Jan 26 2011

Do I change the V in VSCA?

I haven’t spoken a lot about games lately because I haven’t been thinking about them very hard. Even at the table on Thursday nights, I’ve been coasting — just playing, having a good time, and not thinking too hard about how things work, why they fail, and what that means for any given game design that the VSCA has in the works. There are several excellent reasons for this.

First, there are no VSCA games that are currently in deep thought stages. There’s Hollowpoint, which I am laying out now and so any deep though about it is likely to derail the release. Better not to think about it. Chimaera is still pretty nebulous and needs detailed work from others, so I’m not thinking about that. Soft Horizon is in a strange state that I interpret as needing time alone with itself — I am confident that when I come back to it I will see some simple ways to fix it and then there will be an explosion of new words.

Next there’s the fact that I am not getting a lot of non-fiction reading done during my commute, and non-fiction is what usually fuels thought about games and consequently blog posts.

The most important culprit, though, is work. I’ve been working with a research and development team in the field of transport automation for many years now, and for the past three or so the entire team has been in our Toronto office. Except me. I’m in Vancouver.

I love Vancouver but I also love my work, and working with a team of smart dedicated people over several thousand miles and a bunch of time zones just plain sucks. I discovered this for sure last winter when I went to Toronto for two weeks to wrap up some work that needed physical attention on real hardware and I had a blast. I had more fun and got more done than any two month period here in Vancouver. The energy of working right with the rest of the team was very high and reminded me of my early days in the business when I was packed with enthusiasm about everything. And I realized that was because I was surrounded by people sensitive to enthusiasm and so there was an amplifying effect. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

People in Toronto have been trying to get me to move out there for at least six years now and I have always resisted. There are a lot of reasons for that — my girl’s health has not been stellar, for example — but chief amongst them is simple inertia. I hate to change direction.

Now, though, I see that I have basically come to a complete stop and so changing direction is not really an issue. I need to get moving again and re-energize myself for the sake of my work. And so, sometime in mid-April, I will be moving with my wife and animals to Toronto in order to work directly with my R&D team.

I understand there are people in Toronto who play games, so I’m not too worried about building a new table of smart people, but I deeply regret having to leave the one I’m at now. We have a lot of unfinished business (right up there in the second paragraph) and, although of course we can play by IRC or Skype or whatever, I don’t want to design games that predominantly play well in those media and that’s what would happen. I want face-to-face social gaming to work and so that’s really how I have to test it.

Obviously (I think) everyone sees themselves as the center of the universe. I am no exception, and so I have some fear that the gaming group will be unable to sustain itself without my binding and brilliant presence. I don’t know that this fear is unfounded (certainly as far as location goes, my place seems the most amenable for everyone, but that can be fixed) but I am trying to let that go — whether or not the gang keeps gaming together is up to them and for their own reasons. I hope they do, and not least because the opportunity to remove myself from the playtest results is very appealing as an experimental methodology. Nonetheless, I instinctively see myself as indispensable and in a way this is a challenge to them to make it not true.

It’s a challenge to me, as well, because I don’t like people very much. I also love them, but I am very good at finding faults that cannot be (in my eyes) redeemed as a way to excuse myself for opting out of social events that aren’t completely wonderful all the time. So finding a new group will have its own challenges — getting this group perfected took more than 30 years. I like challenges, though, so I hope to rise to it.

The bottom line, though, is that a third of my life is asleep and a third is at work, and of the remaining third only about a tenth is gaming. That’s a thirtieth of my world and I can’t really let that dictate the third it impacts. So it’s a very hard decision (obviously you want to weight those fractions — that thirtieth becomes very heavy because I dearly love my table) but I think in the end a clear one. And so I signed my relocation offer yesterday with the full support of my wife and lover and closest friend, and it’s a done deal.

By April I will be inflicting myself on the Greater Toronto Area. Lock up your gamers.


Oct 1 2010

Getting shot at is scary

Last night we ran a playtest of the squad-scale stuff that I’m hammering out at the skunkworks. I have this feeling that it’s a role-playing game but I need it to play very well first as a miniatures game because that’s part of the experiment — to duplicate the nostalgic pacing of gaming that I love. That’s the pacing that goes something like INTENSE COMBAT BRAWR talk talk talk talk COMBAT BOOM BRAWR talk talk talk.

I am hoping that one way to do that is to have a great combat system and interesting characters. We’ll see.

It’s actually playtesting of Soft Horizon that has led me to this place. For all that it has excited me as an idea and as a construct, Soft Horizon kind of sucks as a game. There are a bunch of good reasons for this, but basically I think they boil down to over-thinking the refinement of FATE coupled with a failure to deliver setting hooks that grab. The game sort of lurches around and is occasionally clever. But it’s not fun enough. So I’m setting it aside for now.

What I want from this new game is a really traditional strict simulation wargame but that tracks states on characters that reflect the things that really change the course of a battle rather than tracking whether or not someone is dead. Doing this without creating a system for mind control is tricky, so instead what we want is for the presentation of the simulation to be a side-effect of the representation.

Now to do this I need to track several variables and that gets cumbersome, especially as the number of units increase, so there are some physical tricks we use in play to ease this. It turns out all these tricks also facilitate conveying the necessary information as well as tracking it, so that’s an unexpected bonus. Here’s what we need to track:

Suppression. This is the degree to which you know, rationally, it would be very dangerous to stick your head up. This is not being afraid.

Fear. This is being afraid. This is the kind of reaction to danger that demands your attention and starts you focusing on yourself rather than your duties to solving the battle as a whole.

Wounds. Injuring the enemy is ostensibly why we have rifles and stuff and, while from a desk the objective is to drive the enemy away from territory you want to control, killing him accomplishes a lot of that mission.

Detection. This is badly named — Bob suggested “exposure” which is indeed better. This is how easy you are to shoot at.

Ammunition. How much ammunition you have is pretty crucial to the game’s premise — because your group is lost and alone, it’s a finite resource. It might become a kind of “treasure” even. So you need to track it but also, more than maybe anything else, it’s something worth tracking persistently (that is, between fights). We are not simulating each trigger pull, however — it’s not that kind of simulation — so this won’t mean counting bullets or magazines. It’s not expended in the way you might think either.

Initiative. We need to know who goes next.

So we take three colours of poker chip — red for wounds, blue for fear, and white for suppression. As these values increase or decrease, the stack is added to or subtracted from. The stack sits beside the unit stand on the map. This solves the keeping-track bit. It also really tidily conveys the information to everyone instantly. That guy with the big stack of red and blue chips? Not a threat.

Detection has a maximum value, so we put a six-sided die with the current value beside the unit stand. This works better than a stack of chips of a new colour because it doesn’t change as often, it has a cap that’s higher than your natural visual counting limit, and because I only have three colours of chips.

Initiative order is represented by the roll of a die, so we put that die out in front of the player to keep track of it.

Ammunition we track on the character sheet because it’s a persistent value and it’s a treasure resource. And because it’s intrinsically secret — there’s no way for the enemy to know how much ammunition you have unless he asks you and you tell him.

So a system that looks like there is a lot to remember and manage on paper actually runs at a brisk pace when these data are manipulated in a tactile and visually obvious way.

Now what do they do? Well I’ve talked before about design goals for this and how I want Fear to make units do things without having a rule that says “you are so scared you run away”. So instead there are certain actions that reduce fear or suppression. Because the three negative status effects are also penalties on your skill rolls, you want to get rid of them. Fear you have to get rid of every turn, though — that’s your animal urgency. Play shows that this method works: scared people ran away through the bushes and if that’s not feasible they lie down in one place and shoot a lot of ammunition around inaccurately. Occasionally they hit something. Suppressed people shoot less accurately unless they find better cover or lay down some suppressing fire of their own to get some breathing space. Wounded people just stay wounded.

What stories emerge from the rules? Well we had:

  • Concealed guys with good cover and difficult terrain staying in once place, safely, hoping to ambush a careless enemy.
  • A terribly wounded man caught out in the open panic-firing.
  • A light machine-gunner crawls quietly along a covering ridge-line to get a flanking position on some troublesome bad guys.
  • A confident and competent rifleman advances on a suppressed enemy, calmly firing controlled and well-aimed bursts as he walks, mortally injuring his target.
  • A rifleman fires, revealing his position, and then slowly creeps through cover to a new position. The enemy loses track of him.
  • An officer gives orders from a hilltop, enabling a team of riflemen to navigate a swamp effectively and close on an opponent they could not reach before.

These are good stories. These are the sorts of stories I want from a combat system that is about the fight as well as about the guy. And they all derived from the mechanism of play but, more than that, they derived from play the game well: there was no need to deliberately make sub-optimal choices and yet you never felt that you had no options, so there was no sense that agency had been removed. Well, until those wounds pile up and you can literally do nothing, but at that point the character can be removed from play.

This is a game that demonstrates some of the pitfalls in attempting to categorize games, I think. The structure looks super-traditional but the results are not so much (though this is not an attempt to claim novelty — other games have done this as well).

I am very pleased so far. Tweaks going in today, especially around character creation.


Sep 21 2010

Simulation and abstraction

There once was a time when we moved miniatures around, consulted tables, calculated line-of-sight, rolled dice, and determined the outcome for the 17th time that week of the battle of Waterloo. Or we moved tiny cardboard chits around on a hex-map, calculated combat odds, consulted charts, rolled dice, and found a new way for Egypt to be defeated by Israel. Okay, “there once was a time” is misleading because plenty of people still do this, but I am reaching back because these are the games that evolved into the role-playing games that we know today.

At some point we found ourselves immersed in the first-person point of view of a unit. Maybe it was an especially well-painted miniature or maybe a string of good or bad luck suddenly gave it a personality. But it had one and we cared inordinately about it. And then sometime rather further along someone thought to codify this: what if we really do only care about that one guy? How about we give him enough detail to be fun as the sole agent of play for someone?

Since that revelation, role-playing games have branched out in myriad directions, eventually shedding most of the assumptions intrinsic in the idea of zooming into simulation and becoming many (often very different) things. This is awesome because one of the axioms of my life is: more games good. Thag like.

However, I think it has led to an insufficient examination of the possibilities of simulation. Because they are at the roots of the current explosion of games, and because some or even all of the core assumptions way down there have been discarded in more experimental and deviant (as in “deviating” not as in “perverted”) game designs, most current design work is either based on deliberately discarding ancient assumptions or crafting based on new requirements that do not assume simulation. Or at least they do not assume simulation of physics.1

But even physical simulation isn’t at the heart of wargaming. Or perhaps more correctly, wargaming is satisfied by focus and abstraction, concentrating hard on the bit it wants to simulate and glossing over the bits it’s not interested in. Some wargames track ammunition, for example, and some abstract it into “supply”. Some ignore it altogether. Sometimes this is a feature of scale (I don’t want to count bullets when manipulating tokens that represent an armoured platoon each) and sometimes it is a choice of focus. But always it’s a deliberate decision about what the game is for.

So anyway, last weekend I wondered what we could do with all the experience we (by which I mean I) have with games I’ve seen in the past 35 years or so, if we start with a very traditional (minefield word I know, suck it up) structure: start with a cool, wargame-like combat system and then zoom in. See, I like modern combat games and I like tight focus — single person, team, squad, platoon; these are all good scales for me. So designing something like this that’s fun and then finding a role-playing game in it also sounds like a good time to me. It’s like making vroom noises when you get to use the car in Monopoly. It’s near the heart of structured role-playing, I think.

I don’t want to simulate bullet impacts, though. It’s not so much that that’s not interesting, but rather two different things. First, it’s been done so very completely and well before. Second, I don’t think it’s at the heart of combat, and I’d like to find some simple rules that simulate combat behaviour (including but not limited to the behaviour of being dead). And then I’d like to see if I want to play that one guy in the middle of this.

One problem that faces you when you go there is that of mind control. If the rules simulate behaviour, what’s in there to role-play? So a design goal is to create rules that channel your choices rather than rules that dictate them. You can play the guy that overcomes his fear, but there are only a small number of ways to do that. One or two of those might be exceptional internal victories, and those belong to the role-playing part of the game, but the majority will be things you can (and generally do) do, practically, to become less afraid.

The result is a burst of word count at the skunkworks under No Contact (a title I don’t like and won’t keep but I had to type something to make the wiki go). This is a nascent game in which we track each character’s Wounds, Fear, Suppression, Ammunition, and Detection.

Wounds are highly abstracted. Each one subtracts one die (it’s a dice pool game) from your actions. They are hard to get back.

Fear also subtracts from your actions, but there are things you can do to lose Fear points. In fact, as long as you have Fear points you have to do something that removes them every turn until you have none. Moving through concealment, hiding, and spraying ammunition inaccurately all reduce Fear. You have limited choices when you have Fear points.

Suppression I have deliberately decoupled from Fear. Suppression is when a smart person keeps his head down because it is too dangerous to poke it up. Where Fear is a visceral response to perceived risk, Suppression is a calculation of actual risk. You can act under Suppression (again at a penalty) but there are ways to reduce it as well. You have plenty of control while you have Suppression points.

Ammunition is highly abstracted. You have a limited amount but you only spend it when you fire wildly or in volume (conduct suppressing fire, basically).

Detection is the degree to which others know you are there. This mostly acts as a trigger for action that lets us avoid hiding units on the map, preserving a useful player/character knowledge distinction and still allowing rigorously tactical play.

This is pretty much how I started — what do I want to track? This is the root of any simulation, of course: the parameters we have in flux and that inter-related. And so they define the nature, the complexity, and to some extent the processes of the simulation. One of the things that good selection of parameters does in a simulation, is offer you desirable simulated output by side-effect of interaction of variables.

For example, when you have Fear you must act to reduce it. Each inch of concealment you move through reduces your Fear. Moving a lot reduces sorts of activity you can conduct. Moving towards the enemy rapidly increases your Detection and decreases the range, giving him the opportunity to inflict more Fear (and other effects) on you. So, game-tactically (as opposed to real-life-tactically), running away out of sight is a great way to reduce Fear. Ther, we just simulated the choice to run away without making it a “morale table” result.

Another way to reduce Fear is to conduct suppressive fire. Now, suppressive fire is an affective tactical choice one makes on the battlefield in order to support movement of other elements. It is a considered, useful thing to do in some (even many) circumstances. Fear should not be about that kind of action. But with a lot of Fear points, your penalty will be so great that you can do no good with it. It still reduces your Fear. It also still costs Ammunition. And so, people firing blind (and wasting ammunition) just because they are afraid is a result of game-tactical play.

Developing this simulation — this wargame — is just part of the exercise though. What I really want to play with is the emergence of the role-playing game from it, because I still think this is where itches are scratched for a great many gamers. I extrapolate “great many” basically from “me” of course. But I know I want to experience that guy in and between combat scenes at the very heart of my gaming.

When I was 13 or so I observed that all role-playing games (I had played perhaps three) had the same structure: character generation, combat system, equipment list. This thing assumes my 13-year-old self was on to something.


  1. I have talked about this before — all games are simulations, but in question is what exactly they simulate. Strict physical simulations (how much harm does a bullet do; how likely is it to hit) are old-school. Current experiments might simulate fictional structure (Prime Time Adventures) or ideological dispute (Dogs in the Vineyard maybe) and ignore physics.

May 19 2010

Guy vs Guy

I know I started something yesterday and it’s frustrating to interrupt it, but I’m reading Herman Melville at the moment, so I’m in the mood for ten thousand word parentheticals.

I got an email the other day and I wanted to react to it in depth and publicly because it probably voices the sentiment of a lot of Diaspora players and so the default audience for anything new that VSCA will produce. I won’t reproduce the email (it was sent as private communication after all) but here’s the gist: Hollowpoint seems like a cool place to play (modern action) but the system is alien and not to my taste — please please do it differently.

From the general, abstract place in my head: Hollowpoint is an experiment and experiments need the freedom to fail. One of the things it experiments with is a kind of objective that is common in action scenes and badly modeled (sometimes impossible to model) in what I will call “guy versus guy” systems. So I’m going to try something very different (though not unrecognizable: leaf through your copy of Reign) to get at what I want to get it. I am certain that this divergence will be unappealing to a lot of people. That’s cool — that’s data. It’s also really appealing to at least one person so I hope there will be others. If you’re on the fence (and as the game does not yet exist, that might be a good place to be), hear me out. If you’re committed to disliking the very idea, move on — there will be other VSCA games and if you love Diaspora, you can already get that.

So I was watching Heat the other night — a Michael Mann movie with some very smart action scenes — and noticed how well Hollowpoint maps into it, and that’s exciting, because that film is very much in the target zone for the game. By way of example is the famous bank robbery scene: the crew has executed a bank robbery without violence and in the course of exiting they are bounced by the police. The crew has automatic weapons, great training, and willingness to cause harm and hurt but they are also professionals: their objective is to escape with the money.

No in guy vs. guy gaming, this is really, really hard most of the time. Because the system will focus on which cop your character is trying to kill each time-slice, you the player are focused on the wrong thing with distinctly uncomfortable (to me, and in this genre) effects.

First, I (the player) have to plan how to most effectively kill police officers because what the system primarily lets me do with my assault rifle is kill people. I am not enjoying that in this context.

Second I (the character) am not explicitly interested in killing police officers. I am interested in escaping with the money and don’t care if I kill police officers. But the system models me defeating police officers with my rifle.

Finally I (both player and character) have sophisticated, staged objectives that involve violence against a large opposing force with full knowledge that I cannot just kill all of them (and here’s a place where some guy vs. guy games really drop the ball for me — I can kill all of them. Seriously, I can kill the entire LAPD to solve a problem, just by looting corpses for ammunition.)

The scenario is a classic “breakout”. The police are technically a defensive surrounding force and the robbers objective is to create a weak point in their line, penetrate it, defend their egress, and escape. People are going to get killed, but the solution is not about killing people. You don’t create a weak point in a defensive line by killing everyone — you create it by making a zone where no defender is willing to oppose you effectively. If they are all dead, that’s certainly one solution, but you, with the objective of breaking, don’t actually care. And if you’re a pro you also know it’s not a feasible step in your plan anyway.

A breakout is achieved by aggression. The unit under siege identifies a point of egress and advances on it, concentrating fire. Flanks are protected to avoid being enveloped but the focus of fire is the point of egress. And you advance constantly and aggressively. Go watch Heat and come back.

Okay see that? That’s what you want. And when the line folds, you exit, secure transportation, and depart. The criminals are using several important tools in this process: they are making people feel too afraid to be effective by shooting the shit out of them. Terror is the tool there. They are identifying and neutralizing core sources of resistance (vehicles, commanders). Killing is the tool there. They are leveraging the fact that they do not care about innocent bystanders and the police do, giving them vastly more free mobility and fields of fire. Again, this is mostly about Terror.

But the bulk of it is not about a series of guy vs. guy incidents. It’s about effective use of ammunition, mobility, aggression, planning, knowledge of the space, sustaining fire (rapid reload!), and effective fire (shooting at the target — a notoriously hard thing for non-sociopaths to do). So a system that gives you a tool for defeating one other person by intimidating or killing her is not giving you enough to work with. The richness of this scene — and all of its energy — would be missed by focusing on who shot who. Watch that scene again and listen to it. This is one of a very few films that use accurate sounds of gunfire. Turn the volume up. Listen to the difference between the light assault rifles of the crew and the boom of Pacino’s heavier rifle. Listen to the echoes off the buildings. The chief issue resolving this scene is how afraid everyone and how willing they are to do harm. The ability to accurately hit a target is a tertiary factor at best.

So Hollowpoint, being interested in this sort of scene, does not do guy vs. guy action except as an exception. Instead it’s about the individuals in the crew and their contribution to an action against an opposing force with a common objective. An assassination, for example, is not “killing a guy”. An assassination is a sophisticated preparation of a space in which an effective killing blow can be struck while allowing the assassin to escape. An ambush is not “killing six guys”. It’s again a preparation of space in order to destroy a unit of men (as a unit, not each man) and then exit the location safely (or otherwise manage the objective: you ambushed them for a reason).

Now I am not slagging guy vs. guy gaming. Diaspora is very much a guy vs. guy design and I love it. But the model doesn’t do everything well and it doesn’t do what I want here. So far, in play, Hollowpoint certainly does meet my needs. I know every roll that Val Kilmer’s character made in every scene. I know what choices he made with the dice he got.

Interestingly, the most disappointing part of that movie for me is the last half hour or so. I think it’s obvious why, in light of this discussion. It forgets what it’s really about. Or it doesn’t detect what I think it’s about.

It’s cool to dislike some or all of my games. Vive la diffĂ©rence.


Mar 24 2010

FATE v3 and the heartbreak of compels

Compels are a problem.

They are also a feature. An awesome feature. But whenever I read about people having trouble — deep trouble, mind you — with the FATE system it seems to come down to compels. And I have to say that I feel their pain. I understand the logic and get why it’s not actually a problem. And yet it continues to be. So the problem must lie somewhere not so accessible to reason. That might go some distance towards explaining why it’s just not a problem for some tables as well.

A compel is a simple thing and it’s a mechanization of something everyone does in every role-playing game ever anyway. It goes like this: the GM looks at the character’s sheet and finds something on it (in the case of FATE an Aspect — a player’s declaration about his character) and thinks, “Hey that could complicate things.” He then mentions the thing and the complication. See how this happens in every game? The characters walk into a swanky restaurant in full armour because they say that’s how they roll. The GM says, “Well, okay, but it’s very unusual. You are in no way inconspicuous. And the rich and powerful people here now think you are crude and boorish louts. Including that guy over there. The mayor. Who you have a meeting with tomorrow.” The players might concede that they are not in full armour here and a generous GM might accept that.

Well in FATE we do exactly that a lot of the time. But sometimes it is mechanized as a compel. The GM spots “Brilliant plate armour” and offers a fate point saying, “That armour is mighty conspicuous and discourteous and this place is filled with influential people.” Exciting! Same thing happens but the player gets paid for the detrimental effect! Or he can pay a fate point and say “Oh I would never wear my armour in here.” The process is encoded in a mechanism that helps power an economy that does all kinds of cool stuff. And it’s functionally the same as above. Even better, the player has a little more agency by turning the crank on a mechanism rather than negotiating with the GM.

And yet players balk at the second even when they would have no issue with the first.

I think this is because they have to pay to get out of it. There is additional pressure to eat the detrimental effect because you need those fate points for stuff. Well, fact is, you don’t always need them all that badly, but because it is a currency and because we are trained to think certain ways about currencies, we are acquisitive and protective of our hoards. We would gladly surrender to the narrative but we resist paying our valuable currency!

This is especially interesting because the instinct to hoard game currency is several layers of abstraction removed from nature. But that’s for a different kind of blog — one that explores how real the brain is prepared to make fictions of fictions of fictions. Money is an amazing invention.

So compels can create resentment and I think it is because you have to pay to deny it. You feel railroaded. You have to deplete your treasure to have things go your way. Yes, we know, the player chose the Aspect and maybe even chose it deliberately to get compels, but right here in the actual situation where she actually cares about actually solving an actual problem in game, it’s not so fun any more. Well not always and not for everyone.

What can we do?

There is a place in Diaspora where this doesn’t happen so much: in the mini-games. In the mini-games you can only use a compel (and anyone can use one, not just the GM, and that might mitigate the pain too) to make someone miss a turn. Obviously the narrative for that is more complex (“You’re pinned by our ‘withering covering fire'” or “You stay where you are because there’s a ‘live grenade’ in that room”) but the essence of it is pure mechanism and that mechanism is familiar. We’ve all landed on a LOSE YOUR TURN spot in a boardgame or nine. And it’s FAIR. We know the price of moving forward is a fate point. No problem. The exchange is formalized, known in advance, and consistent.

There’s another place where we feel less pain: when players offer compels to allied players. I’m not sure why this one is so painless — maybe because there is no assumed authority between players no one feels compelled (LOL) to take this too personally. The other player is not dominating you, he’s just offering that your character could be played more interestingly. I know, it’s EXACTLY THE SAME as with the GM, but we’d be foolish to ignore the fact that the GM has certain kinds of authority and that that might colour her exchanges with players differently than the same exchange between peers.

And finally, the best part of the solution, is consistent with FATE v3 in all its incarnations: the player can solicit the compel. When players do this, the system sings. This is where I would most push the compel mechanism if you are experiencing compel-pain: don’t ask for compels at all as the GM but rather encourage players to offer them. Point out Aspects in play but ignore the pay-or-get-paid offer. See, it’s not actually all that important that the player pay that fate point. There is plenty of opportunity for players to pay. It is important, however, that they get paid for making their Aspects shine, and so that’s the way the offer needs to work.

In future FATE games I make, I am pretty sure I will just drop the “pay to deny” part of compels. It doesn’t do anything useful and it creates this weird authority issue that’s just not fun (for me, IMHO, YMMV, IANAL, etc.)

Go forth and compel, but in a fun way.


Feb 25 2010

Read a subversive political philosopher in public week

I’ve had plenty of pointers to “Read an RPG Book in Public Week”. The idea is that we are all so ashamed of our hobby that we would never read a book obviously related to it in public and that we should work to make it common place. Apparently by reading a book in public one week out of fifty-two. I’ve probably mis-characterised this effort for effect, but I think what follows, derived from that, still works.

Why are you ashamed to read an RPG book in public in the first place? Do you really believe that the rest of the world is so much more mature and serious than you that they have legitimate cause to look down on you? If not, then you never had any reason to hide. Grow up and read what you want where you want.1 If so, then you shouldn’t be reading RPGs at all — apparently they reveal that you are someone less than you want to be. Cut it out. Grow up. Become more mature and get out your copy of The Economist. That is, if your shame is legitimate then you should quit doing what you find shameful. If it’s not legitimate, then you should do what you want.

The counter is of course the repercussions of doing what you want — some will say that revealing their desire to imitate an elf for a few hours a week places their job at risk. If you think that, then you need to look really hard at the sentence you agreed with there. You are afraid of the repercussions of doing what you want, and what you want is harmless and fun. When we say we live in a free country — that democracy is delivering freedom of the best kind for the most people — is this really what we mean? How free are you if you can’t do what you want because you fear for your job and therefore the well-being of yourself and your family? Are you really this terrorized?

And the answer for a good many people is yes, they are this terrorized. There is no interesting way in which a person in this circumstance is free because there is no interesting way in which they can escape this terror. They are being dominated, albeit not by a conscious and deliberate dictator, and they have no hope of escape. Technically, most of you reading this are in the same boat — that is, the threat of destruction of your livelihood actually hangs over your head all the time (certainly it hangs over mine) — but some will choose not to be terrorized by it and some just haven’t thought about it in that fashion. And some will insist they are free despite the long list of things they dare not do for fear of angering their employer. Free how, exactly?

So to this end I suggest instead that the thing we are really missing right now is legitimate and intelligent political discourse, and the best place to start here is with the smart subversives. It’s a well known fact that socialism in all forms is intrinsically Evil. It’s a well known fact that the private sector can always perform more efficiently than government (even though a counter-argument is trivially arranged).2 So it’s time to start reading, in public, arguments against those facts. They might be wrong. They might not. You won’t be accidentally infected by them — reading something you believe you disagree with won’t change it essential content. If it’s flawed, you will probably find yourself unpersuaded. But there’s altogether too much avoidance of counter-argument altogether and rational, progressive, political discussion demands a reasoned and thoughtful consideration of all possibilities. And it warrants a re-consideration over time as things change.

Here’s one thing that’s changing (and yes, finally, we are on-topic for the blog): it is increasingly the case that private citizens can perform in realms previously accessible only to much larger organizations. And these organizations are either carefully not paying attention or are terrified or are angry or some combination of the three. A single person can now carry a written work all the way from idea to delivery, using their own intuition as a guide for pricing, form, and marketing. This is terrifying some small publishers because where the individual’s choices (and motives!) are different, this undermines the larger but still small entity — she’s formed her business on certain assumptions about the competition and these assumptions are eroding. And all of this is over course percolating up — the intelligent small publisher is now also realizing technological benefits and finding new niches (witness Evil Hat, for example, which embraces the support of individual self-publishers, finding a way to do the part they don’t want to and do it well and for a profit — good for everyone and not a result of fear).

And of course as individuals acquire more power over their labour (MARXISM ALERT) many of the Marxist and new-Marxist criticisms of modern capitalism similarly begin to erode (and I suspect this does or will terrify those organizations). Which is good because their criticisms were in many regards bang on — anyone who will not do what they want, despite it being harmless, because they fear for their livelihood is not free.

So here’s what I think you should do: you should refuse to be afraid and you should take steps to ensure that you don’t need to be afraid. You should read subversive political works in public. You should find ways that technology empowers you to do what you want. Because Rousseau didn’t foresee this when he said you might need to be forced to be free. He knew you might become comfortable in your chains but I don’t think he figured you’d fail to notice them. Even complain about them at the same time as fail to notice them. Marcuse saw it though.

So there’s two. John Stuart Mill is another good one. Read your Pathfinder stuff every other week of the year.


  1. I’ll note, though, that more acceptable forms of entertainment include American football and episodes of Family Guy. Make what you will of that.
  2. The optimized cost to do something is X. A private enterprise is profit-motivated, so the best it can ever do is X+P. A government enterprise is motivated by justifying its existence (to self-perpetuate — not a great motive) so the best it can ever do is the baseline plus the overhead cost to ensure perpetual existence (O), so X+O. You can argue now that P<O but it’s a tough argument since efficiency is likely to ensure perpetuation. And then you have the fact that a secondary interest of companies is to self-perpetuate (indeed, probably a huge source of unintentional sabotage).

Feb 23 2010

Bloody Diaspora clusters are everywhere

I’ve been resisting this. Really.

However, I started playing around with something for Hollowpoint (tired of the acronym) based on some feedback from friendly and interested folks on Buzz and Twitter and Etc. Turns out they are smart too. Because Hollowpoint is basically about agents of some agency handling some more complex relationship diagram, it is a natural to build that relationship diagram and the cluster system from Diaspora has already demonstrated functionality. Okay I give.

The first idea was to define the agency itself, but I don’t want the agency to become a character. The opposition, however, is a character, so that’s what we’re defining. I establish three attributes, use the same rules for linking as in Diaspora, and then add some rules for interpreting the results. Some of the rule outputs need re-wording but I think the idea is clear. So the attributes are:

Honour. How honourable the entity is.

Cash. How much cash the entity has.

Manpower. How much force the entity can bring to bear.

Now because we’re using six-siders for Hollowpoint, this must also, so we use the d6-d6 method: roll two differently coloured dice and subtract one from the other using a pre-determined rule (subtract black from red, say). This gives a shallow curve from -5 to 5, peaking at 0. So we roll that for each stat and then for each node roll it again for connections. A negative result connects to the neighbouring node only, a zero result adds a connection to the next available node after, and a positive result adds a a third connection to the next neighbour open after that. An open neighbour is one not already connected.

And then we interpret based on these rules:

A connection between nodes that both have positive or both have negative values for an attribute indicates that the nodes are allied on this attribute. Honour implies friendliness, cash implies a mutual reliance, and manpower indicates a pact or truce.

A connection between nodes where one or another has a zero attribute is ignored.

A connection between nodes where one is negative and the other is positive indicates an imbalance that is a potential source of friction (mission driver!) So for honour this is a debt of honour: the negative seeks revenge on the positive. For cash this is a simple debt: the negative owes money to the positive. For manpower this is weakness and strength: the negative is weak to (and therefore defers to) the positive. Here’s an example:

Well I have to say that that invites some missions. We have some debts, some weaknesses, an interest in revenge and an interestingly cash-poor overall operation where everyone is interdependent. Clearly there are too many families in this syndicate! We also see the hub — that second node that everyone is weak to and everyone is connected to. And their sole realy strength is manpower — violence.

There’s something deeper in the cluster creation system than it looked at first. And though we touched on what it might be right there in the book, I don’t think it was clear until now just how rich it is in the abstract. It’s nice that it’s also an icon for VSCA, so if I use it in everything I ever produce I guess that’ll be okay. Or at least explicable.


Feb 22 2010

Story and RPG and protagonism

Warning: this may ramble.

There is a lot of work on the table that tries to understand role-playing games in terms that we already know from trying to understand story. We’ve been trying to understand story (and story has been changing over this time, but also not, if you get my meaning here) for a really long time and so it seems natural to apply this knowledge to role-playing games. They do look like stories, after all. Well, at least after we finish playing and think about what happened, we hear a story in our heads. When we type up an actual play report, we present a story.

When I listen to the audio of an evening’s play, however, I mostly hear a social event in which a game is being played and some great scenes are being described. In a way it’s rather more like geeks talking about a film they loved and re-hashing their favourite parts than it is like an actual story.

So when people use theory to try and make role-playing games better at delivering story, I have to wonder if that’s really on the right track. Maybe role-playing games shouldn’t be stories.

The reason this struck me recently (it has struck me in the past too) is because we are in the process of critiquing the Game That Still Has No Name But Likely Will Be Called Hollowpoint or Ruthless (GTSHNNBLWBCHOR) and one of the criticisms external to play experience is that the tactically solid choice of sacrificing a character for resources and consequently getting a new character de-protagonizes the character. It creates a greater disjunct between player and character than we normally expect. The unstated implication of this critique is that this is a bad thing.

So this actually has several hidden premises which I will try to reveal in order to understand why this issue is not actually an issue in play.

One premise is that being the protagonist is a valuable story element to bring to a game. This is the deepest laid premise I think and one which is taken for granted in most games, so let’s look at it.

A tabletop game with four or five people interacting is not usually about a single hero and her sidekicks. Instead it is less artificial and more natural: it is about people who perceive themselves as the central element of the story even though they are not. This does not work well in a traditional story because the author is trying to forge a relationship between the reader and the story and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to have her identify strongly with a character. We might call this character the protagonist. So having half a dozen protagonists dilutes the effect of the story by trying to sell the reader on investing in multiple characters. The difficulty here multiplies if the characters have opposing motivations, asking the reader to sympathise not just with multiple characters but with mutiple distinct perspectives.

So, from this we have to conclude that when a role-playing game is not explicitly about a single protagonist and her henchmen, we have a disjunct between traditional story-telling and what we want for fun play at the table. Fortunately, however, we are not speaking to a single reader — the whole table comprises a communal audience-as-author — and so we are not bound by elements of storytelling that assume one. As this is a novel (though not unique) form of entertainment — a story that is told only through its construction and that therefore has to be compelling in its mechanism (the process of construction) as well as in its output (the story, though clearly we want a better word) — it perhaps merits a more novel analysis.

This doesn’t speak to the fact that a player might want to cling to a character. That’s all cool and should have a reward attached so that they get something for fulfilling that desire, so that they don’t feel that striving for it is pointless. But shucking it does give you something that clinging to it doesn’t: the heroic sacrifice. If we hold the player-character connection (protagonization) as a sacrosanct feature of gaming, then we lose the capacity to have a heroic sacrifice, an ironic fatality, and all that other good stuff in the middle of play. And (as we will see) if we assume “play” means “long-term play” then we can only have it if we wait a long time first. And then we risk only doing it when we’re bored of the character, perhaps deflating our experience of the irony or the sacrifice.

The other premise is that this character will last longer than one or two sessions. If the game is run as a one-shot, then there is no strong binding between player and character anyway. This seems to allow us to emphasize the “life is cheap” motif of the game and deliver samurai-story gaming rather than long term heroic gaming. For sure there is no “hero’s journey” to be had here. There are no heroes, period.

Now this is not to say that feeding the character-player connection is universally (or even usually) wrong! Far from it. It’s a design principle that is common for good reason. Indeed it’s arguably the primary reason for all character advancement systems (the zero-to-hero model has always smelled like horseshit to me in the context of gaming, but that’s another post). But we need to occasionally wonder if there’s not some other things to experience that are also fun by dissociating ourselves just a little. By reveling in the superstructure in which characters play their roles as well as in the characters themselves.

I think that’s the place where GTSHNNBLWBCHOR wants to be. Emphasizing that life is cheap, that fatality is a tool, that you can’t sustain an adrenaline rush forever, and that the new guy, arriving with a history, has a story too.


Feb 19 2010

Losing by winning too hard

In a game I am working on that I can’t name because it still doesn’t have a satisfactory name, we ran into an interesting impasse. While playtesting we hit an unexpected state that revealed to me exactly what we were making. Here’s what happened.

First a little background on the game. In this game the characters have limited resources in which to complete a mission. A mission is composed of multiple conflicts, each of which chew up resources. There is a way to refresh some resources, but let’s assume there isn’t because it is Special. Just hold on to something — I promise I’ll explain that.

Now every time the characters win a conflict, the opposition escalates. The next conflict will be a little harder.

Stated this way it’s sort of obvious what can happen but it surprised me anyway. Maybe because I never stated it clearly. Anyway, what happened is that the players won four conflicts in a row without achieving their mission objective. So now they are facing the hardest conflict yet and with no resources. Intellectually that’s really cool. I think it’s a wonderful result. But can it be fun?

On the surface of it there are two solutions. They can confront the last objective directly, knowing they will probably die trying. This is highly consistent with the genre and, I think, a desirable choice. Or they can slink off, failing the mission, because they forced the opposition to entrench and prepare by doing too much without pursuing the objective adequately (partially because the objective was badly defined — something that the rules will fix now). Both of these work for me. There’s actually a third possibility that derives from details of the system, but it’s another win-by-failing, though very specific to a single player. It’s also genre-consistent.

What this state revealed to me is that the game is being played by the players (to win!) at two different scales when we thought it was only one. Certainly you play to win each conflict, choosing your resources well and your skills to bring to bear and what dice to do what with. There is tactically rich play inside the conflict that you have do well (it’s not hard, mind you) in order to win. And the probability calculations are not (remotely) straightforward, so you learn by playing.

But because you have resources that are largely limited per mission, you are also playing a resource management game at the mission scale, and that’s what we all missed. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice play and lose a conflict in order to preserve (or regenerate) resources for a more important conflict. If you blow resources on a conflict that doesn’t progress the mission objectives, you’re playing the mission game badly. Unless you have a plan to recoup them, of course!

Rewarding sacrifice play is something I certainly want to come out of this game. There is no question that (and this wording is deliberate) I want PLAYERS to make sacrifices during play. Characters too, but I want players to sacrifice their characters to achieve success sometimes. And I think play last night underscored that that has to happen (players were operating very conservatively compared to the previous play test) and let me write some new rules that encourage it. So that’s really cool. That’s the kind of playtest I love.

Oh yeah I promised to mention the Special way to refresh resources. If your character dies (or otherwise exits play), your new character brings fresh resources with her. So one way to renew some resources is to make sure you get taken out in a conflict. You get rewarded personally, too — the next scene after a character exit is always the new character being sent in to fix this giant cock up, explaining to the others how it’s going to get on track and not get anyone else killed and talking about how valuable and wonderful the exited agent was and how everyone should be ashamed for letting her down. Players really seem to get into this scene.


Feb 15 2010

VSCA new updates

Oh yeah, a few news updates.

Corrected version of Diaspora

Yesterday I got the corrected version of Diaspora up at Lulu. If you buy a copy from Lulu now, it’s the corrected version. The difference between it and the previous version is mostly superficial — typos and grammar, really. You can tell the difference between the old one and the new in a couple of ways: the copyright notice says 2010 as well as 2009, the softcover ISBN is included, the acknowledgements include a nod to our close-reading fans, and on page 220 we use the word “social” instead of “socail”. Sometime in the next month or so we’ll get a document up that summarizes the changes. Thanks so much to everyone that submitted errata. It was a pain in the ass.

Softcover Diaspora

I’m just waiting for my test copy of Diaspora in softcover. If it looks good, I’ll change it’s status to “for sale” and you can go get some. There are a few advantages to the softcover. It’s softer, obviously. It’s also slimmer, which means it fits in a mail slot which means it’s much cheaper to ship. It’s cheaper to buy (don’t know how cheap exactly but I think around $25 USD). It’s even cheaper if you buy 5 of them (whereas you need to buy 50 of the hardcover to get any discount). And it is better suited to selling through IPR, so we’ll be pursuing that. That is also good news to vendors. Oh it also prints faster, so going from click to get is only 5 days or so.

PDF of Diaspora

This seems very likely now. I won’t have concrete news until later. There will of course be bundles and all that good stuff. Watch this space.

Agency is now Crew

Who’d have thought there’d already be a game called Agency? Oh well, thanks to those that pointed it out to me.