After the Fire
or, what happened after we beat a god
[Beneficence beyond measure falls upon these words through the glory of Sam Kabo Ashwell, whose editing is like unto spring rain upon a parched desert.]
We left off last time with the Release of the Hall Stars, a cathartic and unexpected respite in the unceasing horror of blaseball, but I told it that way to draw out a particular narrative; it wasn’t actually a respite in the blaseball timeline. It took place in the middle of Sunday’s election results, a time when a plethora of events manifest, resolving some questions and creating others. Blaseball's rhythms are cyclical: a long tension followed by an overwhelming Pandora's unboxing of New Developments. The Monitor had cronched down on the Peanut at the end of the boss battle, but had also mentioned that the Boss would be coming shortly, which was Probably Fine. Wyatt had said something over the Microphone’s twitter account about a deal that had been made. Plus, the Crabs had earned the third championship trophy needed for Ascension right before being one-shotted out of the final battle, and an umpire told us that said Ascension would take place on the Sunday. A battle won, but a great deal unresolved. So we waited.
And we weren’t disappointed. The reveal of election results on the website often came with a brief prologue, which often feels like a narrator addressing the audience at the beginning or end of a Shakespeare play, focusing players’ attention on what they’ve done and what they’re supposed to do. Up until now they’ve been delivered either by the Monitor or Peanut. This isn't surprising: blaseball is a story narrated by its antagonist. Note that the pitch on the site's opening page, which promises that players "never grow sick" and "never tire", is signed by the blaseball gods, who have been well-established as unreliable and monstrous.
One of blaseball's persistent themes is that of the Unfair Deal, which has stretched all the way from Season 1, with the opening of the Forbidden Book. You can learn forbidden knowledge, but also unleash incineration. You can bring Jaylen Hotdogfingers back from the dead, but let loose a deadly rampage on the entire league. So when the Monitor offered to help us defeat our loathsome adversary for, quite literally, peanuts upfront, there had to be a catch. Blaseball is a dark mirror; while it's not a straightforward analogy for any one particular thing, it's in conversation with some of the material conditions we live under, and the near-impossibility of escape from a broken system is one that comes up again and again. Every deal, every possible shred of hope, comes with a cost. And most of the time, we don't get to choose, or even know what the cost is before we pay it.
So we were going to need a lot of help, some of which would involve The Microphone's plans and what looked like behind the scenes maneuvering. Wyatt Mason—spirit of a former Tacos player, it's complicated—had let us know, starting in Season 8, that they had a plan. At the beginning of Season 10, someone—presumably Wyatt—spoke through the Microphone:
TELL ITS BOSS
she can have the shares
After that, Jaylen's previously Consolidated Debt—which had been growing milder with each season—was finally erased. This is about the usual oracular non-explanation we get from the Microphone, but what I took from that is that a deal was made with a more-powerful figure over Jaylen's curse and the strength to win the battle against the Peanut. As the final boss fight with the Hall Stars against the Shelled One's Pods commenced, the Microphone tweeted the following:
This was clearly not going to be a good deal, or a fair one; Wyatt seemed to express apprehension, as much as they could via an oracular interdimensional amplifier. After the Peanut's defeat, the Monitor mentioned, in its usual laconic manner, that the "Boss is on her way"; and indeed, she showed up during the Season 10 elections to brightly inform us of the particulars of this deal. Whatever the cost of victory, we were not denied our triumphs. We won when losing would have had terrible repercussions. And the Hall Stars players were Released, which was unprecedented in blaseball; I've written about the power of that moment before. But if we thought we got to win and walk away, well, this is still blaseball.
The Monitor called her the “boss”, though many players now refer to her as The Coin. She’s represented by a Roman-era coin with "Aequitas Aug" printed on it, Latin for (very roughly) "the fairness of the emperor"; this is where we get the modern word "equity" from. Here's a good thread by Arkady Martine on some of the signifiers of this particular sigil.
The coin speaks in cloyingly sympathetic technocratic “we hear you” language, focus tested to hit just the right cadence, which often gets it wrong in a "how do you do, fellow kids" way: New Management wanting to assure everyone that they're One of Us. It is entirely depersonalized, which is best represented when she began her "speech". "Congratulations [champion]" feels extraordinarily on brand.
The thing I love so much about the Coin, beyond the cheerful potential-amorality and the precise symbology of the aequitas coin, is that she promised everything players have been saying they want.
“Blaseball is a mess,” she began, echoing the countless complaints about mechanics, voting, weather, and a thousand other concerns about balance that blaseball has implicitly signaled it’s not interested in taking up. Blaseball is a mess! That’s why I love it. Where else can you get an event like "all bases are loaded with Summers Pony"? This is a broken game, and a game about broken things.
But the coin is here to fix all that frustration now!
One of my favorite devices in tabletop gaming, when a player misses a roll and the GM can make a hard move, is: the player gets exactly what they want. On the surface, that doesn’t look too bad. But there are always far-reaching consequences to what the player is asking for, and ways to twist those requests. For example: that time the Wild Wings complained that as a Wild team they shouldn't be in a Mild league. Fine! Easily fixed! They're the Mild Wings now. So when I see the new boss of the league agree that blaseball is a mess, my first thought is something between an anticipatory flinch and "Matthew Mcconaughey smoking dot gif". There's a world where players get everything they ask for, and beg to go back.
The rest of her speech was cheerily sinister in the girlboss capitalism sort of way, but with some instructively ominous hints: Investment will come to blaseball, and "Fair Play"—as defined by the Boss and those she speaks for, of course—will be the game's future. There's a lot that's tangled up here with Jaylen's Debt and shares and the Boss's takeover that might have your head spinning if you're new to blaseball, or a casual follower via my recaps, or if it's been three months in a year where time has no meaning. Blaseball's mysteries aren't intended to be Perfectly Legible—the game is about chaos and confusion and mystery and not knowing why a thing happened, even for the developers. My role is to remind you of that, and to point out where that confusion is intentional, or a product of the game's narrative systems. (Again, there's a lot of overlap between the two.) You don't have to Know All The Lore to be into blaseball, especially in a game which cultivates chaos and multiple reasons for the terrible thing that's just happened, and I think it's counterproductive to try. The best stories in blaseball aren't the ones that you've read all the lore about, they're the ones you latch on to. I'm just offering these recollections in case they help you find more interesting stories of your own in Era 2.
Season 11 was fairly low-key compared to previous seasons’ high drama; a lot of stuff happened, but no deaths, no roster changes, no major elaborate Plans. The Discipline Era was over, and we knew the Siesta was coming. The Hellmouth Sunbeams snagged 3 blessings, and even though they shared Fourth Strike with the Shoe Thieves, and Divisional Walk in the Park with the rest of the Wild Low, these combined with their permanent Base Instincts blessing to make them hilariously, incredibly overpowered. Walk in the Park made them walk on one fewer ball; Fourth Strike gave them more chances to earn those balls; and when they did walk, Base Instincts meant they went further. Incremental bonuses that work in synergy: a perfect storm. The Sunbeams are a chill-chaotic team whose original desert abode was swallowed by the Hellmouth in season 1, and so it’s hard not to root for their success. The real wrinkle in Hellmouth Dominance was the new weather type.
As you may recall, in the final game of Season 10's Internet League Series, Baltimore Crabs player Tot Fox hit the Crabs' tenth run, which immediately caused the sun to collapse. Immediately after Tot Fox's hit, the screen briefly flashed "THE CRABS ACCUMULATE 10 THE SUN COLLAPSES THE MOON IS SWALLOWED THE BLACK HOLE FORMS SUN 2 RISES The Crabs collect 10! The Black Hole swallows the Runs and a Shoe Thieves Win."
That string of unpunctuated frenetic capitals is about what it felt like to watch it happen, too. It was deemed a retrocausal event—Black Hole was one of the blessings we were voting on, so the fact that the effect emerged before the decree passed? That's just existence on the Immaterial Plane. (As I mentioned before, we suspected that this was the result of a decree that Joel had implemented early, possibly to try to salvage some of his weekend. For those of you just joining in Era 2, the Discipline Era was scrappy and everything was always on fire.)
The originating event's summary was provided in Season 10 election results, in case anyone had missed it during the chaos:
RETROCAUSAL EVENT RECORDED
WARNING: SUN 1 LOW FUEL
PRESSURE AT CRITICAL
SUN 2 WAIVERS
The season had only two weather types—Black Hole and Sun 2—as a contrast to the plethora we'd previously come to expect. This meant that all player modifications—including the absolute glut of weather-related individual blessings from the start of Season 10—were irrelevant in Season 11. It's a good reminder that "everything can change, every week". That unpredictability is one of blaseball's core tenets: once you start getting too comfortable, you should start worrying. (Please note my previously articulated satisfaction at the Hades Tigers possessing the inability to be Incinerated or Blooddrained, which as we have all learned the hard way, is not the same as being "safe". Noting this will almost certainly come back to haunt me in Era 2.)
This caused...an absolute epistemological destabilization of every blaseball referent we'd previously considered stable. A team could rack up more than one win per game. "Wins per win" was immediately coined by SIBR; I took great delight in pointing out the ways in which our previous ontological constructions were messed up like raccoons got in there.
It felt, at least to me, like laughing at the absurdity of reality—we'd come this far, done necromancy and killed a god and witnessed a tiny act of grace. At that point, why should wins and losses mean what we'd presumed them to, necessarily? Why should we assume how many we get per given event? When you break cosmic laws and get away with it, the resulting cosmos probably won't reliably function as expected. And there was joy in the chaotic freedom of it.
Both Black Hole and Sun 2 weather were very simple (in theory. lol). A lot of the joy of blaseball is about the ludicrous consequences of apparently simple rules changes. In both weather types, an event would occur once one team scored 10 points, that team's score would reset to zero, and the game would continue. During Black Hole weather, if a team scored 10, one of their opponent's wins would be deducted. In Sun 2, if a team scored 10, they would receive an extra win. More precisely: the Black Hole would "swallow a Win" and Sun 2 would "set a Win upon". It's a very The Game Band approach to building world and mood: evocative gesture, weird and concise.
This made games deeply weird: a team that had been trailing could suddenly come back and win, without the inconvenience of having to score more runs. Home teams could Shame themselves by playing too well. If this happened in Black Hole weather, the previously-trailing team would emerge as victors but with no difference to their win-loss record; in Sun 2 weather, it meant that both teams would essentially win. I will admit it did make betting an absolute nightmare: strong teams against weak teams had the possibility of being so dominant as to "loop" (the quickly established term for scoring 10 and resetting to zero) and thus "losing" the main game. I didn't mind, even though I ended up with far fewer coins than any other season, but I can see how it would have been difficult for new players to get established, either financially or in terms of understanding what the hell was going on. As for the former—this is a gambling game about the ways that capitalism isn't fair. It might not be the most satisfying game design to get screwed over by arbitrary mechanics that make you lose your stake, but it is very apropos.
Black Hole weather was divisive among blaseball fans, but this is my newsletter, and I liked it. More precisely, I liked the fact that blaseball just went into full-on derangement. There's a moment of baffled horror/awe in every season of "wait, what the fuck IS this mess", which tends to come after we've seen the initial consequences of our meddling and they've had a bit of time to build into full careening chaos. The fact that "wins per win" is A Thing, if not a particularly easy to define Thing, is what makes blaseball unique. You don't exactly need to know that wins per win means "the number of wins a team received in a game that they also won by final score" to look at a game log with a litany of "Sun 2 set a win upon" and go "oh what the fuck".
But what I'm much more interested in is asking what it did for the game's mood and feeling and narrative, rather than "is it good" or even "would I have done this differently". And what happened is that the league, and the playoffs, were thrown into chaos. We had to figure out who was in the qualifying race when win-loss ratios were drifting further and further from normality; this is how we discovered that league rankings only take wins into account, not win-loss ratio. The Sunbeams pulled ahead pretty early, but we were watching the Wild division right up until Day 99, as the Firefighters, Tacos, and Spies were all within several wins of each other, and the Firefighters and Tacos played each other for the last series of the regular season, while the Spies faced off against the Lift, who were underpowered and likely to yield wins. The entire playoff structure could be overthrown by the potential of a game throwing out 0 wins, or 2 wins, or more wins, or swallowing a win. It was genuinely fascinating and nail-biting, because there was really no way to know who was "pulling ahead", because their next game might be in black hole weather and they could easily lose that lead to a team who Sun 2 smiled upon.
A single game on Day 98 resulted in one Tacos win and two Firefighter wins. Normal sport.
The Black Hole/Sun 2 chaos became even more pronounced during the playoffs, in which the possibility that we would see playoff ties if two teams reached 3 wins simultaneously during Sun 2 weather loomed. Fortunately, the Forbidden Book conveniently had a clause pertaining to just such a situation.
On the surface, this seems fairly straightforward, or as straightforward as it gets in a series where each game can result in a number of wins that can range from 0 to 2 or even more. What this meant in practice was an endless series, especially in Black Hole weather, when precious wins would be removed from teams, resetting the hunt for 3 wins. Remember, the playoffs were the strongest teams in blaseball—these were teams that were likely to lap 10 and reset their score anyway. As I've mentioned, the Sunbeams were unstoppable this season, and I would say the only time they got a run for their money was during the Tigers series. (I would also point out that as a Tigers fan, I might be expected to believe this.) In Game 2 of the Wild League Championship, the Tigers and Sunbeams both tied at 8, went to extra innings, and then in the 14th, the Tigers got a solo home run, the Sunbeams got a solo home run, and then Nagomi Nava hit a home run to collect a Sun 2 win and shame her own team. "The next team to score a run loses?" That is perfect, Chaotic, Sun 2 blaseball.
Interestingly, interminable series happened more when one team was clearly stronger. After the Sunbeams beat the Tigers in 6 games for a best of 3 series, they advanced to the playoffs to face the Seattle Garages. The Garages hadn't made it to the finals since Season 6, but were a pretty decent team, especially after swapping lovable but inconsistent pitcher Mike Townsend for secret weapon Shadows-maxed Goodwin Morin. But they weren't really a match for the Sunbeams. The Garages couldn't score enough to win, but couldn't defend well enough to stop the Beams from looping, so the Garages would lose but the score would stay even. But the Beams weren't so much better than the Garages that they could beat the Garages by 10+ runs and win on the loop. Purely on actual runs made, the Garages lost every game of the series, and only one of them was even close. But when you play under Black Hole, you have to either beat your opponent narrowly, or else absolutely crush them—and mostly it was somewhere in between. In order to break the cycle and reach the inevitable result, the Beams had to either play much better, or just a little bit worse.
In a real sport, this would be easy to tactically exploit; but blaseball players can't choose to do a bad job, even if it would be advantageous to do so. This is yet another one of blaseball's systems speaking narratively: blaseball players cannot choose but play, and we have only seen one canonical instance of a player deliberately playing worse: Jaylen's Saboteur modifier during the Hall Stars' fight with the Monitor. The fact that this is only possible under such extraordinary circumstances has implications about the world of blaseball. But most players don't have this option available to them, and so we watched. A kind of wild-eyed angst set in among spectators—how many games were we going to watch before it ended? I actually found this strangely freeing—I wasn't attempting to guess when I should be back at my computer if I wanted to catch the end, because there was absolutely no way to predict the outcome. The takeaway here felt like "chaos is exhausting even when not accompanied by immediate threat".
The Crabs' Ascension was another bookend to the Discipline Era's epilogue. The possibility of Ascension had loomed over the whole game from the beginning, and the Pies' and Tigers' wins in the first few seasons made it seem like it might happen imminently. But it didn't shake out that way, and the Crabs were the first team to undergo this mysterious event. As play resumed in Season 11, the Crabs were nowhere to be found. Well before this, we had asked the Commissioner on twitter what Ascension actually meant, to which he responded "uh they go up or climb", and added the dictionary definition that google returns on a search.
Which made us think that he, like us, had no idea. And given how much he often seemed not to know—he had just claimed not to have read the rulebook—seemed plausible.The Crabs were in the Big Leagues now, which were clearly somewhere, because the Telescope on the website kept updating their scores against an unknown opponent with loss after loss. It took a little bit, but finally, someone uncovered it: the Crabs were on blaseball2.
Numbers go up, indeed.
Blaseball is either intractably arcane or misleadingly overliteral, and sometimes at the same time. I love it.
Speaking of the intersection between arcane and literal, Season 11's Elections were a bit...different. Where previous elections offered disorderly grab-bags of weird and strange ideas, these options were much more consistent—but also deeply opaque. We were offered a number of potential verbs, with no other context, for what we could do to the Forbidden Book (opened at the end of Season 1, and the source of many troubles): Bury, Burn, Close, Deface, Eat, Freeze, Shred, Sink, Trash. Most were verbs of destruction, and the spare language suggested that these were actions we would collectively perform upon the Book as a way of concluding this arc of blaseball. This also served to immediately contradict the Boss' cheery promises: she wanted the Book gone, it seemed, and it looked as though we were being made to sign off on that through purely aesthetic choices about its fate. The Book is a malign force in blaseball, but it's also the only place where we get to see the rules; new management often works to eliminate established rights. Ultimately, this threat proved misleading because of a Phrasing Loophole, the sort blaseball loves: subject and object were deliberately obscured. We thought the book was going to get eaten: turns out it was the one doing the eating. This thing that we thought would be a literal book-end was, in fact, writing—or at least unveiling the writing in—the next chapter. What those mandates will mean, going forwards—well, we have Stadiums and Concessions and Wills coming, and vague hints about their meaning, but those are mysteries for future seasons.
Season 11's blessings were even more arcane, since they involved the actual arcana. As a result of the Boss' pronouncements about Fair Play, Total Fairness had been visited upon teams on the Sunday, which said "each team will win only one Blessing, and will be Happy with what they get".
And on the Monday, 20 blessings were rolled out: one for each team, minus the Fool and the World. As a tarot reader, my sense is that both were left out because they're the bookends of the cycle: as spectators, we are all collectively the Fool at the beginning of the journey, and the World at the completion of it, ready for the cycle to start anew. But that's what's compelling about the intersection of tarot and procedural narrative, which I've written about before in Procedural Storytelling and Game Design. Tarot possesses multiple layers of interlocking meaning: its visual symbolism, its numbering and naming, the position of cards (with respect to other cards) in both the deck and the spread, and in other ways. Readers and querents are able to project their own meanings onto the cards, extrapolating suggestive symbolism into meaningful narratives they craft together. The difference here is that in blaseball, there are likely to be very concrete answers to things like "what does the Death card mean". And—unlike earlier blessings—those are all hidden now.
Season 11 worked for me because it aimed to do two distinct things: to provide a bookend to all the chaos of the Discipline Era, and wind down that intensity, while also foreshadowing what might be important after the Siesta. This new upcoming Era is going to be different. In what ways, I don't yet know. My approach to this newsletter is also going to change: I don't expect to do summaries of what happened in a season every week. It's my hope that some of the changes The Game Band has forecasted make the need for a weekly unpacking less immediately necessary, and I can talk more expansively about the game's mechanics. Those are really what drew me to write this after all: to help explain all of this weirdness that I love, and why it matters. Thanks for reading. I hope to see you in Era 2. Together, we write the Future.