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.

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.”

Aug 12 2011


Well, Hollowpoint is looking like a success! It’s been about 4 weeks so far and we’ve moved 150 or so physical units and we released the PDF yesterday to substantial overnight sales. Hurray for us!

However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. What I noticed in this past four weeks is a very interesting qualitative difference in the sales. Now, before I get into what that is, I’ll outline what I see as critical differences between Hollowpoint and our other data point, Diaspora. There are many.

The biggest one is that this is not a FATE game. This is a system we developed for the express purpose of making fast, highly decorative action scenes that do not rely on simulating combat at the level of focus that many role-playing games do. This is not a guy-vs-guy combat system (I attack Larry, I roll to hit, I kill Larry). This game is more about describing your success and failure to meet your intentions with a chosen tactic. Anyway, in the context of this discussion the interesting thing is that it is not a FATE game and therefore there is no pre-existing fan base to draw on. When we built Diaspora I don’t think we realized quite how much default attention that would get us.

Another difference is that Google+ arrived at almost the same time as our release and so we were able to leverage it to spread the word as well as talking with fans at RPG Geek and RPG.net. This forum has a very different structure from regular discussion forums and has a different pattern of repetition — while a forum reaches a large number of people you don’t know, that number is largely fixed. With Google+ (and this is similar to Twitter but frankly has far deeper reach) we were able to reach a lot of friends of friends of friends while talking to a smaller set of people initially. I think this got us attention in places that we wouldn’t normally get to at all and may be the sort of breakthrough that starts to undermine the “browsing” exposure advantage that physical game stores have.

We also adopted Fred Hicks’ Bits and Mortar strategy, offering the PDF for free to owners of the hard copy book. I think this changes purchasing on several axes and so is a very hard effect to measure. It seems likely that it drives up hard copy purchase while driving down digital purchases. I can’t prove that, though. I know we still have a lot of digital-only sales going on.

So anyway, what’s different that warrants a thousand words? Well, the reaction.

The reaction is slower and smaller, but then so was our marketing and our target audience. So that’s not unexpected. But the reaction is also far more active. By that I mean that early reactions to the game are mostly examples of immediate play! This is really exciting to me. I mean, I am cool with selling people a book to read, and I certainly write with the intention of pleasing a reader, but the fact that the very first reports on the quality of the book were actual play reports is an awesome fact.

Certainly a major factor here is that we built a game that sets up and plays out in a few hours. That facilitates this kind of quick reaction. But there’s also usually a couple of sessions to any game where people are feeling out the rules and play is not all that satisfying yet. We have seen less of this with Hollowpoint. The majority of play reports are in the “holy crap this was awesome” category, and that’s pretty exhilarating.

Another factor is that I think we reached people who were very open to trying something new in this genre and honestly I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough. I suspect it happened in part because of the depth of the Google+ impact but I can’t prove it. The reason I say that this is a kind of breakthrough is that modern action almost always emphasizes guy-vs-guy detail. It gets grittiness by tracking ammunition and graphic wound calculation and accurate weapons simulation. Hit locations. Blood loss rules. One-shot sniper rifle kills. I think that kind of thing is boring and was hoping someone else would so I could sell a copy of the game to that person and call this a success.

Instead I found a lot of people totally open to this concept, to this level of abstraction, and, frankly, to this orthogonal1 approach to the whole problem of role-playing action scenes. As with Diaspora, the core concept of the game design seems to be a kind of in joke: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we used this hippy concept to do that extremely traditional genre.

Anyway, it looks like the joke has been well received. Certainly this is a game that I love running and playing and I am relieved to once again find I am not alone in my bizarre tastes. Thank heavens for the internet, where there is always someone to share your perversity.


  1. Not claiming originality here; there are plenty of games that do not do guy-vs-guy conflict resolution. Just claiming it’s especially novel in the context of this genre.

Jun 27 2011

Robots and Role-play

This weekend I had that great moment where you get to reveal something awesome you know to people who don’t know it. And you know they want to know it. In fact, you know they are going to take it and run like hell and probably score touchdown after touchdown with it. This is especially wonderful when you are pretty sure you are not going to score touchdowns with it. The football in this case was the Mythic GM Emulator.

I was hanging around in Gamefiend’s D&D 4e IRC server (that’s #4ednd on irc.atwill4e.net) and talking about online role-playing. I like me some online role-playing, especially by IRC. I like it because it tends towards the multi-GM model — lots of people in the mix feel relatively free to grab a little narrative authority and hours of great fun can pass before a designated GM even shows up. This is huge fun for me, but the stories that come out of it are mostly chatty — characters trying to get other characters to put them in a situation where they can divulge their backstory. That’s fun, but it’s not a whole evening’s worth of it.

Well the GM Emulator came up in regular conversation and I think it meshed with ideas Gamefiend already had about adding some automation into the role-playing chat channels. Anyway, there was a flurry of PDF purchasing, and then a bunch of great and heated back-and-forth about what to implement, and then bang-zoom-code. Brent Newhall packed together a bot in python within a very short time and soon it was in the lab.

The bot is called Arbiter and what it does is really simple. If you ask Arbiter a question, it answers with a yes or a no and, some fraction of the time, a twist statement. What this does is really interesting. For example, I was playing Keln, who I wanted to be an airship pilot. I didn’t know if that was a kosher choice in the setting but rather than ask a GM, I ask Arbiter. This is where his name is important — he doesn’t just say yes or no, he implicitly grants authority to you.

So Arbiter says, “Yes, with the twist of a beautiful woman and a gambling debt.” 1 So now I have been granted authority to not only be an airship pilot but I have also been granted the authority to introduce some new elements and everyone sees and is engaged in helping that out. So my internal story is that I lost my airship to a beautiful cheating gambler. Someone else latches onto this and clearly wants their character to be that gambler in disguise. Spark spark flame.

So here are the themes that are interesting to me.

Simplicity drives complexity. Arbiter does not need to be any more complex in order to be awesome. Features can be added but at this point it’s pretty much gold-plating to do so. Yes or no, optional twist and you get triggered complexity from participants.

Authority comes from one place. In order to have authority it must be granted. It can be granted implicitly (I’m the GM in a game that has a GM) or explicitly through the rules. With Arbiter, authority actually resides in the stupidest member: Arbiter! He’s like the worst umpire ever, randomly saying “ball” or “strike” and not paying attention to the game at all. But as my favourite professor once said, that umpire is 90% of a good umpire. You need someone to decide more than you need someone to be right.

Those who want it, drive it. Because Arbiter is optional, it only triggers when someone demands information. Even then, it is only attended to (in the twist) if someone decides to do so. This is wonderful because there’s no pressure to perform (which can paralyze) but someone is bound to grab that hook and do something with it. No one is unduly put upon — if you want to mostly coast and react2, you can do that. But if you want some authority, you just ask for it.

The smarts are in the humans. For two reasons. First, and obviously, because humans interpret the answers creatively in order to produce content. But more importantly (and this was Gamefiend’s expectation but not mine) because the essential creative power is actually in asking the right question. My initial concern was that some high percentage of answers would just be “no” and this sounds boring to me. It is boring, absent the context of the question itself. When you know that those are the limitations of the Arbiter, though, you craft questions so that the answer will be relevant. My airship question, for example, was a grab for authority to establish certain setting facts. A “no” might have been boring there, but the possibility of “no” was essential for the authority of a “yes” to be legitimate. I swear there are other examples but I don’t have the chat log handy. Watch this space.

So this has my brain by the nuts at the moment. This is super cool space for gaming. All it needs is an underlying resolution system that is also very friendly to the fast pace of IRC play and can use arbitrary (see what I did?) granting of authority rather than rely on the coordination of a single human. And maybe a way to keep track of the facts list that evolves (something that a GM would normally prepare but that this system kind of demands emerge from play).


  1. Not verbatim
  2. And I don’t mean to denigrate that — a party full of high-initiative people all grabbing at every hook can be a nightmare.

Nov 17 2010

A Narrative Begrudged

I don’t even really know what “begrudged” means except what I deduce from context, and half that context is probably bad usage. However, if I can hand-wave it, you can probably decode it.

I’m running this nifty empire builder game right now and it’s only a turn in and already a lot of fun for me. I’m refereeing it and in doing so I’m making maps, organizing data, tuning rules, coordinating, and communicating. I love this. The rules themselves came out of a fairly technical process — I actually started with requirements, then wrote rules to satisfy the requirements, and then wrote an analysis to discuss the coverage of the requirements by the rules.

The result is a set of rules that have no narrative.

Normally I’d start with a story in my head. “This is a tale of the nascent exploration of space by man,” say, or “Once the universe was ours but then Cthulhu ate the Earth and we lost contact and now we are many terrified and isolated cultures fearing the void of space and yet drawn by the riches in our ancient tales.” Whatever. This time I started with no story.

I have no problem supplying story. Rules can be a simple framework — a kind of physics — and I am perfectly happy to invent the rationalization — the narrative — that turns the physics into a story. Some games have subsystems that demand this and I like those. Think, for example, of Aspects in FATE: you have a phrase about your character and the rule is that you can speak the phrase, pay a point, and get +2. The narrative is your story about how that phrase gave you an advantage. The opposite design choice is to supply a simulation: whenever you encounter ice, you get -2 on any rolls to Athletics or Agility. The problem with simulation is that you have to simulate everything you care about and that will necessarily, eventually, call for invention. In marketing terms this invention is sometimes called “supplements”.

I like simulation too. But I don’t need it. Some people do need it though. Or at least they really want it very badly indeed. I often forget that and wave my hands when someone demands a narrative explanation. “I dunno, make something up. Whatever, it’s cool with me. Tell everyone and we’ll write it down and it will be true.” Lots of people hate that. They want me to tell them the story. The problem with that is that it then invites them to examine the story and the rules and then think really hard about the defects in the simulation — the interface between the rule and the story. Honestly, fuck that. I’m not really interested in that analysis. I would rather change the story if the rule is making fun happen.

Obviously (maybe) this is driven by a real life case. In our empire builder there is a simple rule: you can influence governments of other systems (not player home worlds, mind you) by spending resources. You can send Raw Resources out to jump 1 (a fixed distance with no declared real metric — because it doesn’t matter and if you care then go ahead and make up a story that works for you already), you can send Industrial Resources out further to jump 2, and you can send Social Resources the furthest — all the way to jump 3.

In my head, obviously, there was already a story for why that makes sense. Sure, partly it’s to satisfy some requirement and partly because it seems to create a fast and interesting expansion pattern that generates friction between players fast, and a lack of this friction is what has contributed to stagnation of the game in the past. But yeah, I had a story. It went something like, “there’s already a lot of space travel going on but you don’t control it”. So Raw stuff is bulky and expensive and we abstract that by limiting distance. Industrial stuff is profitable to move because it encapsulates both stuff and expertise. So it moves further. Social stuff moves fastest because it’s just information and so it’s dirt cheap to move.

The problem is, this is in my head. Or rather, the problem is that it’s not out of my head where someone else can see it.

No matter how hardcore a simulation-demanding player is, if there’s a hole for a story then they will fill it. The problem (it’s not really a problem but it’s a kernel around which a problem accretes) is that they develop this story instantly absent any declaration of story. That is, they develop it before they have fully absorbed (or possibly even read) the rules. And so it is very likely that they begin play with a mismatch between their internal story for the rules and the rules as they discover them. Gears grind. A player enters the empire game with an already developed narrative that says “the only way to influence people is to send a space ship to meet them because the ships I build are the only ships there are”. Then when they hit the rule that says “you can spend resources to influence governments” they are already deciding that they need to have space ships to do that even though there is no rule that declares it. They are, in fact, prepared to invent a whole rule set in their head that does not exist on paper and act according to that.

This is hilarious. And all because I didn’t write a couple of paragraphs at the beginning that tells the story. And, worse, it’s a story that was already partially formed in my head in order for me to make sense of my own rules. But, you know, I was totally comfortable with (by which I mean that I would be delighted, were I a player, with)  players inventing whatever story fit the rules. I had not counted (again) on players that require the rules fit the story and, absent a story, will invent one prior to reading the rules.

This blows me away. Not in a “man what an idiot the player is” because he’s not. But rather in a “holy crap that story is so much more important than I thought it was in order to make the game work for everyone”. It’s like finding a missing piece in a jigsaw. It’s obvious — I know what shape it is and what colour it is and everything, but until I hold it in my hand the picture is just not finished.

So I wrote a paragraph. The players will still need to cope with adjusting their internal story to meet my declared one, but at least I have now declared it. Whew!


P.S. Here’s the narrative:

You are playing an emerging imperial culture. There is already a commercial infrastructure in place, and corporations ply the space lanes in vessels of varying degrees of quality. Some are recent constructions and some are ancient, but all are designed entirely for trade. The hyperwave relay sends data at many times the speed of light and quite a bit faster than any ship can go. Yet.

You are now interested in controlling this hodge-podge of capitalist enthusiasm. It is already proving useful to move strategic resources around — raw steel to a shipyard on the fringes of your domain, perhaps, or Bussard jets to bribe an emerging culture to allow a naval base in its system. Or sometimes just words — promises and threats, which travel fast and light. You will build new ships — armed ships — with the express intent of conquering those who will not submit to your bribes and your propaganda. And when you meet those other imperial contenders, those who would also own everything in space, maybe you’ll become fast friends.

Or maybe you’ll have an armed fleet ready.

Nov 5 2010

Playing Gamma World

A while back I wrote about a game of Pathfinder that we tried and how that didn’t work (for us, IMHO, YMMV, etc. — please take all that as read throughout so  don’t have to repeat it). We played 4e for a while and it didn’t sing. Then we went on a bender playtesting new games.

The other day I wrote about buying and reading Gamma World. Last night we played it. We played it for a few reasons. Certainly it’s a sexy little thing and demands to be played because it looks fun. It’s also an interesting iteration on the 4e rules and in ways I can mostly love. Other will certainly hate — it seems like it’s even further from the roots of D&D than ever before. I’m certain that the reverse is true, but I also don’t care where it sits on any hypothetical graph of D&D versions, so it’s easy for me to pick a side here. But mostly I needed to bring a popular game to the table so that we can deconstruct it a little and find the fun-organs (not a euphemism) because obviously when we make our own games they also need components that generate fun.

So I prepped a simple little game with an abstracted map (you live in New Desuka and you can head to the old highway, into the carnivorous forest, or down the river), a fun NPC (Doc, the Android/Doppleganger who conducts extensive obscure research in New Desuka and kind of runs the place and kind of not), and a problem (the river is being blockaded and the dabber village downstream has stopped trying to get through — and so now New Desuka is starving). This has the basic features needed to get going fast: an idea of where you are relative to what else, someone fun to talk to, and something to do that makes you feel like a good person for doing it.

And get going fast it did. It followed the usual pattern of D&D games since I was 11 — talk talk talk (adding, in more recent revisions, a static skill check or two) followed by fight fight fight and then more talk talk talk. I do not want to resist this pattern in case it’s a feature. That is, I’m trying very hard to constrain any bias I’ve developed over the past several years and play this game pretty much exactly as it is sold to me in the text.

So, there is talk talk talk and then the characters (a Giant Mind Coercer and a Mind Breaking Empath) get a river barge with whatever they feel they need (they ask for a crate of grenades — as per my advice in RPG.Net discussions of nerve gas, I give them a crate of grenades) and start sculling downstream. As they head downstream (hoping to reach the neighbouring city of Vista an in attempting this, discover the nature of the river blockade) two Cloud Worms drop from the overhanging trees on their barge! Fight!

I draw a quick map. The river with some trees on the bank. We put a card on the table to represent the barge (a stroke of genius from Bob, who’s playing the giant) and draw a narrow channel down the center of the river — in this channel you are swimming and maybe drowning. Outside the channel you are wading (double cost to enter). Simple map with tactical power in maneuver and, it turns out, at least one emergent property that I suspect Bob had planned: you can move the barge, which moves everyone on it. This, by the way, is the first clue to a major fun-organ.

The combat is painless. It proceeds quickly, amusingly, and contains rich opportunities for tactical choice. Players, even with first level characters, fruitfully explore different powers and different actions. Optimal solutions appear to be rare. This is interesting because these are pitfalls I have repeatedly fallen into in design, so the question I obviously want to answer is, “why does this work?”

At one point the giant (Claygore!) decides to move the raft so that it is out of the channel. He takes a move action to scull it one square over. I rule that this is reasonable. I could have also said “make an Atheltics check” and that would also have been cool. What is meta-cool, though, is the ease and freedom (and permission, though it’s implicit) to make that un-ruled maneuver happen. That was fun. And so what I realized at this point is that this game leaves a lot of egg out. It also leaves it out in fun places and knows where those are simply because that’s sort of always where we’ve done that. It’s only more recently that deconstructing these games have allowed us to recognize the absence of egg and therefore that we better put that in because, what the fuck, no egg.

Anyway, fight fight fight and JB’s character, Dale or Dwayne or something like that, gets flanked and that turns out to be all kinds of bad. He’s smacked down to well over his instant death marker and is gulped down by the beasts. Claygore is smacked unconscious and, rather than just halt the game, I have him awake in the dabber village attended by the little racoon people. They must have saved him, scaring off or killing the Cloud Worms. Or something. And so, while JB is rolling up a new character (an electro-kinetic plant which I name Herb (he’s a sage) but that JB gives a totally different name) Claygore converses with the dabbers and discovers why trade has broken down. Talk talk talk. And it’s fun talk and it reveals a new direction and it introduces Herb.

So as far as I am concerned, Gamma World is old-school. Combat is traditional, tactical, map-and-mini, with a relatively short list of options that all have clear narratives. It runs fast and without excessive bookkeeping (of note here are the rules for continuing damage and the meta-game timing of effects — roll on your turn, it lasts until you get to act; that kind of thing) and yet is rich enough to create circumstances that require on-the-fly ruling. And that’s important — inventing the game as you go along is something I want (even expect) from a role-playing game. It’s why Reign sings so sweetly to me — it’s just so easy to push the ORE around all over the place to suit circumstance.

And part of “old school” is the simple rules that evoke complex ideas trivially. After we played for a bit we stopped to discuss what happened for a while and one of the things I brought up was how there are some origins that are very hard to find the story in. “Yeti cockcroach” was my example. Bob suggests that this might be a giant sentient albino cockroach and that fellow sentient cockroaches have an unassailable mental block against the very idea of a white cockroach. That is, they don’t believe in him. So instead of drawing “ape-like giant” from “yeti”, Bob draws out “pale hoax”. I slap my head. Not because there is a story — you can find a story between any two unrelated things — but because the story is actually really easy to find.

Combat was pretty lethal. I set the difficulty level on that encounter a little high (they probably should have run away) but even if it was corrected, a bad roll can send you to the grave. That seems to be okay, though. Character generation is fun and fast, and if you’re looking forward to chucking the dice on the origin table again then death sort of loses its sting. That’s swell because that lets the dice stay in the open and that amps up the tension and that’s really fun.

The gonzo element is something I’m cool with in small doses. This heads into old Gamma World territory but it also treads (lightly mind you) on Paranoia turf. That’s all good — not that it means that this is the game I want to play every night forever, but because those are fun games with a clear space set aside in my head. I know what this game will deliver and so I know whether or not I want to play it. This is a great game to lighten the mood for a few sessions between other more savoury fare. And you can come back to it so very easily, I suspect, so you can keep inserting it in your calendar without much work. Certainly my 4,000 or so words of prep contain enough material for a half dozen sessions at least.

So: fun, light, and illuminating. Well worth its (very low) price tag.

The index still sucks. We had more hits this time but in one case the thing linked in the index was actually a pointer to go to a completely different page. Yup. Look up “basic attack”. Holy moly.


Oct 5 2010

The monkey on my back

I play some World of Warcraft. There, I said it.

I’ve been playing off and on since release. I’ve  raided Molten Core, I’ve founded a guild (which celebrated its third anniversary just this summer), I’ve got several characters at level 80, and I’ve cleared Naxx. I’m not a “raider”, though. I don’t know what I am, but I am pretty common. We often get the name, “casual”, but this is either wrong or just an incredible misuse of the word.

The way I play stems from the fact that I generally hate other people. Practically everyone on the planet aggravates me. This is my default position in life: until I meet someone and communicate meaningfully with them, I think they are despicable. This is probably because my contact with people I don’t know is usually in the form of them nearly hitting me with a car, or edging into line, or otherwise annoying me. Sometimes it’s just stealing my lichbloom node while I kill the gnoll beside it. Fuck you, druid.

So this game is a lot of lonely fun for me and tight grouping with my guildmates to do dungeons. The new random dungeon finder? It’s handy when we only have three or four guildies and need to round out the group. But generally I only use it to kill the holiday bosses. “Kill the holiday boss” is an awesome phrase out of context, by the way.

The fact that there is a lot of lonely fun in a social context (a massively multi-player game, after all)  is pretty interesting to me. In fact it hints to me that every role-playing game that expects to see use over time better have some compelling lonely fun in it. It doesn’t have to be onerous — maybe even it shouldn’t be — but it does have to eat time and make things. Let’s look at what I do alone in WoW that I like.

Leveling. Yup, I like to level a character. Several years after I started playing the game, I am only now getting bored with this, having seen the same early scenery so many times. I also have a strong feel for how weakly designed the old world material is, built largely on the exhausting “tedious = challenging” equation that programmers who don’t play like to inflict on audiences. This has been nicely redressed in the last year or so by taking pains to introduce faster travel earlier and increase the rate at which bad guys drop things you need to finish quests. That’s nice. The scenery is still old. That, however, will change with the next release in December.

Building. This is part of leveling. I like to find obscure character builds and try to make them viable. Sometimes this is awesome. Sometimes it’s just funny. I had a discipline priest before that even worked. I had a survival hunter before that worked. Right now I’m playing a frost DPS death knight, which happily seems to work. The talent system, the wide variety of actions, and the range of gear available makes this a pretty fun exercise, but as I am experimenting with the utility of the character, you really need to group with friends who are in on the experiment. The average person (who, recall, I despise) will have no patience for this. They have no science in them.

Collecting. I only recently realized I love this. I love flying around for hours picking flowers and then selling them in the auction house. This makes me a crapton of money, which is also fun in the usual satiated-greed sort of way. But it’s a new realization to me that I will happily fly in large circles for so long with almost no conflict beyond the occasional close storm elemental or something. I don’t even make potions with these flowers, mind you. I just pick ’em and sell ’em. It’s possible that what I really like is the flying, which is pretty wonderful.

Fighting beside my friends. This is not a lonely bit but it’s something I love. I’ve no interest in dungeons generally any more, but I adore fighting inside them alongside people I like and trust. I like being able to be goofy. I like the safety of doing complicated things alongside who will at worst laugh cheerfully when I screw up. I like the spontaneous stories, like Jinxi’s need to free all the slaves in the Pit of Saron every single time. We don’t need to do it. We did that quest. We all did that quest. But Jinxi just can’t leave a man behind.

So these are the things that are important to me and I think there are analogues in our table-top gaming. I like building complicated things alone. I don’t mind repetition if I am feeling creative or explorative (random charts anyone). And I like acting with a group I trust. I hate acting with a group I don’t trust and I note that I don’t play much tabletop with strangers either.

I am Brad Murray and I am an altoholic.


Oct 4 2010


No matter what you do, you have a process by which you do it. There are a lot of self-help books that tell you about the most awesome personal process for every aspect of your life, and apparently following any one of these will make you rich and happy. Interestingly, the majority of the consumers of these books are neither rich nor happy. This is not an opening salvo on processes but perhaps an observation that all processes are more similar than they are different and you already have a process.

There are a few quantum leaps in the utility of processes. The first is noticing that you have one. Before this point, you work on whatever comes up and seems to be next and you get things done. After this point, you are able to set aside distracting things that don’t need attention yet because they come later in your process. And, more importantly, once you have a process you can write it down and look at it and wonder how to make it better. This is a huge leap forward.

The next quantum leap is when you buy software to manage your process, which is when you realize that you must either adopt the software’s implied process (change is scary!) or try to make the software do what you want. You will also find at this time that your process now includes a lot of points at which you need to fiddle with the software. Occasionally you will find your process clunking along with a flat tire as you await a feature or bug fix that you desperately need.

I am not the most productive man on earth. I’m not even a very productive man because I just don’t give a shit about deadlines in cases outside my day job. This has to do with my interest in maintaining real autonomy and real choices in my life and is tied to all kinds of philosophical scaffolding that is underneath practically everything I do. The simple version is that if I am doing something for myself, I am not going to undermine this by stressing over it. This is why selling things has complicated my life — I hadn’t really considered the ethical burden it would impose on me now that there are thousands of people interested in the thing I sold. And I bear their interests as a duty and I take that seriously.

However, for myself, I won’t eat that. And so my process for work on games includes that lack of interest in calendar pressure. Now, calendar pressure does some interesting things to processes and not all of them are good. A high level schedule for a software product, for example, has nice milestone delivery dates on it because the customer needs to see progress and may have civil engineering and other contractors waiting on installation of various stages of the work. This necessitates a “waterfall” model. We try to avoid this all the time and never do — and never can because it is intrinsic in the calendar date and the dependencies. Revealingly, it is also the underlying assumption of practically all planning software and consequently no matter how hard you try to move into something more productive, you snap back like a released rubber band every time the planning guy comes round to update things.

The waterfall model is this: we need to do these things and then we will do these other things. And then we’ll be done.

The iterative model is this: we need to do this and this and this over and over until it’s done. And then we’ll be done.

The iterative model basically sticks all of your milestone objectives (say, requirements, design, code, and testing) inside one box shakes until complete. This has the downside of meeting all the milestones at once which frustrates waterfall planners to no end. And their software can’t cope with it so you can’t do it.

But if you do do it you reap huge rewards. See the thing is, even when you’re doing a waterfall project you are actually doing an iterative project. You’re just not admitting it. This makes the iterations very expensive and this increases resistance to iteration. This reduces the quality and makes me go berserk.

Embracing the iterative model means that you get the first milestone material out in a sufficient rather than complete fashion: you build just enough so that you can get on with the next bit. Then you do the same with the next bit, feeding back information gained to the previous bit and passing on you partial work to your next bit.  So the requirements guy is fixing requirements based on the design guy’s findings and the software guy is building some runnable code based on the design and feeding back his findings to design and the testing guy is building tests based on code that is actually running and feeding back his information. This requires great communication and can become chaotic and looks (and maybe is) unplannable, which terrifies many. However, here’s the upside: at any given time you are back with stuff that does something because that’s always your objective.

This echoes prettily off the “go play” and the “actual play” elements of some game design philosophies. In particular, a really great question to ask of any little mechanism is “how does it play?” In an iterative design, you always would have something ready to play. It might suck and you might already know it sucks, but you have enough to go to the table and shake some dice and know for sure how it sucks rather than speculating. In a waterfall design you hit the table with an enormous investment in untested ideas — going back to design or even requirements is daunting and can be personally hard. With that much invested, the admission of failure is expensive to the ego.

I see a lot of little ideas out there. A lot of them are extremely elaborate. Almost none of them have seen play. This is a dangerous place for a little idea, because the investment has outstripped the confidence one ought to have in it. This is a recipe for making bad decisions.

Sometimes people ask me what a game that’s in the works is “about”. This is a question about requirements, in a sense, and so while I have a gross idea going into a project, I expect it to be refined by play. This is why I find the question aggravating at almost every stage of development: it implies that I know this and that implies a waterfall model of development. That somehow we have a clear and concrete requirement list before we get rolling with everything else. That never happens for me.

What usually happens is I get a hankering for a certain kind of play. In the case of the No Contact flurry you’ve recently seen, that was a desire to recapture the feel of a very successful d20 Modern game we played once. What’s this game “about”? Well look up there because that’s all it’s about until something else happens.

So next I start writing mechanisms up. How will we actually play this? What variables will be important? What do I want to test out here? I will write enough to go to the table and play a game. That means at least: how do we define a guy and how do we have guys interact.

And next is play. Right fricking now. As soon as enough rules are in the wiki to do it. I play with myself a lot (lol) as early as possible, testing each gear in the mechanism, but it has to get to a table with at least two people as soon as possible. And this will imply new testing, changes to the mechanism, new mechanism to write, and revision of requirements. This phase goes on for a year.

This process is intellectually appealing in part because it reduces investment. Nothing gets a lot of work before hitting the table and so it’s hard to get too attached to anything (though it does happen) that’s not actually fun. It’s also appealing because it closes in on really co0l ideas by emphasizing discovery as well as invention: when emergent properties are discovered in a mechanism, this process is agile enough to exploit them heavily and also be equipped to talk about why and how it works. These results are important to me.

What this process does not do is tell you when you’re likely to be done. Or even if you’re likely to be done. You can bolt that on if you’re clever and motivated. So I hear.

Fortunately I don’t care about calendar milestones until there’s a vested interest from outside.


Aug 12 2010

When it rains it pours

Okay two things feed this. First is last week’s playtest of Soft Horizon, in which we experimented with a zero refresh for fate points and a central pool that you draw from when you narrate with a scope reference. So basically, when you play to the points you said were interesting about your character, you take a point. This unburdens the ref a bit — your character being your character is no longer my problem. When you do what you said you wanted to do, you pay yourself. I’ll make sure there are times to do that. If you are a HEARTLESS SON OF A BITCH then you can pay yourself when you act that way. I can concentrate on making the universe react amusingly (negatively perhaps) and you can take your chances by playing your character. That strikes me as a more interesting framing (at our table anyway) than the standing Fate compel system, which is unreliable in action (some tables report awesome, some report fizzle, and the causes are not well understood).

The second thing pouring in is Toph’s great actual plays from Hollowpoint with kids. Kids really dig playing the bad guys, and that shines through these crisp little reports. Anyway, what is doing the feeding here is the difficulty with the teamwork pool. And the difficulty is such that I’m thinking of throwing it away altogether. And so I sketched up an alternative.

Okay back to the first. During that Soft Horizon playtest someone produced an awesome little bit of narration and, in total violation of the rules, Bob (who shall not otherwise be named lest his true identity be revealed, which embarrasses him despite the fact that he plays games with AWARD WINNING AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERS) reached into the pool and handed the awesome guy a fate point.

That’s now a rule.

You could do this in Hollowpoint.

I re-invented fan mail. Prime Time Adventures is the most famous for this sort of mechanism and I’ve known about it for ages. But I had to see it happen spontaneously to really get it: players like rewarding each other. I think that as I prefer games with a referee there is a lot of residual baggage I have about who gets to do what, and rewards are traditionally bound to the ref. But there is really no good reason to avoid letting the players do this for each other (assuming you manage this mechanically somehow, and I’ll go there, but you could rely on trust, too, and that is a big deal for us — the Table is Trust).

So in Soft Horizon you can do what Bob did. If someone is awesome, anyone can pay them from the pool. This is self-regulating on a couple of points: there are only so many chips in the pool, and no one wants to look foolish at the table by offering rewards for stupid shit. There is too much trust and respect and naked fear of humiliation.

So maybe in Hollowpoint, teamwork isn’t nearly as important as being awesome. So instead of a convoluted system of ask and accept or reject and stuff, a fixed pool of dice goes in the middle of the table, and whenever someone narrates something awesome, any player can give that awesome player a die. You could get a die from everyone if you are truly amazing. And you can hoard those or spend them as you like (save your awesome for the final scene). Because of the way the dice stats in Hollowpoint work, this even has a nice richochet effect — if you roll a lot of dice, you increase the chance that you will get badly burned by your cockiness (hubris if you are using a serious tone): you will likely get a big fate set and go first, and then have nothing left to follow up with. This is the mechanism behind leaping out from behind cover, guns blazing, only to discover you are out of ammunition and standing alone by the pool, looking at a dozen bad guys with Uzis.

This all wanders around the fact that players get lazy and stop narrating their dice and their use of resources. Or the actual narration slacks a little. The ref can prod for it, but that gets old too, and often the dice game is still fun so it’s not really an issue. But those moments of great narration are the stories we tell about the game after, and the stories we tell after are how we generate enthusiasm in others and keep wanting to play. And get more players. So this fan mail, in two new forms, should serve to encourage sustained narrative input. When you burn a trait (shot in the Thin Black Jeans), if it’s awesome you get paid. And so, in theory, you have a little more motivation to be awesome, a motivation that balances against the inherent laziness we all bring to the table to some extent or another.

Some people say you shouldn’t bribe people to do what they already want to do. I disagree. A lot. Just because someone wants to do something doesn’t mean that they have sufficient motivation to actually do it. Adding further incentive can push them over the edge and turn “okay” to “awesome”. If all that costs is a nifty little player-managed resource juggling, fuck yes, count me in.