I Am All Love Blaseball (And You Can Too)

a primer on blaseball, ahead of Season 4

I've seen a couple blaseball explainers floating around out there. No shade on any of them, but none of them are written by me, Cat Manning, and therefore they do not address the heart of what I feel makes this splort a truly great pastime. As a result, they don’t benefit from the sharp eye of Sam Kabo Ashwell, who helped me refine some of these thoughts into the form you see below. Because I am a narrative designer who's interested in emergent storytelling, this primer may delve into FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE. If you do not wish to receive FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE, I cannot help you. FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE is part of what makes blaseball a fascinating experience!

The simulated game of blaseball uses rules pretty similar to actual baseball rules. It helps to have a rough idea of how those work, but knowing all the rules isn't that important: you can figure it out as you go along, and in any case, you're not playing the game, you're watching the players. If you're familiar with the rules of baseball already, feel free to skip this section!

Take The L: An Overview of Baseball

The bare bones of the rules, for those who aren't familiar: a player on the defending team, the pitcher, throws a ball at a designated player on the batting team, who then tries to hit it. The remainder of the defending team field: they stand around trying to catch or retrieve the ball after it's hit. If the pitcher fucks up and throws the ball outside the zone it's supposed to be in, that's a ball; if the batter fucks up and is unable to hit a decent pitch, that's a strike. In baseball, three strikes means the batter is out, and the next batter comes up to the plate. A team's turn at bat ends when three outs have been recorded.

Once a player hits the ball, they try to score a run by running to first base, second base, third base, and home, in that order. If a player reaches a base before the ball is retrieved and thrown to that base, then the player is safe and can wait at that base while their teammates continue to bat. If the ball is thrown to a member of the fielding team guarding a base and that person catches it before the player reaches said base, then that player is out. Players can "steal" bases while another player is up at bat. The pitcher can attempt to throw to the base they're trying to steal, and tag them out. Stealing home is considered risky, since the pitcher is already throwing that direction.

A baseball game usually consists of 9 innings, which are split into a top and bottom. The away team always bats in the top of the inning, and the home team always bats in the bottom. If a game is tied at the bottom of the 9th, it goes to extra innings, in which the first team to score a run wins.

If you know about the Inferior Sport, you can start reading here again!

So how do you participate in the cultural event that is blaseball? First, there's a distinction between different types of participation. There's how you interact with the game itself, on the blaseball website, but then there's also how you interact with the social and fan experiences that have built up around the game, and which, crucially, feed back into the game itself. A lot of blaseball is intentionally cryptic, strange, and obscure, which is a big part of its aesthetic. Let me tell you about that aesthetic!

The Bleautiful Game: Betting on Blaseball

Interacting with the actual game is fairly simple: you'll log into the website and choose a team to root for. The teams are split into the Good and Evil leagues, which are then separated into Lawful and Chaotic divisions. Some teams are from recognizable real-world places and others... uh, less so. All of the team names are delightfully off, on a scale that varies from "just a bit weird" to "I have some questions"; there's a consistency to the weirdness overall in that it paints a pervasive picture of absurdity. Some favorites: Charleston Shoe Thieves, Yellowstone Magic, Hades Tigers, Chicago Firefighters (team chant: the inexplicably ominous "we are from Chicago"), Mexico City Wild Wings, Seattle Garages, Miami Dalé.

Disclaimer: I am a proud supporter of the Hades Tigers, Season 3 champions. Never look back! 

You'll then place your bets with in-game currency, which you cannot buy with real money, for every game on the website. Each blaseball season has 99 games, each of which takes one real-world hour. All of them happen simultaneously, so you can give up on the obvious early disappointments (especially if they're your favorite team, or you bet big) and focus on the real nail-biters. The odds of a team winning depend upon [REDACTED BY THE FORBIDDEN BOOK], aka "no one outside the devs actually knows". If you win, you can bet bigger and buy upgrades to your betting experience, or you can spend on Votes for the end of season election. More on that in a bit.

As you watch the matches on the website, you'll see procedurally generated players with truly excellent names (my kingdom to look at your generator curation process, seriously, get at me) take their turns pitching and at-bat. Players like Jessica Telephone, Kennedy Meh, and Rodriguez Internet possess statistics which affect their hitting, pitching, baserunning, defense, etc. The complex formulas that determine a player's star rating—which I stress are not necessary to understand or enjoy the game--rely on delightfully and evocatively named statistics, as pictured below.

Figure 1: Player star statistics compiled by @baronblissy on Twitter, for SIBR, the Society for Internet Blaseball Research. (Tag yourself; I’m "shakespearianism".)

These statistics probably influence the likelihood of getting a hit, a strike, etc. But watching a blaseball game is about surrendering to the game's randomness, or even having an invested relationship in it—as with real-world sports, you don't (and can't) know all of the underlying factors that go into a win or loss. As seasons pass, the in-game possibilities feel more and more precarious, mostly because of players' choices when it comes to end of season Decrees and Blessings.

The election comes at the end of every season, where players can cash in their earnings in an attempt to influence the metagame. One hundred coins gets you one vote; you can spend that vote on either Decrees or Blessings. The most popular Decree(s) go into effect for blaseball as a whole, while Blessings target particular teams. If you and your team's supporters spend a ton of votes on a Blessing, you're more likely to receive it than another team, but there are no guarantees. Ask the Baltimore Crabs. 

Blessings can impact individual players, like Gunblade Bat (a random hitter on your team will gain the Gunblade Bat, maxing out their hitting stats) or Exploratory Surgeries (re-rolls your team's worst 3 pitchers). They can also target an entire team, like Performance Enhancing Demons (Mggoka match ng strike fm'latghor. Fm'latgh. +8% Team Overall) or The Rack ([cartilage and bone snapping] +15% Team Defense). Even in contexts where a blessing doesn't take anything away from another team and is only a benefit, the framing is always ominous, suggestive of a world in which blaseball players are subject to body-horrorish transformations and invasive demon magics. 

Decrees, on the other hand, affect everything; they also tend to have cascading apocalyptic consequences. At the end of Season 1, the Forbidden Book was opened, and players could read the (heavily redacted) rules. After that point, rogue umpires began to appear during games and to incinerate players at random. This ushered in the beginning of the Discipline Era.

Season 2's Decrees were the Fourth Strike, which gave low-ranked teams an additional fourth strike at all of their at-bats, and Peanuts. Players could purchase Peanuts in the blaseball store; their presence led to a chaotic weather effect called Lots of Birds. A statistic called "peanut allergy" was also added; when an allergic player swallows a peanut, their hitting, pitching, and overall blaseballing suffers. Additionally, the introduction of Peanuts kicked off a cascading spiral of blasphemy and punishment.

During a Day 73 game between the Charleston Shoe Thieves and the Los Angeles Tacos which ran into extra innings, reality fractured: the 15th inning apparently repeated and a Bad Gateway event (on the website, but I’m sure in the blaseball universe as well) immediately followed. A siesta was declared, during which The Peanut appeared on the website with threatening messages. The results of Day 73's game were recorded twice; the Tacos had one extra loss and the Shoe Thieves one extra win, reflecting the spacetime distortion. Again, all of this is rendered in text, often fairly terse and cryptic text, so what it means—or what that even looks like—is left almost entirely to your interpretation.

Even more troubling was the interruption of the Season 3 playoffs (after the semi-finals) by The Peanut, which delivered a series of troubling messages that declared that we had committed two strikes, and were now being punished. After this, the site immediately went down for a short siesta, interweaving in-game canonical lore with potential server maintenance challenges.

SO ABOUT THE PEANUTS

THE BOOK WAS STRIKE ONE

THE FRAUD IS STRIKE TWO

YOU WILL LEARN DISCIPLINE

PEANUTS

GET YOUR PEANUTS

WHILE YOU STILL CAN

At the end of Season 3, the Interviews decree was passed. Immediately after, the following message appeared:

ERROR: The Grand Unslam Weakened The Bridge

Spacetime Tears over Los Angeles

The Infinite cit(ies) shine

Platonic Form Corrupted

You've looked too close…

Like before, we were not given any more information on what that looks like materially, so the event and even some of its ramifications is left to everyone's individual imagination and speculation. Materially, the Los Angeles Tacos became the Unlimited Tacos. But fictionally, the game makes no clear ruling (so far) about what consequences of the weakening of the bridge or the corruption of Platonic forms will have to Season 4, or on residents of Los Angeles. The effects players have on the reality of blaseball seem to be both accelerating and worsening as seasons progress, leading to a narrative apocalypticism that makes us want to see more of it. There's a parallel here with Cookie Clicker in terms of a wholesome activity that gets steadily more menacing as a result of player hubris, but that's something to explore at greater length in a later newsletter.

Let Me Into The Blaseball: The Social Culture of "Participating"

If you just watch blaseball on the website, though, you'd have probably missed most of the context around the apocalyptic events mentioned. At the very least, the players' blasphemy being the cause of the Los Angeles Tacos' transformation into the Unlimited Tacos would have been easy to overlook. Blaseball is best appreciated by interacting with fandom. You don't need to create independent works to influence or creatively participate in the cultural event of blaseball; there's a deliberate blurring of lines about active and passive agents here that's important to the experience.

There are a number of different places these activities occur. There's an official discord that hosts lively, fast-moving conversation that gives rise to a lot of the game's lore. That's often then recorded on a wiki that collates popular fan theories; the biggest unwritten rule is that you can only edit your own team's player pages. Players and teams maintain twitter accounts that retweet fanart and post in-character about the games. And of course, most frequently, people shout their feelings and theories at their mutual friends that follow blaseball. That's why I'm writing this newsletter: for my friends who want to shout along with their friends, and weave their own collaborative personal stories about their viewing experience. And I need to stress that you don't need to follow all—or any!—of these platforms: it's about dipping in and enjoying what you do, when you do, rather than trying to keep up with everything. So I’m going to talk about a few of the standout occurrences I’ve enjoyed the most, and how they’ve interwoven fandom and the actual blaseball game to create delightful experiences.

The Ballad of Jessica Telephone, Wielding the Dial Tone

Jessica Telephone has somehow become one of the most beloved names in blaseball. And I do mean most beloved names—she started as a randomly generated character, with no personality outside of her hidden stats and no pictorial image, on the Dallas Steaks. At the end of the season, she was Blessed and her stats immediately maxed out; the next Blessing let the Philly Pies steal her from Dallas immediately. She wields a bat called the Dial Tone, and I honestly cannot tell you where that comes from—as far as I know she didn't initially have the Gunblade Bat in the code, fans just came up with the idea and then the devs added it to the game in her batting text. I could be wrong about the origins—but part of the fun of blaseball is that this series of events is completely plausible. 

Remember Peanuts from above, and how peanut allergies, which would reduce a players' stats when they choked on flying peanuts during a game, were randomly assigned to players at the beginning of season 3? Jessica Telephone used to have a peanut allergy. But because dropping her stats as a random, semi-frequent throwaway game event would interfere with Jessica's emergent storyline of becoming incredibly buff and cool, somehow Jessica Telephone magically lost that peanut allergy. Which, for the record, I think is the right call for what are essentially live-service procgen MMO developers to have made. It's not fun to watch a beloved character lose power essentially at random (rather than from a narratively-satisfying reason, at least), and that's worth making an intervention for one beloved character only.

DO IT FOR VIOLENCE: A Story of Bloodlust

My favorite emergent storyline just happened in the Season 3 playoffs. As I mentioned earlier, rogue umpires have been incinerating players since Season 2, but it's really picked up in Season 3. Up until the playoffs, the Hades Tigers were the only team that hadn't yet had an incineration. During the finals, one of the Tigers' beloved players, Landry Violence, was incinerated. Tigers faithful watching in the official blaseball discords were incandescent with rage; immediately, shouts of "do it for violence" and "rest in violence" flooded the channels, as new batter Paula Turnip immediately took his place. The Hades Tigers went on to win the playoffs, motivated—so we believe—by the spirit of Landry Violence.

After our pyrrhic victory, fans turned to allocating votes for Decrees and Blessings. At the time, our worst pitcher was Yazmin Mason, who—prior to my arrival in the blaseball community—was identified by the fandom as a deer. Which makes a logical amount of sense! It must be very hard to pitch with hooves! So it was recommended in the discord that votes should be put towards Pseudo-Thumbs, to increase a pitcher's ability by 15% (mechanically, in-game) and to give her bone-augments that would allow her to grip the ball better (narratively, out-of-game). But we weren't blessed with Pseudo-Thumbs.

Instead, she received Bloodlust. Mechanically, this maxed out her pitching, which is better than a 15% increase. (It may have maxed out all her stats; I'm unsure about this, so let me know.) More importantly, the narrative parallels of this are deeply satisfying, even though—especially because—there's nothing in blaseball's code that made "Bloodlust" more likely to fire after a tragic emotional loss. It was obvious to Tigers fans that Yazmin's newly acquired skills were a direct result of her feelings on the loss of Landry Violence. Our digital howls of "DO IT FOR VIOLENCE" inspired her, and, unable to channel her rage and grief into anything but blaseball, she broke through to a new level of excellence. Is this mechanically reflected? No. Does it need to be? Hell no. Hades no.

Mike Townshend Is a Disappointment (But This Song Isn't)

I said earlier that you can participate in blaseball without actually creating a separate work. You can say "I think Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of Jessica Telephone's many girlfriends" and it's on her wiki entry; and Hades bless whoever figured out that Yaz was a deer. But a lot of people do create separate works, and while fanart is very common and also incredibly good, there have been a few surprising, incredible quality in-world musical performances. The first one I ever heard was "Mike Townshend is a disappointment", a song about Seattle's worst pitcher, by the grunge band The Garages (it's unclear to me whether or not this is also the blaseball team). They've since come out with a full 7-song EP called "the garages kill the gods" which, in my unprofessional opinion, slaps.

There's also the blaseball anthem, "Let Me Into The Blaseball", which has been recorded as the creator's own voice looped over itself for an appropriately uncanny experience. In particular, the song's line "every week is a year long" is both an accurate descriptor of a blaseball season and what it feels like to be alive in August 2020. There's something deeply appealing about the depth of ambiance in it; the blaseball organ, the clapping and stamping and whistling. I'm not suggesting that music is a different or better class of fan creations; just that they appeal to me in a deeply visceral way and feel like very satisfying augments of the blaseball experience.

The Wyatt Masoning

I can't conclude a section about emergent weirdness in blaseball and fan reactions to it without mentioning the, uh, time that every player on the Los Angeles Tacos turned into Wyatt Mason. At the end of Season 3, Los Angeles Tacos fans voted for and received Exploratory Surgeries, which should have rerolled the team's three worst pitchers. I'm pretty sure this happened. It just also had the side effect of renaming every single player on the Los Angeles Tacos "Wyatt Mason", which had previously been the name of one LA Tacos' (pretty bad) hitter. Outside of the pitcher*, all other stats of the Tacos players were unchanged. 

*(What happened was that Exploratory Surgeries targets the worst pitcher, rerolls them, then targets the new worst pitcher. In the Tacos’ case, the worst pitcher was rerolled, and was still the worst pitcher. He was then rerolled again, and became even worse. He was rerolled for a third time, and now sucks less.) [EDIT: Brian Grey points out that the actual story is even better. Wyatt Glover, the original Tacos pitcher, started at 1/2 star, was rerolled to 1/2 star, was rerolled again to 1/2 star, and on the third reroll landed at 0. So the pitcher in question does not, in fact, suck less now. The writer regrets the error, but also finds it hilarious.]

People went absolutely wild. I recall wondering if every player’s name becoming the same was a deliberate effect of the Tacos becoming fully anticapitalist (which was the blessing they had received just prior to Exploratory Surgeries). It somehow felt like the perfect culmination of the wildly absurd consequences to Decrees and Blessings, that a Blessing with no specified mechanical effect would in fact have a deeply weird and uncanny mechanical effect. The commissioner stated that "the league is looking into the situation in los angeles"; the results of that investigation simply informed us that "user error resulted in Feedback". All Wyatt Masons were then relocalized according to randomly generated frequencies. One Wyatt Mason was attuned to frequency NaN, and while the commissioner initially seemed alarmed, the localization status was declared "good enough", and that's why the Los Angeles Tacos—sorry, the Unlimited Tacos—have a player named "NaN" and a bunch of players whose names exist in proximity to Wyatt Mason's. I'm very interested to see what new Tacos chants come out of this one. 

Next season, I guess!