Jul 21 2011


Fair warning. This will sound like a description of things I carefully and explicitly intended while working on Hollowpoint. It’s not. It’s a rationalization of a lot of instinctive stuff that went on that was related to events in a certain order. It feels, now, to me, like it was all deliberate and careful. But it wasn’t. So this is me making sense of how the part of my brain to which I do not have direct, narrative access to seems to work. That one time.

This game came out of discussions about non-violence. Now by that I don’t mean not hitting people, though that’s certainly part of it. I mean the kind of non-violence that J B Bell introduced me to as elaborated by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. The crux of this idea is that any human interaction in which a party engages by undermining the essential needs of the other party is violent. Killing is a trivial case–there are more subtle and interesting ways to be violent.

I was (and to some extent remain) skeptical of the utility of this approach and J B and I had a lot of lunch time discussions about this. Also at lunch we talked about game design. He was working on Chimaera at the time and one thing he was interested in was making it profitable to act in non-violent ways. Because most games assume you will do violence to everyone in order to get your way.

Well sort of. In fact as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really think of a game that took a solid stance one way or the other. Reign has Lie and Plead, which are both kind of violent in their way (undermining needs for honesty and peace and autonomy &c), but it also has Perform which really isn’t. Most games are like that, failing to take a side.

So J B wanted to explore nonviolence (and at this point I want to tell J B that his preferred spelling, with the space, has typographic issues and that he should reconsider it for the sake of aesthetics) in his new game. But can you make a fun and engaging game without violence? One way certainly would be to just have no violent skills, but this still allows the player to frame their use in a violent manner. So it’s not so simple as drafting skills.

Eventually we started talking about reward cycles and how one might make non-violent behaviour more appealing or at least competitively interesting. That’s all another story. because while I was ostensibly helping J B (see–it just doesn’t work J B) with his game, I was actually developing something else. Sure I stole his dice system, but my brain was heading over here: what if I made a game where you could only be violent? Where there was no way to frame any action in a non-violent sense. If non-violent-only games seemed boring, perhaps violent-only games would be awesome.

Well it turns out they are. In Hollowpoint, every core skill is a form of violence. You are KILLing, TERRORizing, obviously. But you are also COOL and aloof, completely apart from your opponent, degrading his self-image by comparing it to your own. You CON people rather than discuss or diplomatize or even haggle. You trick them. You are dishonest. And further, you do not buy or even beg — you TAKE. And when you want information you do not ask. You don’t even investigate. You DIG. You have more in common with a vicious, determined, investigative reporter (who, however laudable their work is, are essentially engaging in violent behaviour, strictly speaking) than an interviewer.

And hence this new game. It is a book that distills me wondering about a game where every option is violence.


Jul 19 2011

Research and development and gunfire

This is not related to the fact that I work in the R&D department of a (non-military!) branch of a national defense contractor.

It is about the value of research and development in game design and in particular in the effects of the VSCA “playstorming” model for R&D. This is interesting at this very moment, because Hollowpoint is an unanticipated spin-off from an R&D effort for a completely different game. Maybe even more interesting is the fact that the target game, J B Bell’s Chimaera, is ostensibly about non-violence. Hollowpoint, of course, is pretty much completely about violence (both in the expected literal sense and in the broader sense in which the non-violence movement intends the term).


Playstorming is what we have pretty much always done when we sit at the table, because we just can’t leave well enough alone. Fiasco is probably the first game that we didn’t instinctively playstorm as soon as we got it.

Playstorming is a deliberate play on “brainstorming” and I think its meaning is pretty self-evident. We sit down at the table with some broad ideas and see if they are a game by playing them, changing them, arguing about them, philosophizing about them, drinking some more, playing some more, and iterating over all of the above. Most often this produces fairly little, but it’s fun to do and so that fact that it does have some net product makes it worthwhile.

In this particular case, J B was looking for a dice system to underpin Chimaera. J B has a fetish for dice systems and I don’t, so it seemed like a good thing for me to look into. We’d just come off some Reign gaming (though we are always coming off some Reign gaming — it’s a staple) and so I was thinking ORE-like thoughts. We’d also been playing around with 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and while that game didn’t get as much play as we’d hoped, it did stir up a lot of ideas about character and content and the relationship between the two.

Anyway, I worked up this strange dice system for Chimaera and we took it to the table.

It sucked

It sucked. Well it didn’t really, but binding it to other elements of Chimaera proved a bit of a chore and J B was not happy with the ref’s role in it — it didn’t deliver the kind of one-on-one, guy-versus-guy, monster hunting action that a good non-violent game should. I, however, was still enamoured with it. And so I stole it.

Stripped of the rest of the Chimaera context, this dice system seemed like a good way to spur and spark and even generate story in the middle of a fight. So I decided that its best use would be in a game that was basically about fighting. Or at least being very bad. I had probably also been in some juvenile debate about “roll-play versus role-play” and found myself very much wanting to smash that phrase to pieces. To do so, I chose to develop a system in which the dice and the role-playing were so intermingled that the dichotomy would be exposed as artificial once and for all.

And we got that. In Hollowpoint, there are of course the usual free-form role-playing scenes. You can’t stop people from doing that and why would you? But the real meat of the narration comes during the fight, when the dice hit the table, and you are forced to make sense of what happened in the context of what you intended. You chose to use TERROR but you got nothing in your dice, so you burn your “ceramic hula girl” trait, add two dice, and get two shiny new sets. Now you are officially TERRIBLE and it has something to do with that ceramic hula girl. Tell me about that. Make each set make sense as it does harm, as the glass shatters, as the dumpster fills with holes, as you laugh and they cower, as the hula girl shatters. Roll-play like hell, you monster.

And so I came to the table with something from my earliest gaming memories: a typed sheet with a mission on it. It was Top Secret , 1980, all over again. We used to play a lot of that game and the way we played it would inform Hollowpoint: as a ref I would come to the game with a typed set of mission orders and that was the extent of my preparation. The game would invariably take place right in my home town, which is part of why the prep was so effective when so light — your home town is a crazy-rich setting that all your players know more about than anyone knows about Forgotten Realms.

So we would do that too.


Needless to say, I was excited by the results. It pushed all kinds of buttons for me, from childhood cops & robbers to Top Secret (now I’m a little concerned that VSCA games are all going to actually be strange re-constructions of old classics) missions to assassinate my math teacher, to narration-from-dice. This was all very unexpected — recall this started as an experiment for another game, and an experiment that went badly. But what I wound up with was a game that was basically everything I wanted in an action game. I just hadn’t actually thought about making an action game yet.

And that’s the thing about good R&D — failures have a context, and if you reconsider the context, you may find yourself with an accidental success. Risk is necessary (I recently told a colleague that innovation meant “new” and that “new” meant “risky”, and so de-risking an R&D project is basically killing it) for innovation. But you have to have a sharp eye and an inclination to sift through the rubble.


Feb 4 2011

Solarizing Chimaera

So Chimaera restlessly bumps around in my head all the time. Murdering it generally just ensures that it will rise again, phoenix-like. A bedraggled, smoky, ugly duckling of a phoenix, but that’s the creative process for you.

I’d pitched The Shadow of Yesterday and its genericized core, Solar System, before, but the system didn’t wow my VSCA compatriots, and as we were serious about publishing, the Creative Commons Non-Commercial license it was under (or so I thought) was an obstacle. A few weeks ago I got word (finally) that it had actually been opened up to just an Attribution license quite some time back. And that Eero Tuovinen had re-spun Solar System with his own, expanded take.

Turns out, I like his take, and of course Clinton Nixon’s original excellent thesis: “No gods. No monsters. Just people.” In mechanical terms this means you have a closed range of effectivness: the least able character in the game always has a shot at bloodying the nose of the most talented. When you roll the best roll possible, your character retires, automatically. Right away this suggests what to do in Chimaera: the retiring character becomes an Exemplar–a kind of community resource, right there on our cluster map, which strengthens that particular community in its ability to resist and repel the predations of the Daemon Lords.

I’ve also long felt some frustration with Aspects–not that I don’t like them personally, I very much do–but a couple guys at our table seem to have persistent difficulty leveraging them. And for myself, it’s not a problem exactly, but it does take several sessions typically till I feel like all the Aspects on my own sheet are really operating efficiently, usually with several changes.

I’ve only played The Shadow of Yesterday a couple times, maybe three, to be honest. But my experience of Keys was really powerful and I’d been hankering to show them off at our table anyway. I was getting set to just run a straight game of TSoY. As it happened, just chugging away writing up a few Secrets and Keys over the course of a week and half or so gave me the confidence I needed to pitch character generation for Chimaera using Solar System.

Even better, I don’t think a single one of my prepared Keys or Secrets got used. Just knowing how they work in general, and having some setting-specific examples for Chimaera as well as from the TSoY wiki online, was enough for our clever cohort to bash out their own with little difficulty and good speed.

We got a pacifist, except when he’s an assassin (because if you’re wearing a mask, it’s not personal, so it’s not murder); a skull-bashing miner; and a collective-intelligence jackaloid pack. And the community map shows hard-bitten, secret outposts in dire and direct opposition to the Daemon rule–not much urban skulkery happening in this one, more like vicious ambush and counter-ambush in the mutant-infested wild.

It’s nice to have the whole table jazzed about it and the comfortable support of a well-known system.


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.


Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.

There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.

A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).

Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.

A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.

We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.

The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.

Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.

The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.

So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.

Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.

So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.

And derived from that last: play games.


Dec 16 2010

Magic, physics, and system

I was thinking about magic a while ago. And since then. It started a long time ago, when JB first brought his Chimaera project to the table with the clear intention of characters having access to what he calls “kewl powerz”. I agree with you that this lacks a sufficient definition to start working from, but it smells like magic. We tried some stuff and it was okay. Later we tried to start up a new game that certainly has magic in it (Crown of Gods is the early label on it) and decided to use an existing system as a baseline for it. We tried Strands of Fate. The results were pretty bleak — character generation was not a lot of fun (I think because there was a lack of direction going in, so the whole book read like a menu) and there was no suspicion that the mounting list of things on the character sheet were each going to contribute usefully to play.

There are at least two things in here that I want to break out. The first is a “what I like” opinion sort of thing and you should feel free to ignore it because opinions are horse-shit unless you are trying to either please or gall the person announcing opinions, in which case opinions are ammunition. The second is a dissection of why the character generation in SoF fell so flat for me and, while the fact that it fell is pretty subjective, the reasons it fell suggest at least two distinct player interests that one game generally can’t simultaneously satisfy, so that’s more interesting maybe.

I like magic that has a physics. Here’s the thing: if there’s magic in the world, I want it to seem real. And mechanically, as a player, I will not be satisfied if it is a substitution for mundane skills. That is, if “magic damage” and “melee damage” are differentiated only by the word magic, the skill used, and some resource substitution, I am bored. I don’t want a magic that is an alternate way to express physics. Fireball and fusion cannon cannot be the same thing. Ideally they are not even related.

Rather I want magic to have its own physics. Maybe several different physics where there are different schools of magic. I want magic that does specific things that are not just paint jobs over existing mundane action. There are a couple of ramifications from taking this stance. The first is that magic necessarily becomes tightly woven with the setting, and this is why generic magic systems usually make me unhappy — if a magic has its own physics, this is a profound and direct statement about the setting. If we are using, say, the spirit binding magic system for Burning Wheel (and I recommend that you do), then this is a world in which spirits exist, have their own wills, can be bound by others, and may extract revenge. This is a big deal — as big a deal as the unannounced “magic” of nearly every system: physics. And this is not like most other aspects of a game, which can be fairly easily extracted to a generic method.

The second is that it demands a sub-system. When a magic system uses the same core sub-system that, say, combat uses it loses its differentiation. Magic missile becomes a mundane arrow with magical paint. This, for me, is insufficiently magical. Rather I require that a magic system be completely defined, contacting the core system only at the points of resolution and resources. And, better, when there are multiple schools of magic, these better be as different from each other as they are from the mundane. When I play a magician I want to feel like I am engaging the system differently than I am when I am punching guys in the face.

There are two systems that suit my needs nicely in this regard. I am sure others are out there. D&D before 4e was pretty close, actually, but I didn’t really enjoy the bookkeeping of spell lists and books. The systems that work for me magically are Greg Stolze’s Reign and Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel.

I want character generation to be social. I want the system by which I generate characters to demand interaction between players. I want it to be fun to do together as a session and I really want ideas from it to feed into the setting. This, like magic systems as novel physics, has implications to the system and even to its expression.

For example, if character generation requires the review of a large amount of material (lists of complex material, inter-related), then perusing those lists is done alone, whether or not other people are at the table. If character generation requires attention to some interplay between resources (math!) the amount of time spent doing that is time spent not socializing. It’s time spent alone. You can’t always eliminate that, but you better pay attention to it, because at some point the system is asking me to make my character at home, and I can tell you that the thing that’s going to stay home is the game. I’ll play something else. This is a personal preference and one that is starkly contrasted amongst gamers. Some dearly want to be alone for character generation.

When we used to play D&D, Traveller, Twilight:2000, and all that great stuff in the 70s and 80s, the games followed fairly similar patterns for character generation. Not that they had the same methods, because they didn’t, but they had similar expectations from the player: the player would master this game and make her character. This was pretty broken at my table because we usually couldn’t afford multiple copies of the game, so character generation had to happen at the table. We could deal with that two ways — we could hand the book around and do characters one at a time, with the rest of the table bullshitting and waiting for their crack at the book; or we could do character generation through mediation: the ref would hold the book and manage the process of character generation.

Obviously, we did the latter and this became part of a model of game-time behaviour that persists to this day for us. What I would do is conduct the character generation. For each phase of character generation I would, book in hand, tell the players what they were to do and what the ramification of their decisions were. I would ask for dice rolls as needed. You might see already where this is going: we are already playing. Character generation has been integrated into the game proper and it is social (in the GM mediating play model of social action anyway). A happy side effect is that the players communicate with each other throughout each phase and plan for the next phase. They avoid overlapping niches naturally and good-naturedly (“Oh, you’re going to amp up stealth and knives? Cool, maybe we can be a stealth team — a hit squad or a thieve’s guild. I’ll pump up magic and stealth. Hey everyone make sure you have lots of stealth!”). And the setting gets enriched when the players do that.

But most importantly the character generation session is a session in which we are already playing the game and having a good time with it. We are not addressing a burden that needs to be shoved before we can begin. Why would one do that, anyway? Create a burden, I mean, that has to be addressed before play can begin? What better way to kill a campaign before it starts?

Okay so there’s my screed. I like magic to be a novel physics and therefore have a well-defined subsystem all its own. I demand that character generation be social play. I don’t want to sit at the table with five guys reading to themselves and taking notes. That first is mostly opinion and not so interesting. The second, I think, is a demographic and has an opposed group, but it’s also something a good referee can address at the table regardless of the system. If she spots the problem and decides to address it.


Oct 21 2010

Oh god, he’s going to invent categories

Yup, I am. The last couple of weeks I’ve spent a lot of time dancing with JB Bell around his project, Chimaera. In the process I’ve had to explain myself clearly, and that meant thinking hard about what I think. More importantly, serializing my think into speak. This often reveals places where my think is wrong. That’s awesome.

Anyway, we find we have two kinds of games we care about (in the context of our Chimaera discussion — there are probably more but I don’t care about them right now). I am not going to say one is better than the other, but I am going to say that they do different things and suck when forced to do things they don’t do intrinsically or that they don’t facilitate or that they don’t interface well with. I am going to invent terms which will be confusing but I’ll try to define things as I go.

Intentional systems. An intentional system is one in which units, in turn typically, announce their intent and then resolve the intent. I am aware that this looks like task resolution versus conflict resolution but we will see that that granularity is too coarse to be interesting here because I often want something in the middle that has a certain kind of character. Anyway, in an intentional system you are informed that it is your turn and you are asked what you do. You announce what you do and not what you want to accomplish — you say “I shoot him” or “I dive for cover” — and then you engage the system to determine your success or failure or degree thereof.

Intentional systems are amenable to maps. You want to move around, find advantageous position (not necessarily geographic), and exploit your advantages. You want each intention to be an interesting thing to do and therefore each thing should have an outcome. If it’s an outcome that might be in doubt, that’s even cooler. If you can assemble a small set of intentions into one move, where your sub-choices are part of a tactical process by which you optimize your resolution, that’s even more awesome. No Contact illustrates this with its movement effects — you can move a little and do something, you can move more and do something poorly, or you can move a lot and do very little else. Coupled with terrain (especially line-of-sight) this is a rich combinatorial problem for every turn. And it derives from stating your intent and then resolving it, acknowledging that sometimes your atomic unit of intent (your turn) can get complicated (I want to crawl over the ridge and take a shot, hopefully not getting spotted but the ridge is too far away to get there fast so I take a chance and lurch forward in a crouch, making a little noise and spoiling my aim but I get the shot…). That’s good.

I won’t talk too much more about intentional systems because I think they are extremely familiar. So much so, in fact, that a lot of gamers might not even realize that there is at least one alternative.

Post-hoc systems. I’d love a better name for this. The ORE is a post-hoc system that masquerades as an intentional systm. Hollowpoint is a post-hoc system and celebrates it. In a post-hoc system we declare no more than some coarse intent — not even an intent necessarily. In Hollowpoint your declaration is simple “I intend to TERRORIZE to solve this” or “I will KILL” or “I will be using my COOL”. Now the resolution system is engaged. Randomizers are deployed and the results are interpreted in the context of the initial statements. In Hollowpoint, a certain dice pattern indicates that you act early but with little effect — the narration of this in extreme conditions invites elaboration. If I get a very wide set on the table and no other sets and I was using KILL, I know a couple of things: I am going first, I am not going to end this fight, and I am not going to do anything else productive this round. “I leap from behind the bushes firing both submachine-guns on full auto only to discover I am out of ammo. The bad guys dive for cover (spoil one set) but quickly emerge grinning and shooting at me. Crap!”

The central feature of the post-hoc system is that it is interpretive (and maybe that’s a better name for it). It’s like a tarot card or tea leaf session. You establish a context, chuck your randomizers, and by turns interpret the result, fabricating a story as you go. This process does not need (and probably does not benefit from) a map because a map would constrain the interpretation with no advantage gained. If I want my leap from behind cover while out of ammo to include a swimming pool someone dives into, how would a map with no swimming pool be interesting? It wouldn’t affect any of the mechanical outcomes so why dick with it? I can see ways you could wedge a map into it and get some extra effects to interpret but that invites two questions: what does it buy you and what does it cost?

Anyway, map or no, the point is that post-hoc system doesn’t just invite story-telling but it demands it and that is both its strength and its weakness. There is something I have called the “creative burden” in any system and intentional systems lower the creative burden by letting the player concentrate on the immediate. Should I move here or there? Should I shoot? At who? The post-hoc system increases not only the amount of creativity needed but also how fast you need it and what you have to work with and these are all factors in the perceived burden. And let’s be totally clear — there are a lot of people who do not want a substantial creative burden. That’s why I call it a burden. Hell, any given person will have nights when they want more and nights when they want less. That’s why some nights I refuse to ref, because practically any game with a ref places a disproportionate creative burden on the person in that role.


Oct 15 2010

When failure delivers the goods

My day job involves research. It’s commercial research and has all the limitations and caveats that that kind of research must have, but it’s still research. One of the things you learn early when doing research is that if failure is treated as failure, you are not doing research. This is because you are in search of facts, and failures contain at least as many demonstrable, recordable, measurable facts as successes. Failures deliver the goods.

So I’m not shy about having a really good time failing. This is when there is the most stuff to learn.

Soft Horizon was a grand experiment and a kind of Brooksiansecond system” for me. Not in the sense that it was huge but in the sense that it reached too far, reaching in fact for things that weren’t actually fun. Much energy was spent trying to find the fun in them. Now, any time you get to recognize your “second system” for what it is and throw it the hell away before it consumes you, you count yourself among the very fortunate. The more you can learn from it the better.

We had a case in miniature with Chimaera last night. JB and I had some play mechanisms that were very fruitful in the narrow context we initially tested.We extrapolated the mechanism to embrace a much greater context (five players instead of two and contrary intentions to those tested — supporting instead of undermining opposition), wrote it up, and thought “this will be awesome”.

It sucked so very hard.

Fortunately this is also awesome. Two things (at a coarse scale of “things”) came out of it. First was a bunch of elements of the system that were and could be reproduced elsewhere more successfully. Second was a long discussion not of how to repair it (because that’s development and not research) but rather why it failed. This long and detailed analysis revealed very powerful facts about this game, about games in general, and about the people who are developing this game. This kind of thing is pure gold.

One thing we learned is that it’s not just hard to make non-violent support and compromise tactical, it’s also not really very fun. It’s hard to find the actual conflict to really get your tactical teeth into. In many ways it’s just more fun to talk this out than to dice it — if both sides of an issue can find a common ground to examine and resolve the issue, that talk might be more fun than simulating that talk.

Another thing we learned is that the above is only true when you are doing simulation at the resolution scale. That is, when the pattern is to declare intent and then dice to determine success or failure, it’s deeply unsatisfying for some kinds of conflict. If you flip it around, though, and get some dice out based on your rough intentions and then use the play of the dice as the basis for story — “reading” them, in a sense — it’s way more satisfying. We see this in a fairly traditional context in Greg Stolze’s Reign, where everyone tosses the dice and the interpretation of these dice describes the detail and rhythm of the fight itself. The narrative for a round’s activity is discovered rather than declared and tested for success or failure. We see this as well in Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, where a declaration of intent is made, dice are brought out and rolled, and the results are bid by turns to one-up the other guy and story develops from this exchange.

Hollowpoint exploits this pattern as well, allowing the details of ultraviolent behaviour (especially when it goes wrong) to derive from big compared and manipulated dice pools.

Now it’s interesting that this is how we used to play Chimaera but it was unsatisfying for reasons we had not adequately examined. It turns out that the flaw here was maybe not so deep that the system needed tearing down. So this is the other benefit of all this talk and analysis about the failure: we got down to brass tacks regarding what the lead designer wants and why previous failures were failures. This is important because it was delivering on all (well many anyway) cylinders for everyone else before. This is a clue that perhaps not much is wrong.

What we discover is that the GM was bored with the old system. It didn’t give him enough to say about the story. In Hollowpoint this is a feature, as far as I’m concerned, because the stories are so very much about the player characters and their successes and failures. In Chimaera, though, we have a more detailed setting with opposition that wants (demands) a piece of story too. Well, once the actual issue is pinned down under the harsh illumination of some failure, the fix (or rather a possible fix to test) is discoverable. In this case we add another axis of information to the dice game and suddenly story opportunities balloon (and, better, become easier, possibly alleviating some of the creative burden on players).

The other thing we discover is that the desire to behave well (non-violently, constructively) is already built into the game and doesn’t need tactical simulation to see play. In fact it’s already part of player motivations for reasons that are much more satisfying: rather than delivering some benefit to be spent later or being a fun non-violent tactical mini-game, the larger scale map, the communities and their links to each other, suggest (in some cases insist) player action that will change the map to at least be more interesting and at best be more beneficial to everyone. We can improve the safety of the road between Makata and the Dim Tower if we can just start getting this regular shipment of soybeans through, starting a regular trade. We can stop the war between Etios and Makata if only we can get the warlord and the general together to talk this out. And these things are implied (mechanically!) by the community map already. All this work (play!) only to (re-)discover that the game already knew how to deliver what we wanted.

So that’s what I call a productive evening’s failure. We didn’t play anything through, we did some character generation and community mapping and we talked (heatedly at times) and threw a lot of dice and learned a lot of extremely valuable stuff. This is a very highly rated failure in my ledger of failures. And that’s a thick and powerful book.


Oct 13 2010

Monsters as Puzzles

Bailywolf over at RPG.net is a reliable source of awesome ideas. He is responsible, for example, for Counting to Infinity, a thread about slower-than-light trading ships and their trans-human crew coping with all the weird shit they’ve accumulated over centuries of trading with cultures on the verge of ascension or destruction. It’s his fault that I keep wandering back to the idea of a weapon that distorts information density.

Recently he started a thread about monsters as puzzles and I want to think about that out loud a little because this is something I’ve worked on before and I think there is gold in it.

Here’s the idea: the best monsters are impossible to kill until you figure out their weakness. They are, therefore, at least as interesting as puzzles (finding the weakness) as they are as combat opponents. Consider the fabled lion with a thorn in its paw — the secret is to find out about the thorn and not to beat it enough times with a rake that it leaves or dies. Now, Dresden Files RPG addresses this interestingly but I wonder if it can be elaborated on — made central rather than a feature of a combat system that is focused elsewhere.

As JB pointed out the other day, Chimaera is developing some interesting ideas about maps and combat. One of the really cool things about the way the new combat system evolves a map in play, is that this map can contain many features beyond the basic ones we intend, and as they change in play, these features can be tactical puzzles to create and solve. They could, therefore, address the “monster as puzzle” issue!

Right now in Chimaera, combat proceeds by either (or both) supporting or undermining the needs of the opposition. Supporting needs moves towards resolution by finding common ground and resolving conflicts without emotional or physical violence. Undermining needs moves towards resolution by breaking your opponent’s will (or her back). I am bolding needs because if you read it without thinking about the word as a term of art, it’s kind of hard to parse.

So in the course of play, you put needs into play and then craft paths between them. Where each actor resides is the need they are currently most concerned about — it’s the focus of their narrative now. So this plays in a pretty cool way — if I want to beat you in the face I need to get your health on the table and I need to put you there. I can do that right at the beginning (basically starting a conflict by stabbing you in the eye), but if I don’t then it can be tricky to get to physical violence. But you can.

With monster-as-puzzle it seems that a way to solve this is to chain needs. That is, the monster has a secret and vulnerable need — it is either extremely vulnerable to undermining or to supporting (and the lion with the thorn in its foot is a great example of a monster-as-puzzle where the solution is to discover the thorn and then support the need to remove it — it’s a non-violence parable because stomping on the lion’s thorned foot is not a recipe for success). But this secret need requires a way to discover it during the conflict, and so perhaps it also has a need for secrecy, and undermining that reveals the secret need, maybe even placing it on the table for free.

Whenever I think up a special case (in this case a need that triggers something else) my instinct is to generalize it and so of course it makes sense now for all needs to basically trigger something when they are completely undermined or supported. Everything then has a default case (when you undermine health, the guy dies) but anything could have a special case. This opens up a whole category of stunts/powers/what-have-you, and the secret vulnerability is only one possibility.

And now not only are monsters puzzles, but any character might be a puzzle. Or at least a tactical sequence — the monster stays a true puzzle because the referee can gate-keep its vulnerability as a real secret whereas characters can’t really be a surprise to the referee.

Or maybe they can. Okay that’s even more interesting: player characters as puzzles. And secrets from the ref.


Oct 10 2010

Chimæra update

Yes, it still lives! A recent development for Chimæra was figuring out, with precision, what makes a Human different from a Daemon different from a Mutant. Where this came from was trying to get back to one of my RPG-design Holy Grails: emulating nonviolent action, satyagraha, Soul Force. Numerous RPGs do allow persuasion with equal footing to violence, and a few enforce nonviolence as preferable–Dead Inside is maybe the most prominent example I know.

I haven’t found those fully satisfying, and though Chimæra Alpha 1, as I’ve come to think of it, did deliver interesting play, conflict wasn’t that engaging for the GM (me), and tended to come down to fairly classic ass-kickery.

Introducing the idea of “needs” as given in works on Nonviolent Communication (especially the book of the same name by Marshall Rosenberg) into the game explicitly opened up several things. First, I put my (previously hidden or gotten at circuitously at best) priority for nonviolence on the table. Second, and a very happy by-blow, it clarified what makes the different “races” in the game what they are. Humans (generalists as in so many other games) have the ordinary six needs: Community, Health, Integrity, Meaning, Play, and Autonomy (handy acronym: CHIMPA–total accident).

Daemons, being the creatures of pure dominance and submission that they are, lack Play and Community, and add Hate. This last is not hate in the ordinary sense–for Daemons it’s an organizing principle, universal among them, understood as a given. They are bloody-minded, and furthermore, they must destroy life to sustain their own. Something in humans is something daemons must have or perish. (The vampire thing here is perfectly deliberate, as Chimæra harks back to Vampire Hunter D.)

Mutants, finally, have other non-human needs, starting with the opposites of the regular six–so, you can have anti-autonomy, the need not to have a self, such as you’d find in collective intelligences, or at least, in their individual members.

Today Brad and I finally pulled this together into a new conflict system. The map (and I think having a map is really, really useful, something the Alpha 1 version lacked for conflicts, but had for the excellent community-mapping setup) is based on the needs on the character’s sheets. Things you do in a conflict are to bring need-nodes into the map, evoking them, and linking them together with one-way arrows. Your character’s stance is represented by a pawn on the map, and what need the pawn is sitting on determines the need that you defend with. So move another becomes a pretty important tactic.

Brad and I sat down to play. Pretty simple setup. The local Daemon Knight has heard about the spiritual leader’s preaching and aims to shut him down. The knight confronts the preacher in a speakeasy where the heretical teachings have been spreading.

I opened, putting the preacher’s need for meaning on the map, a defensive value of only 2. Brad countered with autonomy as the starting space for the knight’s pawn. Also a value of 2. We had everything at 2 except one we boosted to 4, rather arbitrarily. Hate for the knight, and Play for the preacher.

I won’t go into much more detail here as I don’t have the record on me. But suffice to say, Brad played the game as designed, and as he’s a smart guy he outplayed me. The really cool thing was that the fiction had the daemon knight, a tough, badass, mean character, out-maneuvered by the preacher’s mastery of playful (though not kind-spirited) mockery. I managed to get Hate on the board, but didn’t get to it before the Brad got the preacher on Play, and it was pretty well over at that point.

It was a curious experience of frustration, because losing just kinda sucks, and elation, as a kind of scene I wanted to have, with interesting detail and nuance, fell out of some fairly simple interactions. Just deciding on what kind of space to move in, and giving that a 2-dimensional representation to look at, is very powerful.

For the future I want to make a distinction where using violence (as Brad was, even though blows were not exchanged–it’s defined in-game by what features of your opponents’ character sheet you pick up to use) has later consequences. Previously violent acts contributed to an opposition dice pool, but I’ve dumped the pool in favour of a simpler system with a couple d6 and bonuses of +2.

Anyway, great stuff, finally got to some actual play-testing, and looking forward to codifying and playing more.