Concept Art Writing Prompt: Machine of Death Edition

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We're doing something a bit different for this week's Concept Art Writing Prompt. In fact, it's less a concept art prompt than a concept writing prompt. We'll be playing Machine of Death, the game of creative assassination. David Malki! of Wondermark and Machine of Death has given us a target to kill and a handful of intriguing constraints, and it's up to you to figure out how the target dies.


Machine of Death takes place in a universe where a special Machine exists, one that tells you how you are going to die. The Machine takes a sample of your blood and spits out a card printed with your method of death. The Machine is always right, but it's often unclear; your card might read "GUNSHOT" or "CANCER," but it might also say "BANANA" or "JOY." Machine of Death started as an anthology, which you can download and read for free. A second anthology, This is How You Die will be released in July, 2013.

Soon, the Machine will invade the gaming world as well. Currently, the MOD creators are running a Kickstarter campaign to bring a Machine of Death card game to life. The campaign has been hugely popular, allowing the team to commission new cards illustrated by artists like Chester 5000 XYV's Jess Fink (link NSFW), Nedroid's Anthony Clark, Dresden Codak's Aaron Diaz, Dr. McNinja's Christopher Hastings, Dinosaur Comics' Ryan North, Broodhollow's Kris Straub, Octopus Pie's Meredith Gran, and many, many more. These bonus cards are available to anyone who grabs the game as a PDF starting from a $10 pledge or as a physical game starting from a $25 pledge. There are a handful of other Kickstarter exclusives, such as posters, t-shirts, and handmade deluxe wooden game boxes.

So here are the rules. You're a hitman in the universe of Machine of Death. You've been given a target, a method of death, and a few essential details about your mission. You have to figure out how to kill your target sooner rather than later. You can write up your method of assassination in the comments as a complete story, or just as an outline.

David Malki! was kind enough to play game master for us today. Our target is Leonard M. Fritz, who will die of TAMPERING. Malki gives us all the pertinent details about Leonard and his death below:

The Chief met me at the door. That's how I knew it was big. He held open the metal warehouse door, a little too early so it was awkward walking those last twenty yards, him glancing at me, me glancing at him, then both looking away even though we knew we were headed right for one another.

He stared past me, at the city beyond, so hard that I turned to look as well. A bit of morning haze still clung to the tops of the tall buildings — offices, mainly. People running around, doing whatever. Office stuff. Making copies? Having a meeting where everyone sternly considers a jagged line graph? I watch TV. I know these things.

As I drew near, the Chief turned and let me follow him into the dark of the warehouse. As soon as I stepped into the darkness, I realized why he'd come out — it was LOUD in there, hammers and pneumatic wrenches filling the echoey space with the sharp sounds of creation. The path to Chief's office took us right by one of the many works-in-progress: a rickety orange scaffold mounted on a series of skateboards. Barnes, Swanson, and Johan were having a hell of a time holding it steady while someone up top — could be Radar, but hard to tell through the welding mask — was attaching a cage made out of rebar. The kind of cage that divers use to go swimming with sharks, but in this case mounted on top of a skateboard-scaffold.

Another typical day. When would this job get interesting?

The Chief slammed his office door and the sounds muffled a bit. Wasted no time with niceties — two envelopes tossed into my hands. I almost dropped them. A little test.

The first envelope was standard, business-sized. Return address: the Department of Determination. Still sealed. I held it up to the light. "Do you know what it says?"

"I trust you. I wanted the feeling to be mutual."

I tore open the envelope and drew out a folded sheet of paper. Form letter. Dear so-and-so, enclosed as requested is a certified copy of your prediction, blah blah blah. I scanned the name and vital stats. Leonard M. Fritz, school bus driver, dog lover, hapkido expert, allergic to roses. Weird. The Department knew everything.

Well, almost. Leonard did something bad. The letter didn't say what, and I didn't need to know. Leonard was going to die. That was my job.

I unfolded the bottom half of the page. Stuck with a dab of rubber cement was the card. Crisp, white, still had that copper smell from the test — or at least I thought I could smell it.


I showed Chief the card and he raised his eyebrows imperceptibly. "Could be easier than some I can remember."

TAMPERING. Could mean any number of things. Food, medicine, brake lines. I tore open the second envelope. Three plastic cards — gift cards. For the black market.

One was to Crimson Wonderland. I hated that place — so kitschy and weird, with klezmer music coming from seemingly everywhere. But if you needed something red, they had it.

The second was to Danny's Every Vehicle Ever. Now THAT'S a place I could get lost in. Danny knew everything about every kind of vehicle. You get him talking about a Triumph motorcycle and the next thing you know he's pulling open crates and yanking off canvas covers and talking about speedboats and hang gliders and I think I even saw a jetpack in there once. Picking up something from Danny would take me the better part of a day — I'd better think that through in advance.

The third was to Bort's Sports. Bort was a weird dude who hated every kind of sports. But he dutifully and resentfully opened his shop every morning and would sell you anything you needed. It was a good location that had used to be a Greek restaurant.

And, of course, I had the crew. If I provided the plan and the raw materials, they were there to make it happen.

The Machine of Death gave Leonard TAMPERING. Which means it also gave me a puzzle to solve. If I couldn't come up with a way to kill him via TAMPERING, it wouldn't work. The Machine was funny that way.

"You can see why I called you in," said the Chief. He'd known the prediction all along.

No matter. I was the best of the best. As I headed back out to my car, I saw that the crew was busy bolting chainsaws to the shark cage. I wouldn't want to be around when that thing went off.

The sun was bright outside. The haze was burning off. I had three gift cards in my pocket and an open-ended challenge. People were living and dying every minute in this city. One more of the latter should be easy.

So your mission is to continue the story so that Leonard ends up dead. If you need a little inspiration or you're unclear on how the game works, watch this video of a round of gameplay. And if you have fun coming up with creative ways to kill Leonard, consider grabbing the game through the Kickstarter campaign.




Damn. I sat down and wrote a whole 'Machine of Death' story without reading the instructions to the end. So this doesn't meet the requirements, but for what it's worth, here it is.


"I'm sorry," said the Machinist when I entered the briefing room.

I stopped in my tracks. I've heard Machinists say a lot of things, but "Sorry" wasn't one of them. I looked him up and down. I thought I'd dealt with him before but I couldn't be certain. They all look alike.

"What do you mean?"

"You're going to think this is a mistake, but it's not. I ran the Machine the way I always do. This is what it spat out. So, like I said, I'm sorry."

He was holding the card between thumb and forefinger, waiting for me to take it. I was in no hurry.

"Bad one, huh?" I said.

"I'm afraid so."

"Let me guess, the target's a kid." He nodded.

A lot of guys in my line of work don't like to hit kids. Oddly, it doesn't bother me. The way I see it, they get their chance, same as anyone else. The Machine obeys its own logic. Some people get lucky, live to enjoy a fulfilling adulthood and a peaceful old age. Some get whacked at their seventh birthday party. That's just how it is. I'm really only the delivery boy. No point feeling bad about it.

I started to say something like that, but the Machinist cut me off.

"It's not her I'm sorry for," he said. "It's you."

That was one I hadn't heard before. How bad could it be? I reached out and took the card from his hand. There were just two words printed on it. My jaw dropped.

"Old age? Is this some kind of joke?"

"No joke. That's what the Machine said."

I took a deep breath. If the Machine said the target died of old age, the target died of old age and it was my job to see that she did. I glanced at the spec sheet.

"She's fourteen years old," I said. "How does a fourteen-year-old die of old age?"

The Machinist shrugged. "That's up to you to figure out."

I snapped my fingers.

"There's that disease. What's it called? You know, where people age super-fast."

"You're thinking of progeria. It's genetic. Manifests in infancy, so if she hasn't shown any sign of it now, you're probably out of luck. Of course, you could always try to induce it with some kind of gene therapy. But unless you've been hiding a PhD in genetics from us, you'll need some help with that."

Funny fucker. Despite his attempts to feign sympathy, I could see that he was finding this more amusing than I was. I hoped that when his card came up the prognosis was something slow and painful.

A novice at this point would have started to think about ways that old people die. Old people die of heart attacks, for example, so maybe a heart attack would do just as well. I'm an old hand and I know that the Machine won't stand for that. I've seen some pretty unpleasant disciplinary hearings involving hitmen who thought they could take shortcuts.

A time machine would take care of it. Take her back seventy years and leave her there. Job done. All I had to do was come up with a working time machine. Something told me that that wasn't going to be too easy either.

"Shit," I said at last. The Machinist nodded.

How does a fourteen-year-old die of age? It's very simple. She grows up to be an eighty-year-old. My job was to make sure that she did.

For her to get there, I'd have to watch over her every minute. I needed to be one step behind her every day for the rest of her life. I'd have to be there to pull her out of the path of the oncoming car, be there to kick in the door and save her from the burning building. Screen her lovers to weed out potential psychos. Enforce a healthy diet, keep her away from sick people, discourage her from taking up dangerous sports. Leave nothing to chance.

I couldn't do it alone either. A lifetime commitment is one thing, but this girl was twenty-four years younger than me. By the time I qualified for a pension, she'd be barely middle-aged. I'd need to train my kids to take over from me, so that they could escort her safely to the grave. I finally understood what the Machinist meant when he said this was a bad one.

I wondered how many of my hitman skills would transfer to my new career as a bodyguard.