Well we’ve seen some pretty amazing democratic results in the past few days. The consensus seems to be that democracy is a great thing so I’d like to take a hard look at that in the face of a result that doesn’t seem so great.
First let’s understand that the purpose of democracy is not to ensure the best possible results. No one who implemented the process thought it was going to solve all problems and generate optimal choices for their organization. What they needed was a way to secure legitimacy — to be able to act with the support and investment of the affected populations. Corporations, for example, are very rarely democratic. Sure the board may vote but they aren’t representing the company’s population — the labour pool — but rather shareholders or other external interests. Corporations don’t need to be democratic because they have a totally different mechanism for generating legitimacy: the labour contract. They pay you, you do what they say, or you find another employer. It’s actually a pretty good mechanism in its intended context and is arguably better at decision making than a democracy. Also almost equally not in the case of publicly held companies since it admits to only one genuine objective: constant growth. All other “mission statements” are myths the company tells itself to seem like part of a more complex, more nuanced environment. But nonetheless, the system has almost perfect legitimacy — you can’t argue that the company has no right to tell you to do your job (as agreed in that contract).
So where does legitimacy come from when we’re talking about governments?
There was a time when that answer was pretty simple: divine right. Given an all-powerful deity or deities, if the population believed that a particular individual was divinely selected to fulfill the role of leader then, well, that was that. Perfect legitimacy. This became muddy fast. Questions about the nature of the deity, the existence of the divine, and of course whether or not the leader was actually divinely decreed all undermine the method. It’s fine while the population is too poor to care (cf. Maslow) or insufficiently educated to ask the right questions, but as soon as any significant element of the population (and your worst fear here is probably the priesthood itself) is sophisticated enough to question the roots of that premise — divine right — legitimacy is hard to hold on to.
And so enter democracy in all its forms. Whether or not the method creates good decisions, it unquestionably has legitimacy. Witness the Brexit vote: everyone is wondering whether that result was a good idea but no one is wondering whether it was legitimately arrived at. Legitimacy is unexamined. Democracy is so powerful a legitimizer that we don’t even think to ask whether the vote of all citizens should be a legitimate way to make decisions. And that’s risky. That’s a question that should be front and centre: should a government care what the majority of its citizens want today? Are they equipped to answer the question at hand? We know they will reliably tell you what they want (well, the buyer’s remorse evident after the Brexit vote might suggest even that is not necessarily true) but is the population at large equipped to tell you what they need?
They are, I think, but the question has to be framed very carefully. “Should we leave the European Union?”, for example, is a hopelessly complex question buried in some very simple text. It doesn’t imply anything about what it would actually mean to leave the EU. It doesn’t give us any information about what will replace the things that are lost. It doesn’t really give use any information at all, since it turns out it’s possible to not be in the EU and yet have a very similar treaty in place — being out of the EU can mean having all the privileges and obligations of a member except a vote. It seems unlikely that Leave voters were hoping for that result. This leaves the population to do its own research, which it won’t.
Sure we can say they should. But they won’t. We can’t wish the population would behave a certain way but rather we have to design systems that accommodate how they will behave. This is User Interface Design 101 — when users use your thing wrong, the correct response is never “they should read the manual”. They won’t. You have to cope with that, not wish you had a different (and probably fictional) population.
And so the many forms of representative democracy exist. They solve (partially, imperfectly) that problem by putting supposed experts in the role of handling the details. This works pretty well. Sure we have trends where our representatives deliberately ignore their obligation and vote with their hearts instead of doing the research, but at least when that happens we have individuals we can take to task for it. That’s their job and when they fail we can do something about it. If we want to. Failing to research a topic before voting is, for them, a violation of the public trust. I have strong feelings about how that should be handled. It should certainly be handled with vastly more force than we apply today since, let me repeat, that is their job. When they fail at this minimal description of their obligation, their vote is the same as a public vote except that they get to vote for thousands or millions of people on their behalf. Without consulting them.
So we have through trial and error found a way to make legitimate decisions on behalf of a population. Not great decisions, but at least legitimate ones. And we have a further refinement that allows us to ensure that the direct voters have an obligation to consider the question seriously and in all its complexity. They research. They debate. They consider. Things we have no time to do in any detail. And for most of us, no interest.
So the Brexit vote, by going to a deeply flawed method of decision making, couching a horrendously complicated question with a million sub-questions as a single simple question that the public is free to read any number of ways, was a totally legitimate decision based on zero information. That is about the most irresponsible thing I can imagine a government doing in good faith: guarantee legitimacy to an uninformed decision.
Developing Elysium Flare has been really exciting because it’s the first time I’ve collaborated with a graphic artist. I’m working with Juan Ochoa, a Colombian artist with a wide range of skills and he’s helped me out starting with some conceptual work and then moving on to more directed interior illustration. His work is so exciting that I’m thinking I might have to print in colour.
I know that’s not in colour but if I show you all the colour stuff it will blow your mind. I’m saving that for the book. Instead that’s a conceptual drawing based on my own art direction sketch:
And this is the part that really has me enjoying this project so far: Juan and I are feeding ideas back and forth: his visual ideas are entering the text and the text is driving my own art which is shaping Juan’s art. There’s a nice feedback loop happening here. And like all positive feedback loops, it’s very dangerous. In this case it’s dangerous to my pocketbook: I want to buy everything Juan ever draws for starters.
I also need to buy art supplies because I am really having a great time adding my own work. Now, I like consistency in a book, so I will be using Juan’s art for all the aliens. That leaves some work for me, though, and it’s the kind of thing I love to do (and I like to think I’m good at): technology. So I bought a couple of Rapidographs (I am already thinking about buying at least one more — I haven’t used technical pens in ages but they were my first art-love) and started working up some sketches of spacecraft:
It’s been ages since I’ve done this and it’s really exciting. Makes me feel like a kid again, reading Vaugh Bodé at a friend’s kitchen table and sketching cross-sectional submarines and space ships and weapons. And that made me realize that I owe a debt to someone other than Juan or Bodé, someone I haven’t thought about in a long time. Someone I looked up to and much later looked down on unfairly, and now remember with nostalgia and regret.
I don’t know where Richard Lang is now, but I don’t expect it’s anywhere good. He was not a happy young man but he played D&D with us when we were just kids, and I played war with him all over the block since he had all the best stuff for that, and most importantly he could draw. And he and I would draw and I would wish I was him. Well I know more about his life now and I don’t wish that any more but I do know what I debt I owe him.
Richard, I’m sorry for everything. You made many things possible for me that I might not have discovered on my own. I miss you.
I’m working on a new project. It started as a bit of a lark, a dare even — I was thinking about the kinds of games I didn’t feel strongly about writing, or more correctly the kinds of settings I wasn’t keen on. And I though, well, it would be something of a challenge to write something really effective on a topic I wasn’t very enthusiastic about. Maybe it’s a test of professionalism (can I write to spec) or maybe it’s just me admitting to myself that actually I kind of do love some genres that I don’t want to love.
So I dredged around for something that I thought hadn’t been done well and was also something I wasn’t keen on and I decided that the world needs a strong space opera game. Something that you could run a Star Wars story in without feeling like you were strapped to the Lucas canon. And so I started writing Elysium Flare, a completely novel space fantasy setting for Fate Core. Right now there’s around 20k words done and it looks like that will at least double before we’re through.
Helping me in the creative process is the brilliant Colombian artist, Juan Ochoa, who has been doing conceptual sketches of aliens and space craft and generally firing my imagination. The end product will feature plenty of his work and if I’m really ambitious, it will be available in full colour.
Now of course I can’t leave a game alone. I can’t just write a game that has aliens and call it space opera. I need it to do something special, something novel, something derived from but outside of the setting. Okay, I admit it, I generally need a game to say something important to me. So the salient feature of this space opera setting is alien species. There are lots of them — the cantina scene in Star Wars was a formative image for me — and so I have to wonder what kinds of things that implies and so of course what kinds of mechanisms will support those implications. There is a sense, then, in which Elysium Flare will be about (mechanically) diversity. Not in any deep sense, I fear, since I am not a social scientist, but in some sense.
But there’s another thing that’s crept in that I hadn’t really intended. I watched the Star Wars films a few times to get my head into this place, and I also read a lot of classic science fiction from the fifties and sixties and decided that there is another axis of exploration for this genre — it it divides it starkly from our objectives in Diaspora: the game needs mystical and psychic elements. That is, it needs physics to be more than just our natural physics. This will not be a game that celebrates skepticism and gritty science.
I’m not prepared, though, to just way my hands and shout “it’s magic”. It’s a cheap gag and at once too easy and too hard. It’s easy to do, to simply avoid explanation, but it’s hard because just waving your hands opens up the possibilities to, well, anything. Worlds need boundaries and structure even if we are going to admit to forces other than the natural. And I am certainly not pleased with the kind of sleight-of-hand behind “magic is science we don’t understand” because, well, I just call bullshit on that. All respect to Clarke, but if you have a scientific method then unexplained phenomena are never magical. Just avenues to explore.
So in addition to aliens, I am keeping to a consistent “three worlds” model of science. There are natural physics, the sciences that affect our real world. We may have to admit to some modifications to allow faster-than-light travel and cool looking spacecraft, but we can still call them natural though different. But then there are also mystical physics — laws and models that describe the impact of forces external to the universe on the universe. You could slot The Force in here if you are a Machete-order fan or just plain don’t buy the organic explanation for it. Or if, like me, you simply prefer your Force mystical. And finally in order to encompass real space opera, I’ll stir in psychic physics — the power of the mind as something not strictly explicable by natural physics. A kind of internal rather than external mysticism.
So now that I have a bunch of aliens and a bunch of different physics, of course the work demands that I start drawing lines between these things — some species use some physics more than others. Some cannot use one or another. Some are preternaturally skilled at one or another. We start to buy a little diversity from the otherwise unrelated idea. That’s always satisfying to see emerge from your writing.
Anyway, no date yet, but it is moving pretty fast.
I was reviewing some of my Soft Horizon notes this morning and discovered an interesting accidental feature of the system I’m currently testing. This system borrows from ORE, from Hollowpoint and from FATE and so it has a lot of recognizable key words, but it’s really none of the three.
FATE has this great internal symmetry and consistency. There are very close relationships (to the point, if you wanted to criticise, of identity) between many features — for example, an Aspect is equal to two points on the dice. A stress box is equal to one point on the dice. Depending on variants, Consequences are worth some number of points on the dice (when you have fixed values for Consequences the relationship is tighter). Skill values are points on the dice.
So the dice, the skills, the aspects, and the consequences are all intimately related to the stress track. This means that any bonuses in one place can be seen as (roughly) equivalent bonuses or penalties some place else. A skill of 3 is the same as a skill of 1 with an aspect. Or the same as a skill of 5 against a lower stress track.
Obviously it’s more complicated than that and depends on variants, but these relationships are close no matter how you slice it. This is often a good thing — it makes it easy to manipulate the system and understand the ramifications of changes. A free taggable aspect is +2 on the dice with an attendant demand for extra narration. Easiest effect system ever. And very hard to unbalance accidentally. Awesome features.
I find myself sometimes annoyed at this. Sometimes it feels like a lack of differentiation. I think this is part of what drives people to pare the system down to a page of essentials — there’s a suspicion that there’s less to the system than it seems. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just this sense that it could be re-factored to reveal some very simple truth about it. That’s probably true and probably why almost every version has all kinds of fairly deep changes to the core.
Soft Horizon has disconnected a lot of these things. Your skill rank has no direct relationship to your opponent’s stress. The links that exist are complex and multivariate (without being difficult in play — in play it’s a breeze). A higher skill has a variable effect on capability; generally better but with surprising negative possibilities that derive from being awesome. By that I mean that your chance of fumbling does not increase, but the chance of a move that might be read as over-confident or over-eager can easily result (Hollowpoint fans know what I’m talking about here).
The bit that struck me this morning was stress. Stress and skill are so decoupled that additional stress boxes are not the same as being more skilled at defense. That’s really cool — that’s something I want. Now you are never trading off a defensive skill against another stress box when creating characters or monsters — stress is something else again. They’re not quite hit points either — they aren’t equivalent to a fixed damage system either. This lack of equivalence means that a power or artifact that gives you an extra stress box (or takes one away) is very different from a bonus to a skill. That’s great because that gives you another way to reward characters or distinguish foes. And it turns out there are a bunch of those now.
Better, and this is the risk one usually faces with this kind of design, it is decoupled without increasing complexity, so there are limited ways in which the system can feed back on itself and run away. That means there are (probably) no defects that create super-characters through unforseen feedback loops. That’s got to a good thing, right? Well, I admit, having a super-character show up can be pretty good for publicity, but still, not so good for the game. Sure you can rule them away, but as a designer I would be embarrassed as it reveals a failure even if the end user can fix it.
So since the early design stages of Soft Horizon there have been 6 major stats and when arranged in a grid:
Violence | Sorcery
Warfare | Courtesy
History | Piety
…we get two axes on which to generalize about a character. You can add up the values horizontally and determine whether the character is defined by (in order) Tactical, Strategic, or Abstract (Mental)? skills. You can add the columns instead and learn whether Substance or Essence dominates. Now in most games this would be interesting and help define the character, but in Soft Horizon, because we are looking to facilitate one-on-one play, the character’s focus becomes the context for the whole game. If a player will prefer some category of skill over another, then play will tend to be categorized similarly. At first I resisted this but then realized that this actually differentiates each campaign in a dramatic fashion. So let’s look at my Bus Notes.
A tactical character is superheroic in the individual, personal realm. Her allies are named sidekicks, similarly renowned. She bargains directly with gods and is comfortable threatening or defying them. She deals with beasts and spirits and men and not with nations or armies. Her adventures are personal.
Traits for a tactical character should talk to relationships — who does she care about and who does she hate? Wo loves her unrequited? Who does she pine for? Who seethes secretly, planning revenge. Similarly, her traits are also her things — her weapon, her armour, her artifacts, her clothes.
A strategic character is a great leader. Her allies are champions, lieutenants, special forces, cults and factions, nations and political parties, families and races. She deals with religions and not gods, nations and not kings. Her adventures are historic.
Traits for a strategic character should speak to promises and debts — who owes her and who does she owe and, more importantly, what is owed? Who struggles under oppression and looks to her as a saviour? Who blames her as the oppressor?
An abstract character is a sage or priest of great fame. Her allies are whole fields of study or alignments of gods. They are concepts like law or nature or they are entire ages of men. They are secrets and miracles.
Traits for an abstract character should speak to ideas and ideals, to facts and prophecies. What does she believe that no one else does? What great error can she never acknowledge? What fact does she know that no one can face?
Note that this was originally posted to Google+. So’s everything here in the past few months and for the forseeable future.
So I’m fiddling this afternoon with new ways to make Soft Horizon work again, and right now I’m experimenting with a 2-3 player system that uses Hollowpoint as its inspiration rather than FATE. The end result is fairly cool. Here are my notes:
To feel this out, let’s consider a conflict (in Hollowpointy terms): your character must travel through the uncharted wilds from Port Kells to Along Bay. It is dangerous and strange. We begin by setting the scene and the stakes:
GM: You need to get to Along Bay, but it is wild and uncharted; very dangerous. How do you want to proceed?
Player: We will march my armies through the wilds, taming it as we go, establishing outposts that will one day become towns!
GM: Okay, so Strategic and you’re using Warfare?
Player: Yup, so 5 dice.
GM: Okay, in your path are several Unknown Kingdoms, men who have been lost to the world and who cannot see past their own borders. They are great and powerful, so I’ll say they have 5 dice. They also have a weak leader, Bor Aval, with 3 dice.
Player: Hmm, that’s pretty hefty. I’ll bring in 4 dice from my reserves (pays a point) to represent my Champion, Herald. Let’s see how it plays out.
GM: roll. I have 3×4 and 2×2 for the kingdoms and 3,4,5 for Bor Aval.
Player: I have 2×6 and 2×1 and a 5 for my Warfare and 2×2, 5, and a 3 for Herald.
GM: 3×4 goes first. As your army advances through the jungle, you are assailed by wildlings. They are ruthless and shatter your plans for the advance. I take one of your 6s. Next up is Herald.
Player: Herlad wades into the wildlings, slaughtering them by the dozens and leading the charge through their defenses. I’ll take your 2 obviously.
GM: I got nothing left, your 2×1 from Warfare.
Player: We take the wildling kingdom and leave a garrison behind. We begin teaching them the Old Ways to civilize them.
GM: Okay that’s one victory. You need two more to get to Along Bay. Bor Aval is still in the picture since he hasn’t taken any effects. I have 3×2, 5, and a 3 for the wilderness and 6,4,3 for Bor Aval. He’s clearly keeping his distance, saving his presence for some opportune moment in your travel.
Player: I have 2×4, 6,5, 1 for me and 5,4,3,1 for Herald. I’m going to tag my Preparation — Blessings of Pernath — for this one. We hold service in the wilderness after defeating the first kingdom and invoke Pernath’s promise of success and light. That’s 2 new dice to me, so a 2 and a 1. Now I have 2×4, 2×1, 6, 5, and 2.
GM: Okay, with my 3×2 you reach the dark depths of the jungle and your army is beset by rot and disease. I’ll take a 4. Your 2×1 remains.
Player: My armies drain the swamps at the Heart and establish another outpost and church. The light of Pernath keeps the jungle at bay and we slog on.
GM: Good, that’s 2 Victories! Only 1 more to reach Along Bay. I have 2×5, 6, 4, 3 for the wilderness and 2×4, 1 for Bor Aval. Finally!
Player: My armies have 2×5, 4, 3, 2 and Herald has 2×4, 6,2. I think I’m going to burn one more trait to seal this deal — I’ll burn King by Birth to add two dice. Basically we are going to arrive at each wild community in full parade, with the light of Pernath shining from us, demonstrating our divine right to rule.
GM: Nice. Go ahead.
Player: A 4 and a 2. Woo! I have 2×5, 2×4, 2×2 and 4. Herald still has 2×4, 6,2. My 2×5 goes first?
Player: We aren’t just advancing. My armies are building a road as we go from the Heart to Along Bay. We are shattering this wilderness, putting outposts and signal towers all along the way. I’ll have your wilderness’s 5.
GM: Your 2×4 is next, either yours or Heralds.
Player: Herald’s, I think. Bor Aval and his no ragged mobs try to block the road and Herald challenges him to single combat. The battle is fierce, but Herlad takes the day and we mount Bor Aval’s head on a pike that leads our advance.
GM: Your own 2×4 is last for the third victory.
Player: We march into Along Bay, victorious, preceded by our roadbuilders.
GM: You are met with cheering crowds. Already there is traffic along Heart Road and signs that the new communities will thrive. The menace Bor Aval is defeated and the wilderness conquered, at least between these two city-states.
So, this implies traits (either burned per Hollowpoint on paid for per FATE) and that some traits can be created as preparation before a conflict (a maneuver). It also implies some kind of finite reserve pool of dice that can be used to represent allies. The GM will need rules for how to choose how many dice to bring to bear. I note that if the player had chosen a tactical solution (say, Violence, to simply bull his way through the wilderness D&D style) the story would be completely different. Similarly, if the character had chosen an abstract contest with, say Piety, to find a safe path through the wilderness by negotiation with a God, we would also have a very different story. Three victories is arbitrary but a good stress track length.
(posted originally at Google+ — there will be more of that)
I am going to talk about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons now. It’s time because there is a lot of discussion about 5e design and we are getting a little insight into how the developers of it are thinking, and this has triggered some realizations about my 4e experience, which was crappy.
4e does not read or play to me like a game in which the designers were committed to producing an awesome game. It feels like there were different objectives. Now, I am not saying that the designers were not committed to producing an awesome game. I am bolding that because this is where I will be mis-read. The difference is subtle. I am certain that everyone was on board with the idea that an awesome game would be made.
The rules, however, read and play as though there was a commitment to a design principle and it was adhered to on the assumption that that would make a great and fun game. I notice this because I do it all the time and must have other people at the testing table to tear me away from it. Fortunately I throw out design principles all the time and no longer get too attached to them. Some will argue that point (hello my great friend +C. W. Marshall ) and they are probably right. Anyway, I’m working on it.
By way of example, one of the joys of earlier editions for me was the fact that different classes had distinct subsystems that directed them. Especially the magic system, where I was presented with a huge list of spells (an invitation to create more implicit and explicit) with functions that were appropriate to narrative including combat rather than being exclusive to combat. And if I found a way to make Magic Mouth function in combat, that was awesome. I was invited to manipulate my tools in interesting ways within the narrative as well as mechanically.
4e seemed to invert this and present a set of powers that were functionally identical within categories, differing largely by mechanically relevant colour: this one does acid damage, that one fire. My imagination was not driven. The upside was that I was invited to make sense of the places where the rigorous adherence to design principle created inexplicable results (the whole “marking” technology for starters), and I happen to like that kind of thing (just as I like getting planet stat results in Traveller that indicate an uninhabitable world with a low technology population that could not survive there — I am not frustrated by the inconsistency but rather an am provoked to find a story that makes it make sense). But ultimately the sameness and the artificiality torpedoed the game for me.
The reason all this is very interesting to me now is because the 5e designers are now stating their design goals and I am seeing some underlying assumptions that I think are questionable. The modularity that would allow players to choose a mode of play that suits them, even if that means there are differences between players at the same table, sounds really cool. It also sounds like a minefield. It at once assumes that the rules don’t matter (you can use any of these rule modules) and that they do (people care enough about the rules to choose a module). That’s a risky starting assumption for any new technology. So while this is a laudable goal, if it’s a design principle that will be followed regardless of context, that is as a principle rather than as a tool, there is substantial risk of creating rules that demand attention as rules rather than as ways to achieve table stories that are fun and surprising.
“Surprising” is something else that needs elaboration. I’ll do that another time, but that was a function of 4e that did not work for me — the simple and consistent design principle underlying it ensured that I did not get surprising results. Older versions constantly surprised me (again, especially with the widely varying spells in the spell lists, many of which did not demand a specific application). 5e better surprise me in play all the time.
So anyway, this is a kind of love letter to the 5e designers from an ex- who remembers Dungeons & Dragons in all versions fondly (yes, even the versions I didn’t wind up playing much). We had some good times. We both grew apart. Now you’re making eyes at me and I want to know how you’ve grown, because you had some scary moments back there that I couldn’t live with. Tell me you love me: that you think your rules matter and that you care how they will play. No matter what you say, we’ll have a dance, I expect, and see if you care about us dancing or the music you chose.
No, no one at my home is pregnant.
However, over at RPGNow there is a great bundle of games that happens to include Hollowpoint (and Deluge for that matter). It also has a bunch of titles from independent developers that you likely haven’t heard of. Have you heard of the game, My Cat is on Fire? Toypocalypse? They are all in there. It’s about $50 worth of games for $25.
So GO PLAY SOMETHING NEW.
Here’s the full list of what’s in there:
Hollowpoint from VSCA Publishing
Deluge from VSCA Publishing
Toys for the Sandbox: Apothacary from Occult Moon
Mi Gato se Incendia! (My Cat is on Fire!) by Benjamin Gerber
Argyle & Crew: Adventures in the Land of Skcos and two new scenarios by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s Magical Accouterments for Creatures Great and Small by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s More Magical Mayhem for Creatures Small and Great by Benjamin Gerber
Shadow, Sword & Spell: Under Pashuvanam’s Lush from Rogue Games, Inc.
Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional by Jess Hartley
Instant Antagonist: The Creepy Cottontail from FR Press
Open Core Roleplaying System Classic from Battlefield Press
Toypocalypse from Top Rope Games
Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson
Kicking Historical Asses from Machine Age Productions
Homicidal Transients from Left of the Moon Games
Oh yeah — this is only good until the end of January! We can hardly call it the new year after that.