Minigame: "In 1973, President Nixon..."

I've invented a party game called "In 1973, President Nixon...". Feel free to nick it, adapt it, test it, and improve upon it. Letters of complaint should be sent to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd, Yorba Linda, CA 92886.


In every piece of conspiracy-based media, there's That Scene. Our viewpoint character is inducted into the into the Mysterious Secret Agency (MSA), introduced to the Senior Agency Manipulator (SAM) and given a badge, sunglasses, and an Arsenal of Surprising Malevolence (ASM).

The part where the real history of the world is revealed. Where D. B. Cooper went, who's behind triangular UFOs, why Southwyck House in Brixton is that shape, who killed the electric car (and why!), and all the other mysteries of life. You were helpless, powerless, befuddled, directionless. Now you have a higher purpose, knowledge of the true nature of reality, power without conventional restraints, and intriguing colleagues. Social-focused lizard-brain releases all the good chemicals.

Everything after That Scene is a bit of a letdown. For a few glorious moments, an entire universe of possibilities dangles in the air, before instantly collapsing into tropes, lazy writing, grappling rules, limited special effects budgets, price lists, and other soul-draining minutiae.

But what if there was a game that was only reveals?

Jacob Samuel, New Yorker

The Rules

This is a game in the same way that hoop-stick is a game, or "who can make the best bird noise" is a game.

You will need:

  • some players
  • a stack of notecards or scrap paper for each player
  • a pen for each player
  • a pair of sunglasses (optional)
  • a clip-on tie (optional)

Select a random player (or the person who suggested this foolish enterprise in the first place). That player is the first Agency Manifestation Supervisor (AMS). 

The AMS:

1. Stands up, facing the other players, in a somber posture.

1a. Dons the sunglasses (optional).

1b. Dons the clip-on tie (optional).

2. Clears their throat to signal silence, then says: "In 1973, President Nixon..."

3. Improvises one or two sentences about this Mysterious Secret Agency (MSA), as if they were addressing a crowd of new recruits. This must include a Mission Assessment Statement (MAS). 

E.g. "In 1973, President Nixon authorized the creation of a secret organization. Its mission: to protect the United States from the perfidious influence of Martian Skinwalkers."

4. The non-recruit players write a letter on a card, then hold the cards up. They can do this at any point during the initial speech. Ideally, the letters spell out a 3-letter acronym. This is the Mysterious Secret Agency (MSA)'s Purported Name. 

4a. This works really well if there are 4 players total, and less well if there are fewer or more players. With 3 players, you could go for the Ministry of [A] [B], and 4-letter acronyms can work.

5. The AMS must then explain the purported acronym, to the best of their ability. "We are the X...Q...J...: the Exotic Quest... Jentlemen..."

6. The AMS must begin to explain the agency's Arsenal of Surprising Malevolence (ASM). "To combat this threat, you will be issued with..."

7. The AMS then reaches out and selects a card at random from a player. The card has an object on it, both named and (ideally), drawn (comically badly).

7a. In a cluttered environment, and with a suitably disorganized group, the players can hand the AMS a physical object instead. It helps with gesticulation. Or fill a grocery bag with objects and have the AMS reach in and pick one. 

7b. To save time, players may wish to fill out a whole stack of cards (letter on one side, object on the other) before the game starts, but frantically filling out cards does look like studious note-taking, and gives players a chance to tailor their sabotage for the peculiar foibles of the current AMS.

 8. The AMS explains how this object aids the agency in their mission. "...a small concrete sculpture of a pelican. It is well known that Martian Skinwalkers cannot abide the sight of a pelican. Treasure it. Guard it well. In an emergency, the concrete pelican can be used as an anti-flotation device."

9. The AMS then asks "Any questions?", and selects one player. That player must ask a question, and the AMS must provide an answer. Since this is the end of the round, maintaining composure is less critical, but this is a great chance for the AMS to show off (or collapse in a fit of giggles when asked, "Sir, are the Martian Skinwalkers affiliated with International Communism?"). 

10. After answering at least 1 question, the AMS sits down to polite applause. They become a player, and the next player becomes the ASM, restarting the process.

Oh right!

Rule 0. If, at any point, the AMS breaks composure, they must immediately give up their tie and sunglasses and sit down. 

Rule 0a. If you play this game with properly trained actors, you may need to introduce chemicals / brain damage / extra challenges to get them to break composure. "In 1973, President Nixon..." isn't a drinking game, but it could easily become one.

Victory Conditions

Euro Rules: each successfully completed AMS round earns the player 1 Victory Point. First to, oh, I don't know, 3 Victory Points wins. 1 Victory Point can be exchanged for 3 Wood Tokens.

American Rules: each successfully completed AMS round gives the player 6 Battle Dice (tm). Battle Dice are proprietary d6s with the 6 replaced by a 8 and the 2 replaced with a 1.75, which are rolled at the end of the game. Highest total wins. 

Scandinavian Rules: at the end of the game, players rank all other players from most to least entertaining. The ballots are then tabulated by a third party and probably ignored, because let's face it, this game doesn't have a victory condition. It's barely even a game.

Optional Rules

I: While President Nixon can be blamed for all manner of secret organizations, it might be more fun to have each player introduce a new historical figure and date, plausible or implausible, local or international. "In 802, the Emperor Charlemagne...". Feel free to adjust the time period of the briefing as well.

I'd make a convenient d100 table of Important Figures and Plausible Dates, but no table could possibly work for all groups. Example. See what I mean? It's better if the AMS picks the figure and supplies (or guesses) at the date.

II: If all non-AMS players break composure while the AMS maintains composure, the AMS can declare, "There is one final test you must pass," and declare some trivial but immediately possible action, such as, "Drop and give me 20! Now now now!" or "You! Recite poetry! Now now now!". Players who fail are "dis-quahlifiahed!" and must leave the room (and immediately return).

Derek Jones

Final Notes

This game isn't really designed for pick-up play. While the 10 Stupid Yet Robust Games for Video Calls are tested and sensible, this game... isn't. It's designed (and I use the word "designed" with trepidation) for groups of relatively close-knit friends who can - and will - call out someone who crosses a line. Ideally, the results of "In 1973, President Nixon..." should fall closer to "speaking truth to power, but in a post-ironic way" or "grappling with existential dread" or "pure absurdity" than than whatever the group considers scathing political satire. Listing an actual existent and influential conspiracy theory is not a good plan. The boundary between "improv exercise" and "group therapy" is dangerously thin. The more outlandish the mission of the MSA, the better.

Oglaf (NSFW)

Unrelated Side Note: Paranormal Investigative Sprawl

Most settings with paranormal investigative characters (e.g. Delta Green, Esoteric Enterprises, the SCP wiki, Scooby Doo if every episode ended before the villain was unmasked) tend to fit in all the paranormal stuff.  Everyone is invited to the masquerade. If the setting posits that one group can secretly exist alongside the real world, then there's no reason more groups can't secretly exist. It seems like you can't just have Vampires. You must have Vampires, Werewolves, Ghosts, Angels, Devils, Ghouls, the Fair Folk, etc, etc. You can't just have the Deep Ones. You must have Shoggoths, the Great Race of Yith, etc, etc. While you're add it, add in the Jersey Devil, Sewer Crocodiles, and Yetis.

You can get away with Aliens alone if they're a particularly subtle and creepy, and the characters are part of some underfunded resistance movement, but there's a strong pressure to add more factions or form diversity in ongoing media. People sometimes get away with just Vampires or just Ghosts, but the desire to sprawl is always around the corner. There's more than one kind of Ghost. The Zombies have mutated.

It's possible that "maybe this exists" nessesarily raises the question "why doesn't this other thing exist?" If the evidence/folkloric history/thematic weight of both ideas is about the same, not including it can feel weird. People who believe in the Loch Ness Monster are unlikely to dismiss the existence of the Sasquatch. This is also the age of media soup. It seems natural for every property/franchise/concept to slowly bleed into every other property/franchise/concept.

On the other hand, paranormal investigations aren't simple whodunits. They're also, often, whatdoneits? In a police procedural, the answer is usually "a person". In an esoteric game, the "what" could be a shapeshifting spider, an escaped military drone, a time traveling monk, a set of sentient gumboots, Actual Dracula, or, sometimes, a person. Speculation is part of the fun. If there's only one supernatural element in a game, extraordinary elements quickly become ordinary or predictable.

Multiple layers of supernatural cruft also preserves a sense of mystery. There's always a deeper layer. What do the Chainsaw Blood Cultists know about the Sly Venusians? Why was this obscure text about Atlantis in the library of the Evil Vicar?

Anyway, I'm not sure what the best approach is. Should a supernatural investigation setting include everything the creator can think of (exposed as needed, or with a twist or two), or should the creator focus on a single element and elaborate one that theme?


OSR: Baboons, Goblins, and Bicameral Kobolds

 Baboons are special creatures.

On the one hand there's the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate social competition is all about, who's got the biggest canines, the most muscle, and the biggest balls. This view is straight-ahead and deterministic. Later, a much more p.c. version came along that held that competition is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice in your game theory. But what really happens is that you'll get some baboon that's absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey's logic should be doing just fine. He also knows how to use social intelligence to form coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner's reckoning he should also be doing fine. However, at a critical moment he just can't stop himself from doing something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited. Amid the physical prowess and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful, and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply have more impulsivity control.

Here’s an example: When baboons hunt together they'd love to get as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it. The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group. Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they're gaining on it, and they're deadly. But something goes on in one of their minds—I'm anthropomorphizing here—and he says to himself, "What am I doing here? I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago. I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me." The baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just became disinhibited. They get crazed around each other at every juncture. 

A typical male baboon is too impulsive and can't possibly do the disciplined thing. Baboons are far less disciplined than chimps and when you map their brain anatomy you notice that they don't have a whole lot of frontal cortical function. Even though there are tremendous individual differences among the baboons, they're still at this neurological disadvantage, compared to the apes, and thus they typically blow it at just the right time. They could be scheming these incredible coalitions, but at the last moment, one decides to slash his partner in the ass instead of the guy they're going after, just because he can get away with it for three seconds. The whole world is three seconds long—they're very pointillist in their emotions. 

Baboons know what they're doing; they can play chess in their social landscape almost as well as chimps in terms of moving the right pieces around, but at the critical moment they simply can't stop themselves from doing the impulsive thing. I once watched a Frans de Waal film, Chimpanzee Politics, at a primate conference, and I was sitting next to another baboonologist. There is a scene where some chimp had just pulled off a brilliant Machiavellian maneuver, and the guy next to me turned and said, "Christ, that is what a baboon would be like if it had a shred of discipline or gratification-postponement." You're watching a species where most of their social complexity and social misery is built around the fact that at every logical juncture there's a pretty good chance that they're not going to have enough frontal neurons to do the prudent thing, and instead they blow it. It's amazing to study.

-Robert Sapolsky, interview at Edge.org

Parents may recognize baboon-like behavior in their children.

First-person narratives can't easily handle this kind of impulsivity. "And then I decided to steer into oncoming traffic" doesn't really capture the process. The "I" doing the deciding (if deciding is even the correct word) and the "I" telling the story aren't on speaking terms. Allie Brosh comes close in some of her stories.

But RPGs can. Players, at a distance from the hidden inner world of of their characters, provide plenty of impulsivity. The Reaction Roll or Morale Roll can, if suitably adjudicated, remind the GM that not all creatures are rational actors. The goblins charge. The GM rolls, winces, and describes one goblin happily throwing a bomb backwards instead of forwards.

One goblin is a terrible threat, like a greasy racoon with a shiv. Two or more goblins are a disaster waiting to happen.

This may also explain the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu. The minions aren't fighting as competently in a group because they're also keeping an eye on all the other minions and trying to work out who, in this world of full-contact office politics, is likely to come out on top, and who is likely to shove them towards the lone minion-blending protagonist. 

Really interesting fights tend to have three or more sides. In the absence of any other options, one side suitably disinhibited monsters can easily become two sides.

Matias Cabezas Montoya

Kobolds and Dragons

Most humans have an inner narrator. There's a voice inside your head that is, probably, you, or at least the end result of some high-level process that loops your thoughts back through your head for a second look. Kobolds don't have that.

The voice inside a Kobold's head is their Dragon's voice.

In some cases, this is literally true. Some dragons are telepathic and will casually broadcast orders. But most of the time, a Kobold's thoughts are conceptualized as a running speech from a higher, more rational, and more powerful being. The voice saying, "Be careful, that looks sharp" or "We attack at dawn" isn't the Kobold's voice, it's the Dragon's. They live in constant, natural communion with the divine. This leads to all sorts of interesting neuroses.

Issues arise if an actual Dragon's commands start to conflict with the Dragon-in-the-mind. Kobolds can rationalize a lot, and their internal narrators will shift to match outside reality, but an un-Dragonic Dragon might not be a Dragon at all.

Kobolds with second thoughts (i.e. an inner narration that can argue with the Dragon) tend to become leaders, seers, or heretics.


Dwarves do not have inner narrators. They have no visual imagination. In the mines, it's very important to distinguish between real and imagined sights and sounds. Hallucinations get Dwarves killed. Asking a Dwarf to imagine an apple is like asking the average human to visualize an eight-dimensional hypercube. Dwarves rarely dream. When they do dream, the results are inspected for hints and prophecies, ignored, or medicated.

If a Dwarf does visualize something, they almost compulsively try to create it, as if to prove it wasn't a hallucination. 

Dwarves tend to process incoming telepathy as "speech-but-close-to-the-ear", and audibly respond (though in a whisper). Dwarven telepaths tend to move their lips a lot. The beard helps.


OSR: Book Entrances and Exits

It might be useful to consider a book as a physical space through which the reader's attention wanders.

Entrance: where the reader starts reading.

Exit: where the reader stops reading.

It's not the only tool for designing an RPG book, and it can easily be extended to ridiculousness, but it might be a useful approach when planning or laying out a book.

Non-RPG Texts

Fiction generally has one entrance and one exit. A reader starts the book at the beginning, reads linearly, and arrives at the end. Chapter markers (optional) serve as waypoints when reading is not continuous, but they are not navigational; no one opens a book for the first time, finds the table of contents, and skips to Chapter VI: Sleary’s Horsemanship without reading the preceding chapters.

Novel layout tries to make the continuous reading process as smooth as possible.

Books of Poetry
Most poetry compresses easily, but each poem needs space to breathe. Poetry is contemplative. Moving on to the next poem is not necessarily encouraged by layout choices. Poems are sometimes linked or grouped editors or by poets, but there's rarely a correct or incorrect reading order. Poetry layout gives space for the mind to linger.

Random page from Teen Vogue.

The layout of a magazine is designed to appeal to a casual browser. Reading a magazine linearly, cover to cover, in order, with each article linking into the next, is not common. Readers skip ahead, flip through, see what grabs their attention, and read that. Bits that don't appeal are ignored.

Callouts grab the reader's eye. A large quote, black bar, a bit of boxed text; they yank a browser from drifting-thought mode into reader-mode. Advertisements mix with content. Stories mix with other stories. Magazines are mostly designed to fill time.

Every page needs to be an entrance, but magazine design includes few exits. It's like a casino. Articles lead into other articles. Images grab the eye. Magazines aren't designed to be reread or referenced, so there's a basic table of contents, but no effort at landmarking or condensing content.


Textbooks / General Nonfiction
A typical nonfiction work in any field has several entrances and exits.

  • Linear (to gain a full understanding of the subject).
  • By chapter (to brush up, check a reference, learn about a specific topic, etc.)
  • By term.
  • Internal cross-references.

While a novel may or may not include a table of contents and descriptive chapter headings, a nonfiction work of any length must (to support by-chapter entrances), and should also include an index (to support by-term entrances). Academically dissected fiction can use nonfiction tools.

Nonfiction works often include illustrations, charts, or pictures, which can serve as landmarks but are not intentionally placed for that purpose. Some textbooks use colour coding or other visual clues as a navigational aids. 

Instructions are purely linear: one entrance at step 1 and one exit at the final result. They need to support very discontinuous reading (as the reader hops between the instructions and the object), but actively discourage nonlinear reading. Short instructions serve as their own index and table of contents.

Good instructions break a processes into discrete sub-processes (assembling one section of a chair first, measuring and mixing your dry ingredients, etc.) and mark out typical failure points. How many times have you read "taking care not to..." in a recipe? Little exclamation marks or boxes mark out difficult or easily confused points, or points where instructions branch into multiple paths.

Instructions are not a tutorial. They tell you what to do, but not why, and rarely explain the relevance of each step.

Manuals typically incorporate sets of instructions attached to an introduction and some appendices.

  • Linearly reading a manual might be a best practice, but nobody actually does it.
  • By section. (Installation, Part #s, Warranty Info).
  • By problem. (How do I replace this part? Why is it making this noise? Can I use this type of soap?)

How a manual addresses by-problem entrances is a key measure of its utility. Manuals, more than instructions, include warnings.


Novels are like a long hallway with a painted mural.

Collected poetry is like a circular gallery with statues in it. 

Magazines are like an open-air market. There might be lanes or clusters of stalls, but you can browse in any direction, and every stall is vying for your attention.

Textbooks / General Nonfiction are like a connected line of rooms, each one with a door to the outside world, or a museum, or an art gallery, or a shopping mall.

Instructions are like a line of rooms, or a long hallway with a series of linked pictures, each only making sense in the context of the previous image.

Manuals are a series of long galleries radiating from a lumpy central mass.

RPG Books

Relatively few nonfiction books have to handle the challenges RPG books typically cover. A cookbook can safely assume the reader will sart cooking one recipe and end with the same recipe. Instructions for repairing a car do not need to instruct the reader what a car is, how to drive, the purpose of a garage, or the history of the Interstate Highway System.  

For some multipurpose RPG books, the closest structural equivalent is a holy text, with all the associated baggage. 

Here are a few tentative examples of RPG entrances and exits.

Entrances for a typical player-facing class-based splatbook, like the 5th Edition PHB

  • Linear (but skimming) to see what options are available. Art and summary blurbs help a lot.
  • Class-specific entry, to reference during character creation or leveling up.
  • Ability-specific entry, to reference as needed or when there's a confusing rules situation.

Since most of the entrances focus on a specific class, it makes a lot of sense to clearly landmark each class with a heading and eye-catching art. If abilities are shared by two or more classes, but not by all of them, it makes sense to duplicate the information instead of having the reader flip to a different section. Readers dip in and dip out.

Entrances for a typical dungeon:

  • Linear, to get a sense of the dungeon or decide if it's worth running.
  • By room, during a session, as needed.
  • By NPC/faction name. Essentially, checking who these people are, why they're here, and what they want.
  • For a dungeon-specific tool, like a random encounter table.

For most dungeons, a good table of contents works much better than an index. Clear choices when it comes to room order, including intuitive/flowing numbering systems and breaking a dungeon into sections, help with navigation.

Entrances for a typical bestiary:

  • Linearly, to browse for ideas, or just for reading pleasure.
  • By creature name, as directed by a random encounter table or reference in an adventure.
  • By problem, but only if the reader already knows the bestiary contains tools/appendices to solve that particular problem.

Indexing takes a different form. Instead of presenting the same information as the table of contents (a list of creature names in the printed order), it might include.

  • An alphabetical list (if the printed order is not alphabetical).
  • By terrain type, then by name to the creature.
  • By creature level / HD / difficulty, then by name to the creature.

Since every bestiary entry needs to be its own entrance (in theory), repeated formats and visual landmarks help with navigation. Bestiaries designed to be read instead of referenced can employ layout tricks to hinder exits and encourage further reading. Entries flow into each other; hints in one entry are resolved in another, etc.

Entrances for a typical GM Guide:

  • Linearly, to fully understand the system (as written). Ideally, like a textbook, concepts explained in early chapters are built upon in later chapters.
  • By problem. How do I handle wilderness travel? How much does a chicken cost? What are the core assumptions of this system. What do I do? Heeeelp!

GM guides (whether presented separately or as part of a single book), tend to act as a catch-all for any problems the author anticipates a GM might encounter. Organizing and indexing them is a difficult challenge. It's useful to know every time daggers show up in Macbeth; it's less useful to know every time they show up in the GM Guide. The index entry for "dagger" should point to the rules for daggers and (unless it's actually useful) nowhere else.

As a manual includes warnings, a GM guide can include sections that focus on potential errors or misunderstandings, or differences between this system and what the author considers "conventional" play.

Setting books that focus on at-table utility tend to support or even encourage non-linear reading; setting books that are designed, intentionally or not, for the reader (or the shelf) tend to follow a novel-like linear flow. There's no right answer. Some books are designed to load concepts into a GM's head before a game. Some are designed to be referenced during a game. And some aren't designed at all, but created by publisher mandate or perceived customer demand.

Second image via McMansionHell

Whitespace and Design

There's a difference between minimalism and the acres of beige carpet surrounding the bed of an overscaled American McMansion. Whitespace is not nessesarily wasted space, but it's very easy for a RPG book to feel bloated or empty. The reader wanders through vast oddly shaped rooms with a few bits of information spread on unloved side tables or stuck in high cupboards.

The clunky shots and long pauses in The Rogue's Tavern [1936] aren't pillow shots or moments of stillness. They're just the result of working on a budget, in a hurry, in a relatively new medium, and not quite managing to hit competence. Robert F. Hill directed 16 films in 1936. Quantity over quality, I suppose.

Back on topic. Low information density (or too much whitespace) feels most egregious when it leads to:

  • Tool mediocrity (i.e. all the entries on this table are the same, just with different primary colours in the text).
  • Tool disconnect (i.e. the explanation/detail/term I want is on a different page or in a different section and there's no good reason for it).
  • Tool absence (i.e. I expected/wanted a tool to be here and instead there's a blank space).

It's very easy for information density to cross a line into impenetrability. Density does not nessesarily help with entrances and exits. It can trap, mislead, or bore a reader. Page after page of identical tables and two-column text is not ideal.

Side Note: tool absence is not an issue if the text, context, or format makes it clear that the tool will not be provided. It's only an issue when the reader expects to find something and doesn't.

Look at all this density.

Fear of excessive whitespace can also encourage an author/designer to insert filler: badly designed tools, repetitive or sluggish text, long meandering descriptions of things that don't matter to anyone and fail to help with the book's stated goals. The density of information has gone up, but the density of relevant information has dropped.

Finally, if the primary goal is to convey a tone or a theme, especially with a limited pagecount format like a 'zine, use every trick at your disposal. I still remember the "Number Appearing" text from "Broken System #000" even if it took me an hour to track down the author and the original format.

Final Notes

If you're searching for a design vocabulary, architecture might be a good place to start. Architects tend to write interesting articles and worry about unusual problems.