Dec 29 2013

The connections between idea and art


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.

Aaru in progress

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:

Aaru pre-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:

fighter technical

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.


Dec 20 2013

Elysium Flare


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.



Jun 15 2012

Decoupling character features

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.


Apr 30 2012

Characters in context

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.

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.

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?

Apr 29 2012

Experimenting through fake actual play

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?
GM: Yup.
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.

Jan 22 2012

Dance with me, 4e

(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.


Jan 9 2012

Bundle of joy

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.


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.


Jan 2 2012

Brittle railroads

(re-post from Google+ — seriously, that’s where I most ramble now but someone suggested I should make this mutter more permanent, so it goes here)

I think I stumbled on what I dislike about “railroaded” game campaigns and, as usual, it’s by way of an analogy.

First, railroading is obviously a continuum. It’s a kind of failure in scenario design but it’s not a make-break failure. As with any design defect (I’m thinking of other design contexts, like hardware or software, and there’s the analogy pointed out for those of you that don’t like solving my little puzzles) it’s not necessarily catastrophic in itself but rather makes the follow-on work (the implementation and the maintenance) harder and that’s what’s a problem.In system design we’d call this a problem of brittleness: increasing railroading makes the design more brittle. That is, it’s less resistant to unanticipated events. It’s harder to change a small part without impacting other aspects of the design. So if a railroad (and this is funny to me since I design real railroads sometimes) is a brittle design, maybe the reasons for brittleness in system design are similar?

Usually it’s a problem with coupling. You see coupling errors (they aren’t really errors, but from my perspective they break things so I flag them as errors) in software all the time and often they are a result of Bad Laziness (distinct from Good Laziness): part of the problem is hard to solve so the designer makes it someone elses problem and now an inappropriate subsystem has to do work that impacts the appropriate subsystem. Now changing one black box affects the functionality of another in ways not covered by the interface spec. This is brittle: I can’t change the design of one component without investigating other components. In a big system this becomes a whack-a-mole game worth millions of dollars and thousands of ergs of customer good-will. Brittle is bad.

Coupling is the problem in railroading, too. Events later depend on the outcome of events earlier in a way that is inappropriate. In system design we’d solve this in a way that’s useless to a scenario designer though: in a game we want more flexibility with less dependence whereas in a system I’d just lock down the functionality and the interfaces and analyze for coupling, moving functions and features as necessary to recover the design. In a scenario this might be boring as hell. It might not even be possible. I’m not even sure where the analogy goes if you head down that route.

The coupling in scenario design happens when a planned scene can only happen if a previous scene resolves in the way predicted by the designer. This strikes me as a red flag right out of the gate: the scenario design depends on reliable prediction of the future. You need a fair amount of magical thinking to believe that will work. When trying to plan for the future (this actually relates to safety design methods by the way) you can try to enumerate all possible outcomes and address each, of course. This will not work. It’s a novice’s first guess at solving this kind of problem and it fails because you will miss something.

What you can do, though, is categorize the kinds of future events rather than plan in detail, and create plans that are similarly categorized. If the villain is thwarted in this scene then we need some kind of new threat. If the players decide their characters are interested in another direction of exploration then we need something there to explore. This leads to general solutions: I need a map that extends in all directions. I don’t need to know in detail what’s everywhere, though, I just need some tools to slow pace until I can go home and plan the next session (here’s where I fall in love with random encounters, by the way — they don’t need to fit the plot because everyone already knows they are random and, frankly, if the players cleverly find a way in which the encounter is consistent with the plot, well, yoink, I am totally using that). If they are disinterested in the objective I thought was interesting, then I need a few ways to make it interesting (your tool here is the character sheet: what did they say was interesting?) and see if those work. If not, listen and delay!

Anyway, I admit that’s just rambling and not an argument. Railroading is brittle. That’s why it sucks. Not sure if any of that other stuff follows.


Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

I won’t belabour the fact that I haven’t written here much, especially since in a way this post is about writing. I will say, though, that if you are looking for writing advice so that you can solve the NaNoWriMo conundrum then you might be better off using Scrivener (or whatever) in full screen mode and getting down to it. In general I mean.

I have been batting ideas around in my head for Soft Horizon lately, and I pretty much have to do that in my head (and in the skunkworks wiki) because I haven’t re-started playing it yet. That happens on Thursday, though, so I expect a surge of new material there and probably here. Anyway, the ideas that get batted around are sharply divided between mechanism and context. But this is a challenge because my preferred design (like Diaspora) avoids context as an explicit construction (like, say, a setting book or even a setting chapter) and instead delivers it through mechanism.

But how, then, to develop it? How to I establish what exactly the context is so that I can work on mechanisms that deliver it? In fact the problem is even more complex than that because I collaborate, so I need to deliver this vision to others. It might not be all that hard (for you maybe, though for me it is) to just hold this in my head as I work on mechanical elements, but this doesn’t help my collaborators much.

And I don’t want to write fiction because I’m not very good at it and I don’t want it in the final product and I don’t want to waste my time on something I’m bad at and won’t use. Hell, look at that sentence up there — it starts with “and”. And I over-use all kinds of sentence partitioning fragment justifiers like em-dashes and parentheses. I’m just not made for writing large chunks of fiction and, worse, I have a philosophical problem with tying a game to a complete work of fiction (which I’ve probably discussed before but if not I expect you to ask me about it so I can justify a good-natured tirade). See, look — there’s another set of parentheses! What’s next, a footnote?

Mind lies in the deep water and waits. A seaward trawler might see a surge or a flash, phosphorescent algae perhaps, and notice the lights surge and sparkle in patterns that coalesce and then disperse, and call it chance or exhaustion. An overwater airship passenger, in formal wear and equipped with a telescope, might see something fainter but more certain, given the high view. The long view. And sometimes the trawler doesn’t come home. Sometimes even an airship goes missing. And Mind becomes more and richer and closer to her purpose. Even now the sea breeds strange things that walk upon the water or swim in the air. And the land beckons.

The answer, maybe obviously, is to write micro fiction. This is the tiny snippets of fiction you see in most of our work, decorating chapter heads and endpapers and so on. It’s not more than a few paragraphs and it’s punchy and tries to be a little clever and very visual. It tries to encapsulate the setting and the tone in very few words. Where successful it implies a whole story but isn’t one.1 So right now I’m trying to figure out what the setting of Soft Horizon is by writing little bits of fiction. Vignettes, parts of scenes, a character sketch maybe, but never a story.

This is fun, of course. It’s fast and easy so I can bang one out when I’m bored and it will be pretty good. It will often derive from play, which is great, because then I get to steal ideas from others (and, better, ideas that come from the synergy of a bunch of others working together). Deriving it from play has the inconvenience (to my ego, mostly) that my personal vision becomes diluted with the awesome ideas of others. I have learned to be okay with that.

So over the next little while there will be an increasing amount of micro fiction going into the skunkworks as I try to outline the shape of the Soft Horizon setting for us all. As I get into actual playtesting again, this will accelerate. There may even be actual sketches though (crystal ball) the game will likely have an artist who is not me for a change. That’s another exciting bit that I will talk about another time.


  1. You may already have noticed that my ideas all run in parallel — the fiction implies a story but isn’t one just as the mechanisms imply a setting but aren’t one. Yes, I want you to do all the work so that when you play, it’s yours. Even the fiction. The meta-story behind a short paragraph about plugging a sucking chest wound with paper towels is yours, not mine.

Oct 4 2011

Darwinism run riot

I used to do some research in the field of genetic algorithms. This still fascinates me, especially the little edge case stories of amazing results, like the possibly apocryphal story of a guy doing GA work with field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA). He was trying to do some basic signal processing — I believe it was trying to recognize the word “yes” but my interweb search skills are failing me this morning — and using a GA to program the FPGA to do this. This entails basically coding the FPGA with a hundred or so random variations, testing it, taking the best 10, permuting those somehow (usually by splicing pieces of the winners together and adding a small amount of random permutation), and then testing the new 100.

Repeat until success.

The end result was a working “yes” recognizer (which we expect — GAs do work). In fact there were several. All but one were pretty comprehensible when reverse engineered. But one was very hard to understand — there was substantial logic on the chip that was never reached by execution, but if that logic was removed, the recognizer failed! It turns out this was some radio-frequency leakage or reflection from that logic that made the functional logic work — a side effect. Of course this was a very fragile effect, and changing the temperature by a few degrees either way ground it to a halt. But this story is highly illustrative of several facts about and Darwinistic system:

First, it exploits side effects. It doesn’t matter what the logical way to stick the allowed building blocks together is, it will use any unintentional properties to optimize the solution. Tricky!

Second, it hinges entirely on the selection criteria: how you pick which individuals in a generation to move forward to the next generation. So when your criteria is “how well does it recognize the word, ‘yes'”, then what you get is a good “yes” recognizer. Period. No other factors will be considered.

This means that when analyzing any Darwinian system, you need to drill down to the atomic unit of selection, which is why Dawkins’ revelation that gene reproduction is at the heart of understanding biological Darwinism is so profound. It sounds ridiculous, as though genes have some will and agenda, but really it’s just a clear statement of the root selection mechanism. All the more interesting things about behaviour and results of the system derive from it,  though in much the same way that Newtonian physics derives from, ultimately, sub-atomic behaviour. It does, and that’s useful, but not handy for shooting pool.

Unfortunately, there are many (and some are unknowing) wielders of Darwinian pool who think they are doing one thing when a deep analysis of selection criteria would reveal that they are doing something different. And that good results can be side effects or transient behaviour in the system.

We are often led to believe that Darwinism leads to “good” results at least in part because, in the biological realm, it led to us. This is artificial, however, and you should have alarm bells going off whenever anyone applies a value like “good” or “bad” to a Darwinian result. It just does what it does and things don’t get “better” in any deliberate sense. Sure they got better for us, for a while, anyway, but this is no guarantee of continued awesomeness. What it does guarantee is propagation of a lot of genes (and, actually, any other self-reproducing material). As soon as humanity is generally detrimental to gene propagation, we’ll be corrected for. Nothing special about us monkeys.

So the crux of a Darwinian algorithm is a set of reproducers, some criteria for selection and rejection, and reproduction with variation. If you have this in any context you get progress towards optimizing meeting the selection criteria. In computer science this is pretty easy to pin down because it’s probably one line in the code. In the real world, though, because the atomic unit of reproduction (a gene) is so far removed from the selection mechanisms (animal-scale interaction) it’s probably impossible to untangle. It’s also a moving target. If you optimize for evading lions and lions go extinct, you’ll have new dominant pressures. And the real world is a dynamic web of interconnecting pressures. very very tricky stuff.

This looks like a science post. It’s actually a political post.