insisting wasn’t going to be the explanation for that series before it turned out that actually it kind of was.

This is a surprise that it wouldn’t have even been worth waiting a few months to June 2013 for, let alone literal years.

Hell 4 Leather

Hang on, before we begin discussing this one we’d better put some Judas Priest on.

Joe Prince’s Hell 4 Leather is a brief game – it’s sold as a $4 PDF and you can print the rules out on three sheets of A4, and it contains extensive examples of play on top of that. It was included as a bonus in the Kickstarter because, like Alas Vegas, it structures and resolves gameplay via tarot cards.

Hell 4 Leather exists firmly in the “storygame” tradition of games such as Fiasco – unlike in a traditional RPG, you’re not expected to identify with the same character over the course of the entire game, there is no gamemaster with a set of responsibilities distinct from the other participants (from the beginning, at least), the emphasis is on all the participants exercising their narrative and storytelling capabilities, and it’s assumed that the game will be over and done in a session of about a couple of hours rather than forming the basis of a campaign lasting over multiple game sessions. Most of all, rather than presenting an “anything within the characters’ capabilities can be attempted, anything can happen” sort of deal, it presents a linear plot structure intended to replicate a particular story.

Specifically, Hell 4 Leather is a storygame that’s all about replicating the action of the likes of Ghost Rider or Drive Angry. On one side, you have an outlaw biker gang who have conspired to kill one of their own; on the other side, you have the Rider, the one they betrayed, released from Hell for one day by the Devil himself in order to take bloody revenge on the traitors responsible.

There are three basic phases to the game – a prologue, the main action, and an epilogue. In the prologue, the players deal out the Devil, Fool and Death cards to decide who will provide narration to introduce the Rider, depict the Rider’s death, and describe the Rider’s arrival in hell and special commission from Satan. Whoever received the Fool card plays the role of the Rider for the main action, which is divided into six scenes; everyone else is randomly assigned one of the Leathers, a subset of the Major Arcana depicting the various members of the gang involved in the betrayal, and one of the Boons (another subset of the Major Arcana allowing holders to increase or decrease the chances of a character surviving the Rider’s onslaught).

A theme is ascribed to each scene based on a further subset of the cards – so scene 1 corresponds to the Hanged Man and depicts the funeral of the Rider, scene 2 corresponds to the Tower and involves some stronghold of the biker gang being attacked, and so on. Each scene is improvised between the players until the Rider decides that they are going to try to kill one of the Leathers. When this happens, the Death card and the Leather’s card are put into a stack, shuffled, and the Rider has to pick the Death card in order to successfully kill the target; choosing any other card means the Leather survives (for now) but there may be long-lasting consequences. If the target – or any of the other players controlling Leathers – wants to increase the chance that the targeted Leather will survive, they can add a Boon from their hand to the stack (thus reducing the probability of the Rider picking Death); if the Rider, or anyone else for that matter, wants to see the Leather in question die right now they can play a Boon after the Rider has failed to pick Death in order to give the Rider another chance (increasing the odds of death because one card has already been revealed).

There are two twists which help ensure that the game fits the action of the genre: firstly, in the final scene (“Judgement”) the Rider can attempt to kill as many Leathers as are still alive, ensuring a dramatic final confrontation. Secondly, whenever a Boon card belonging to one of the players is revealed, it goes to the Rider’s hand. Conversely, whenever the Rider plays a Boon, it is discarded. This means that over the course of the game, if the players are trying to keep the Leathers alive, unless the Rider is extremely unlucky or lucky in their picks the Boons will gradually accumulate in the Rider’s hands, allowing them to more reliably kill people later on in the story (indeed, so far as I can tell the optimal way to play as the Rider is to keep a tight hold of all Boons that come your way. Conversely, if the players hang onto their Boons to save them for the final conflict, they might be able to save their Leathers then – but equally, the Leathers are likely to drop on a reasonably regular basis leading up to the last scene.

After the final scene, there is an epilogue. The players vote on whether the surviving Leathers are “saved” (get a happy ending) or “damned” (get a bleak ending), and then the Fool, Devil, and surviving Leathers are dealt out. Whoever receives a surviving Leather narrates what happens to the character in question; whoever gets the Fool describes in broader terms how the general situation for the setting of the story and the minor characters who live there pans out, and whoever gets the Devil narrates the fate of the Rider and the slain Leathers in Hell.

As far as pre-game preparation goes, you have the option of either working out who the Rider and Leathers are and what sort of setting they exist in and what sort of activities the gang is into and stuff like that beforehand, or simply improvise the lot. When I playtested the game with some friends we went the full-improvisation route, and I’m genuinely torn on whether the benefits outweighed the complications caused. Improvisation of setting and characters feels more appropriate to the fast flow of the game and means you can get started more quickly. On the other hand, not knowing early on which Leathers correspond to which characters makes it a bit more difficult to do interesting character development and know how each Leather fits into the pecking order of the gang and relates to the other Leathers. It feels as though the more improvisational you go, the sillier the tone of the game you get (our experience was a Drive Angry parody crammed with sick jokes in which all the Leathers died and we didn’t mind because we didn’t really have much sympathy for them), whereas the more you talk beforehand to establish the Leathers the more likely it is your game will have a more serious tone.

For the most part, the simple system worked well for us, though serious confusion broke out in the final scene. In terms of constructing a narrative, the system works when the Rider is trying to take out one single Leather – then you’re gunning after that person, and then they either get away clean, get away with lasting consequences, or die. So it makes sense there to narrate the Rider going after the person in question, then pick the card, then continue the narration based on what card you got. This breaks down if you have multiple Leathers in the stack, as you will if the Rider is trying to kill several people in the last scene, because whilst you can attempt to kill multiple people in the final conflict you can only kill them one at a time. Due to the way the previous five scenes have gone, by this point the natural tendency will be for the Rider to narrate a kill attempt targeted at someone and then pick a card, but they might end up turning up a completely different person – meaning that, awkwardly, the kill attempt gets diverted to the Leather whose card was turned up, and that leather then survives. It makes more sense to pick a card and then narrate both directing an attack at someone and then succeeding or failing based on the card you picked, but that isn’t what the previous scenes have trained you to do, and as a result I suspect a lot of groups will end up running into narrative awkwardness there.

There are other aspects to the Judgement scene which don’t seem to have been thought through too. For instance, as per the rules all the surviving Leathers are present in this scene – however, it isn’t clear whether this is “all the surviving Leathers who have actually appeared in the story so far” or literally all the surviving Leathers, including those who haven’t even been dealt out to anyone. If you go with the former, then if you put any effort pre-game into defining who each of the Leathers were you might find that the effort was wasted because some of the Leathers never turn up, and also you’ll need to decide on the spot whether the Leathers who don’t appear in the story never actually existed or whether they managed to get away and survive simply by remaining offstage, neither of which feels like a satisfying solution. In the latter case, where you do read the rules literally and include previously-unplayed Leathers in Judgement, you need to work out quickly whether the newly-arriving Leathers are going to be played by a specific person (in which case some folk might end up juggling two characters, and may therefore neglect one or the other – probably the new one) or whether playing the Leather in question is a communal responsibility (in which case, as we found, nobody actually takes responsibility for them and they remain kind of a cypher). It gets even worse if you’re taking the “make it up as you go” approach to defining the Leathers, because then you could end up in the last scene not only having to play a Leather who hasn’t shown up in the story up to this point, but also deciding at the end whether they have a happy or sad ending if they survived, which is kind of a hard choice for the player group to make about a character they’ve barely got to know.

Any roleplaying game or storygame hinges a lot on the other participants, but as tightly structured and plotted as Hell 4 Leather is we came to the consensus that it isn’t a game you could rewardingly replay with the same group several times – even if we came up with a different setting and characters, it’d feel like a minor riff on the same basic structure, a bit like replaying the same traditional RPG scenario with the same group of players but different player characters. At the same time, it feels like that with a different group dynamic the experience would be different enough to be worth replaying. Although several of the playtest group, myself included, are fairly sceptical about storygames, we actually enjoyed it more than we did Fiasco – the tighter structure made it feel like we had more direction, and the gameplay elements felt less disconnected from the action. I think I might be able to persuade the others to have another game if someone worked up a different story premise and a set of scenes to match that; it occurs to me that it wouldn’t take much to turn Hell 4 Leather into a storygame treatment of Halloween-style slasher movies, for instance, because those have the same structure of a series of single deaths building up to a climactic confrontation at the end.

That said, I can’t round out the review without razzing its recommendations when it comes to tarot decks. It suggests playing the game with a deck with reasonably modern imagery, and to be fair the idealised fantasy-medieval imagery of the classic Rider-Waite deck would feel incongruous for the subject matter in question. Prince recommends instead the Archeon Tarot by Timothy Lantz, which is completely risible and we swiftly dubbed the Photoshop Tarot for its overuse of Photoshop filters and other manipulations applied to artsy photos of people, approximately half of whom have their boobs out. I picked it up because Hell 4 Leather, as mentioned, was released to backers long before Alas Vegas itself and I knew I’d need a deck to play Alas Vegas with as well. The nicest thing I can say about it is that, ascribing no particular sacredness to the Tarot, I don’t find it actively sacrilegious, just kind of sniggersome.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong

Oh, Just Wrong for sure. I wish I had never gotten involved in this car crash.

Would Back Again?

Absolutely no goddamn way; Wallis treated his backers completely shabbily towards the end of the whole process, and I can’t help but be personally offended that, after I was nice enough to help him edit his updates, he ended up deliberately snubbing me along with the rest of his backers due to his juvenile “mighty oath”.

Even if I could look past that, I would not recommend that anyone back a Kickstarter that James Wallis was closely involved with unless he were able to provide hard evidence that he had, in fact, completed his creative contributions to the item in question prior to the Kickstarter funding process beginning, and his text was locked down and no longer subject to change, because it’s evident that his perfectionism can approach Brian Wilson-making-Smile levels and any editing pass he makes runs the risk of him completely demolishing his existing text and starting all over again.

That said, this question is probably academic. This whole ordeal has clearly made James deeply, deeply miserable, and despite my anger at his sloppy behaviour and his glib non-apologies I do feel bad about the effect the project has had on him. Like I said back at the beginning of this article, part of the reason that I would never back a project Wallis ran again is that it’d feel like aiding and abetting him in self-destructive behaviour, and that contributing to the success of one of his Kickstarter campaigns would, perversely, do more harm to him than the failure of those campaigns ever could. The odds are that he will never undertake another Kickstarter; he’s poisoned that well too much at this point.

Final Thoughts: Other Paths To Vegas

Actually, let me unpack that last thing further. It is self-evident that Kickstarter is not the right platform for James; it is wholly incompatible with his preferred ways of working.

That’s not a failure of James or Kickstarter; the creative process is different for everyone. For some, the process of writing is downright enjoyable. For others, less so. Stephen King famously evoked the image of Thomas Harris “writing on the floor in agonies of frustration” because, whilst the act of writing might be boring for some, for Harris “the very act of writing is a kind of torment”. For others, it’s going to vary a lot project by project; for James, turfing out a new edition of Baron Munchausen seemed to come nice and smoothly, but the writer’s block which afflicted the Alas Vegas project and apparently also affected Paranoia feels closer to something Thomas Harris would experience.

In principle, getting the text close to finalised before running a Kickstarter campaign would be the right way to go for someone with James’ temperament. The problem is that that’s kind of what he did here – it’s just that he then got intimidated by the amount of money that was pledged, didn’t think that £21,000 worth of stretch goals was sufficient to make up for that, and felt he had to rewrite Alas Vegas as a result, falling into a Harris-hole as he did so.

Fellow RPG designer Greg Stolze, for his REIGN product line and other projects, adopted a different process: what he called the “ransom model”. He’d write a game or a supplement, declare he’d done so, and set a ransom for its release, this ransom matching what he thought the work was worth. The product would be released once sufficient monies were received to cover the ransom. The advantage this model would have for James would be that it avoids the “oh noes I got overpaid!” problem – if he thought that Alas Vegas was only worth £3000, he could set a £3000 ransom, release it on receipt of £3000, and get on with his life.

It would be a much more modest production model – though he could probably set up print-on-demand rulebook sales for those who want a physical book – but it would have let him get free and clear far faster than he did here. (Reminder: James is not yet free and clear on Alas Vegas because he’s still not written the novel.)

Kickstarter is always a bit of a gamble: you never know when circumstances are going to take a project which should have been plain sailing and completely shipwreck it. Project creators are gambling just as much as backers are. If creators treat backers like partners in the process and are open and honest with them about the challenges a project faces, they may well find their backers are willing to pitch in and help do what they can to get a positive result out of the whole process.

If creators treat backers like annoying pests who they don’t really want to have to talk to, to whom they can make promises and commitments which can be broken whenever it would be convenient or lucrative to do so, and who it’s acceptable to totally leave in the dark for months on end whilst the project creators are clearly actively communicating and working on a range of other projects, then the backers are going to mutiny.

At the end of the day, the most compelling story of bad memories, bad blood, and bad luck associated with Alas Vegas is the bitter saga of its delivery process, not the product itself, and in years to come that’s all it will be remembered for. Pocket-sized indie story games that try to experiment with narrative control and make artsy points are ten a penny these days, and few of them gain traction or are remembered for very long after their initial splash (if they even make a splash at all – Alas Vegas didn’t). Kickstarter disasters like this, however, live long in the memories of those who survived them.

6 thoughts on “Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)

  1. Daniel F

    As a sort of tragic coda to this tale, after looking at your review here, I went googling to find other reviews of the actual product. I came across its page on Goodreads:

    For the most part, the reviews seem to echo what you said here: a resounding ‘meh’, fairly average three and four stars, the note that the game/campaign takes a pretty dim view of player agency and is quite controlling, and even the one positive review is clear that it will not appeal to most players.

    But… James Wallis himself has come along, rated his work five out of five stars, and said nothing.


    1. Alas indeed.

      I note that one reviewer says “the text is frequently dismissive of the intelligence and common sense of the players, with a very adversarial tone” – this is a nigh-constant theme with Wallis. It makes him a good fit for writing Paranoia, in which that sort of thing is played off as a joke, but he does it in a lot of his RPG-related writing – like his Critical Miss essays defending that nasty little barge-burning railroad he inserted into The Power Behind the Throne to help GMs bully their players into moving onto that campaign after Death On the Reik.

      Given his attitude to adventure design, I can only conclude that actually playing a damn game with Wallis refereeing goes something like this:
      – Wallis crafts a lovingly-crafted railroad.
      – Players exert their creativity and do something unexpected.
      – Wallis, because he is convinced he is very clever, assumes that any course of action he did not expect must necessarily be stupid or disruptive, because only a stupid or disruptive participant would not come to the conclusions and make the decisions he lays out in his scenario plan.
      – Wallis rolls his eyes in exasperation at the stupidity of players and the fact that, once again, he has found himself surrounded by imbeciles.

    2. Also: “Mr Wallis is apparently also writing a novel based on the premise. Perhaps he should have just done that to begin with, and skipped the game entirely.” *Ouch*, but also yeah, actually that’s right on the money. The core Alas Vegas experience is very, very determined to tell a specific story, and whilst Hell 4 Leather proves you can do that in a storygame, you kind of need to abandon the traditional GM-and-players RPG format to do it.

      For the purposes of a traditional RPG – and despite the round robin format Alas Vegas remains very traditional in terms of how any particular session works – you kind of have to let go of your emotional attachment to telling any one specific story and instead get excited as to which of a range of potential stories your scenario will yield once your players get to grips with it.

  2. Daniel F

    It does sound like what Wallis actually wants to do, in Forge terms, is Story Before. As you’ve said in the past, that’s a perfectly valid model if the players are on board with it. It just doesn’t seem like an approach – is ‘creative agenda’ the right term here? – that’s compatible with the storygame structure, with narrative power shared between participants and a rotating GM.

    1. “Creative Agenda” is not quite the correct term in strict Forge usage (that’s restricted to Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism, because Forge dogma says Those Are The Only Possible Agendas), but in terms of natural English I think it’s fair enough to say that Story Before/Now/After is a feature of your small-c creative small-a agenda in a game.

      And yeah, this is very much a Story Before thing trying to make it in a market (indie RPGs and stuff which mucks about with narrative control) which is very much about Story Now, which may be why it’s not gained any real traction.

  3. Pingback: Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 2) – Refereeing and Reflection

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