Jan 22 2012

Dance with me, 4e

(posted originally at Google+ — there will be more of that)

I am going to talk about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons now. It’s time because there is a lot of discussion about 5e design and we are getting a little insight into how the developers of it are thinking, and this has triggered some realizations about my 4e experience, which was crappy.

4e does not read or play to me like a game in which the designers were committed to producing an awesome game. It feels like there were different objectives. Now, I am not saying that the designers were not committed to producing an awesome game. I am bolding that because this is where I will be mis-read. The difference is subtle. I am certain that everyone was on board with the idea that an awesome game would be made.

The rules, however, read and play as though there was a commitment to a design principle and it was adhered to on the assumption that that would make a great and fun game. I notice this because I do it all the time and must have other people at the testing table to tear me away from it. Fortunately I throw out design principles all the time and no longer get too attached to them. Some will argue that point (hello my great friend +C. W. Marshall ) and they are probably right. Anyway, I’m working on it.

By way of example, one of the joys of earlier editions for me was the fact that different classes had distinct subsystems that directed them. Especially the magic system, where I was presented with a huge list of spells (an invitation to create more implicit and explicit) with functions that were appropriate to narrative including combat rather than being exclusive to combat. And if I found a way to make Magic Mouth function in combat, that was awesome. I was invited to manipulate my tools in interesting ways within the narrative as well as mechanically.

4e seemed to invert this and present a set of powers that were functionally identical within categories, differing largely by mechanically relevant colour: this one does acid damage, that one fire. My imagination was not driven. The upside was that I was invited to make sense of the places where the rigorous adherence to design principle created inexplicable results (the whole “marking” technology for starters), and I happen to like that kind of thing (just as I like getting planet stat results in Traveller that indicate an uninhabitable world with a low technology population that could not survive there — I am not frustrated by the inconsistency but rather an am provoked to find a story that makes it make sense). But ultimately the sameness and the artificiality torpedoed the game for me.

The reason all this is very interesting to me now is because the 5e designers are now stating their design goals and I am seeing some underlying assumptions that I think are questionable. The modularity that would allow players to choose a mode of play that suits them, even if that means there are differences between players at the same table, sounds really cool. It also sounds like a minefield. It at once assumes that the rules don’t matter (you can use any of these rule modules) and that they do (people care enough about the rules to choose a module). That’s a risky starting assumption for any new technology. So while this is a laudable goal, if it’s a design principle that will be followed regardless of context, that is as a principle rather than as a tool, there is substantial risk of creating rules that demand attention as rules rather than as ways to achieve table stories that are fun and surprising.

“Surprising” is something else that needs elaboration. I’ll do that another time, but that was a function of 4e that did not work for me — the simple and consistent design principle underlying it ensured that I did not get surprising results. Older versions constantly surprised me (again, especially with the widely varying spells in the spell lists, many of which did not demand a specific application). 5e better surprise me in play all the time.

So anyway, this is a kind of love letter to the 5e designers from an ex- who remembers Dungeons & Dragons in all versions fondly (yes, even the versions I didn’t wind up playing much). We had some good times. We both grew apart. Now you’re making eyes at me and I want to know how you’ve grown, because you had some scary moments back there that I couldn’t live with. Tell me you love me: that you think your rules matter and that you care how they will play. No matter what you say, we’ll have a dance, I expect, and see if you care about us dancing or the music you chose.


Jan 2 2012

Brittle railroads

(re-post from Google+ — seriously, that’s where I most ramble now but someone suggested I should make this mutter more permanent, so it goes here)

I think I stumbled on what I dislike about “railroaded” game campaigns and, as usual, it’s by way of an analogy.

First, railroading is obviously a continuum. It’s a kind of failure in scenario design but it’s not a make-break failure. As with any design defect (I’m thinking of other design contexts, like hardware or software, and there’s the analogy pointed out for those of you that don’t like solving my little puzzles) it’s not necessarily catastrophic in itself but rather makes the follow-on work (the implementation and the maintenance) harder and that’s what’s a problem.In system design we’d call this a problem of brittleness: increasing railroading makes the design more brittle. That is, it’s less resistant to unanticipated events. It’s harder to change a small part without impacting other aspects of the design. So if a railroad (and this is funny to me since I design real railroads sometimes) is a brittle design, maybe the reasons for brittleness in system design are similar?

Usually it’s a problem with coupling. You see coupling errors (they aren’t really errors, but from my perspective they break things so I flag them as errors) in software all the time and often they are a result of Bad Laziness (distinct from Good Laziness): part of the problem is hard to solve so the designer makes it someone elses problem and now an inappropriate subsystem has to do work that impacts the appropriate subsystem. Now changing one black box affects the functionality of another in ways not covered by the interface spec. This is brittle: I can’t change the design of one component without investigating other components. In a big system this becomes a whack-a-mole game worth millions of dollars and thousands of ergs of customer good-will. Brittle is bad.

Coupling is the problem in railroading, too. Events later depend on the outcome of events earlier in a way that is inappropriate. In system design we’d solve this in a way that’s useless to a scenario designer though: in a game we want more flexibility with less dependence whereas in a system I’d just lock down the functionality and the interfaces and analyze for coupling, moving functions and features as necessary to recover the design. In a scenario this might be boring as hell. It might not even be possible. I’m not even sure where the analogy goes if you head down that route.

The coupling in scenario design happens when a planned scene can only happen if a previous scene resolves in the way predicted by the designer. This strikes me as a red flag right out of the gate: the scenario design depends on reliable prediction of the future. You need a fair amount of magical thinking to believe that will work. When trying to plan for the future (this actually relates to safety design methods by the way) you can try to enumerate all possible outcomes and address each, of course. This will not work. It’s a novice’s first guess at solving this kind of problem and it fails because you will miss something.

What you can do, though, is categorize the kinds of future events rather than plan in detail, and create plans that are similarly categorized. If the villain is thwarted in this scene then we need some kind of new threat. If the players decide their characters are interested in another direction of exploration then we need something there to explore. This leads to general solutions: I need a map that extends in all directions. I don’t need to know in detail what’s everywhere, though, I just need some tools to slow pace until I can go home and plan the next session (here’s where I fall in love with random encounters, by the way — they don’t need to fit the plot because everyone already knows they are random and, frankly, if the players cleverly find a way in which the encounter is consistent with the plot, well, yoink, I am totally using that). If they are disinterested in the objective I thought was interesting, then I need a few ways to make it interesting (your tool here is the character sheet: what did they say was interesting?) and see if those work. If not, listen and delay!

Anyway, I admit that’s just rambling and not an argument. Railroading is brittle. That’s why it sucks. Not sure if any of that other stuff follows.


Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

I won’t belabour the fact that I haven’t written here much, especially since in a way this post is about writing. I will say, though, that if you are looking for writing advice so that you can solve the NaNoWriMo conundrum then you might be better off using Scrivener (or whatever) in full screen mode and getting down to it. In general I mean.

I have been batting ideas around in my head for Soft Horizon lately, and I pretty much have to do that in my head (and in the skunkworks wiki) because I haven’t re-started playing it yet. That happens on Thursday, though, so I expect a surge of new material there and probably here. Anyway, the ideas that get batted around are sharply divided between mechanism and context. But this is a challenge because my preferred design (like Diaspora) avoids context as an explicit construction (like, say, a setting book or even a setting chapter) and instead delivers it through mechanism.

But how, then, to develop it? How to I establish what exactly the context is so that I can work on mechanisms that deliver it? In fact the problem is even more complex than that because I collaborate, so I need to deliver this vision to others. It might not be all that hard (for you maybe, though for me it is) to just hold this in my head as I work on mechanical elements, but this doesn’t help my collaborators much.

And I don’t want to write fiction because I’m not very good at it and I don’t want it in the final product and I don’t want to waste my time on something I’m bad at and won’t use. Hell, look at that sentence up there — it starts with “and”. And I over-use all kinds of sentence partitioning fragment justifiers like em-dashes and parentheses. I’m just not made for writing large chunks of fiction and, worse, I have a philosophical problem with tying a game to a complete work of fiction (which I’ve probably discussed before but if not I expect you to ask me about it so I can justify a good-natured tirade). See, look — there’s another set of parentheses! What’s next, a footnote?

Mind lies in the deep water and waits. A seaward trawler might see a surge or a flash, phosphorescent algae perhaps, and notice the lights surge and sparkle in patterns that coalesce and then disperse, and call it chance or exhaustion. An overwater airship passenger, in formal wear and equipped with a telescope, might see something fainter but more certain, given the high view. The long view. And sometimes the trawler doesn’t come home. Sometimes even an airship goes missing. And Mind becomes more and richer and closer to her purpose. Even now the sea breeds strange things that walk upon the water or swim in the air. And the land beckons.

The answer, maybe obviously, is to write micro fiction. This is the tiny snippets of fiction you see in most of our work, decorating chapter heads and endpapers and so on. It’s not more than a few paragraphs and it’s punchy and tries to be a little clever and very visual. It tries to encapsulate the setting and the tone in very few words. Where successful it implies a whole story but isn’t one.1 So right now I’m trying to figure out what the setting of Soft Horizon is by writing little bits of fiction. Vignettes, parts of scenes, a character sketch maybe, but never a story.

This is fun, of course. It’s fast and easy so I can bang one out when I’m bored and it will be pretty good. It will often derive from play, which is great, because then I get to steal ideas from others (and, better, ideas that come from the synergy of a bunch of others working together). Deriving it from play has the inconvenience (to my ego, mostly) that my personal vision becomes diluted with the awesome ideas of others. I have learned to be okay with that.

So over the next little while there will be an increasing amount of micro fiction going into the skunkworks as I try to outline the shape of the Soft Horizon setting for us all. As I get into actual playtesting again, this will accelerate. There may even be actual sketches though (crystal ball) the game will likely have an artist who is not me for a change. That’s another exciting bit that I will talk about another time.


  1. You may already have noticed that my ideas all run in parallel — the fiction implies a story but isn’t one just as the mechanisms imply a setting but aren’t one. Yes, I want you to do all the work so that when you play, it’s yours. Even the fiction. The meta-story behind a short paragraph about plugging a sucking chest wound with paper towels is yours, not mine.

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.


Feb 10 2011

Places we shoot ourselves

I am having a hell of a time laying out Hollowpoint.

Not in a good way. Here’s the issue: I am committed to using a 6″ x 9″ format for only one really good reason and one reason that’s pretty weak. Every other argument regarding this format is against it. The problem is, the two reasons for using it are both reasons that relate to the consumer. The arguments against it are all arguments that relate to the designer (me).

Here are the two pro reasons: it’s a very convenient format for a game. It travels well, it doesn’t take up a ton of table space, and it’s pretty. The other reason to use it is that I already did it once and it tickles me to make books that sit nicely together. The reasons we used it for Diaspora are basically the same: I like to use it and it sits beside my copy of Spirit of the Century nicely. These are reasons enough to use this format, as far as I am concerned.

It is, however, hell to lay out for.

The page is too wide for a single block of text in a reasonable typeface at a reasonable size. It results in long lines that are hard to read or in text that is too big and looks like a pre-school text. It’s crap for one column.

If you shrink that column to make some space for a sidebar, you discover that there isn’t enough. Sidebars are crowded affairs needing substantial massaging to work in the short line length remaining available. They do not work well here.

But you can’t go to two columns, which is what you would do in letter format, where you have far too much space for one column but plenty for two. Because there isn’t enough space for two columns here unless your type is extremely small.

So, basically, there as at once too much and too little space for the text. This is incredibly frustrating. It’s also a secret joy, of course, because trying to work inside a difficult constraint is puzzle-solving. I love this kind of work. But it is also crazy frustrating.

You can decorate your margins and suck in your column width. This is a pretty good solution if you have access to printing that can reliably get bleeds right. I probably can’t count on that — at least my experience is that I won’t be able to — and so I can’t afford to butt artwork up against the page edge unless I think really hard about the effect if the page trim is wrong and some white paper is revealed. So heavy and thoughtless decoration is out.

The other possibility is austerity. Stick to a narrow and legible single column and place it in a big empty space. This is actually very appealing to me and opens up some new possibilities.

Take for example contextual cues. In Diaspora we used italics and inset (from both sides) blocks to set fiction. When you see a narrow column of italic text, it’s always fiction. You are warned or cued depending on your interest. It doesn’t need to be explained. So by making the body text part of an austere and open margin design, we open up more opportunities for context because we have the space to expand into, or to set right or left of the body text. The text can acquire some dynamism not by being surrounded by art but by moving within the page space. The defect of the format becomes an opportunity.

It’s not clear that this is appropriate for the text in Hollowpoint. It might be, though — can the rythm of text position be made to imply the punctuality of the game’s pace? Can we fire paragraphs like gunshots?

Probably not. The audience for games is surprisingly conservative and isn’t likely to respond well to anything too clever. The taste is generally for conventional (within the context of games) layout: lots of art, border decoration, sidebars, and so on. Crowd the page and get as much stuff on it as possible. Invent page textures that make it hard to read, colour the page, blotch it, line it…make the reader feel like she got her money’s work at least in ink weight.

I worry that if I do that and subsequently run into Tufte, he’ll strangle me. Or drown me in my excess ink. I don’t want that to happen. So there’s likely to be a little avant garde design in Hollowpoint, though the garde it will be avant is the accepted forms for game text layout — certainly it won’t be avant the rest of the design world. This worked out okay for, say, Nobilis, though it had a lofty, airy context that aligned nicely with the layout. How can I get near that? Can I invent a context for Hollowpoint in which the space makes sense?

I don’t have answers yet. Which is why I am still laying out Hollowpoint. Endlessly.


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.


Sep 21 2010

Simulation and abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Aug 26 2010

Maps, graphs, and other visualizations

So last night I grabbed a mind mapping app for my iPad because I don’t like mind maps.

A mind map is basically just a hierarchical outline that has been painted graphically, so all your leaves are pretty bubbles and the hierarchy is described by arcs connecting these nodes. It’s pretty. But it’s fundamentally flawed because it’s not a way to map your data. It’s a way to organize data in a very specific way (hierarchical) and this very specific way is not always all that useful. Forcing it into that map can be destructive, even. The only way, for example, to imply a connection between two nodes that are not strict parent/children is with an artificial “link” that exists outside the core model of the data.

Why does this bug me? It bugs me because the hierarchy should be an emergent property of the data and not a starting constraint. We should start mapping the data and find out that it’s hierarchical rather than force it into this structure. That is, the mind map severely limits your ability to explore your data set. Instead it becomes just a way to write it down which is, frankly, not interesting.

So anyway I grabbed this app and started playing with it. It’s pretty nifty. It’s very pretty. After a couple of hours enthralled by it I had a huge beautiful map of what this evening’s Soft Horizon game will contain and how they relate. Hierarchically, to be sure, but relate nonetheless. Wow, it is useful. I just had it upside down.

What the mind map does is not organize your data. It discovers your data. What you are exploring is not the data but your brain. You are being invited to invent, decompose, and otherwise investigate the raw stuff of creativity and consequently create something that has structure.

The hierarchical form invite elaboration, for example. I have a node called “Ragged Mere”. It’s a place. I want to know more about it so I start adding nodes (hey are these Aspects?!) like “Peaceful” and “Full of sorcerors” and “Gunpowder”. Cool. I add a couple of NPC nodes — just names, mind you — for people that are somehow attached to these places. Hmm, each also seems to demand elaboration. They get some attached sub-nodes, which also smell suspiciously like Aspects. Pretty soon I have this huge tree of hierarchical data that went all over places I had no idea I was going to investigate. Amazing!

So, okay, I get it. I mean, it’s still a crappy way to represent pre-existing data for all the reasons I ever thought of. But as a creative tool for trying to figure out how to turn a nebulous concept into a structure you can actually use for something, it does indeed work. Because of the way my mind is wired, I have to wonder how much of its power derives from simply being fun and pretty, of course, and that will shake out over time. If it’s useful, I’ll keep using it. If it’s nifty it will gather dust and eventually wind up on my “dead app page”. That’s one step before the trash on my iPad.

The fact that its structure is trivially represented by (and indeed, for many of these apps this is the actual storage format) an outline structure, it’s easy to see how to move from this to a nice linear document, if that’s a path you intend to tread. That’s looking pretty handy too, now.

Damn, I love being wrong almost as much as being right.


Jul 26 2010

What would be in Highport?

Okay that was fun. All the fiddling with my Terrible Grant, I mean. I’m jazzed about layout and typography and stuff relevant to this Highport idea. But is there anything to it? What would go in one of these? Who would get paid and how? What would it cost an end user?

Maybe those should be looked at one at a time. Is there anything to it? Sure. I could be persuaded to generate or acquire and edit content on a relatively frequent basis and fiddle with amusing software to get it done. I’m cool with that. So it’s certainly feasible.

What would go in one of these? That’s the kind of thing that makes lists in my head! So here’s one:

  • A Diaspora cluster in some detail. Not everyone feels creative all the time. Detail might include common equipment and maybe military structure ready for use in platoon combat. Ships? Sure! This is already looking like something that could easily span multiple issues actually.
  • A new game. I remember photocopying Dragon magazines and chopping that up to build my Snit Smashing boardgame. Making something like that happen regularly would thrill me.
  • Preview upcoming VSCA titles. Things like our space combat free PDF release could be stuck in a VSCA magazine.

Obviously I’m thinking mostly about concrete, playable content and not editorial material. Some of this is stuff fans have already been asking for, so it would be cool to be able to fork it over. I can’t see it as being very art-heavy, frankly, but rather more of a nuts and bolts periodical manual for actual play. Tables, charts, diagrams, rules, and enough fluff to get you thinking about how to use it in your game. Very little more. It would look sharp but austere on your iPad.

Who would get paid and how? See now that’s a good question because it’s not sustainable as a single-person effort. As Bob implied earlier, the clone army is not yet ready. But there are some kick-ass game designers and other creative folks withing a few dozen blocks of me and many more within reach of the interwebs. So I’m thinking of some kind of flat fee for a usage license with VSCA not owning the content. So basically I would pay a contributor (of art or writing or whatever) for the right to publish, but they would retain all rights to their content. I thought about doing a royalty thing but honestly I’m just not interested in the accounting.

What would it cost the end user? Well this is interesting. I’m exploring Magcloud because they already do the full-colour magazine thing using a model I like, but also because they have an iPad app and that’s really what I want to get in on: delivery by iPad. Also paper — I love paper — but PDFs can look so damned good on this thing that I am compelled to show you. With product. Currently Magcloud offers content through the app for free with a click-option to purchase the hardcopy. Things looks os bloody good on the device, though, that I’m afraid that’s ass-backwards — it almost makes more sense to sell some kind of ownership and charge a minor printing and shipping fee for hardcopies. Anyway, they will sort that out and if I’m working with them on this I’ll be providing vocal input. They’ll work something out. So there are a few models that would intersect with the Magcloud method:

  • Charge the base rate + profit on the Magcloud hardcopy. When they let me charge for the app delivery, charge a base rate + profit. This is least interesting to me, partially because in soliciting art and writing I incur risk and hope to get paid from the Magcloud revenues. This smells old-school.
  • Kickstart each issue and use a fraction of that money as budget for the issue and a fraction as profit. Release the PDF for free, selling through Magcloud at the minimum possible (just the Magcloud costs basically) for hardcopy and iPadd app release. This is pretty appealing (zero risk, leveraging technology) obviously.
  • Some combination of the above.

Anyway that’s what I’m thinking. I like the visual austerity of Diaspora 1 and would be aiming at that + colour to really take advantage of the iPad as delivery system. This would not be a magazine you buy for the cool artwork. Lots of folks do that already. I want to produce game-stuff. Shitloads of it.


  1. Apparently I will use lots of bullet lists too, judging by this article.

Jul 24 2010


I did a ton of fiddling with my Terrible Grant® today, mostly working with some ideas for building a VSCA magazine as discussed in my previous post. Some cool stuff is coming together here and certainly having a full version of Adobe CS5 is making a big difference. And so this isn’t a long note, it’s just a loving one. This is for Mr. Terrible. This is the beginning of the evil I will use the grant to wreak upon the world.