Interrobang Diaries: Gameplay Basics

It's time, once again, for some game design theory.

Hello to all the new readers who are here because of Greg Olear's essay. In addition to political commentary, I also do tabletop game design. One of the ongoing features of my newsletter is a set of development diaries where I mix descriptions of rules for my current RPG project, Interrobang, with more discursive writing about my process and reasoning. Explaining why the rules are helps me figure out how to explain what the rules are.

Some of the entries are heavier on philosophy and theory, some are closer to actual finished game writing. You can find previous entries by looking for mentions of Interrobang in the title. One of these days I'll make an index of them I can update and link to, in lieu of Substack having a tag system.

I thought about holding off on this entry for a few more days to note shift gears so quickly after the Giuliani piece, but I've been holding off on it since before Halloween already. So, here it is... enjoy, be mystified, or skip it entirely, as you prefer.


Some Words on Dice

Since the readership for this publication is mixed in terms of interests, I will go over basic dice notation, for those following at home who are new to this world.

When describing a particular throw of dice, they are referred to with the abbreviation "d" followed by the number of sides. When you roll to move in Monopoly, you're rolling 2d6... 2 six-sided dice. When you roll to hit a dragon in a dungeon, you roll 1d20, or 1 twenty-sided die. As in Monopoly, your actual roll is the total of all the dice described (though some games do things differently, we do not.) Any number that is added to or subtracted from the final total, so 2d6+3 would mean you roll those two dice and add 3 to it.

Interrobang as it is currently conceived only uses one type of die, the d6. This is the standard, familiar, cubical dice you can pillage from any Yahtzee set, and you can often find available for sale in dollar stores or drug stores. This is for reasons of both accessibility and simplicity. Six-sided dice are easy to find, easy to recognize, easy to use and easy to read. Many of them are textured in a way that makes it possible to count the dots without disturbing the roll even if you can't read them visually, though casino-style dice have the pips filled in to make each side equally weighted.

Physical dice can also be replaced with an electronic die roller, many examples of which can be found online.

Almost every die roll in Interrobang is a 2d6 roll, though special circumstances may cause additional dice to be added to the roll. Other circumstances may manipulate the roll in some fashion (like allowing you to re-roll a die.) In all cases, we use the word "result" to refer to the final, total number, after any dice and numbers have been added or subtracted. High rolls are better, so things that allow you to add to the die roll are good and things that subtract from it are bad.

When and why do you roll dice, and what do they mean? We'll get to that in a bit.

Let's talk about how the game is played.

Telling A Story Around A Table

Narrative Negotiation

Interrobang relies heavily on a concept called narrative negotiation. All tabletop roleplaying games do, to some extent. They're not always as explicit about it, but it's always there. 

Narrative negotiation is simply the process of figuring out if something makes sense, in-story. That is, if you imagine a world and a character who exists in it , can you tell a particular story in a way that makes sense? If we imagine an adult human being in "the real world" -- or rather, an imaginary world that is basically ours -- who has a car and works in an office building, we don't need to have special rules to answer the question "Can this person get into their car and drive to work?" If we tried to simulate that with dice, and required you to make a "drive in to work roll", any chance of failure that's worth rolling for would probably be too high to be either realistic or fun.

So we just say... yeah, this character lives in a world where people with cars drive them all the time. Doing normal, everyday car stuff makes sense for a character with a car.

There's not much negotiation in that example because it's so simple and straightforward that if there's any doubt, it could probably be resolved with a single sentence and some head-nods around the table. But it illustrates the basic principle: what makes sense for this character?

Where things get a little more complicated is when we move away from realistic people in realistic settings. What could a character in an action movie do with a car? What could a character in a zany slapstick cartoon do with a car? What could a character in an action-adventure cartoon do with a car? What if the character is a stunt diver? What if the character is a cyborg who can interface with technology? What if the character has some kind of technomagic or a psychic ability to bond with machines? 

The answers to all of these questions will be different, and open to interpretation because they all deal with concepts that don't exist in real life, and many versions of them exist in fiction. We call it narrative negotiation because the ideal is that even if everyone at the table may start with different ideas, when questions arise, a consensus should ideally emerge.

Everyone can have input, but it's not necessary for everyone at the table to weigh in, and usually not desirable, either. Players should remember that it's a game, not a debate club, and no one's job is to play devil's advocate or shoot down other players who see their own characters a certain way. They should also remember that a roleplaying game is typically an ensemble story. If one player is constantly interpreting their character in ways that basically make them good at everything to the point that the rest of the group is redundant, that's a problem.

The real key to avoiding the kinds of conflicts that harm friendships and end games is to thresh things out in advance. Make sure everybody is on the same page about the genre and style of game that's being played, and the kinds of characters the PCs will represent. If everybody hears that it's a supernatural horror game and one person shows up thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another person is expecting The Dunwich Horror, and another is expecting Courage the Cowardly Dog... okay, well, in all honesty that kind of anything goes, "kitchen sink" (as in "everything but..") game can be fun, too. 

But not if the person who was expecting serious, deadly cosmic horror was unprepared for comic hijinks or teenage superheroics from their castmates.

If you're playing a specific game built on the skeleton of the Interrobang system, or adapting a specific fictional work that everyone in the group is familiar with, you might already have an easier time answering the big questions.

Agreeing that something makes sense for a character, in the situation, in the setting, isn't the same as saying that it's automatic or easy, especially when we leave behind questions of what a real person could do with a car in their day-to-day life and get into the territory of things that a stunt driver in an action movie might do. But you can at least use it to establish the parameters of what is possible.

Storytelling as Gameplay

So the basic rhythm of the game is that the game runner -- whom we will term the Storyweaver -- provides a prompt, and the players respond. The initial prompt that starts a game will involve setting the stage: describing the world, if it's different than the one the players know, and the overall situation, and then laying a scene.

The other people playing the game with the Storyweaver are referred to as the players. Each of them will usually control one character, usually a character they created themselves. These are called player characters (PCs). 

The scenario may already be well-known to players. It might be adapted from a story they know and love. It might be something they all brainstormed together. It might also be a total surprise. There are times and places for every approach. The Storyweaver might have a story to tell, or the whole group might be bringing a story to life. Either way, once it's begun, the story is in everyone's hands. The Storyweaver is called the Storyweaver because their role is to take everybody's contributions and make it into a mostly unified whole.

How much input the players have in the story once it's begun will depend on the game. In some games, they'll control their own character's thoughts and actions and not much beyond that. That's the model used in traditional adventure games like Dungeons & Dragons. Other games take a more collaborative model, where the players can add things to the world of the story as they go, narrating the results of their own successes and failures in ways that fundamentally change the story. Interrobang as a system is agnostic about this; it plays fine either way.

Once the scene has been described and the players know where their characters are in the world and what's going on, they can act. The "rules" for this are very loose. Until something happens with real stakes -- meaning, a chance for failure and some kind of consequences -- you're just telling each other a story. What your character can or can't do within this story is limited by what makes sense for the character and the story. Characters are defined in terms of their character concept to help provide players with ideas about what sorts of things their character might be able to do in a given situation.

Can you go to a window and open it up? Makes sense, if nothing prevents you. We don't need rules for moving down the street, browsing a store, opening or closing a door, and so on, and there's no reason to break out the dice when there aren't stakes to it. A lack of stakes in this sense doesn't mean it doesn't matter. If the game begins with the player characters in the foyer of a haunted house, it matters where they go and which doors they open and what things they disturb in terms of determining what happens next, but unless someone tries something difficult, the back and forth of storytelling works fine.

When things aren't happening at a rapid clip, it's not necessary to take turns in a formal sense, though if more than one player wants to act, it behooves the Storyweaver to make sure that no one's hogging the limelight. On the other hand, if one player is in their element and the others are for the moment following along, that's fine, too. The key is to make sure no one feels left out. If the story is that one character is a psychic who has sensed a cry for help from somewhere in the old abandoned house and the other characters are friends who have come along to back them up, it's not necessary to go around the table and make everyone say "Yes, I follow the psychic up the stairs."

But say one player is a detective who wants to search the room for clues. The Storyweaver might well feel that some of these clues would be obvious to a trained detective and simply reveal what they find, but there might be other tidbits that are harder to detect. This would be a good time to call for a roll! 

Gambits: Break Out The Dice!

When you attempt something that has a chance of failure and some consequences for success and/or failure, it's called making a gambit. A failed gambit doesn't always result in something bad happening immediately. In the example of searching for clues, you might just miss out on information that could be useful. Failure to break down a door might just mean you can't get through it. The circumstances might make that dangerous, if for instance, the noise of the attempt is going to bring unwanted attention and the door is your escape route, or the room's on fire, but simply failing to get through a given door doesn't necessarily mean you've injured yourself or lost something.

This Is How You Roll

A gambit is resolved by rolling 2d6. 

You can potentially add a bonus to it if it's on-brand for you, meaning what you're attempting falls within the wheelhouse of your whole deal, meaning one aspect of your identity or one of your strengths applies to it. The same as with basic, no-stakes actions, this is mostly a function of what makes sense for your character and the story. If you're applying a strength or aspect, you should say so when you're rolling, as in, "I'm going to roll using [Witch]" or "Rolling on Perceptive." 

The Storyweaver should be familiar with your character and can prompt you to roll a particular strength, but otherwise will just tell you that the task is Physical, Mental, Social, or Technical. 

If the Storyweaver doesn't see how this applies, they can check you and ask you to explain. You can head this off by narrating what you're trying to do as you're rolling, but if you're not that creative on the spur of the moment, don't super sweat it. If you can make sense of your character being able to do this thing, it's the Storyweaver's job to weave the results into the story anyway.

When you're rolling on-brand, you add the score you have in the Physical. Mental, Social, or Technical spheres, as applies to the gambit. If you're using a strength, you must use one that belongs to that sphere, but aspects of identity are more fluid and can be used in any sphere. It's the task that determines the sphere - if you want to use a better sphere, you have to figure out how exactly you'd accomplish a Social task by Physical means, for example... like using brute force to intimidate someone makes more sense than using brute force to charm them.

(Unless you find out that the person has a weakness for bodybuilders, of course. Everything is situational.)

Technical strengths (which are also called skills) are generally assumed to be more flexible than other ones, allowing you to use your Technical score for gambits that would otherwise fit other categories. Someone skilled at climbing doesn't have to explain why they're using that strength to roll a technical gambit  for what would obviously be a physical gambit to scale a cliff; it's using their skill. Storyweavers are encouraged to be flexible on this, as players are encouraged to keep their Technical strengths reasonably narrow in scope; you can't put three points into Technical and define your skills as "Physical Stuff, Mental Stuff, and Social Stuff" for obvious reasons.

If your score for the gambit's sphere is negative, the normal rule is inverted: you add that negative score to your result (lowering it) unless it's on-brand.

Difficulty Level

A gambit has a difficulty level, which is just a number you're trying to meet or beat with your result. The Storyweaver will usually tell you what the difficulty is, if it seems likely you'd have some idea from the outward appearance... or if it doesn't feel like giving a secret away too early by telling you. If the result of your roll is at least the difficulty level of the gambit, then you succeeded. 

Sometimes -- and the example of searching for clues is a good example of this -- there may not be a number you're told, but instead a whole set of different outcomes tied to specific results. There may be some obvious clues that anyone can turn up just by looking, some indications that require a result of at least 7, and some more that require a result of 10 or higher, and one special really subtle detail that will be revealed to someone who gets a 13 or higher. 

Really High Rolls: Pinning A Ribbon On It

There's assumed to be a correlation between how high you roll and how well you do, which may just mean the outcome is cooler sounding for a really high roll, but the Storyweaver is encouraged to add some side benefit to a roll that beats the difficulty by 3. We call this winning a ribbon. So if your'e trying to roll at least a 7 to pick the lock on a  door and you get 10, the Storyweaver may say that instead of sitting and fumbling with it for a minute or so, you just flick it open with what seems like one fluid motion. It's a cool flourish if you're not pressed for time, but in a dangerous situation, it could make a huge difference!

This brings up a sort of "soft rule" of Interrobang, called the Rule of Stakes: things matter more when things matter more. 

If you're doing acrobatic tricks during downtime just to show off, you're not going to learn the secrets of the universe just because you rolled really hard and the Storyweaver can't figure out a side benefit. But if you're doing a cool stunt to get across a pitched battlefield in the heat of the moment, your high roll should get you something extra. A ribbon matters more when there's more on the line.

The Storyweaver may decide what your ribbon is, or may invite you to pitch an idea for one or to choose between one of a few possible benefits for a high roll, depending on the level of narrative collaboration desired.

Double's Not Nothing

The other way to get a ribbon is to roll doubles on your dice. This is a little bit different in that it doesn't require success. Roll the proverbial snake eyes? Even with a result of 2, you still get a ribbon. Depending on the situation, this might be a partial success (if that makes sense for what you're trying to do), or it might be something that mitigates the failure. For instance, you try to kick down a door and fail... but maybe a crack of thunder happens at the same time and so the guards in the other room don't notice.

If you've got more than two dice as part of the gambit, "doubles" still means two. If any of the dice match any other die, it's a double.

You can't, however, get more than one ribbon on the same roll. It's an either/or thing.

A lot of gambits are pretty binary, so a partial success might not make sense until you consider the idea of "success, but at what cost?" Instead of cleanly sliding under the descending stone door, maybe you scrape your shin, or drop something on the other side. In these situations, the Storyweaver may offer you the choice: you can realize you're not going to make it and hold back, effectively canceling your gambit, or press on and pay the penalty.

Close But Not Quite

If you miss your difficulty by exactly 1, you get a consolation prize: a ribbon of the partial success/mitigated failure variety if that makes sense, or some small and unrelated side benefit if it doesn't.

For any failure that involves a ribbon or consolation prize, the Rule of Stakes applies. If the stakes are low, the benefit might just be that you don't look like you failed.

Improving Your Odds

You can improve your chances on a gambit by making the circumstances more advantageous. The game rules define two specific ways to do this, and others may occur to you depending on the situation.

The two canonical improvements you can add to a gambit are assistance or extra time. Each such improvement adds one advantage die to your gambit. When you have one or more advantage dice in the mix, you roll them as part of the gambit, and then take the highest two dice as your result. The other ones count only for purposes of scoring a double. They're not added to the result at all.

You can add a maximum of two advantage dice to a roll, which can be from two different people assisting you, or two levels of extra time, or from a mixture of sources.

Assistance means another character helps you. The assistance must in some way be on-brand for the character rendering the assistance, whether because they're qualified for what you're trying to do, or their player has figured out a way to help that is on-brand. For instance if a detective character is searching a missing person's office for clues, that's not exactly on-brand for an accountant, but the accountant could specifically go through the missing person's financials. That's an assist!

Taking extra time means exactly what it sounds like. We should mention that Interrobang doesn't have detailed rules for time and the passage thereof, so the consequences of taking extra time for a task are largely in the realm of story. 

How much time is "extra time"? Again, we keep things loose, but assume most tasks fall into one of four categories:

  • Instant: It's over in a few moments to a few seconds. Sizing someone up by sight, trying to fool or persuade them with a clever line, attempting to recall a piece of useful lore, and so on, are instant.

  • Short: It takes about 1 to 10 minutes. Maybe a bit longer, but definitely not something that would round up to an hour. Trying to pick a lock, hot-wire a car, climb a short vertical surface, walk a tightrope over a chasm, etc., are all short gambits.

  • Long: These gambits are assumed to take around an hour or so. They may involve building something, researching information, performing laboratory experiments, conducting lengthy rituals, and things like that.

  • Slow: Gambits that take longer than an hour are all special cases. The Storyweaver decides how long they take. It might be measured in hours, work days, or even weeks. Note that slow gambits don't usually happen in the midst of an adventure, but may take place "off-screen" between them, or during a lull in the action.

For an instant or short gambit, taking extra time once boosts it up to the next category. So minutes instead of seconds, or an hour instead of minutes. 

For a long gambit or slow gambit, each level of extra time means doubling the amount of time spent on it.

With no rules for the passage of time, this all matters only if the time matters in the story. (The Rule of Stakes!) If you've got all day to solve a puzzle that takes an hour to attempt, absolutely nothing prevents you from rolling with two advantage dice and saying you spent four hours on it. (A long gambit, doubled twice.)

Of course, if your odds are good and there's that little pressure, absolutely nothing prevents the Storyweaver from skipping the roll, saying that you solved it and it took you an hour or two. Who's counting? (The Rule of Stakes again!)

If At First You Don't Succeed... can't just pick up the dice and roll again until you do, because then it wouldn't be much of a game.

First, we have to recognize that in some cases, the story will dictate that failure means you've missed your window. You can't keep trying to catch a football on the same throw, for instance, and trying to disarm a time bomb is a literal "ticking clock" scenario.

But for tasks that are not so time-limited and won't be adversely affected by failures, you can keep going past a failure.

The rules work under the assumption that you are making your best effort under the circumstances. Unless the circumstances improve, you're stuck with what you got.

But remember how you can improve your odds through advantage dice? Anything that add advantage dice counts as a positive change in circumstance. If you fail and then decide to take extra time or someone adds assistance, you can continue the gambit. Any immediate consequences of the initial failure still happen, which, again might render any continuation moot or impossible. But if nothing in-story would prevent you from making another try with an extra pair of hands or a little more time, you can do so. You keep the dice you've already rolled, and then roll the additional die or dice for the advantage(s).

If Circumstances Change Later...

If there's a break in the action and you come back to the situation later to try again with changed circumstances, it's up to the Storyweaver if you can continue where you left off or if it's effectively a fresh attempt. Sometimes one will make sense and sometimes the other will. Generally, if you've had a break from the action on par with a night's sleep, you would start over from scratch, coming back to the problem with fresh eyes.

Tapping Your Aspects

You can also tap into the various aspects your identity to do things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.

Each individual aspect of your identity has a weight, a number that describes how central it is to your character's deal. Depending on the power level of the game and how many aspects you have, it's possible for that weight to be 0 for some of them. An aspect that doesn't have any weight can't be tapped.

Each time you tap an aspect, you mark an X above it on your character sheet. When you have as many Xs as you have points of weight in it, it is tapped out and cannot be tapped further. The aspect otherwise still functions normally; you don't lose access to it when it's tapped out.


When you make a gambit and you don't like the result, you can choose to flex an aspect. It must be the aspect you're using for the roll, though if you declared you were using a strength and you realize after the fact you have an aspect that applies to what you're doing, you are allowed to fudge that.

When you flex, you roll an extra d6 and add it to the roll. This is not an advantage die but is counted for the result.

If you also have advantage dice in the gambit, the extra d6 you get from flexing is added to the mix and when you've finished rolling, you can keep the highest three dice. It doesn't matter when in the process you decide to flex. A die that was set aside as low can be "brought back in" if it's no longer the lowest. So even if your flex only gives you a 1, it still might improve the roll overall by more. Advantage dice are powerful!

You can also flex an aspect when you're helping with someone else's gambit, with the same effect but on their roll. However, no matter how many people are flexing, the final result only uses 3 dice. Additional flexes are effectively giving extra advantage dice. The limit of only two characters assisting still applies.


We've mentioned a few times the concept of what makes sense for a story, and the Storyweaver checking in if it doesn't make sense to them. Ideally the players and the Storyweaver will have similar ideas of what makes sense for the characters and the story, but sometimes a player will see something that is outside their character's job description and the bounds of acceptable breaks from reality for the game as a whole, and yet... and yet... there's a really cool idea that is completely off the wall but you can still sort of see it, it's just a stretch.

In these situations, you can tap an aspect of your identity to do something that is clearly not on-brand as though it were on-brand. Rule-wise, there is no restriction except you have to tap the aspect. Story-wise... some narrative styles are more "rubber" than others, but when you expend the use of the aspect, well, you and the Storyweaver should work together to figure out a way to narrate what happens in a way that makes sense, to whatever extent the group cares about it making sense, but you satisfy the rules just by virtue of the tap. You should have a description of how you're applying this inapplicable thing. But you don't have to justify it.

As part of the stretch, you can completely change the sphere of the gambit to, for instance, move it from an area where you have -1 to one where you have +3. Again, from a point of the mechanics of the game, you earn this ability just by tapping your aspect for the stretch. It should fit the story of what you're doing, but it doesn't have to be a good story. Stretches will more often be awesome than good.

Aside from that, a stretch is treated the same as any other gambit. You don't get any extra dice. You don't do anything different on the role. It just lets you be bonkers and pull off something a little cheesy.

You can also flex when you're stretching, but that counts as two separate taps. Use with caution!


A stunt is similar to a stretch in that you're going beyond the scope of what you could normally do, but instead of subbing your statistics around, you're doing something that doesn't actually correspond to the game rules at all. It's purely in the realm of narrative negotiation. A stunt is something that is on-brand for your character, but something that goes beyond what you could normally achieve not in terms of dice and rolls, but in terms of story.

To speak bluntly, the stunt exists so the Storyweaver can say yes to ideas that are too rad to say no to, but possibly risk breaking the game a little bit if it were decided that a given PC can just sort of do this now whenever they want. The big difference between a stretch and a stunt is that stretches are used to change the nature of a gambit. Stunts are more like special abilities, extensions of a character's basic capabilities.

Some slightly generic examples of things that you can do with stunts:

  • Accomplish something faster than you could otherwise do (effectively moving it up one time category, the opposite of taking more time on a task).

  • Attack more than one target at the same time (or in very rapid succession) in a combat situation.

  • Briefly move in a way your character can't normally move (fly, propel through water) and/or adapt to an environment that would normally be inhospitable (creating an air supply underwater or insulation from extreme hot or cold)

  • Do something you'd need a tool or other special equipment for, without that equipment (whether by compensating for the lack somehow or finding a suspiciously suitable replacement at hand.)

Note that stunts not requiring rolls doesn't mean whatever you try to do with the stunt is an automatic success! Stunts let you do new things, but they won't necessarily be done well.

Stunts will be a bigger deal for some characters than others.  They come up most often for characters who have some kind of extranormal capabilities, things like magical spells, superpowers, etc. Stunts are actually pretty integral to the rules for magic (described later) which can also be used with a few adaptations for things like mutant superpowers or futuristic supertech. For characters who don't have such superhuman capabilities, assets can be a source of stunts... a tool (including a weapon) is inherently something that gives you an extra capability to work with. Trick shots with an arrow or revolver, hacking a high-tech electronic device into a different sort of device, etc., can all be examples of stunts. Stunts can also make use of items you find in the environment.

It's okay to not have a clear idea of what counts as a stunt when you make your character or start playing. You might have some stunts in mind when you're creating your character or it might be something that only comes up in play. Specific games built on the Interrobang engine may have more specific rules for stunts, including selections of pre-defined "stock stunts" that players can choose from.

What if a stretch is also a stunt?

In the course of telling the story of how you use the wrong aspect for a gambit, it's easy to include elements that would be stunts if they were happening on their own. Don't sweat it, if that's the case. You don't have to "double tap" in order to pull it off. Unless you want to keep doing the cool thing that was part of a stretch outside that one gambit, it's still just a stretch.

Developer Note: Wait, Did I Name These Backwards?

I'm reading over this before posting and I think I might want to switch the terms "stretch" and "stunt" around. The word "stretch" arguably could be applied to either, but "stunt" fits the doing the probably improbable, transitory thing you're doing that is specifically described as being awesome even if it's not good, while "stretch" can work for the thing where you're extending your basic capabilities...

Yeah, I don't think I'm going to rewrite this entry to reflect it, but having written it, I think the nomenclature is backwards, and future entries (and the finished product) will reflect that.

This also helped clarify something I've been working on for when I get to character advancement for ongoing games, about permanently extending your abilities (so that your flame character who jets around through the air Once An Episode eventually can just fly without having to tap.)

The Myth of America’s Mayor: Will the Real Rudy Giuliani Please Stand Up?

Guest Piece by Greg Olear

By Greg Olear

Luxuriating in the muck at the center of the president’s Ukraine scandal is Rudolph William Louis Giuliani—a man who, not that long ago, was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. How could the crisis leader hailed by Newsweek as “our Winston Churchill” have fallen so precipitously from grace? How did “America’s Mayor” become Trump’s partner in crime? When did Rudy break bad?

Ivan IV only assumed the “Terrible” sobriquet after a traumatic illness almost killed him. Henry VIII’s personality completely changed after a bad accident in which he was thrown from his royal horse. Our natural tendency is to look for a similar life-changing event in Rudy’s recent history. How else to square the noble Rudy of 9/11 with the Trumpist traitor who cavorts with criminals?

The answer, alas, is that the Rudy Giuliani we see today—“Colludy Rudy” who operates as Trump’s shadow Secretary of State, doing his client’s illicit bidding in Eastern Europe; “Nosferatu Rudy,” who spewed fire and brimstone at the RNC; “Rantin’ Rudy,” who raves like a madman on the cable news shows—is the real Rudy Giuliani. Not only that, but the 2019 vintage is no different than the 2016, the 2001, or the 1997. Rudy Giuliani has always been egomaniacal, self-serving, loquacious, mean-spirited, and morally bankrupt. This is who he is, and who he has always been.

It’s “America’s Mayor” that’s a fraud.

On September 10, 2001, Rudolph Giuliani was a lame-duck mayor of a city that had grown to despise him. His approval rating was in the toilet. Whatever goodwill he’d generated by a successful first term had evaporated during an increasing autocratic second, when he’d more than earned the moniker “Benito Giuliani.” By the time the sun set the following day, he would be one of the most beloved figures in not just New York, but the country, and maybe the free world. The 180-degree turnaround was, as an AP bureau chief remarked to me a few months later, unprecedented in 200 years of American politics. Rudy, beating the odds, had gone from worst to first.

For all his myriad faults, Giuliani always understood what it meant to be mayor of New York, as opposed to, say, Cincinnati or Jacksonville or even Los Angeles or Houston. As December 31, 1999, approached—the dreaded Y2K—he was asked if he intended to shut down Times Square’s New Year’s Eve celebration, due to safety concerns: “This is New York,” he said with pride. “We get 100,000 people there. If I close it, we’ll get 200,000.” He went on Letterman to announce New York’s new slogan that the Late Night host had cooked up: “We can kick your city’s ass!” He was a Yankee fan; he didn’t like going to Shea Stadium at all. Rudy got it. And he took that same bombast, the implacable confidence bordering if not completely encroaching on arrogance, and applied it to his many press conferences on and immediately after 9/11. Even as Lower Manhattan burned, he reminded us that This is New York, that We can kick your city’s ass. And people loved him for it—New Yorkers especially.

I was no exception. By 9/11, I’d been living in New York for six years. However much I despised Rudy Giuliani the day before the attacks—and I hated him as much as anyone—his leadership that fateful Tuesday forgave a multitude of sins. I was proud that he was our mayor. Who else would have risen so spectacularly to the occasion?

The answer is more complicated than I originally believed. In reality, Giuliani’s reputation as Great Leader, as Preparedness Specialist, as Crisis Manager, is based on falsehoods. Had George W. Bush been a better president—and had Rudy himself been a better mayor—there would have been no America’s Mayor.

On a dismal and dreary January day in 2001, Bush was sworn in as president. He’d lost the popular vote by 50,999,897 to 50,456,002, only securing the presidency by virtue of a fly-by-night Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, that smells even fishier in retrospect. Kindly but incurious and easily led, he was incapable of the sort of resolute leadership needed in the aftermath of the attacks. Bush spent much of September 11, 2001, on Air Force One, careening around the eastern half of the United States, ostensibly for reasons of security—although one wonders what, exactly, the Secret Service was so afraid of to resort to such drastic measures. Osama Bin Laden was holed up in some Tora Bora cave; he was not Thanos, he did not possess the Infinity Stones. By all accounts, Bush was aware of the leadership vacuum and wanted to return to Washington sooner. “The country needs to hear from its president.” But he failed to override the advice of his security detail. As a result, on the most important day of his presidency, when the nation most needed his firm reassurance, Dubya was AWOL.

Giuliani, by contrast, rushed to Lower Manhattan before the towers had fallen. Our first sight of him was when he emerged from the rubble of a building that had partially collapsed. Flanked by his men-at-arms, he was breathing through a handkerchief. What a spectacle! No pesky building collapse was going to stop the mayor of New York from doing his duty! Here was our Churchill. Here was Teddy Roosevelt, another prominent New Yorker, finishing his speech after he’d been shot. “It’ll take more than that to stop this bull moose!” The optics were eye-popping—especially when contrasted with Bush, who was playing hide-and-seek in the sky like a frightened child. Rudy took control of the narrative at that moment and didn’t let go for the next decade and a half.

He made of himself a myth.

Whatever TV might have told us, the Rudy Giuliani we witnessed on 9/11 was a “grand illusion.” This is the title of a 2006 book by Dan Collins and the late, great Wayne Barrett, who warned us years ago about Donald Trump in his Village Voice reporting. Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 smashes the idol, exposing Giuliani as a lousy mayor whose pre-9/11 preparedness policies—or lack thereof—made the events of that day demonstrably worse.

By 2001, it did not require the gift of prophecy to foretell a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Terrorists had already bombed the Twin Towers, in 1993, during the mayoralty of David Dinkins, and vowed to do it again. And yet in his entire first term in City Hall and most of his second, Giuliani had done precious little to prepare for another attack. His much-ballyhooed Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which he wouldn’t shut up about in the years after 9/11, was supposed to coordinate the response to a terrorist attack or similar emergency, but it lacked the teeth to do so. On 9/11, the city’s police and fire departments still responded independently to crises, as they’d been doing for centuries. The New York Times called it “an undisputed fact” that Giuliani’s OEM “failed to establish the most basic aspect of emergency response: determining who is in charge—and when and why.”

In this respect, New York was decades behind the curve. Edward Plaugher, who as the chief of the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia led the (much more efficient) emergency response to the attack on the Pentagon, testified before the 9/11 Commission that, in sharp contrast to the “unified command” response in his Capital Region, the outmoded and compartmentalized response in New York “dramatically impacted the loss of first responder lives on 9/11.” Giuliani’s city, Plaugher said disgustedly, was still “struggling with understanding the concept of who’s in charge of what.”

Most famously, Giuliani unilaterally decided to build the OEM’s command center in the worst possible location: the 23rd floor of a building, WTC 7, within the World Trade Center complex. This decision looks indefensibly stupid now, yes, but it was also indefensibly stupid in the moment. The chief of police and other high-level NYPD brass fought the move. Even Richie Sheirer, the eventual OEM director and one of Rudy’s most loyal and sycophantic cronies, derided the decision. As Collins and Barrett write: “Rejecting an already secure, technologically advanced city facility across the Brooklyn Bridge, [Giuliani] insisted on a command center within walking distance of City Hall, a curious standard quickly discarded by the [subsequent] Bloomberg administration, which instead put its center in Brooklyn.” So, four years after the first attack on the WTC, “Giuliani wound up settling in 1997 on the only bunker ever built in the clouds, at a site shaken to its foundation four years earlier by terrorists who vowed to return.”

Just as Donald Trump was bad for the country but great for CBS News, the decision to place OEM’s command center at WTC 7 was bad for New York but fantastic for Rudy Giuliani. Rudy spent the morning of 9/11 wandering around Lower Manhattan, trying to find an alternative location for an impromptu command center to replace the destroyed one. This made for good television, as crews had easy access to the peripatetic mayor, but was negligently bad management. As Collins and Barrett write:

If the center had been elsewhere, all the dramatic visuals that turned the soot-covered Giuliani into a nomad warrior would instead have been tense but tame footage from its barren press conference room, where reporters had been corralled prior to 9/11 for snowstorms and the millennium celebration….Had he been able to get into and operate from a command center he says he “headed” for shortly after 8:46 that morning, he might have been more effective, but he also would have been less inspirational.

Grand Illusion delves into the shameful particulars of how Giuliani’s preparedness failures directly led to loss of life, especially of first responders. Time and again he sacrificed safety and efficiency for political expediency. Like Trump, Giuliani seemed to lack the ability to plan strategically, to see the whole chessboard. This is a catastrophic failure that is rarely discussed.

It is true that Giuliani handled the day of 9/11 beautifully, communicating simply, inspirationally, and often. But is it really the case that the ability to do so was unique to “America’s Mayor,” as the popular narrative would have us believe? Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was equally up to the task when her city was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017—and unlike Rudy, she did not enjoy the unquestioned support of the sitting president. Are we to believe that, say, Ed Koch would not have acted in much the same way? Or Mike Bloomberg or Bill DeBlasio? Or, venturing outside Gotham, South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg?

Whatever the fawning press coverage said, the Rudy Giuliani of 9/11 legend was a far cry from the real thing. And America’s Mayor had no intention of correcting the record.

Donald Trump was not the first egomaniacal New Yorker to half-assedly lobby for an illegal third term. On the day of the attacks, Rudy Giuliani had just three and a half months left in office. New York law prohibited him from running for a third term—but he sure as hell tried. The mayoral candidates—the Democrats Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer and the Democrat-turned-Republican-just-for-this-election Mike Bloomberg—could not match the wattage of the incumbent, who wanted nothing more than to remain at City Hall. But Rudy’s efforts were stymied by Albany, which refused to repeal the law to help a mayor neither Democrats nor Republicans in the Statehouse much cared for.

His performance on 9/11 failed to deliver more political power, so Rudy sought the next best thing: money. He decided to cash in on his popularity—to monetize his reputation as a security expert. Before he left office, he began promoting his new business venture, a consulting concern called Giuliani Partners. The “partners” were a gaggle of Rudy sycophants, most notably Bernie Kerik. Like Dan Scavino, who started off as the caddie to Donald Trump, Kerik began his ascent as Rudy’s personal driver, rose through the NYPD ranks to become Police Commissioner, and, in 2004, wound up being nominated by George W. Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security. He had to withdraw the nomination, however, because he was a crook; he was convicted in 2008 of tax fraud and making false statements, and served four years in federal prison.

Giuliani Partners was billed as a management consulting firm, but all it really did was allow its clients to bask in the heroic glow of its eponymous founder. After 9/11, remember, the imprimatur of “America’s Mayor” was a hot commodity. What Giuliani did was exploit the situation to maximum advantage. Giuliani took a national tragedy, the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime, and made it his own personal brand. As Joe Biden once quipped, every sentence Rudy speaks contains “a noun, a verb, and ‘9/11.’” If Giuliani could have trademarked “9/11,” he would have. As Collins and Barrett write, he “took the reputation he had won in New York and rented it out to companies who needed an aura of heroic integrity.”

Rudy Giuliani: the pimp who trafficked 9/11.

Like a pimp, Rudy was not picky in selecting clients. If you paid the (exorbitant) bill, you were in. And the companies willing to plonk down the requisite coin tended to be shady. When clients of Giuliani Partners, who were “very frequently companies in trouble,” Collins and Barrett write, “told the world they just hired a renowned team of ‘crisis managers,’ no one pretended their critical expertise came from handling snowstorms or subway fires.” Rudy and his cohorts never failed to “brandish the 9/11 club” when the situation called for it:

Helping the pharmaceutical industry stop Americans from getting their prescriptions filled in Canada, where the same drugs were cheaper, Bernard Kerik would warn that terrorists could be shipping biological weapons across the border in the guise of prescription drugs. Giuliani would make a special call to remind a prosecutor about the public-spirited role a client had played after 9/11 or insert plugs for a cell phone client into a talk to public safety officials about what happened to him when the Word Trade Center fell.

Among the beneficiaries of Rudy’s mercenary boosterism: Merrill Lynch, then under investigation by New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer; WorldCom, the telecommunications company wracked by scandals and on the verge of bankruptcy; Aon, the insurance giant that had lost 176 employees on 9/11; Nextel, the telecom outfit whose lousy product contributed to the communication problems in New York on 9/11; and Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin and the company most responsible for the current opioid epidemic in the United States. One you’re in bed with Purdue, why not lobby for dictators and mob money launderers? Why not coordinate strategy with Paul Manafort—whose family business, Manafort Brothers construction, had secured the clean-up contract for the 9/11 rubble—from his prison cell?

Giuliani Partners also entered into a joint venture with Sabre Technological Services to start a environmental decontamination company called Bio ONE, which was tapped by American Media, Inc. to clean its Boca Raton facility that had been the victim of an anthrax attack. The cockamamie plan was for Bio ONE to render the offices so clean that they themselves would occupy them going forward; Giuliani himself would be the first to enter the newly-cleaned building. Thus did Rudy’s outfit get unfettered access to the National Enquirer’s mammoth vault of photographs—including untold thousands that had never and would never run—although Bio ONE was ultimately unable to successfully decontaminate the facility. Like Rudy himself, the company was all talk.

What ultimately doomed Giuliani Partners was the revelation that its second-most-famous partner, Bernie Kerik, was a sleazebag and a crook. Not only was the former Police Commissioner cheating on his wife with a corrections officer and the publisher Judith Regan (best known for putting out the O.J. Simpson memoir If I Did It), but he was a big-time tax cheat. Kerik, and Giuliani Partners, “went down in flames,” Collins and Barret write—“hugely publicized, hugely embarrassing flames.”

The real story of Rudy Giuliani reads like this: His fuck-ups as mayor led to the city’s chaotic response to the 9/11 attacks, resulting in more first responder deaths than would have happened under more able leadership. His performance on 9/11 itself was enhanced by his presence in Lower Manhattan—but he was only walking the streets because he had idiotically decided to put the OEM command center in the WTC complex. He tried to use the goodwill generated by that performance to illegally remain in office. When that failed, he pimped out 9/11 for his own financial benefit—usually to clients who were expressly unworthy of positive spin.

In all of this, the possessive Giuliani treated 9/11 like it was his corner. He does this still, going so far as to insist, repeatedly, that Hillary Clinton never visited Ground Zero, despite ample photographical evidence to the contrary. But where was the purported 9/11 hero earlier this year, when Congress wanted to deny medical benefits to first responders? Jon Stewart, a comedian, gave an impassioned appeal that day, and has selflessly helped keep the spotlight on that cause for two decades now. Where was “America’s Mayor?” Rudy was, one assumes, somewhere in Ukraine, pressuring a foreign government to manufacture dirt on Donald Trump’s political opponent, in flagrant violation of U.S. law—which speaks to both his unscrupulous priorities, and his true feelings about 9/11.

The Rudy Giuliani who butt-dialed a reporter, who called Andrew Cuomo a moron on TV, who needed Apple to help him unlock his own iPhone, who angrily defends the Russian mob money launderer in the White House at every turn—that is the real Rudy Giuliani. He’s not a fallen hero. He’s the same piece of shit he’s been his whole life.

“America’s Mayor” was always fake news.

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is the author of Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia and the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker.

Thank you for reading!

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Transmissions from a Point in Space

The only sure things in life are death and gatekeeping.

As a point of interest — and under the theory that if you're reading this, you like to read things I have written — I have an essay in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine. it's about the boundaries and meanings of genre labels like "science fiction" and "fantasy" and who defines them, and who gets to ignore those definitions.

It's a little interesting to me to note that at the time this was pitched to me about a year ago, there was a kerfluffle going around about the subject. And around the time I actually did most of the writing there was another, different yet almost identical conversation happening. And now that it's come out... I mean, basically right before it went live, one of the hoary old Giants of the Genre that most people haven't heard of had an editorial in Asimov's (a name more people have heard of) about how Chinese people don't have any word for "atomo ray" and that's why they'll lose the space race, or something. I don't know. I'm going to be honest... it wasn't interesting enough to finish, least of all because I'm tired of the conversation.

But I'm proud of this piece, and it almost didn't happen. 

The bulk of the writing on it was done during a trip to Florida back in May. I wrote this essay walking around the halls and backyard of my parents' house in Florida, while my mother was asleep. I actually wrote about three different, closely-related essays' worth of material in the pursuit of this essay, because it took me a few tries to really narrow down what it was about. 

This trip was the last time I saw my mother.

When I think back on it, it feels like there was a longer gap between that trip and her death, even though it was less than a month later. In between them was WisCon and my birthday and a whole lot of... just life, I guess. I My dad needed to travel for business, and business paid for her oxygen and medicine and doctor visits, but leaving her alone... my mother had a routine in which she could be largely self-sufficient, but I know from a lifetime of experience how costly it can be to do things for yourself that you can technically do.

So after having been there in April, I volunteered to come down more often, for as much as one week out of every month. I had figured out how to make my workspace so portable I could leave the laptop at home, because everything I needed could fit in my pockets and I'd have the same work environment anywhere. 

My dad and I worked out a schedule for four months, the longest he felt comfortable planning for the future. The may trip was the first of the four, and having written so much during it left me feeling like I could do it, I could commute between Florida and Maryland for as long as my parents needed me. I was in it for the long haul.

But there was no long haul.

That was it. 

As the deadline for the second pass on my essay got closer, I put on a game face and told Michi that I was looking forward to the distraction... but then I sat down and I just couldn't do it. It didn't even need much work, just enough to definitely need it, but the essay I had written in my mother's house, while she slept in another room... the association was just too strong. I couldn't face it. We talked about it and agreed to circle back to it later, to see if I felt up to picking it up again.

She did ping me in the fall and I did make the necessary improvements, and as I said, I'm proud of it.

But I'm not sure I'm ever going to read it.

To anyone else, it’s an essay that could — unfortunately — be timeless, because its subject matter has been timely every month for several years and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

For me, though, it belongs entirely to a particular time and a particular place in my life, such that I can’t read it or even really think much of it and I’m back there again, ready to relive it all over.

Thank you for reading.

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Red Dead Unloaded

An open letter, of sorts, to Rockstar Games

Back in the days before YouTube, back when Netflix was a small mail-order rental company, back when it could take me all day to load a single streaming MP3 song over dial-up if I could find it embedded somewhere, I used to watch what was on television. I have some old favorite movies that probably wouldn't be my favorite movies, except that once upon a time they were on when I wanted something to watch. 

The second half of the 1990s stands out in particular, with my older brother off with his friends and then later off at college, I found myself alone with the downstairs TV and no one to choose and no one to complain, so I found the most appealing thing that was on. 

There was Goodbye Lover, a comic neo-noir that also introduced me to the music of Save Ferris and the concept of ceviche. Love and a .45, a road crime movie and modern-day western of sorts. I'm thinking about these movies I caught on premium cable over and over again, movies I haven't have thought about in years because I'm thinking of another movie from back then: The Negotiator.

That one is kind of known for a bit where the titular character banters with the other negotiator about westerns, about cowboy movies, and the significance of preferring the ones where the hero dies at the end. 

I like westerns. I like how they can present straightforward morality plays in a uniquely American mode. I like how they can also function as a complicated morality play, where a man who's done grievous wrong can do a good thing and still not escape his past. Westerns show us both uncompromising virtues and hard choices with no right answers. 

I like the mythology and iconography of the western, and how so often, as we look back on an age in history that never truly was, so often the story we're telling is the story of how it couldn't be, the story of how it could never last, the story of what went wrong and how it ended. 

A lot of them also have good fight scenes.

I have been intrigued by the Red Dead Redemption series since the first one came out, though I didn't have the right consoles to play it. I'm just not enough of a console gamer for it to make sense for me to invest in a Playstation or XBox. Don't have the space, money, or time for that to make sense. I know I'm missing out on a few games I'd love -- I almost succumbed and splurged on a PS4 anyway to be part of the Spider-man hype -- but ultimately I'm a PC and Nintendo girl.

So when Red Dead Redemption 2's PC launch was announced, I was excited. I'd finally get a chance to be a part of this world, this incredibly vast open world with a fully structured story to play through and experience, and the whole wide range remaining to be explored afterwards. Even aside from the setting and genre, the simultaneous promise that the hero will die in the end but you get to explore the world as long as you want anyway were two of my favorite things, combined in one package against all odds!

I sometimes despair for the state of single-player storytelling in games. There are some long-running franchises that still do it well, and plenty of indie games, but every year it feels like the industry is moving more and more away from games where you experience a fully-realized story and towards games where you experience... other people. I mean, the promos for Fallout 76 looked absolutely gorgeous, but it doesn't yet have any of what I actually look for in a Fallout game.

So I was excited about Red Dead Redemption 2... but a little uncertain. If I had a compatible console, I could buy it secondhand and not give my money to Rockstar Games, whose business practices in the area of labor management I don't particularly care to support. 

Yeah, the crunch thing. 

I want games like this to exist. But I want the companies making them to invest the time in making them right, while treating the people who make them more like... well... like the rock stars the are.

It was enough to keep me on the fence even as Twitter daily showed me ads telling me to pre-order and pre-load by November 5th for free upgrades and exclusive perks. Oof. That nearly overcame my resolve just as an impulse buy, and by the time I woke up today... well, I had mostly made up my mind that I was going to get it, and figure out some way to directly support the people who are fighting for better working conditions in gaming and tech generally.

Then, this morning, game critic Dia Lacina re-upped a piece from last year, "Red Dead Redemption 2's Redface Proves How Far Games Haven't Come", about casting an actor who was neither indigenous nor Black for an NPC character who is both.

The game's treatment of native characters was something I had wondered about. It's one of those things that gives me pause about westerns generally. Even when there aren't any indigenous characters in a story of the old west, their absence is itself a creative choice and part of their mythmaking.

This is the part where, if I were saying this on Twitter, eventually a small but vocal set of gamers would pop up to say that from what I'm saying I wouldn't be happy no matte what, because I'll complain if they're included and I'll complain if they're not. And well, I mean, I don't think it's possible to "do right by" natives in a single video game, in the same way that Shane couldn't put right his whole past by saving one family and their farm. You can't undo a long history of blood and tears with a good deed.

But it's possible to try, and it's possible to do better.

This isn't a case where I can excuse labor problems but not racism. My choice as a consumer is the result of a combination of these factors. There are just too many things about this game that make me feel iffy for me to spend money in order to ostensibly enjoy it. 

The vocal complainers like to say things about how they just want to play fun games and not think about these things. I, too, would like to play fun games and not think about these things. I could do that, if companies like Rockstar would quit doing these things. Wouldn't that be nice?

When I decided to give RDR2 a pass, my first impulse was just to quietly sigh to myself and then move on to another game I've wanted to try, or revisit a favorite. Maybe another Fallout: New Vegas playthrough would help scratch the itch.

But then I thought about it, and I decided... what's the point of voting with my wallet if Rockstar doesn't know I've done so? I'm sure I'll get a bunch of people in my Twitter mentions calling this "virtue-signalling" (a phrase that people use to signal to their in-group their own virtue in calling out people whose politics are not correct, so they may be mobbed and bullied into silence), but that's beside the point. 

This message is for Rockstar Games. I'm not telling anyone else what to do about the game or how to feel if they've already bought it and enjoyed it. This is not prescriptive. It's my decision, for me. I want to make sure they know their decisions have cost them at least one sale.

Might I have enjoyed the game enough to make up for my misgivings? Very possibly. I'm sure it's a great game.

But the world is full of great games, and no one has time to play all of them.

I'll take my time and my money elsewhere.

Thank you for reading!

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Telling Stories in a Big Galaxy

Some worldbuilding and character notes from a fiction project.

 So, earlier today I posted a short story on my Patreon, with a working title of "Bluffing on a Strong Hand". I think the title's going to change, it's very much a draft story (though a good draft), especially since I conceived of it as part of something bigger.

I'm participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year by simply trying to write more, with writing a novel as sort of a backdoor goal. My main goal is to write more. One of my avenues for approaching that is to try to write a series of connected stories involving a character and a setting I have spent about a year thinking about, off and on. It might wind up being a book. Who knows? I'm excited.

I'd like to talk a bit about the setting for the story, which I'm calling the Big Galaxy in my head. The line "It's a big galaxy" is one that crops up in a lot of my drafts, and helps explain a lot of the world building choices.

The Big Galaxy is a fictionalized version of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which I'm well aware isn't necessarily large as galaxies go. Of the two galaxies that first spring to mind when I try to think of galaxies, it's the smaller one by far, and yet it is unfathomably vast to human reckoning. "A hundred thousand lightyears side-to-side," as Eric Idle once sang, and that's only a one dimensional measurement. 

If we assume an optimistic future for humanity where we survive what we're doing to our world and move off it, with faster-than-light travel and transport and the technology to live anywhere in the galaxy... what would that "world" look like? Isaac Asimov's vision of a rise and fall of a galactic empire (chronicled throughout his Robots, Empire, and Foundation books) was, in my opinion, one of the better attempts to deal with the sheer scope and scale of a galactic human race, but even it fell short.

My starting point is to look at life on earth in a world with seven billion people, unevenly distributed rapid transit, and nearly instantaneous communications, including mass communications, and then try to imagine that becoming bigger and more complex.

Human beings living in the Big Galaxy have strings of numbers, usually between three and five digits long, after their names. Like Jean Valjean 24601 or Beverly Hills 90210. These numbers are part of their legal name, though they're not often referred to in day-to-day conversations, but almost always included in interstellar communications. I don't have a fixed name for them yet, but they're not "version numbers" for clones or counting how many people have that name. In a world in which there might be a million earths and even more small outposts and installations and people who have just made their lives and their living endlessly plying the void in between, there could be millions of people with the same exact name.

The numbers are a kind of administrative grouping that are mostly assigned at the family level, but that's family as "core unit" and not "ancestral lineage". If you're part of the family Cleopatra 2525 and you pick up your life and move to a different cluster of space, you create a new fork and are given a new number. Records and messages addressed to you at your old designation are auto-updated/forwarded. But other generations of Cleopatra 2525 who stay in the same system keep the same number.

It's a bit like zip codes or area codes for people, and while it's possible to glean some location information from it, it's not always accurate. The system is more something that people opt into for convenience than something imposed by a central government for tracking, though much like social security numbers in the US, it can be hard to do business without them, whatever the original intent was.

One character in the story effectively drops his identifier when he decides to set his addressing as "The Outlaw ____ _____", knowing no one else is going to be addressed that way. But he's not rebelling against the numbers specifically.

The lack of a central authority imposing the numbers is part of a general lack of a central authority. Sovereign statehood basically doesn't work on levels bigger than a single star system, though the most powerful ones frequently have protectorates. Interstellar traffic and commerce is mostly policed by consent, with the understanding that it would be hard to have any without some rules. 

The vast majority of humanity in the Big Galaxy, just like today, is born on a planet and will live their whole lives on that planet and die on a planet. When they watch the news, it's news about or relevant to their planet (and satellites/nearby planets it controls). When they read history books, it's the history of their world, with stuff about earth treated as the ancient history of their world in a "how we got here" sense and only galactic events that affected their world mentioned. There's no general study of galactic history or galactic politics as more of an overview because it's too big a subject. It's a big galaxy.

The Galactic Council for Peace (Galpax) is like the United Nations and Chamber of Commerce FOR SPACE! and they have the largest and most powerful fleet, to the point that it would take a hundred worlds' fleets united to defeat them... but there are thousands of fleets large enough to pick from, in making up that hundred. 

So they mostly answer distress calls and mediate disputes. Because participation in the Galpax is voluntary, they mostly broker deals. Ina  galaxy this size, that often means making a chain of deals among multiple worlds who all want and need different things. The Galpax uses a system that reduces petitions and complaints and distress calls to series of abstract symbols, which are then fed into matrices that look a lot like a gem-matching game, which allows them to distribute the work of finding matches among the interests of the various worlds to bored students and office workers throughout the galaxy. 

The system automates as much as possible, and trained diplomats and experts audit a fraction of the results, but if, for instance, one planet demands recompense for a food shipment damaged through the perceived negligence of another planet, the Galpax system may deliver the results after having matched something the offending planet needs with something someone else has and arranging them to get it in exchange for voluntarily paying the fine. It's basically constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

Outside of sovereign space, broad "international law/law of the sea" style agreements are mostly tended to because no one's strong enough to stand against everyone, should anyone rile up all their neighbors at once. Ships are considered to be the soil of whatever state/world they're registered to, which doesn't necessarily mean it's the same as being on that world because most worlds pass specific laws for ships in interstellar space.

No world has authority to police another world's ships, but for things like piracy the offenders are rejecting the law of every world and thus have no protection of flag. A ship that isn't registered to a world (which includes "flying the flag" of one that rejects the Galpax completely) is considered to be "estrastellar", and there are whole extrastellar communities of pirates and libertarians and the like who reject the Galpax. When found, they are either shunned or crushed, depending on if they seem to be a threat, (and unless the world that found them considers them useful), but... it's a big galaxy.

For interstellar legal disputes (meaning one involving more than one "flag world" of the Galpax), most enforcement action is handed by Space Hunters, licensed bounty hunters and de facto marshals who are regulated by the Galpax and receive many orders from them but are but not controlled by them. The nuance is a fine point but one which allows them to operate without the many separate sovereign systems feeling like the Galpax or anyone else has too much of a say in things. Like bondsmen in the United States, the Space Hunters are able to operate in many legal gray areas, including having latitude to effectively break the law in pursuit of their targets. 

But, again, nuance: a Space Hunter can't order a ship carrying their target to halt, can't force it to submit to a search, etc. The ship's security forces can't arrest them for trespass or whatnot, but how much cooperation either side gives the other when there is a conflict of interest will vary with the politics of the situation.

Travel between star systems takes place in two main ways: Slow FTL and Fast FTL. 

Slow FTL involves creating a rippling energy field that briefly compresses space ahead of the ship as it moves into it, making the distance shorter... a quick-and-dirty SFnal version of a technology that has been investigated in real life. It allows travel at speeds approaching or exceeding the speed of light. Doing it below light speed is called slowcrawling, and is used for traveling within a star system, where it makes travel time take hours where it might otherwise take days or weeks. Outside star systems, it can exceed the speed of light, and is called lightcrawling.

Fast FTL is also called warping, and involves traveling through folds in space, deformations created by gravity. Where crawling involves creating wrinkles in space-time ahead of you, warping is like imagining space is a very crinkly map that has been balled up and shoved in a pocket, and you can move faster by following the wrinkles or jumping from one point on the map to another that is touching it. Not all of the wrinkles are navigable, and you have to follow where they join with other wrinkles, so it's not a simple matter of pointing your ship in the right direction and going to warp... you're either exploring in a completely random direction or following a well-known and well-marked path others have explored before.

Knowledge of warp routes is crucial because you can't just enter or exit the wrinkly spaces at will and a ship that runs out of power without an exit is in a bad place. No one knows all the warp routes (it's a big galaxy!) and they complicate the "geopolitics" of the galaxy because they mean that two worlds that are not at all near each other in linear three dimensional space may be next door neighbors for trade purposes, and some world you've never heard about might have a backdoor into the vicinity of your world.

The natural on-ramps and off-ramps all occur "near" large, dense masses in space, but the sweet spot at which you can move from one state of transit to the other is not actually that close in human terms, so you can't enter or exit warp in what we would recognize as being inside the bounds of a star system, so it's not a question of having a ship that is a warper vs. a crawler... not every ship can warp, but any ship that warps can also crawl.

So, again, the point of the Big Galaxy as a setting is that it is huge. There is no point in the distributed empire of humanity that you couldn't get to in weeks if you had the resources (or much less than that if you personally had the resources to not need to find ships already going where you need to go to make all the hops you need to get there), and yet even with genetic modifications and futuristic medical technology that allows for a lifespan of centuries, nobody could ever see all of it, or even one percent of it. 

A person might be famous in their system and famous within a bunch of overlapping networks throughout the galaxy, but no one is universally known. A Space Hunter like the main character X-37 (her name doesn't fit the pattern because like the aforementioned The Outlaw, there's no other X-37s in the galaxy) will deal with the same people most of the time when communicating with the Galpax because they're part of a network of people who include her, but that doesn't mean she's physically close to them, and if she "calls through the main switchboard" she could get a different person every time even if she did so every hour of every day.

It's like how on a social media network like Twitter, you might see the same people and the same memes and the same discourse and the same new stories all the time, and everybody you know seems to be seeing the same thing... but then you start talking to somebody new and realize that even though they're on Twitter, they don't get your references, and what, have they been living under a rock?

Right now worlds also have a number suffix, though I might change them to alphanumeric just to make it clear that they're not the same set of number designations people use. It's just that if at some point in the past a lot of people thought "Palm Springs" was a good name for a vacation destination, there might be 10,000 beach vacation planets called Palm Springs now, and you need to be able to be clear which one you mean.

When I say "beach vacation planets", I don't mean a planetary monoclimate… not Tatooine but with oceans. Another feature of the Big Galaxy is that while there are a million earths, there's exponentially more worlds that are mostly empty outside of space port cities that service as a hub for industrial installations, tourist spots, etc. It's a big galaxy! Full of planets. When the economy favors expansion, people go out and claim some of them. Any of those nearly empty habitable worlds may grow to be a fully inhabited world in time, but there's no rush.

All the numbers I'm using here are arbitrarily large, by the way. There's probably not literally a million worlds with rounds-up-to-ten-billion people on them. 

I haven't really explored much with the concept of sapient alien life in this galaxy yet, though I'm going with the assumption that "Goldilocks planets" (not too hot, not too cold, not too big, not too small, etc.) are rare, and most worlds with life are something like the oceans of Europa and most inhabited worlds are ones that weren't necessarily hospitable to anything but extremophiles before terraforming.

So there are, for instance, floating squid-like intelligences that dwell in certain "temperate" (for them) layers of gas giants and whom don't compete with humanity, and with whom communication is kind of murky because of a lack of common reference points.

I have a vague idea for an interstellar community outside the human Galpax that consists of species who are slightly bemused that humanity left their planet behind and immediately started recreating it, whereas the Spacefarers (as a placeholder name) made it to space and now they live in space and find the idea of moving into a planet a bit like taking a step backwards.

And even with humans having spread from one end of the galaxy to the others, there could be entire civilizations of aliens that have yet to be contacted or encountered in any way. It's a big galaxy!

But within the family of humanity, there has been genetic modification that in some cases approaches speciation, as a mixture of generally pursuing augmentation along different lines and the simple fact that it can be cheaper to modify humans to live in an environment than to completely overhaul the environment. So a space port cantina might look like something out of Star Wars or Star Trek, while still not holding anyone who doesn't have a human genome at their core. 

X-37 is a BMO, a biomimetic organism. Biomimetics in this context is a subset of genetics that involves trying to create lifeforms from scratch, reproducing an existing phenotype (lifeform) from a completely purpose-built genotype. Like, you look at a chicken and you say, "What are the characteristics of this that make it useful?" and you design an organism with genes that will cause it to grow into something recognizable as a chicken. A designer chicken, which can then be tweaked more easily for your purposes because its genetic code is considerably simpler than an actual chicken, which was assembled by accident over billions of years, with a detour through being a tyranosaurus.

Most BMOs incorporate some genetic material from the "target" creature, if not a literal organic sample then genes manufactured from the same plan, but the purpose of the X series experiment was to make something that would appear human and could function as human, starting entirely from scratch, not even using the same genetic encoding as terrestrial DNA in order to make it biologically incompatible for purposes of things like infection. It was an experiment done by a consortium of factions from different worlds with an eye towards various applications (military, industrial) that would benefit from having "non-human humans", and as X herself often says, it was a terrible experiment. People often mistake this as her criticizing it on moral grounds, but she means scientifically. Because basically every faction with any pull, upon learning of this blackbook operation, decided to try to steer it towards their own purpose or take advantage of all the shiny new tabula rasae to perform their own side experiments on evolution, cognitive development, psychology, etc.

I don't want to spoil every aspect of the backstory here, but effectively they created sapient, human-shaped beings who have several baseline physical and cognitive enhancements over humanity, and also the ability to consciously alter their own genetic code (a slow process, not like "grow fangs because someone has you in a headlock"), and were raised/educated as part of multiple conflicting psychological and sociological  experiments without any kind of ethical oversight, and also just plain have different brain structures inside their actual skulls.

Some of them wound up becoming, for lack of a better term, monsters, and escaped the laboratory.

X-37 was dubbed the most "successful" one of the series, in terms of her physical and mental abilities and her ability/willingness to interact with humanity, and so when the project was scrubbed and the prevailing opinion was that the remaining subjects should be "recycled", she was approached by the Galpax (who had swooped in when things went to hell, as the whole thing happened in interstellar space) with a deal where she would be freed and given all the legal rights of a human being in exchange for hunting down the escapees.

She refused the deal and offered a counterdeal where all sapient BMOs, including but not limited to the members of the X line, would be recognized as persons, which under the law was the basis for rights (the law refers to "persons" and "people", not humans), and she would hunt down both the escapees and any other ones who were then criminals in the eyes of the law, because they were criminals, not because they were escaped laboratory experiments.

This was not something her creators/handlers had counted on because they had been very careful to *not* replicate the parts of the brain recognized as responsible for empathy and altruism. As she explains it, it's still self-interest: as a special case, she has little protection from the powers-that-be turning on her, and no use once her escaped siblings have been brought down. Establishing legally that a "homosapient" BMO is a person the same as homo sapiens makes her one of a class of people guaranteed rights rather than conferring a special status on her, which is harder to revoke, and also creates an ongoing potential need for her abilities.

The points she raised about the future were probably the biggest things that swung the decision in her favor, as in a big galaxy, what one shady consortium did once would doubtlessly happen again and again and making it illegal to create faux-humans would be trickier to legislate and enforce compared to a memorandum clarifying the meaning of "person" that made the worst of such experiments illegal and many of the ones that remained unprofitable. 

This makes her a folk hero to BMOs and other artificial persons (her coup bolstered existing rights movement for androids and AIs, who had achieved piecemeal workings of rights before she effectively changed the standard from "human rights" to "personal rights") but also sometimes a feared figure because she's the designated Galpaxian angel of death when one of them is seen to step out of line..

But it's a big galaxy, so she's not exactly recognized by humans everywhere she goes. On a world the size of earth, the incident that resulted in redefining the concept of human rights so completely would have made the history textbooks, but there's too much history made every day in the galaxy for that to merit a footnote on most worlds. 

There are over a hundred other Xs living their lives in the galaxy, some of them quietly assimilated among humans and some of whom have basically founded their own species (they weren't supposed to be able to reproduce, but they were also given the ability to rewrite their own genetic code, so life, uh, finds a way). By many measures they are the most advanced genetically engineered organisms in the setting, allowing them to serve a sort of "gods and monsters" role. 

Not all of the escapees have been brought in or taken down at the "present time" in the story. The most violently destructive ones have, because they were easy to find, but some of them took a more subtle approach to things. The mastermind of the escape, X-73, is still at large, and he was known for having changed his face and appearance completely multiple times in a relatively short span during the experiment, so no one knows his current appearance.

The story sequence I'm working on now is not so much about the X series backstory or the hunt for X-73 or the politics of personhood, but more about X-37's life as a Space Hunter - while she's obligated to use her talents on behalf of the Galpax in the area of "parahuman" law enforcement (as opposed to transhuman, posthuman, or metahuman, all of which have defined meanings in this setting), there's not enough demand for that to fill her time and they don't actually pay her, but the same skills and traits she uses for that serve her well as a hunter, and the legal status is also useful for when she has to hunt a rogue parahuman.

So that's the gist of the setting and the main character. I've got one draft story posted and some others in progress. You can follow my Patreon (with or without becoming a patron) to get further ones, but I'll probably continue to link new content posts I make there here.

Thank you for reading!

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