Words by David C. Obenour
Something is off. It doesn’t feel like a big deal at first. In fact, it’s so unremarkable it has gone mostly undetected by you for awhile now, maybe even years… but not anymore.
Now it is undeniable. Now it is maddening. Now it feels symptomatic of something bigger that’s off. It doesn’t just feel that way. It is that way. Something is most certainly off.
Glitch is a RPG that you don’t play. It’s a RPG you explore. You talk over. You consider existence. You consider the nothing that came before existence. You consider how the nothing now feels about existence’s unwelcomed presence. You consider your part as a blip in this restless sea of void.
Glitch is a lot and creator Jenna Moran has more on nothing to give you.
Off Shelf: The book opens with “Rule Zero, you are not playing glitch” – can you talk more about what sort of head space you hoped to put players in with that?
Jenna Moran: I suppose that I’m trying to engage the reader with absence and a sense of distance/alienation. The rule is written very prettily in the book itself, like, with the floral graphics and stuff, to make that not unpleasant; to make it an expectant absence, an absence that awakens the heart rather than deadens it, or whatever.
But let’s go beyond that… a bit.
It’s important that the rule is true because Glitch is set in a world where truth, or at least… substance, law, form… has intruded, has stolen something from the formless void, has calcified what was free and clean, and we are not yet at the point in the story where we can see any beauty in that that the reader did not bring with them to the page. And whether you’re thinking about that truth as representing law/form/substance/truth, or, as representing rejection, it’s important that the rule is true because it does not work.
People sometimes talk about “rule zero” in RPG circles, and they don’t usually mean this one. They usually mean a hypothetical rule zero: “if you don’t like the rules of an RPG you’re playing, you can change them.” This rule zero, though… if you tried to play Glitch by the book, rules-as-written, then you’d fail. Because you’d be breaking rule zero. There’s no point in even talking about the other rule zero, about whether you can change the rules, because, uh… you are not actually playing by the rules of Glitch anyway? You rebel. This isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. Glitch isn’t abstract art. Mildly expressionist, maybe, but not abstract.
OS: Glitch is a fascinating concept for setting a role playing game. Knowing inspiration is a staggering question, I wondered if you could point to any personal revelations that were inspirational in coming up with the world?
JM: When I got around to building Glitch, I hadn’t released any RPG projects on Kickstarter before. I wanted to maximize chances of success for my first big project, which meant harkening back as much as possible to my most successful previous work, the second edition of the Nobilis RPG. I’d been in a game of Nobilis not long before that and so I’d had a bunch of fairly specific and actionable thoughts on how to make Nobilis‘ systems better.
So when I decided to do a game in the style of Nobilis 2nd edition, and then decided I wasn’t ready to do a new edition of Nobilis itself yet, I looked to see which supernatural type beings I had from that world with translated power sets. What I knew about the game that would become Glitch from the power sets was that the characters would have three primary character arcs: stuff about ordinary life, stuff about dealing with grief and trauma, and stuff about dealing with the forbidden/scary/tabu, generally but not necessarily with a narrative premise of “so others don’t have to.” They’d have powers that dealt with destruction, and being cursed; and with being clever and tricky; and with gathering forbidden things for use in power in a kind of generally weirdly positive sense; and for discovering and evoking/wielding magic in and from their treasures and friends.
So instead of creating a whole new world, I just… gave a different viewpoint on it. I had a world, more or less, and a set of powers, and a set of themes, and a general character type concept, already handed to me when I started, really. And while I had to build out a bit from that to develop the Not, the void beyond the world, I mean, like… not to brag, but I’m probably one of the world’s top seventeen experts in writing RPGs about nothing at this point. This is not my first rodeo with the billowing void. It’s like… rodeo four. So, I wrote. And like… I like to think that Glitch is a very good game. I honestly think it’s left all my previous games in the dust. And like… I think, I like to think, that those were mostly pretty good, too.
But I look back at Nobilis and Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine and there’s lots of little things that I wince at; but not Glitch. Maybe that’ll change. Maybe someone will come around the corner tomorrow and point out a horrible mechanical flaw, or some really terrible inbuilt thematic assumptions, or something. Maybe not.
OS: Glitch also references a number of other works – books, movies, tv shows, video games, and more. If you were trying to identify music that could help put you in the right state of mind for thinking about or playing Glitch – what would you pick and why?
JM: Hm. So you want a song that understands how heavy the chains of the world are, but also knows that it’s beautiful. You want a song that doesn’t let you hide in your preconceived ideas. You want a song like:
1. Human, by the Killers, which I sing every time I get out cumin in the kitchen while alone.
2. How Can Heaven Love Me, by Sarah Brightman, which Bruce Baugh shared with me as a Nobilis song long ago.
3. Precious Things, by Tori Amos, just listen to that first motif.
4. Sweetness Follows, by R.E.M.
5. Whistling in the Dark, by They Might Be Giants
6. Horses in the City, by Nina Gordon, one of the few songs I can actually sing well, or, maybe,
7. Everything that Rises Must Converge, by Shriekback.
8. When the session ends, and you’re not about to play, you might consider listening to Great Big Sea’s Ordinary Day, too.
OS: The concept of non-existence, The Not being threatened and aggravated by existence itself is really interesting to think about. When did this idea first come to you?
JM: Goodness! It was … 1999? 1998? I doubt it was original to me. I expect that if your best use of a time machine was to go back to 1998ish and look at what everyone was putting on the shelves in terms of casual fantasy books, you’d see a lot of stuff that at least came pretty close.
At this point after twenty five years, with most of my independent work flowing from Nobilis as its wellspring and probably more than a third of my freelance work tying in to Exalted, it just feels natural to me, like, you know, of course that’s how the Not feels about existence, that’s the default, if you wanted a twist, that would be, like, having it love existence, instead. But a Not that resented the world, that’s just … that’s just the default!
It’s useful narratively to imagine enemies that are completely outside samsara, outside our whole wheel of existence, because they’re so easy to put into the story anywhere, right? If you want evil robot antagonists, like: evil robots have to be made by somebody, and that somebody has to have a reason to make them evil, and that person who makes them and makes them evil has parents and financial circumstances and reasons and whatnot. It doesn’t start at the evil robots, or even their maker, you have to trace it back and back to… I dunno, I mean, ultimately, probably capitalism, right? And when you’ve chased the story back to that root, you are now suddenly telling a story about capitalism. You’re pointedly ignoring some step in the process to tell an abridged story instead.
Enemies from outside samsara, though… I mean, they let you construct their backstory separately from what’s going on in the world. Probably you still connect them to what’s going on in the world, like I wound up doing in Glitch, but, like: at a later stage in design.
OS: What excites and frightens you about that?
JM: I’m not actually really that fussed about whether the Not objects to me or the world. It’s not something that does frighten or excite me.
I initially wrote Nobilis while recovering from involuntary electroconvulsive therapy that brutalized my world-concept – like, to the point I didn’t believe myself when I remembered summer daylight lasting past 8pm because obviously that couldn’t happen – and after having been forced to temporarily detransition because it left me in a state where I couldn’t support myself and the only available option had insisted on it. And ultimately the Not in Glitch carries forward from the original Not/void/Excrucians in Nobilis first edition.
So it’s not terribly surprising that no, you shouldn’t exist (as yourself) was a concept with fangs. That the idea of something pulling apart the pieces of the world was an idea that floated around in my head. That let all this not be! would be a rider on a pale horse to me, a whole host of them, even, hungry, to tear everything down.
You don’t even need my personal circumstances to feel that, to see those riders, to see the animus, the malice, out there, that wants to tear the colored-paper worlds of so, so many people out there into shreds. I mean, have you even looked at this world? Heck, I mean … even without people being like … you know, people can be… entropy’s got quite the maw there of its own.
The creative part of the Not in Nobilis and Glitch hasn’t ever really been “the Not is angry at the world,” but rather the amount of hope that both games have—though Glitch certainly more so—that the Not is worth it, has its own redeeming values, and that maybe, as angry at the world as it might be, it can maybe someday somehow find a way to like, you know… deal.
OS: The Not and The Ninuan also have their own font in the book. Can you talk about that decision and what it means for you?
JM: In one sense, I can say, “that’s just to make things look fancy.” James Wallis – who published it – used a fancy N for “Nobilis” in Nobilis 2nd edition. To make the book look more… fancy, I guess. I decided that I would use it in Glitch, but I wouldn’t use it for the word Nobilis, this time, because the Nobilis weren’t the main characters.
Then, for what? I will admit this was mostly instinctive. It’s not like I spent a long time thinking about it. Really, I can only say it was a considered decision because if it had been wrong I would probably have changed my mind at some point. I changed a lot of things. But in Glitch, I decided, I guess, quite quickly really, that the most important thing was going to be Ninuan. Or, conveniently, “the Not.”
Ninuan: the void beyond the world, construed as a place. The Not: basically the same. More geographical, less geopolitical, sometimes more abstract, but basically the same. And the reason why the land beyond the world, construed as a place, was so important was because Ninuan has the same linguistic roots as Utopia—you can look it up in the Ninuanni guide in the back! It’s not just some random syllables. It’s a word that means no place or not place.
Utopia: the bright kingdom that isn’t.
It also means choice. It’s also agency. That’s … a separate stream of thematic meaning, I think. It’d be awfully bleak to say that agency was an unrealizable Utopia, although there is certainly an argument from physics there to be made. But Ninuan, in Glitch, is also that, anyway: the ability to make your own meanings and choices. Not being bound to the world others make.
From time to time, it is death.
It’s a lot.
There wasn’t anything else in the book that came close to that weight of meaning, of meanings, I think; at least, nothing that appeared in quite so much of the book, so Ninuan/the Not got the fancy calligraphical N.
OS: Has anything about the surreal experience of the pandemic made you think more about the work you did on Glitch? Does anything ring more true or in a different manner than when you first made the game?
JM: Honestly, it was a pretty suitable game for the times. It was logically compatible with the pandemic era because the personal stressors in the pandemic era were well within the range of the kinds of personal stressors you’d expect in the game—just, now, you know, some were more common now—and because there wasn’t anything in the setting material that particularly suggested a pandemic wasn’t happening. And it was thematically compatible because the game postulated a pretty rough mundane world, but one that wasn’t necessarily rough in every respect, and that’s what the pandemic was and is: rough in a lot of ways for a lot of people, but not rough for every person in any given, particular way.
I don’t think the pandemic would really have surprised any of the characters in the game. You know? Which is why I think it stands up fine in the era. For a typical Glitch PC, even if the game started before the pandemic, like: it’s just one more thing. What’s one more thing? They’re already run ragged. Most of the time. And like… anything that would move their story to a place where they needed to not be run ragged for a bit, for a day or an aeon? That would probably get them out from under COVID’s shadow as well.
OS: Glitch is interesting in that it seems to exist best in the grey areas best left to be explored by players. How did crafting a ruleset and framework for such creativity challenge you?
JM: To be honest, you’ve probably already picked up on this from my earlier answers, but… the biggest challenge was probably making it through twenty plus years of incremental development. Like, that was really rough, a lot of work, a lot of things to survive, but also, it was a lot of time to abrade away challenges bit by bit. It was a lot of time to write and publish earlier games that led up to Glitch. It was, in fact, plenty of time to also write whole games that didn’t work out at all, toss them in the junkbin, and fish out the parts that I wanted to keep, much less a multitude of games that didn’t get quite that far. At this point I may well have put in my ten thousand hours in like, not just writing RPGs, but in writing “stuff that feeds into this game line and game.”
OS: What are some of your favorite ways that the setting is open-ended?
JM: I like that the game is very well set up for stuff to… grow in play, rather than being a set of truths handed down from anybody, player or GM, no matter how certain they originally are. The game is set up to make it difficult to nail things down, to say “here is The Truth.” It’s focused on what the characters are paying attention to, and they can miss things. And then the players and characters can discuss things. And come to unexpected conclusions. As everyone who’s ever played or GMed knows, there’s a point in that process where it’s easy to overwrite the player speculation with some “original plan” and have that be a cool revelation, but later on, as more and more speculation happens, it’s increasingly easier, in the sense of, making a better narrative with less effort, to just… run with things.
It’s a mystery game with a fairly tight point of view, and that gives the mystery the opportunity to grow richer outside of the spotlight. At least, if mysteries are a kind of fungus that grows best in darkness, which, like, I dunno. They probably are? That sounds like a mystery, anyhow, to me.
OS: A physical manifestation of recognizing a player or rewarding them with experience, what inspired you to introduce the Fugue Chip and why is that important to Glitch?
JM: The Fugue Chip is actually a simplification of a rule I tried earlier, back in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. In Chuubo’s, everyone had an “XP emotion.” Like, if your character was a woobie, you’d try to get people to go/feel awww. If they were a kid sibling archetype, you’d go for eyerolls and groans. You’d do the things that get the reaction in character, because, like, you’re acting to archetype, but you’d mostly evaluate success based on out of character response, because, like, a woobie is someone that makes the audience go aww, not the people in-world. A kid sibling should be able to get eyerolls from the audience even if the older sibling refuses to acknowledge their existence at all. You know?
But a thing I found out when trying to run a 9-person Chuubo’s game with all nine players never having played Chuubo’s before is that if you take nine new players who have never played before and have them all try to track nine different XP emotions, that will be a lot. They’ll mostly manage, because there’s something intuitive there, but … only mostly.
So I decided that for Glitch I wanted to keep the rule, because, well-loved, but, also, simplify it a lot. That’s the origin of the Fugue Chip.
OS: Much later in the book you have “Rule One, the world is beautiful” – how does book-ending your content between these two rules help establish your universe?
JM: So the way I think of it is this, Rule One is the end of the book. The completion of the book. It’s not something that stands alone. It’s not something that emerges, really, either. It’s just… a bit of context to tie everything that comes before it together.
Sometimes the world sucks. This should surprise nobody. Sometimes the world is covered in sorrow and grey. But we’ve all seen – god, I hope we’ve all seen this – we’ve all seen those moments in even the worst times when suddenly there is beauty. Suddenly the world is beauty. It doesn’t always help. Not if things are bad enough. Sometimes it’s even a burden.
I mean, it’s not like I spent the whole book belaboring its bad points. There’s a lot of cool powers, and interesting but mostly neutral setting bits, and quests which are not necessarily horrible. But like, it’s fine to get close to the end with the feeling that this game is an ugly world. That this is a game about something weighty and dismal. Except: that moment, when beauty cuts through. When hope does. Love. Relief. Friendship. Peace. Anything good.
That moment, that cutting and beautiful moment, that’s in the real world, it’s in Glitch too. That preeminent beauty that is in the real world is, at least fictionally speaking, in Glitch too; it’s the capstone, it’s the closure. In a real way, it’s what the game is about. That’s my theory of story, I guess. You start with what is. With, say, a rule that’s impossible to play with and with characters who are half-dead. And you end with the feeling or thought about that that the writer wants to leave the reader with: The world is beautiful. You can’t always see it. People can do ugly things that make it harder to see it. You can’t just relax and treat everything as fine and be complacent because of it.
Just… stop right now, right here, and look at something. Something natural and real is best, but if you can’t do that, maybe you can get what I’m hoping for here with a clock. A book. Some trash. I don’t know. Your own foot.
Look. It is beautiful. That isn’t everything, but it… matters?
OS: Do you have any favorite stories from players that really resonated or challenged what you had visioned the game to be?
JM: Oh my goodness! I don’t know if I have a favorite story. I do have a most recently discovered Glitch bit that really resonated and I could definitely bookmark that in time with one of the first bits I saw from outside my own personal playtest group. So there’s that!