Mar 24 2011

Intellectual obesity

A useful method for analyzing complex systems is to find pressures and follow what things flow naturally through the system under that pressure. I tried to do this with RPGs once with limited success — I still think it’s viable, but it needs more brain-juice than I am currently willing to apply to it. For one thing, it’s not clear there’s a pay-off in yet another RPG analysis method. That’s already example one: there is insufficient reward pressure to move my motivation through the effort clog to complete that analysis. There are more pipes and valves than that, but that’s the cheap analysis, considering apparently dominant elements.

The more pipes and valves in the system, the less likely it is that you can simplify in ways you want to. So, that’s fair warning for the rest of this very casually written article.

One pressure system we deal with all the time is the one that determines what we eat. In our society there is an almost infinite choice of food. We can buy incredibly high quality ingredients and work all day to prepare them at one end of the spectrum. We can also drive past a window and grab 8 cheeseburgers for 10 bucks. Zoom! We can also do practically everything in between including, I suppose, stop eating altogether.

The pressures that are interesting to me here are time and money. These are dominant pressures for most people today, I think, though certainly not the only ones. But when you consider a single parent working too hard for too little money, it is easy to see how huge volumes of very conveniently obtained cheap food are a path of least resistance through a pressurized system. In order to divert this path you need to fabricate pressures: invent an ethical pressure to feed your children very well or a vanity pressure to reduce your weight. And while these pressures do exist, for a lot of people their natural levels are well below the time and money pressures and so they need to fabricate an elevation in them.

I don’t mean fabricate in any negative sense. I suspect (and try to act as though) most ethical pressures we feel are to some extent invented by us. And that’s a good thing. That’s a use of intellectual power that we should all approve of highly. Abstract benefits like “freedom” and “truth” and “honesty” can all do with a little elevation in pressure, and inventing it is no crime. The natural level of pressure is, after all, that experienced by cows. Everything over that level is intellectual, and intellectual pressure is invention. We are inventors and it is ourselves we invent. Non-stop.

So that’s how you get fat. Well, it’s one way, anyway. The lowest pressure path through the pressurized system absent any or adequate counter-pressures you invent is to eat lots of cheap easy food. Bang zoom fat. And that time pressure is also keeping you from exercising (and cash pressure if you have invented a need for a gym) unless you choose work that involves exercise. There’s another pressure that keeps us from doing that, though we can also blame robots.

Part of why this happens is our hard-on for choice. With an incredibly broad spectrum to choose from, the possibility that some of those will be both detrimental and low-pressure paths increases. Worse, low-pressure paths with low cost to deploy will be profit bonanzas, and consequently when that niche is discovered, it will become highly populated. The result may or may not be nutritious, but as that is generally a low pressure on the consumer, it will not be a priority for the provider. If it can go it will. Fast food nutrition is an accident unless it is serving an elevated nutrition pressure. Or another pressure (say, legislative).

This all happens because no matter how much we enjoy being thinking, creating, loving humans, the system by which we move goods and services is a mere beast with very simple pressures and a very low motive to invent others. Most humans will not invite you into their home and deliberately serve you the fastest cheapest food they can get their hands on.

But all that is by way of example because there is another place with similar pressures that I think is more destructive in the long run. Entertainment.

First, though, I’ll suggest that there is no such thing as entertainment. Whether we’re enjoying it or not (and think really hard about enjoyment, because I think it’s a remarkable elastic concept), all the time we are conscious we are gathering and processing information, and this intellectual exercise is occasionally applied to “entertainment”, which is distinguished by not much more than colour. We are information processing machines with the leisure to gather in a remarkable range of inputs and do whatever we wish with them as raw material. The cynical might say that the primary output is recitation by the water cooler.

You have a lot of pressures on you with respect to entertainment. Time is sort of one, but effort might be more appropriate. We generally avoid effort unless there is a pay off and the pay off of entertainment is largely perceived to be immediate, so it’s not worth a ton of effort. You don’t invest in it, generally.

You have a lot of choice in entertainment (especially if I define it as any information input and processing that you enjoy, whatever “enjoy” means). This suggests, then, that there are sources of entertainment that are busy optimizing to maximize your enjoyment while minimizing your effort. Counter-pressures include legality, embarrassment, and cost, of course.

When people don’t have a lot of choice in entertainment but have no time pressure, I suspect they consume whatever they have because my feeling is that information processing is not just what we do, it’s something we have to keep doing. A craving or an urge or an addiction — whatever, it’s more powerful than sex by far. If you are locked in a cell with a ball and two books, eventually you will likely read those books no matter what they contain. You may even read them over and over and over. Given no choice, you will process whatever information you have.

Given infinite choice and no fabricated pressures, you will consume the least effort, most enjoyable information. And part of reduction of effort is reducing the effort to process it as well as effort to acquire it. And this is how you get fat. Choice creates a profit motive to find the most useless information for you to enjoy processing.

The only way to avoid this is to lock yourself in a cell with a really good book you have always wished you’d read.

Actually, there are better ways: fabricated pressures. And this is where the current fetish for anti-intellectually makes me extremely angry. Because yes, a taste for Russian literature is a fabricated thing. It is not as easy or as “enjoyable” as Family Guy until you fabricate that pressure. The same goes for a taste for expensive whiskey — it is easier and more “enjoyable” to drink spiked lemonade. You have to invent a pressure that makes it worth your while to spend more energy processing that information than you could otherwise spend.

And part of the backlash against intellectualism is the suspicion that it’s fabricated. That we invent a need for many kinds of difficult thinking and tasting. And the reflex in the intellectual community is to insist that it is a natural need when it patently is not.

We need, therefore, to embrace this fabrication. Our morality is a fabrication but we can agree that it is a good thing to believe murder is not okay. Fabricating pressures lets us work harder at what we need to do well: process information. And working harder makes us stronger.

We want to be strong, right? Intellectually? No one prides themselves in being stupid.1 And so I offer that the fabrication of a pressure to choose more difficult entertainment is as worth your while as fabricating a pressure to eat well or to exercise more. You do have to invent it, though.

Fortunately, you are uniquely equipped to do so.


  1. Actually I can think of several counter-examples to this but none flattering.

Dec 21 2010

Simple art

As a kid I used to buy Mad Magazine, but I only really paid attention to three things: half of Al Jaffee’s work, all of Don Martin’s work, and everything by Sergio Aragonez. Now since then my tastes have matured and I can appreciate the work of John Severin, Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, and so on, but as a kid it was really all about Aragonez. So now I’m playing around with Hollowpoint layout and thinking about art and my mind is going back to Aragonez.

I sat down last night and the night before and started doodling small. I like the constraints of small when I draw. You can’t make as many mistakes because there just aren’t that many lines to make. As a teen I used to draw with high-end Staedler technical pens (Marsmatics) in the 0.1mm or smaller sizes. And I drew small. I was popular in yearbooks.

I also like loose. I can draw in strong, static lines, but I really like the loose and unstudied lines that I get when I draw without a pencil underlay. So I usually bang out a little skeleton to follow so that the limbs don’t look too broken and then scribble my idea over top. Sometimes I don’t use a skeleton at all. Sometimes I do a more complete sketch and then mostly ignore it.

For Hollowpoint I want bad guys. So I’m drawing blood-spattered, violent people enjoying their work. I want professionals but I also want at least a hint of crazed. I’d really like both women and men but I’m not all that good at drawing women (I have learned that they are not just men with breasts and I think I have the trick now — they also have hips) but I’m practicing.

There’s another way we can go with simple — we can go with full or partial silhouettes, like the cover. This is pretty appealing but I’m concerned it might echo Miller’s Sin City work too much and while Hollowpoint is certainly inspired by Sin City and 100 Bullets (which also uses a variation on that style) I don’t want to be lifting anything from those properties inappropriately. And, honestly, if my art is in the game then I kind of want it to look like my art.

So anyway, this is more a gallery than a blog post. “Here’s some of the art I’m thinking about,” is what I’m saying, and not so much “here are some amazing insights about stuff you care about.” Sorry about that, but sometimes it’s mostly about the pictures.

I’m not sure how big these would be. They looks cool small but they also look pretty cool when you blow them up because of the artifacts that Illustrator introduces when you trace the original scans. For that matter, the original scans look kind of cool too, with more grey tones because I am using an imperfect pen to do the rel-world sketching (yes, I work in the real world, scan, and trace digitally, adding colour if it’s appropriate). The original size of the images are between 3cm and 6cm tall, but they reproduce nicely both scaled up and scaled down.

Hurray for holidays. I finally feel free to do stuff like this. I don’t even care if I use it.


Apr 14 2010

Feedback analysis

No this is not about coping with fans that won’t shut up.

Any system over a certain minimum of complexity (and that minimum is pretty small) risks accidentally incorporating a positive feedback loop. There are three things that come out of this observation: first, how come? Second, so what? Third, holy crap what do I do?

The reason this happens is because eventually a system (and here I mean any system, not just game systems) can get to the point where you can’t hold the whole thing in your head at once. When that happens, it stops being clear what the follow-on effects of a function are because they can be indirect by several layers. Function A causes Function B to trip which incidentally calls Function C which needs Function D which creates an error condition for Function A in an unexpected context. That’s not actually a positive feedback loop but an example of a different kind of error that sometimes manifests as a “priority inversion”. We don’t care about priority inversions here.

But the point is that you can no longer rely on your knowledge of what affects what. Worse, if you have multiple people developing, you will probably only understand their area of participation to some minimum level. With games that’s the operational level — you have to really force yourself to care more deeply than “does it work at the table”. How it works and what the ramifications are can’t be your focus for every single function when something is past some minimum level of complexity.

Okay so one of the things you might not notice is a positive feedback loop. That’s where something increases some resource, which increases the thing that’s doing the increase. If there is no counter, something will balloon out of control. Or rather, as you didn’t notice it in playtesting, something can increase out of control in some case. Maybe an edge case or maybe just something you didn’t get around to testing.

Negative feedback loops, on the other hand, are a good thing. They are stabilizing: when A decreases B which decreases B’s ability to decrease A, the system damps back to a stable state. That’s good.

Now in my Real Job I care about positive feedback loops because they cost millions of dollars if they get to the field. So I do something called “feedback analysis” and it’s really simple and you can do it for game systems you’re working on easily enough. What you do is this:

For every resource in the system, draw a bubble and write the name of the resource. So for Chimaera right now I have Desperation, PC successes, Enemy successes, PC health, Conversion, and Take. Desperation is a pool of dice, successes are the number of successes you might get in a conflict round, conversion is the rate at which you can change Desperation to harm, and Take is the rate at which you can steal Desperation dice to roll for yourself. You can see that you have to treat “resources” as a fairly abstract concept in order to make this work.

Okay now, for each resource, consider whether or not its increase affects each other resource. If its increase increases another resource, drawn an arrow from source to destination and draw a + on the arrow. For example, Desperation increases cause Conversions to increase. Then, again for each resource, consider whether or not its increase decreases each other resource. If this is true, again draw an arrow from source to destination and draw a – on the arrow. For example, Takes decrease Desperation.

Once you have your map, you should have a lot of bubbles with crisscrossing arrows. Now you are ready to analyze.

For each resource, follow a + arrow out. Then follow a + arrow from that one to another. If you can get from a resource back to itself by following + arrows, then you have a positive feedback loop. This is where your game can explode.

Positive feedback loops commonly manifest as “death spirals” which you sometimes want, so if you find one look to see if it’s damped by some negative inputs. There might be enough to keep it fun — but watch that resource in play. That’s a red flag zone for you.

Sometimes positive feedback loops are actually loopholes in character creation that allow unexpectedly powerful characters. Or unexpectedly crappy ones (positive just means a resource is increasing — if the resource is something that sucks, then it’s increasing the suck).

Most often positive feedback loops result in optimal tactics — things that there is no reason not to do in a tactical scene. These are a pain in the ass because if you find them late, sometimes all you can do is shrug and say, “the GM shouldn’t allow you to be a douche like that”. This is a pain because, although this is true, this is how we patch games with serious defects so that they work. Obviously it would be better if the game did not have those defects to patch.

So there’s a tool for you design toolbox. You’ll find it’s something of an art when applied to role-playing games because the resources are not well-defined. That’s cool. I like art.


Apr 5 2010

Sudden focus

Right now the VSCA has several games percolating. It’s interesting how they swim in and out of focus.

Chimaera is the latest example. Until recently it was mostly still in JB’s head and it seemed to derive largely from fiction he wanted to tell, and consequently lacked a presence as a game. Instead it was more a sequence of visual ideas, which is fertile soil for a game to germinate. But it’s not a game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a sequence of visual ideas that was all that compelling to me and so I was having a hard time assisting in its transition from “cool stuff” to “game”. It was out of focus and I honestly saw no game there (though I did see a number of cool ideas that could become part of other games).

On Easter Friday we sat down and went through community and character generation for Chimaera, something that had a few rules written down but nothing as concrete as a checklist. Now part of the problem with designing in your head is that the order of use makes you go in circles. When you sit down and do it, you can iterate in those circles, though, and design and pare and sculpt and fix and text and again like that. So at the table instead of one linear idea, we got this happening:

“Here’s how you make communities.”

“Hrm, I don’t have a feel for my community with these numbers. Too many zeroes. It’s, what, ‘disorganized’ and ‘isolated’?”

“Maybe a different curve? Fewer zeroes?”

“How about this? No. This? No. This? Whoa that’s cool; low probability of zero, peak probability of one, and descending probabilities to five.”

“Zero should be special then. Not ‘least’ but maybe opposite or transitional. A new state.”

“Try it first.”

“Okay my community seems cooler. But what’s Integrity zero now? Just ‘chaotic’ or ‘unstable’?”

“Should be a new state. It’s not a community at all at Integrity zero — it’s property for someone else. Call it ‘commodified’.”

“So my community is a baby farm that your community is using as a buffer to keep the daemons off? Holy crap that’s dark.”

“And cool.”

And like that. We built communities, tweaked the rules, built them again, tweaked the dice, built again, and so on until we found a place that wasn’t “good enough” but rather “awesome”.

Now with characters you have something more complex happening and this makes design necessarily iterative for the same reasons that it’s hard to figure out what order to make the chapters in the game book: in order to make a cool character you need to know something about the resolution system so that you can see how the character representation will impact play. In order to test (or demonstrate) the resolution system, though, you need some characters.

So JB already had a character generation system established but it wasn’t very clear exactly how the resolution system would get pushed around by the character representation. So we went straight to the resolution system and did something that I will suggest to any designer: quit dicking with the dice. It’s not that important. Pick a dice system and then make the character representation play the dice like a fiddle.

So the dice system we went with is simple: roll a pool of dice based on something. Odd numbers are successes. Most successes wins. For now, who cares how you get the dice pool size.

We rolled some opposed checks and it’s good. It creates successes and failures and ties. Taking a card from Hollowpoint’s deck, we decided that ties are mutual failures mostly because that’s not boring (a wash is boring) and because it speeds up rather than slows down the progress of a multi-stage conflict. So if you lose, you lose as many dice as the difference between your and your opposition’s roll. If you tie, you both lose a die.

Now here’s where cool dice mechanisms often fail to meed the road with any grip: how do three players conflict against opposition run by one player? There are two basic choices: take turns and resolve piecemeal, or all roll at once and discover. We’re all a little tired of you-go-I-go-you-go systems and dice pools are amenable to roll-and-discover so it goes like this:

Each player rolls her pool. We test with sketched characters that have skills and aspects, though we don’t really know what these will mean yet. Ranking the skills, players have four dice in their best skill. See what happens.

The GM rolls an opposition pool that’s big — say four dice per opposing player for an equal match.

The GM can use successes in her pool to cancel successes in any or many players’ pool. Shades of ORE and Hollowpoint. If a player’s pool has been reduced to zero, the GM may declare the rest of her successes as damage on that player. Or she can use them to cancel more successes in other pools. For each damage unit, the player loses one die somehow.

Players with remaining successes can use them to damage the opposition. For each success the GM removes a die from her pool.

Cycling through this a few times it seems to work. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s a little tactical, and it’s easy. It always has a resolution.

So we go back to character representation. Characters have Traits which are like skills or something. They are ranked from four to one. JB previously had the idea that each Trait has a number of Aspects equal to its rank. That’s cool and simple. And it’s suggests a mechanism that it turns out binds all aspects of resolution together in a tight little bundle:

You choose the Trait to play with and get that many dice. You may tick off one or more Aspects under any other Trait and add a die for each. When you take damage, you must tick off an unticked Aspect. You can’t use a ticked Aspect. If you have no unticked Aspects, you are dead.

Okay so now you have a way to record damage, a way that damage impacts effectiveness, a risk/reward balance for grabbing extra dice, and something cool implied in character generation (here we iterate): you do not want Aspects associated with a Trait to be about the things that Trait is obviously about, because they cannot be used to assist that Trait! We smell something cool.

See, let’s say you have this character:


  • “Crack shot”
  • “Martial artist”
  • “Marksman”
  • “Ruthless killer”


  • “Grows great corn”
  • “Weatherbeaten”
  • “Animal handler”

Now, in a fight she will use SOLDIER and grab four dice. But what will she draw on for additional effect? “Grows great corn”? So it’s mechanically defective but, worse, it’s boring. Very little under SOLDIER tells me anything interesting. However, a player playing tactically during character generation (and I feel strongly that a game ought to do best when played best) would choose Aspects that are not strictly related to the Trait in order to maximize usage in other contexts. Say:


  • “Born leader”
  • “Can march for days”
  • “Plans everything”
  • “Cool under pressure”


  • “Varmint hunter”
  • “Strong as an ox”
  • “Handy with all manner of dangerous tools”

Okay now we have two valuable new results: first we have a character that will play well at the table. When making SOLDIER checks, she can grab “Varmint hunter” for shooting and the other two for hand-to-hand. We just learned that because of her background, she’s a soldier with powerful close-combat specialties. When making FARMER checks, she’s grabbing her planning skills and her endurance and even her leadership for successes, and so we learn how life as a soldier impacts her duties as a farmer. So the second valuable result is that this character is way way more interesting!

So we run a fight again with these new characters, and we find that there is benefit in switching out skills (a common failure in games is using the same skill over and over which is boring as hell)! If you use a Trait and tick an Aspect or two, it will often pay to use the Trait with a ticked Aspect next because the skill you used last time has lots of Aspects available! And, further, damage will influence your next choice as well. This means that your best Trait is often the optimal choice initially, but as the fight evolves it may become the worst choice because it has all your unticked Aspects under it. This is really cool — combat becomes a series of dynamic choices. It’s tactical, and the tactical choices drive the creation of unexpected stories. How can I get my FARMER Trait into this desperate battle with mutated wolves?

Any really great session winds up generating art. So, in celebration of the fact that Chimaera began as a set of visual ideas without cohesion (well, without game-like cohesion) and finished the evening as a concrete and delightful game, I went to the drawing board and worked up an image to incorporate into a cover for the game. One that has none of these visual ideas. I picture it in the upper right corner of a field of black. Because I smell a very dark game here.


Mar 16 2010

GM Prep

I often say I don’t prep. Well I don’t, except when I do. How much do I prep? Well, this wiki entry is on the deep end of my prep scale. A map that leads to some discussion of place and people. Some hints at secrets and an idea about how much and what kind of magic is there. A stab at “what people do” who do things.

In writing that much (and that’s a lot more than I usually do) I had to think about why I do what I do. Or more correctly why I don’t do so much of what other people do do. Ha, I said “do do”.

One motivation to not do too much is a desire to see what the players will do with it. Even before “play” I am deeply interested in how players will take this information and turn it into characters. In the process of doing that (and we codified this in Diaspora, which was really smart — you should go buy that game, holy wow) they will be feeding information back into the setting so I want to a) make room for that and b) appear to give permission to do that. So there’s only so much I want to write — I’m comfortable throwing out some names but not elaborating allegiances and stuff. I want to talk about magic to establish some tone, but I don’t want to force an interpretation that might be fun. I need room for alternatives and elaborations. Fortunately worlds are big, so I can paint broad strokes and still have room for details that needn’t contradict anything. Exceptions are fine because they are new detail and I have room for detail.

One reason I do as much as I do is because it’s a hoot. This is play for me — drawing maps, making up names, and inventing sketches of history and culture that might belong to this place. But I’m lazy as hell — I get no joy from deep detailed discussions of history or religion and, worse, I know no one is going to read it in detail either. So if it’s not for me, who’s it for? So my core assumption in prep is that no one is actually going to read any of it, and therefore it’s play for me. And so I don’t feel obligated to do any more than I find fun.

Now by assuming no one will read it I’m not saying that no one will read it. I expect that some players will read some of it. But assuming they won’t gives me a certain measure of freedom to do as little as I like and as much as I want.

But mostly I just want to draw a map and explain it a little. To make a place. Really, I don’t even need to play the game proper, though I dig the new detail it inevitably adds to the place. But I already had my fun so now the game is basically dessert.

What do players get from it, though? I dunno, I’m asking.


Mar 15 2010

Heroic fantasy

So someone at my table has been begging for some heroic fantasy. Not out loud (much) but I can see into everyones’ souls, so I know. And I know what he means — he’s not talking about the super-heroic plane-jumping fantasy we’re building with Soft Horizon. He’s talking about the nostalgiac heroic fantasy of our youths — Dungeons & Dragons and all that. What we tried to make with Pathfinder the other day (week) and couldn’t get a grip on.

And I’m in. I mean, I grew up on that kind of gaming and I still love it in my head. I have fond memories of so many great evenings that revolved around it that it would be silly to pretend that we’re so different now that it can never work. And there are two other forces here that come into play.

First we can spend some time not-designing. That will be a nice change of pace I think — we can play some games for a while and not design anything. We can build up some more experience with games rather than spend energy creating new ones. Accept some games for what they are and play the hell out of them.  That smells pretty good to me right now.

Second, I can spend some time preparing. Now I often say that I spend no time ever preparing for games and there’s a way in which that’s true — I don’t spend a ton of time making up NPCs or plotting encounters. But man do I spend a lot of time making images in my head — fragments of scenes that need to get described. Often they are triggered by music (in fact the same music that triggered exciting images for me twenty-five or more years ago) but equally often they are triggered by my own desire to make stuff.

See, I draw. For me drawing is like mathematics — I’m not very good at it but I adore it. I will never be a mathematician but that does not stop me from consuming books about mathematics and related subjects. And so with drawing — I love to draw. I dig the hybrid art that happens when I sketch on paper and refine digitally, but mostly I love the paper part. I love real ink on a crow-quill nib and managing the line that results. And buying more art supplies is always a bit of a high, so the fact that drawing invites shopping is also nice.

So starting a new fantasy game means I get to at least draw a map, and that’s great fun for me.

Naturally the next question (actually the prior question) any geek is asking is, “what system?” Normally that’d be Reign, because Reign has so reliably delivered for us in the past. I think, however, that it’s time to give Burning Wheel another crack, partially because people I think are very smart (hi, Judd; hi Johnstone) are playing great games with it. That suggests to me that some of the failings I found in it may well have been my own, so it’s time to revisit. It also plays really well in that gritty zone I love in fantasy gaming — the one where magic is uncertain and improbable and physical competence still counts for so much. The energy spent in character creation has the potential to drive longer play, I think, and I’d love to run a campaign that had some legs. A dozen sessions would thrill me.

And so now I’m drawing maps and re-reading my Burning Et Cetera books. And looking forward to Thursday night. But I always look forward to Thursday night, because no matter what the experiment, it’s with my friends.


Mar 14 2010

Painting with photoshop

Playing with ink and photoshop for a fantasy map.

Feb 12 2010


So I feel a little guilty.

A little.

Sometimes when JB and I get together for lunch we talk about games. You know, specific games, gaming theory, mathematics, social effects, what we like, what we don’t like, that kind of thing. It’s fun. It’s productive.

Now, JB is working on a game so sometimes we talk about his game. We don’t do this very often — you know, we’ve done it a couple of times. Things is, each time we’ve come up with something cool, I’ve stolen it. The first big one was Deluge where I stole the whole post-apocalyptic community salvaging idea. I consoled myself that it was sufficiently different from what he wanted that he’d probably still be my friend. Now Deluge was just an experiment (at least partly in licensing) and so it’s not expected to sell millions of copies. And it isn’t. So that’s cool — JB’s game isn’t going to deal with a market that’s already seen this.

The other day, though we came up with a pretty cool idea. Basically, if you start with a big wack of dice, how about you donate some to a communal pool that represents “teamwork”? And when you want to act you can take some dice from there. Nifty I suppose. Now what if when you did that you got to tell one of the other players that they are helping you and you were encouraged to order them around? So they’d buck. And what if, should they tell you, “Fuck that,” the dice are destroyed? So there’s both a tactical and a social stake in the process. That strikes me as pretty funny and I figured my table would engage it enthusiastically.

So I went home and banged out a couple thousand words that would serve as a playtest document. And then last night we played. And it rocked.

So of course now I’m thinking that this is a pretty fun little game and I’d like to share it and maybe make back a fraction of my time in cash and, well, do some artwork too, and maybe come up with a cool little layout for it and…yes, it’s another project. I stole from JB and made a thing again.

Sorry, man.


Feb 1 2010

How Amazon and Apple stabbed me in the eye

Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue have already weighed in. I don’t have anything new to add except possibly my opinion which I think is completely uninteresting. Facts will carry the day and this is clearly a skirmish in the war that will occupy the next several years in the publishing business. The expected (and apropos) analogy with dinosaurs and mammals has been made repeatedly. I believe I alluded to it myself last year sometime.

The only thing I really care about is the fact that I enjoy layout as an art form and the electronic book market, given the direction it’s heading, is poised to change what that is a very great deal. And that’s scary. It means that just as the tools we use for layout are becoming mature, the game is changing under them and again layout is complicated. Complicated is interesting. I’m cool with that. Just scared.

Anyway, is making me re-think Deluge as a product and that’s also a good thing because it lets me address my release fear by not releasing. It’s currently designed as a hybrid product — a PDF that’s built on a US Letter page scaffold with the recognition that some significant body of readers will want to print it. It looks pretty printed — even clever — right now. It also works as a PDF. But as it is an experiment in current electronic publishing, it seems Steve Jobs has insisted that I make it work on a third axis. Okay fine.

So, it has to work in print. It has to work as a functional PDF (that is, printed and on screen). It has to work as a re-flowable form like MOBI or ePub. ePub is a supposedly heavily supported (partially designed) by Adobe. Yet the ePub output from InDesign looks like crap by default, assuming you concentrated on making a cool looking page. Pages are primary to InDesign’s operation and yet the ePub output has no page. You have to think in terms of the “story” and ignore the page for this to work (and yes that means making images inline, which almost always sucks and a half). Okay, I can do this.

Paper and PDF are paginated. ePub (and whatever I convert to from there) is not. I want to have products cross-correlate, so I think Toph’s page insertion scheme is ideal here — at the beginning of each page, the text will contain a reference to the page number, so a reflowed version will identify each page as it would have started in the paged version. I will try to automate this with InDesign and have some ideas. This is fairly inobtrusive (compared with treating the reflowed text as canonical and numbering some fundamental unit of the text, like paragraphs, which is slicker but uglier) but not without controversy. In particular, the implicit declaration that the paged version is canonical strikes me as wrong.

Images have to go inline. That means my lovely margin usage will vanish and images will simply interrupt the text. I can cope.

Sidebars have to go inline. Lots of electronic formats support sidebars but they all suck. The problem is that there’s just not enough real-estate on screen to give sidebars the function that they have on a page — they are either completely intrusive or they are a push-button away and switch between dominant and non-existent. These choices suck. Instead I think I will re-write so that they are not sidebars. This has worked for technical books for ages. Sidebars may be mostly a gimmick anyway–I’m not convinced of their utility beyond breaking up the page and providing visual landmarks.

Cross-references have to be logical rather than literal because they need to become actual links. This is all good.

The deepest issue is one of legibility — it’s not clear to me that a single set of choices will create a legible document when printed on US Letter as when viewed on the screen in print-preview (PDF) form as when viewed in a reflowable form. I can actually ignore the reflowable version — it’s pretty much guaranteed to be legible because its presentation is reader and user dependent.  But for the two presentations that are most deeply at odds, there are serious issues. I’m pretty sure, for example, that it will pay off to use a larger typeface than I would for print-only target because the sorts of devices used to view PDFs are myriad. But this is likely to make print ghastly and paper-intensive unless the intended print form is two-up or four-up. Can I make that assumption? I suppose I can declare it in the product.

The bottom line, though, is that doing layout just became a very different kind of job for RPGs. Novelists have it easy — one typeface and every page the same shape. No diagrams, no tables (ugh tables — that’s going to suck too), and one typeface. But with all these things there are so many opportunities for the RPG layouterizer to make elegant and beautiful choices. Most of which are undermined by the new technology. I think, though, that honestly Apple and Amazon have together changed the landscape.

It will be years before things shake out, but it’s clear that the shaking has started. And I am in a better position to be a mammal than a dinosaur. But fans of that analogy should keep clear in their heads that we still also have a lot of birds in this modern world. Recall that when mammals started eating their eggs, dinosaurs took to the air.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. The best you can do is react, especially if you’re well positioned to do so cheaply.


Jan 8 2010

Sieving the audience

Any game (or any other text, but games here) that someone (let’s call her the publisher now, though things get muddy if we talk about specific cases) produces, has some objective. I’m going to discuss a small set of possible objectives, so let’s be clear right at the start here: I am talking about game texts (not games in the abstract — the set of rules shared by the tables’ hive mind that are executed in play) whose objective is to be played.

There are other objectives and the difference can be subtle. It’s possible to have an over-arching objective of making money and still wind up with an objective of play en route: getting played is part of the marketing strategy, for example. Some game texts do not have this marketing strategy and so may not have play as part of their list of objectives. These publishers should ignore the rest of this essay. Play as an objective can also be arrived at as a simple matter of artistic integrity (and I’ll have nothing to do with cynics who scoff at artistic integrity) — it’s not unreasonable for someone who loves designing games to hold the goal of seeing that game played higher aloft than the goal of turning a buck.

So, some publishers have as a critical goal maximising the amount that their game gets played. That’s what I’m talking about here now. If you aren’t interested in how you get games played, move on.

Getting a game played is a sieving process. There are several obstacles that have to be navigated by a prospective player (actually there are two quite separate sieve stacks but I only care about one right now), and each is equally important (mathematically — each reduces your audience by a percentage and multiplication just works that way). All are not equally easy to achieve. Here are your layers, roughly:

Awareness: this is not actually part of this sieve because awareness of the game is the objective of a marketing strategy. It’s super important, but we will take it as read here that we are talking about people who are already aware of and have some desire for the game. We’re talking about obstacles to play now.

Distribution. The percentage of people who might play who can actually get the game. If you can’t get it you can’t play it (not strictly true, but that’s in the other stack — people who play someone elses game, taught by that someone else — and that one is much easier to get large numbers through, but the source may be dependent on the output of this stack).

Readership. Of all the people who got the book, only some of them will read it through. Some will never open it. Some will try to read it and shelve it before getting far. In order to get the owner to play, they have to read it. You care about people reading it.

Comprehension. A subset of the people that read the whole book will understand it. Now this one is tricky — some play can happen with partial understanding. Sometimes a game is even improved by partial understanding1. But if it’s incomprehensible, it doesn’t get played.

Enthusiasm. The readers who understood the game now need to sell it to their table. The reader can’t2 play by herself. So the text needs to deliver enthusiasm that can be delivered to others.

Teachability. That’s a crap word. But even if the table is enthusiastic, the reader still needs to deliver the rules in such a way that the enthusiasm is sustained, otherwise the evening’s play will fall flat. So some percentage of games that get this far will halt before play gets a grip. Now a big factor in teachability is in the capabilities of the teacher, so the control the text has over this is limited. But not zero. The text can provide ways to teach.

Fun. Finally, that session has to have been fun in order to get more play. This is different than insisting that the game itself must be fun. The session in which everyone was learning the game, the very first session, has to be fun enough to create enthusiasm for more play. After that it’s largely out of the hands of the game text.

Okay, so given this sieve and given my personal interests, I want to talk about one layer that gets short shrift by publishers who ostensibly have the goal that this sieve stack implies: play. That sieve is readership.

There are several factors that limit the likelihood that someone will read a text through. Some are more important than others and some can be mitigated by others, so I’ll talk about the roles that are at the end of the process. So I’m not talking about whether the writing is fun to read, though that’s a factor, because there’s a gateway after the author that’s supposed to force the text back for revision if it’s not happening: the editor. The other major role is the guy that delivers the editor’s output to the page: the layout artist. These two roles are you last chance to retain readers.

Obviously I have a specific axe that’s making all these sparks. I just read a book I won’t name (because I don’t think personalising this criticism is valuable) that I did not read because both of these roles failed. I suspect this is a hugely fun game, but I will not get to play it unless I can get down the other sieve stack, where someone I know and love does read it and decide to teach it. It’s full of cool ideas, but they are not delivered to me.

First, the word count is about twice what it needs to be. The text itself is turgid and full of itself and goes on forever. I have some sympathy for this, because I write like that too. But the editor should have demanded that the text be cut and cut and cut again. A lower word count reduces the overall size of the book, reduces the cost of layout, and increases the options available to the layout artist.

Now you can’t just cut anything — I mean, if it takes two hundred thousand words to deliver the concept, then that’s what it takes. But a good editor can cut a lot from the best writer. This is why director’s cuts suck so hard — even great (possibly especially great) directors desperately need an editor who can smack them down. For a game to get read through, the editor needs to cut and preserve voice. Bored readers stop reading.

Second, the layout is just plain aggravating to read. Now there are a couple of common problems with layout, especially in independent titles. The first is layout that just plain sucks — the layout artists doesn’t know anything about design and has as a priority getting words on paper. This problem is not really an interesting one because there’s no sense of disappointment for me — bad layout is just bad layout. It’s obvious.

The more insidious kind of layout problem is where the artist has crafted a beautiful page that is aggravating to read. This is seriously disappointing and makes me drop a book just about instantly. A book with beautiful fonts that are too small ore stuffed into lines that are too long or that impinge on the edge of the page too closely is just about the saddest thing I can try and fail to read. Viewed from enough distance, each page is a work of art, but in the process of reading it (and again, reading it is what it’s for — a priority goal) it fails. It’s a special kind of ugliness, like a pretty diagram that fails to deliver its information.

Okay so there you go. For a book to get played it needs to get read. For it to get read it needs and editor with authority and nerve, and it needs a layout artist who cares foremost about delivering text3.

I look forward to revised editions of several games I have not played.


  1. Yes I am thinking of at least one game in particular.
  2. Sorry, Jackson, obviously not strictly true, but The Smoke Dream is a special case.
  3. On layout and graphic presentation of data in general, I can’t recommend highly enough The Visual Display of Information by Edward R. Tufte and The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. No layout artist should begin a new project without first re-reading both. I don’t have similar recommendations for being a great editor, but perhaps an editor could speak up on the topic.