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.


Sep 20 2011

Bessel – another Soft Horizon vignette

Here’s another commute-inspired babble based on the Soft Horizon cluster I built the other night.


The test facility, viewed from the air, is a vast concrete plain that stretches from horizon to horizon, bounded on the north and east by ancient rounded mountains and on the other by a sterile salt like. This paved landscape is marked with obscure symbology — some arcane but most mundane — warning icons and black and yellow diagonal bars, airstrip markers, the zodiac, and arrows pointing from access well to access well. It is studded with the shallow sloped blisters of the observation bunkers from which the tests are viewed and recorded.

General Hoberman, in blue and gold regalia (very fancy by most standards but here this is a utilitarian working uniform), stands inside bunker 47B surrounded by sensing equipment and subordinates. He holds an elaborate pair of binoculars and he is looking out towards MUT-7 — the seventh Machine Under Test assigned to this sector. It’s one of a hundred and thirteen tests he will observe this week. A finned and valved light gun rests on his hip in a complicated holster.

“Commence firing sequence, Mister Belgrade,” he announces in a baritone that carries easily through the large but crowded space. A young woman in simpler attire — no gold braids and very few buttons or bars, and all of that is covered by her lab coat anyway — begins throwing switches while speaking the necessary incantations from the Book of Lens. She doesn’t know what they mean — that’s research stuff — but they are important.

She speaks the last syllable (“ruk” if you must know, though obviously you don’t have the clearance necessary to know any more) and pushes an ivory-handled lever forward.

The scaffolding a thousand yards away that suspends MUT-7 aloft glows red and then white and then vaporizes, leaving a mesh of smoke trails that whisper the destroyed structure, and a column of pale green light connects the concrete plain to the sky for a dozen heartbeats.

“Astrology, report!” commands Hoberson.

“Penetration achieved, sir! And…gone. Transient penetration, maybe seven seconds.”

“Incoming!” another voice in the bunker cries. “I have thirty plus inbound from the rift!”

“Ballistic?” demands Hoberson, by which he means simply, “plummeting”.

“Over half, but the rest are descending under power!”

Enormous tentacled beasts fall from the sky, many of them thudding wetly on the scorched concrete around the skeleton of MUT-7. But some fly, or at least fall more slowly, aloft on vast bladders of lighter-than-air gas or wings or both.

“Dispatch a platoon to mop that up and an AA unit to bring down those new ones. Good work, peopl! Belgrade, get the rig reset and call MUT-8 to let them know I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” The sound of twenty four men collecting weapons drowns him out for a moment. A siren wails. “Dortmund, prepare my car.”

General Hoberson gets his greatcoat from the rack by the door and slips into it. He retrieves his driving goggles as well and fits them over his eyes as the blast doors open. Uniformed troops march around and past him at double time. The lazy smoke arc of an anti-aircraft missile drifts across the sky. Dortmund has already started the car and opened the General’s door.


Sep 19 2011

Ameris – a Soft Horizon vignette

I wrote this on the bus this morning based on a world in my last Soft Horizon plane generation session. I don’t know what it would be for — it’s too short and plotless to be fiction and it’s too long to be microfic. It’s the kind of thing I would write for myself to set tone while doing prep for a game. Normally no one but me would ever read it.


The market is a riot of colour — stall covers in silk and cotton dyed a thousand ways from a dozen worlds snap in the wind. And smells. Roasting meat of animals you’ve never seen, the sharp tang of fruits and vegetables, the thick odour of burning herbs, all bombard your senses. A seasoned traveller would find herself suddenly hungry. A neophyte perhaps nauseated, then intrigued.

But immediately as you enter Marketgate the your senses start to fog and blur — a vague euphoria begins to rise in you and serializing your needs as thoughts in language becomes a conscious effort. Your first stop — everyone’s first stop — is the autonomy vendor.

Always positioned near Marketgate, the autonomy vendors beckon you forward with stark black and white flags that trigger some animal connection to thought, and even though you are nearly mindless by the time you reach them, you have enough of your wits to buy what they sell — your mind.

Because this is such an essential service, its sale within a thousand yards of the Marketgate is strictly regulated by the Caliphate and no autonomy vendor (at least not one within a thousand yards of Marketgate) would dream of taking advantage of you. Some do, of course. The very reason a law exists is often enough to risk breaking it, and if you are very beautiful or very strong (or, Mind forbid, both) then there is some risk that the spell you buy will not be quite what you need, and that your guide might turn out to be someone other than she seems — a zombi trader.

But that doesn’t happen much any more. The Caliph is very strict and the punishment severe — a dozen years mindless — and not something someone wealthy enough to afford regular autonomy would risk.

So the autonomy vendor flashes the colours at you and spins the mandala and says the words and the fog lifts. He warns you to stay near Marketgate unless you know your way around — there’s not always a vendor nearby elsewhere in Ameris. You nod, You understand. It’s a relief already to understand things.

Now you can truly take in the wonders of Market gate — the name of the city as well as the name of the portal you stepped through to get here. Some portals are small, hidden affairs — the back of a wardrobe, perhaps, or just a wrong turn near Whitehall. Marketgate is not one of those. It is a vast stone and metal structure built, re-built, decorated, and simplified a thousand, thousand times over a period of years no one has counted. The portal itself is big enough to pass armies (and their engines) and if the bas relief that decorates parts of the gate is at all historical, then it has passed armies many times. And refugees. And things you cannot identify. All in the thousands or millions. This has always been a busy place and the steps here are worn with millions of feet and wheels and hooves and tracks and who knows what else.

Worn and rebuilt. Worn and repaired. At this time, your time, they are clearly ancient and due for repairs. The steel shows through the limestone which shows through the marble. Over there, that may be a glimpse of gold from some more hedonistic era. And there perhaps diamond from an even richer time — or maybe a time when diamond was so common as to be valueless. It’s all here in its many layers, a life’s work for an archaeologist in a single structure.

And indeed, they are here too, scurrying about and taking notes and sketching.


Juan Ochoa's sketch for the Marketgate

Sep 2 2011

Nasty, brutish, and not very short game design tools

Bear with me here because I have a head cold and it may affect my brain, so the narrative in this post may wander a little. The idea, however, occurred to me while healthy so let’s suppose it’s sound enough.

Okay, so I’m reading Hobbes’ huge work of political philosophy, Leviathan. I’ve read it before, occasionally under duress. Hobbes is a very conservative philosopher — he’d be at home in any decent quality assurance team. He has no problem at al saying you should start your argument from first principles and then actually doing it. So Leviathan, which is a many hundreds of thousands of word argument against the French Revolution and maybe specifically against some thing pamphlet by Thomas Paine (who I vastly prefer reading most days), starts from first principles.

First he rails against terms that have no meaning, picking a few pointed examples so as to also poke his contemporaries (like Paine, certainly). He says, for example, if you stick two words together that are meaningless in reference to each other, such as “Free Will”, then they are together meaningless. They are an absurdity. They are mere noises. This is good stuff — you don’t have to necessarily agree with his demonstrations to agree that using meaningless terms is dodgy philosophical work.

Then he starts defining the terms he’s going to use in his book. He starts as low as he can go and then builds up a vocabulary for talking about why people do things. What motivates them, what is good in them, what is bad in them, and so forth. In fact he does this for six chapters.

So this is six chapters packed with carefully defined words about human capabilities and motivations and interactions. And better, they are almost all defined with their opposites. Good and Evill are defined. Attraction and Aversion. Terpitude and Pulchritude. And so on. This is an enormous effort and fascinating to read.

Insert the sound of an old vinyl record scratching as I bang the tone arm off it.

Games are machines.

That’s why we use words like “mechanics” (well, you all do — I prefer “mechanism” because “mechanic” sounds like a guy who fixes my car (and I don’t own a car)). When we make games, we make all kinds of little pieces (or steal them) and fit them together so when you pull one, this other one spins, and tightens another, that causes a player to twitch. Some of the machines are fitted loosely and need constant attention from the operators. Some are fitted very tightly indeed, and admit no fingers except at the designed interfaces. These create different play experiences.

At the interfaces are a lot of guages and dials and lights. We have skills, attributes, hit points, aspects, stats (whatever that means), armour class, base attack bonus, beliefs, and on and on. This is the dashboard — the character sheet — and all those things are indicators and controls. If one changes, it better mean something to the operator (otherwise it’s clutter on an essential instrument!) If the player tweaks the value of one, something better change in the outputs of the machine.

Now when crafting this dashboard a designer often runs into one prosaic, painful, trivial-seeming, and yet essential problem.

You may now imagine the music has resumed.

You need to name all these things because they will mostly need to be words on a character sheet. You will need a lot of words that are about peoples’ motivations and abilities. It would be ideal if you had their opposites handy as well, because it very often happens that you want to label extreme ends of a range or that you want people to choose between two conflicting options. It would be great if the definition was handy and clear as well, because it’s always a thrill when you not only find the right word, but you also find the exact perfect right word.

If only we game designers had a good list of words like this.


Aug 26 2011

Online gaming disappointment

Having had several chances to use Google hangouts for gaming in the past while, I will give my conclusion: it kind of sucks.

There are several reasons for this sucking but first let’s look at what doesn’t suck: hanging out with new people and seeing them laugh and speak and participating in same is wonderful. I adore it. It’s good fun and should be done over and over again.

But gaming — especially role-playing gaming — requires reliable pacing and participation to keep the action forefront in everyone’s mind. Engaging each other in the fiction requires constant control of pace. And this is one place where the hangout kind of sucks.

First, the mediator has no effective control over activity. People come and go as they please, speak when they want, and there is no effective way to control all of this as, unexpectedly, most of the body language and related cues we use to do this fail to translate over the video and audio stream. With significant attention and preparation this could be managed by a motivated mediator.

Second, the technology is inconsistent, creating constant distraction. Some video feeds are great, some are awful, and some are absent. Awful video feeds are awful in different ways — bad lighting, bad resolution, high latency, occasional drop-outs. All of these impact the pace of the game (especially drop outs) and make things less effective. Audio is even worse, in a way, since despite having video we are really there to talk and therefore (one hopes) to listen. So bad mics or mics that are not echo-correcting or mics that are awesome and picking up the dog, the neighbours, and the dishwasher, are all highly distracting.

It is the nature of this place that you cannot control the technology available to the attending parties. If you could, things might be much better — you get great responsivity thanks to low latency, which makes mediation much easier. You get good visual input from everyone and you get reliable, comprehensible, audio with no feedback echo or shriek. You could finally ignore the technology and get on with the communication.

There’s no good solution for the dice yet. Every option is make-shift requiring window swapping, hidden information, or otherwise blocking the pace but forcing context switches. There really is no substitute for physical dice, on a table where they can be manipulated and seen by everyone at once. I hope we can get close, but so far the solutions are so distant (and of course highlighted by games that need all these axes of information, like Hollowpoint) that the pace of the game is crushed by the defect.

Finally, and this is more personal, I live with my wife. I love her dearly and I interact with her all the time. When there’s a game at our house, she doesn’t play but she does interact and she’s witty and nice and insightful and welcome. When I’m away gaming somewhere else I am, well, somewhere else and so she does not feel ignored even though she is not participating. But when I’m focused on communication for hours through this unstable and sometimes hard to understand medium, I am present with my wife and necessarily ignoring her. This sucks and is not acceptable.

So for now my preference for online gaming must remain text — IRC or Google Docs — and I think I will have to impose a minimum technology level on particpants. If we can’t all play at full speed, it’s really not worth playing to me. I’d rather just hang out with you and laugh and have a drink and introduce my girl and like that.


Aug 25 2011

Hollowpoint mission design

I’ve had a chance over the past few weeks to get lots of input from actual play and even to participate in a couple of games with new players acting as ref. This has been very insightful and led me to think a little harder about what makes a mission work. As usual, a lot of game design for the VSCA is translating what we do instinctively into a set of rules and we frequently leave a few things out — sometimes on purpose, mind you — and therefore leave to instinct.

One of these is the fact that in Hollowpoint there’s no strict mechanical pressure to use one skill over another. The intention is that this pressure comes from the context of the scene and a certain amount of peer pressure to narrate appropriately and therefore not use KILL in an interrogation. The rule is fairly straightforward: if you KILL someone they are dead. Dead people do not give up information (though it’s worth noting for those of you out there skinning this cat — if you have magical powers — like talking to the dead, say — in your game, KILL might be a great way to get information). Therefore successfully killing someone fails the objective for the scene.

So let’s try to codify this a little by breaking out some basic scene objectives.

If you are trying to take some territory (flee a bank robbery to safety, say, or occupy an enemy fortress), KILL is a very good choice. KILL takes territory by eliminating resistance. TERROR is also very good. TERROR takes territory by neutralizing opposition (whether they flee or collapse is irrelevant). Despite the name, TAKE is not a good fit. CON might be a pretty sly way in if the story is good. DIG is not helping. COOL…well, I’ll talk about COOL because it’s a kind of universal skill though not in a way I see as problematic. You can use it for practically anything but they are almost all hard stories to tell. Pick COOL as your peak stat only if you’re up for some very creative narration that works. For taking territory, I’d say no, generally, but there are stories out there that scream “yes”.

If you need to gather information in a scene, KILL is not helping. TERROR might. CON is always good. DIG is the obvious choice. TAKE…well maybe, depending on the specifics and the story the player comes up with. COOL, well I already talked about COOL.

If a scene is about putting the Fear into someone — making them toe the party line by encouraging them forcefully — and that someone is not present in the scene as a principal (you are “sending a message”), then KILL is okay! TERROR is a perfect match, clearly. CON not so much. DIG, maybe, with a good story, but generally a tough sell. TAKE? Don’t see it, but again if the story to date sets that up, maybe. Just to be clear, the horse’s head in the bed schtick was clearly TERROR and not TAKE. The characters didn’t keep the head for anything. I know, no one knows what happened to the body. Maybe they took that. Whatever, you’re quibbling.

Now if the scene requires that you acquire something from somewhere, KILL is not useful at all: KILLing doesn’t get you things, it kills people. TERROR is pretty weak too. TAKE, obviously, is perfect, but so is CON. DIG is a hard sell unless the thing you want is information.

If you need to accomplish something without alerting authorities1 then regardless of the objective, KILL might be the wrong choice.

Now this is still kind of vague (though less, so, I hope!). If the scene is set such that someone has a brilliant territory-taking solution with DIG, well, let it stand. The system self-balances even if everyone always takes their peak skill through a few mechanisms:

  1. Typically there will be a diversity of peak skills and the optimal solution to a simple fight is to all use the same skill. Therefore some people will be using weaker skills in the optimal group solution.
  2. Having a lot of dice can be a problem, so it may be the case that you want a weaker skill. This is more often the case when asking for help — you might figure 7 dice is perfect, so you want to use your peak (5) and get help from someone elses 2. Or maybe use your 3 and ask for help from their 4. You’ll have to work out for yourself where the sweet spot is for dice, but let me tell you, getting a 6×5 and a pair of 1s sucks hard. You leap out unprepared, surprise them, take a die, and then stand around as a target.
  3. The Catch requires a specific skill. Make it one that is not clearly primary to the context (escaping a guarded fortress but you have to crack the key code on the door with DIG or it all fails!). Use the Catch if skill use is getting dull. If no one is very COOL, make the Catch a seduction!
  4. A principal in a scene creates two targets to take out, and they could be taken out with different skill effects. If the objective is to interrogate the principal, then KILLing the henchman is fine, but someone better be doing something else to the principal.

Now you might be thinking, well, what about that rich scene, where someone is killing guards while someone else is taking the objective and someone else is hacking the computer system down. How does that happen when everyone picks the perfect skill for the mission? Well that’s easy — whatever skill gets brought to bear, it is useful in picking off dice before the effects actually get laid down, and so those skills become part of the story even if they are not strictly addressing the objective of the scene. That is expected and desirable. That happens very frequently unless the team lacks diversity and everyone has taken KILL 5. Or COOL 5, though those scenes are intrinsically awesome.

Well they better be. If you are narrating for a COOL 5 character, you better be on your toes and prepared to sell it. Flick that cigarette butt off the bouncers jacket and stride on through the door, partner. Flash that grin. Be confident as hell not just because you are the dog’s balls, but also because Amy is outside with a bazooka and she likes you.

She likes you a lot.


  1. Hey, it happens — set the scene: “The heat is on and you can’t afford to get noticed now. That last firefight in the junkyard might be a valuable diversion for this next action, but another mass murder could bring the hammer down on you. Your boss can only protect you from so much.”