Icebreaker: a micro RPG

I released a tiny new game today. Icebreaker was created as part of the Pleasure-not-Business Card RPG Jam a contest where you create an “RPG related thing” that can fit on a business card.

Icebreaker is a micro RPG where you play newcomers to a science station on a frozen planet. It is designed, literally, as an ice breaking game that you can play to make new acquaintances while you are attending a gaming or SFF convention. The game PDF is formatted with margins and bleed so that you can have Moo or another printing service print the game on a standard business card, so you have the option of affordably printing a large number of copies, and creating a improv micro LARP at your event. Of course, you can simply download the game, and play a five minute game with friends, perhaps as you are waiting for a late player to arrive for you tabletop roleplaying game.

The game is free, but if you like the idea, please check out the my Indie Groundbreaker-nominated optimistic sci fi roleplaying game: Return to the Stars.

sci fi snowscape, and the title Icebreaker

My 2020 Nebula Award Nominations

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is nebulaawards2020banner-1.jpg

One of the pleasures of being a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is the privilege of nominating work that you admire for the Nebula Awards. I’ve had a chance to read/watch/play a lot of great SFF this year. Here’s a list of the noteworthy stuff I’ve nominated. I’m really looking forward learning about about more cool stuff when the ballot comes out!


Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley
Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Providence, Max Barry


Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City, Alura Ratnakar
Two Truths and a Lie, Sarah Pinsker

Short Story

Tea with the Earl of Twilight, Sonya Taaffe
Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth, Maria Haskins

The Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger
Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Carlos Hernandez

Game Writing

The King In Yellow RPG
This Discord Has Ghosts In It

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Shadow in the Cloud
World of Tomorrow Episode Three

Return to the Star is a 2020 Indie Groundbreaker Nominee!

I’m very excited to let people know that Return to the Stars has been nominated in the Best Setting category for the 2020 Indie Groundbreaker Awards!

The Indie Groundbreaker Awards, are designed to shine a spotlight on excellence in the indie game design community. The awards recognize “exciting game designs that push the boundaries in innovation, in promoting diversity, and in expanding what it means to be “indie.””

Happy to able to be at the table alongside other cool indies. And glad to be able to spotlight optimistic science fiction in challenging times.

The Indie Groundbreakers Awards ceremony is normally happens at the IGDN Social held at Gen Con, this year the ceremony will be held online (streaming details to follow).

To celebrate the Indie Groundbreaker nomination, we’re throwing a sale!

Grab a free Return to the Stars 4K sci-fi cityscape to use in backgrounds for video conferences

As we’re all sensibly distancing, it’s nice to mix up the backgrounds on our video calls. So here’s a free 4K image free for noncommercial use. This illustration of the Convention was drawn by Yog Joshi,  who specializes in environment illustrations and background layouts for games. A figure prominently featured with the own full page illustration in the Return to the stars rulebook appears in miniature here. Can you find them?

Props rules released under Creative Commons Licence

Return to the Stars was possible because Evil Hat released an SRD for the core rules of their game. To pay this forward, I’m releasing Props rules listed in this post under a Creative Commons attribution licence, so other designers can build on it.

Creative Commons License
Props rules by Mark Sabalauskas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Fate is a game about people who are not defined by the stuff they carry. Still, loot makes players happy. Props are gear that you can have fun collecting, but which are only used a single time for a dramatic effect. Like an intriguing prop in a well-made science fiction movie, it provides a moment of cool that shakes things up and advances the story, and then you don’t see it again.

Props can only be used once and then discarded afterwards. However, if a GM has an NPC use a prop against the PCs, it should still be available for players to loot if they defeat this foe—turning a resource against the antagonists is a staple of pulp fiction.

Props are found during adventures, they are never purchased.

A PC can keep as many props as they have refreshes—if they exceed that limit, they can give a surplus prop to another player or discard it.

Players always know what the props they’ve acquired do. Sometimes props come with FAQs, or sometimes the characters just figure it out. Struggling to identify what your cool new toy does isn’t fun, so we don’t waste any time on such tasks.

Props often work in a manner similar to stunts, but will often have a more dramatic effect. If a prop seems really in character for a PC, you might decide to make it a more permanent part of the game by converting it into a stunt. But this may require that both
player and GM have a conversation about potentially reworking the text to bring the power in-line with other stunts. Alternatively, you could consider translating the prop into an aspect or extra.

Here are some examples of props you can add to the game:

Cos-Med-Kit—use this as a free action in combat to clear all stress, remove a minor consequence, and reapply your makeup.

Neo-Tape—get +3 to a single attempt to repair something

Self-Destruct Sequencer—use this prop when you concede a conflict. The Self-Destruct Sequencer forces your opponents to take a major consequence. Discard this prop after

Do rules matter?

If you want to rile up most RPG designers, tell them “rules don’t matter”.

But, occasionally, players do say this. I think they often mean perfectly understandable things:

• Rules lawyers make my table worse, and rules arguments and systems/edition wars make my online experience worse, therefore I hate rules.
• I don’t even know the term “freeform play” exists, yet it is what I actually value about the roleplaying.
• Setting, theme and/or strong adventure plots drive my purchase and play decisions, not rules.
• People who say “I loved playing Ars Magica for a decade, but it is a lousy game” are not being nearly as clever in arguing for the importance of rules as they think they are.
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bepoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
• I reject the claimed continuity between explicit rules, “rules” of style, and “shared understanding at the table”
• Rules provide a minor oracular compliment to my agenda as a player; therefore, I want them light.
• I hate the way the rules I’ve encountered limit my descriptive freedom to accomplish my goals.
• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.
• if I want a structured experience that applies rules to achieve an aesthetic end, I will play a video game, thank you very much.
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself.

As for myself, I think that rules clearly matter, and that this can easily be demonstrated by trying to play an rules set that that badly suits the genre of story or the creative agenda of the players at the table.

That being said, I believe the trend in the RPG creation community is imbalanced in valuing game mechanics over narrative design. Story, adventure, setting, and art direction are more than equal partners in creating meaning. Luckily, we can all make the games we want, and it is easier than ever to make them available to people.

Stellar Beacon: Serendipity Issue now available

A new issue of The Stellar Beacon. a gaming ‘zine that’s also interested in the broader culture is now available. This issue features:

First Contract: Petram Explore what happens when the first outsiders in over a century visit a thriving world of religious experimentalists, in this adventure for the space opera RPG Return to the Stars.

Sympathetic Magic A complete guide for a Fate magic system based on symbols and relationships between things and concepts. With rules for magical actions that characters can undertake in timebound conflicts to powerful rituals that can take campaign arcs to complete.

Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own An essay by India’s first Hugo nominee, Mimi Mondal.

Forging Fortunes Novelist S.T. Gibson shows you how you can employ the Tarot as a tool for world building and storytelling.

Making Your Own Trouble Check to see if your Fate character has strong double sided aspects that can be compelled.

No Preparation Fate Accelerated One-Shots Jochem van ‘t Hull shares his tested method for a fun, zero-prep Fate adventures-even if your players have never played the game before!

Get your copy today!

The Uses of Optimism: Utopias

Roy Thomson Hall
Shiny postmodern buildings: the go-to visual metaphor for utopias

Utopias use ambitious world building to get to the root of some truth about society. They imagine a better world to explore what could be fundamentally different about our own. Utopias, then, differ in tone but have a similar purpose to serious dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale. Utopian and dystopian traditions, at their best, are partners tidally locked; circling, facing and influencing each other.

Herland, a story written in 1915 about three male explorers encountering a remote advanced civilization made up entirely of women, gave Charlotte Perkins Gilman a way to interrogate gender roles, and vividly imagine how women could thrive if they were not forced into an unnatural state of legal dependence on men.

In The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells wrestles with the specters haunting the 1930s, imagining a future historical process by which war and want are defeated, and religion and the state have been abolished. It is a world where all humans are geniuses, and there is no underclass.

You might have noticed that Wells is imagining a world populated exclusively by people very similar to himself. Some utopias have an earned reputation for intolerant universalism. But the imaginative exploration in a utopia isn’t necessarily and always a literal plan of action, it can be a move to abstraction to bring certain ideas into focus. This may have been clearer when utopias were set typically set in vaguely located distant lands, before globalization pushed them into the future, with its implications of progress and teleology.

Regardless, some utopian visions are cosmopolitan and embrace plural conceptions of the different ways good lives can be constituted. This is even true of pop culture stories that imagine human progress while also being concerned with telling an interesting yarn. Sometimes this is as simple as the original Star Trek’s celebration of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. As Roddenberry described it, if we get to the 23rd century: “We will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.” If this has a whiff of articles in bourgeois lifestyle magazines, it is still opposed to the ethno-nationalisms of its time and ours.

The challenges of cosmopolitanism can also be explored in more depth, as in the nuanced way Iain Banks in the Culture novels grapples with an advanced post scarcity utopia interacting with other societies. A particularly amusing example is his short story The State of the Art which inverts the prime directive dramas of Star Trek by having an advanced society encounter 1970s Earth, with characters arguing about how best to deal with such a violent and inequitable world. In the end, our planet is left alone and uncontacted. We will be a control group used to judge the impact of their interventions helping other civilizations. Samantha Power would not be pleased.

In writing the Return the Stars space opera RPG, I wanted to make sure that valuing and respecting difference was an important concern for the player characters, and so is universal respect for human rights. There can be a lot of drama and perhaps something to learn when transcendent ideals clash. Taking a Sophoclean (philosophically, if not dramatically ) approach may not be a normal move in game design, but hey, that’s why indies exist!

Some object to utopias because they see fiction itself as disconnected from social issues (the “get your politics/existence out of my <insert media category here>” mobs.) Others, perhaps, are concerned because they worry that utopias are a species of escapism that promotes quiet acceptance of the way things are.

Begum Rokeya
Begum Rokeya

But consider the case of Bengali feminist and political activist Begum Rokeya, who fought for women’s education and employment. Her 1905 utopian satire Sultana’s Dream reverses traditional society and portrays a world where men are forced into seclusion while women run the world. It not apart from but rather stands as a part of her activism writting essays, founding schools and the Muslim Woman’s Association. Every year Bangladesh celebrates her accomplishments by awarding a prize in her name to women for outstanding contributions to society and the empowerment of women.

While Bangladesh honors Begum Rokeya, few Americans today even remember Edward Bellamy, although he is arguably one of the most important, influential and successful authors in the nation’s history. His 1888 utopia Looking Backwards demonstrates all the imaginative innovation that would, decades later, be the hallmark of the so-called “golden age” of pulp science fiction. He foresaw that by the next millennia there would be credit cards, shopping malls, and even a sort of on-line communication derived from the then newly invented telephone.

But these ideas were in the service of a broader agenda—fighting the inequality, wage stagnation and corruption of the first gilded age of robber barons.  Looking Backwards thrusts its protagonist a century into the future, where capitalism is abolished and industry nationalized. It is a world where “The nation guarantees the nurture, education and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

the front cover of Looking Backwards

It is hard to overstate the contemporary impact of Looking Backwards. It was the second American novel (Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin being the first) to sell more than a million copies. It is said that the book could be found in every union hall. Within a few years, a mass movement of at least 165 political clubs across America were founded to spread the book’s ideas. Tolstoy called it “exceedingly remarkable” and insisted that it must be translated. It was. Widely. Looking Backwards was one of the first works of western science fiction published in China. John Dewey and Charles Beard both ranked it  second only to Das Kapital among the important books of their time.

In 1890, a young Charlotte Perkins Gilman joined a Bellamy Club, and quickly became a featured speaker, starting her career by writing poems and essays in the movement’s publications.

She was not alone. The clubs and the associated People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were short lived, but they were the catalyst for the next 30 years of progressive politics—and nearly every important progressive activist, politician, and union organizer of the era read Bellamy. Prime Minister Clement Attlee described the eventual socialist government in Britain as “a child of the Bellamy idea.”

It may be hard for you to imagine any novel, much less a science fiction utopia, being anywhere near as influential today. If so, consider how doggedly the post war establishment worked to destroy the vital connections between culture and politics. Blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee were the stick.  The “professionalization” of writing was the carrot.

As Eric Bennett describes in Workshops of Empire money poured into MFA programs from foundations (and, in one noteworthy instance, a CIA front organization) as part of the cold war agenda to create a de-radicalized literature that values “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.” It is perhaps telling that Paul Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, wrote in a proposal: “It is important that these most articulate of all their generation should write and study far from both coasts, where foreign students have tended to concentrate. Here they will learn the essential America.”

If today we fail to see the full potential of both utopian and dystopian genre fiction to strengthen and inspire people working to create a better and more just world, it may be because we have been carefully taught that interiority and artful subjectivity are the true hallmarks of literary fiction, and that the only real purpose genre can serve is entertainment.

Speculative fiction is a great way to explore political ideas and cultural norms. Utopias are part of its toolkit. I believe there is value in picking up this tool and trying to learn how best to use it.

Sensible Gen Xers enjoy this video ironically, if at all. I do so unreservedly.


  • Utopia is a unclear/contested term. People who express a dislike of utopias or otherwise differ with what I’ve writting may have in mind a definition different the one I express in the first sentence. (Alternatively, I’m more than capable of being wrong.)
  • Note specifically I’m considering utopian literature to include better worlds, not only thought exercises that imagine “perfect” futures without any conflict or struggle.
  • Hat tip to Mimi Mondal, who wrote an article that led me learn about Sultana’s Dream.
  • It will not surprise you that as a man who lived in the 19th century, Bellamy had some problematic ideas. One thing that is interesting about him is that he was willing to change his mind and grow in response to feedback. Looking Backwards had a very sentimental view of women. Three years later he would write “Some men oppress other men, all men oppress women.” It is interesting to speculate how he might have continued to evolve and grown if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis in his 40s.
  • You may be interested to compare and contrast utopias with hopepunk.

Hopepunk: Articles, Resources and Recordings

Intrigued by hopepunk and want to explore further?

Alexandra Rowland’s essay One Atom of Justice, One Molecule of Mercy, and the Empire of Unsheathed Knives is the definitive starting point, expanding greatly on the original Tumblr post where she coined the term.  The essay is collected in The Stellar Beacon, our  semi-pro ‘zine supporting the Return to the Stars, a hopepunk space opera RPG.

But, in a short time, hopepunk has inspired a bunch of other commentary you can check out:

Articles and Essays

Vox, Aja Romano, 12/27/19 Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism this explainer,  while arguably smoothing off some of the sharp political edges from hopepunk, greatly increased the discourse about the topic.  It also has a great list of things to read and watch.  “Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.”

Wall Street Journal, Ellen Gamerman,  3/13/19 ‘Hopepunk’ and ‘Up Lit’ Help Readers Shake Off the Dystopian Blues is a good overview and provides the sort of interesting publishing industry data you’d expect from the business paper of record: “Demand for dystopian fiction aimed at young people, the category’s largest group of readers, fell in recent years. Print sales for young-adult dystopian novels declined to 850,000 last year from more than 5 million in 2014”

Washington Post, Charlie Jane Anders, 1/30/19  Kamala Harris is wrong about science fiction  An op ed in response to a call to act on “science fact, not science fiction.  “Fact-checking and spreading the truth are a never-ending battle of vital importance — but they’re not enough to inspire people to do the hard work of rescuing the future. And because science fiction is the literature of problem-solving, our made-up stories about science and innovation can play an important role in helping us to regain our faith in our own ability to create change ”

Yes!, Miles Schneiderman, 4/23/19 Inside Science Fiction’s Compassionate Revolution “I think that’s one of the reasons that hopepunk is something so many people are responding to with such hunger and eagerness, because this is the story that they’ve been lacking.”

Slate, Lee Konstantinou, 1/15/19 Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction used sudden discussion about hopepunk as an excuse to talk about his hobby horse “absent the understanding that history isn’t made by individuals but by social movements and groups working in tandem” If he thinks the whole “protagonist” thing has been a bit of dead end since it was introduced Gilgamesh, he ought to whip up a serviceable replacement.

Cora Bulert 1/17/19  Science Fiction Is Dying Again – The Hopepunk Edition reacts to the Slate piece “But Lee Konstantinou’s problem isn’t so much with science fiction micro-genre nomenclatura, instead his main complaint is the old familiar stand-by, frequently skewered in these pages, that “other people are doing science fiction wrong”.  The author also notes that “Now it’s certainly possible to have issues with the proliferation of -punk suffix subgenre names, though that fight was lost ages ago. I keep a master list of punk suffix genres with explanations and examples on my PC that’s a whopping 24 pages long.” in an earlier essay that questions the stories that grimdark tells itself “Do you know what else is a middle class thing? Grimdark. Because some of the most eager fans of grimdark are/were young white men (and occasionally women and non-binary folk as well) from middle class backgrounds, in short the sort of people for whom the world was not very grim at all compared to more marginalized folks.”

Hopepunk even got coverage in America, the Jesuit Review (2/1/19 Jim McDermont): What is hopepunk and why is it so quintessentially Catholic?   “That is the point and opportunity of hopepunk: the Spirit does not follow the rules we set down. Grace rebels and God thrives not in some impossible sanctity but in the actual mess of our humanity.”

Radio Interviews and Podcasts

NPR 1A 12/10/18  Do Get Your Hopes Up…Rocking Out With Hope Punk

Our Opinions Are Correct podcast 1/3/19  Can science fiction still give us hope for the future?

Imagination Taking Power podcast 1/14/19    Alexandra Rowland on hopepunk, grimdark, story and imagination

CBC Tapestry 3/10/19   A guide to hopepunk: What to read, watch and listen to when all seems lost

Sprout growing out of concrete


Other Resources

Hopepunk is a one of Merriam-Webster’s  Words We’re Watching

Cat Rambo, the current president of SFWA shares “Hopepunk Thoughts Plus A Reading List” which includes list of upcoming works!

Comicosity Mexi Gremillion, 3/29/19 Comic Love: Introducing “Hopepunk” to the Comics Scene

Nikita Mor Being Soft Is Not A Weakness, It’s What Makes You Strong

Nebula Award Conference, Making hopeful art in hopeless times panel 5/17/18 livetweets

4th Street Fantasy, 2018   Grim Times, Bright Tidings panel  livetweets

“”The load-bearing part of the term [hopepunk] is ‘punk.'” Jennifer Mace

““I think an operational definition of ‘hopepunk’ would be ‘come back to Omelas with pitchforks and torches.’””

Polygon 11/23/18  10 great podcasts that are unabashedly positive

Rewire, Gretchen Brown, 2/20/19 4 Ways You Can Be More Hopepunk Today

This RPG net thread captures, riffing off of Alex’s original Tumblr post, contain a lot of early fun discussion about what fits into the catagory: Building a list of “HopePunk” storytelling

And there is an interesting metafilter discussion of Alex’s One knives essay.


Solarpunk is an important recent  SF precursor to hopepunk, and is worth knowing more about:



Strange Horizons Claudie Arsenault  4/23/18 CONSTRUCTING A KINDER FUTURE




Designing the Convention Authority

I thought you might enjoy exploring some of the design thinking for The Convention Authority: home to player characters in Return to the Stars.

Before the loss of the Mars Beacon, which ended galaxy spanning travel for over a century, The Convention Authority was an association of societies that celebrated and preserved speculative popular culture of the 20th and 21st centuries: fantasy, science fiction, and gaming. It was a popular tourist destination, and boasted some of the galaxy’s most skilled terraforming engineers. During the Great Silence, the systems of the Convention remain connected, due in to a large and varied fleet of replica early interstellar craft.

the campus of the Convention’s Scouts Academy

You play as one of a new generation of geeks from the Convention — a maker, genetically enhanced cosplayer, scientist, or pop culture enthusiast setting out to reconnect the lost worlds of humanity.

Why this setting? What does it do for you?

First, it gives you a rationale for bringing in fun elements you like from all sort of different types of pop culture, and mashing them up together. The initial playtest group brought in things they loved from Tolkien, RPGs, My Little Pony, and the Girl Genius comics. The mashup was possible because they came from a civilization that valued these stories, and had “sufficiently advanced” 27th century cosplay technology.

Of course, you don’t have to take advantage of this—if you want to play scientist or hot-shot pilot who doesn’t celebrate “ancient entertainment”, that’s fine too.

Second, as a thriving post-scarcity civilization, it reinforces optimism about the future: a core theme of the game. It gives players a secure base from which they can go “out there” and have adventures reconnecting the lost worlds of humanity. Later they can return and can reflect on what they’ve experienced in a place of safety and abundance. So your game can include both danger on the frontier and also pastoral ST:TNG style cozy futurism.

And, of course, such a society is perfect for exploring and interrogating different elements of pop culture. I’ve had fun tweeting micro fiction news headlines about the Convention.

 [Dateline: Convention Authority]

  • Shipments of fragrant cedar arrive across the systems of the Convention Authority as gamers and geeks prepare their saunas for the R³ Festival, when they reflect critically on the media they love, and prepare for renewal and transformation in the coming year. 
  • Controversial decision bans baying of genetically engineered werewolves at soccer matches.
  • New report from the Scouts Academy documents the existence of over two dozen rediscovered colony worlds that worship “a bomb, or a computer, or a missile or something like that.”

Cosplay is important in the Convention, so I new the uniforms of its Scouts Academy would need to be stylish. A fashion illustration created some initial concepts,

scout uniform concept art


Which became reference art for later illustrations:

a historian leading a seminar on the Climate Wars at the Scouts Academy

Pia, science officer and geologist—proudly wearing the uniform.

The Convention is all about pop culture, but I wanted to integrate that into art game indirectly. So rather than create a pastiche of a particular amine, a character might have “anime hair” as in this illustration from Amy King:

Ligaya: a champion cosplayer who is a skilled tailor, genetic engineer, and acrobat.

Or wear a tee shirt that featured a unique fictional robot.

One of the youngest interstellar explorers Amobi is both a math whiz and already a skilled yogi and tai chi master.

Or be a cheerleader, who just happens to also be genetically enhanced to cosplay as a vampire.

We’ve got “spirits” yes we do!


What elements of pop culture might you explore in the game?

Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes! Thanks for your support as the kickstarter comes to a successful conclusion!

P.S. The inspiration for the vampire illustration came from photo I took at a con of a friend who is a skilled cosplayer. When she saw it, she was like “LOL, I posed with my hands on my hips like a cheerleader!”

As a bit of extra fun, when Yog Joshi drew the environmental illustration at the start of this article, he included a vampire cheerleading squad among tiny figures on the campus. A bonus Halloween themed “Where’s Waldo” style mini game for you!