Sep 20 2011

Bessel – another Soft Horizon vignette

Here’s another commute-inspired babble based on the Soft Horizon cluster I built the other night.


The test facility, viewed from the air, is a vast concrete plain that stretches from horizon to horizon, bounded on the north and east by ancient rounded mountains and on the other by a sterile salt like. This paved landscape is marked with obscure symbology — some arcane but most mundane — warning icons and black and yellow diagonal bars, airstrip markers, the zodiac, and arrows pointing from access well to access well. It is studded with the shallow sloped blisters of the observation bunkers from which the tests are viewed and recorded.

General Hoberman, in blue and gold regalia (very fancy by most standards but here this is a utilitarian working uniform), stands inside bunker 47B surrounded by sensing equipment and subordinates. He holds an elaborate pair of binoculars and he is looking out towards MUT-7 — the seventh Machine Under Test assigned to this sector. It’s one of a hundred and thirteen tests he will observe this week. A finned and valved light gun rests on his hip in a complicated holster.

“Commence firing sequence, Mister Belgrade,” he announces in a baritone that carries easily through the large but crowded space. A young woman in simpler attire — no gold braids and very few buttons or bars, and all of that is covered by her lab coat anyway — begins throwing switches while speaking the necessary incantations from the Book of Lens. She doesn’t know what they mean — that’s research stuff — but they are important.

She speaks the last syllable (“ruk” if you must know, though obviously you don’t have the clearance necessary to know any more) and pushes an ivory-handled lever forward.

The scaffolding a thousand yards away that suspends MUT-7 aloft glows red and then white and then vaporizes, leaving a mesh of smoke trails that whisper the destroyed structure, and a column of pale green light connects the concrete plain to the sky for a dozen heartbeats.

“Astrology, report!” commands Hoberson.

“Penetration achieved, sir! And…gone. Transient penetration, maybe seven seconds.”

“Incoming!” another voice in the bunker cries. “I have thirty plus inbound from the rift!”

“Ballistic?” demands Hoberson, by which he means simply, “plummeting”.

“Over half, but the rest are descending under power!”

Enormous tentacled beasts fall from the sky, many of them thudding wetly on the scorched concrete around the skeleton of MUT-7. But some fly, or at least fall more slowly, aloft on vast bladders of lighter-than-air gas or wings or both.

“Dispatch a platoon to mop that up and an AA unit to bring down those new ones. Good work, peopl! Belgrade, get the rig reset and call MUT-8 to let them know I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” The sound of twenty four men collecting weapons drowns him out for a moment. A siren wails. “Dortmund, prepare my car.”

General Hoberson gets his greatcoat from the rack by the door and slips into it. He retrieves his driving goggles as well and fits them over his eyes as the blast doors open. Uniformed troops march around and past him at double time. The lazy smoke arc of an anti-aircraft missile drifts across the sky. Dortmund has already started the car and opened the General’s door.


Sep 19 2011

Ameris – a Soft Horizon vignette

I wrote this on the bus this morning based on a world in my last Soft Horizon plane generation session. I don’t know what it would be for — it’s too short and plotless to be fiction and it’s too long to be microfic. It’s the kind of thing I would write for myself to set tone while doing prep for a game. Normally no one but me would ever read it.


The market is a riot of colour — stall covers in silk and cotton dyed a thousand ways from a dozen worlds snap in the wind. And smells. Roasting meat of animals you’ve never seen, the sharp tang of fruits and vegetables, the thick odour of burning herbs, all bombard your senses. A seasoned traveller would find herself suddenly hungry. A neophyte perhaps nauseated, then intrigued.

But immediately as you enter Marketgate the your senses start to fog and blur — a vague euphoria begins to rise in you and serializing your needs as thoughts in language becomes a conscious effort. Your first stop — everyone’s first stop — is the autonomy vendor.

Always positioned near Marketgate, the autonomy vendors beckon you forward with stark black and white flags that trigger some animal connection to thought, and even though you are nearly mindless by the time you reach them, you have enough of your wits to buy what they sell — your mind.

Because this is such an essential service, its sale within a thousand yards of the Marketgate is strictly regulated by the Caliphate and no autonomy vendor (at least not one within a thousand yards of Marketgate) would dream of taking advantage of you. Some do, of course. The very reason a law exists is often enough to risk breaking it, and if you are very beautiful or very strong (or, Mind forbid, both) then there is some risk that the spell you buy will not be quite what you need, and that your guide might turn out to be someone other than she seems — a zombi trader.

But that doesn’t happen much any more. The Caliph is very strict and the punishment severe — a dozen years mindless — and not something someone wealthy enough to afford regular autonomy would risk.

So the autonomy vendor flashes the colours at you and spins the mandala and says the words and the fog lifts. He warns you to stay near Marketgate unless you know your way around — there’s not always a vendor nearby elsewhere in Ameris. You nod, You understand. It’s a relief already to understand things.

Now you can truly take in the wonders of Market gate — the name of the city as well as the name of the portal you stepped through to get here. Some portals are small, hidden affairs — the back of a wardrobe, perhaps, or just a wrong turn near Whitehall. Marketgate is not one of those. It is a vast stone and metal structure built, re-built, decorated, and simplified a thousand, thousand times over a period of years no one has counted. The portal itself is big enough to pass armies (and their engines) and if the bas relief that decorates parts of the gate is at all historical, then it has passed armies many times. And refugees. And things you cannot identify. All in the thousands or millions. This has always been a busy place and the steps here are worn with millions of feet and wheels and hooves and tracks and who knows what else.

Worn and rebuilt. Worn and repaired. At this time, your time, they are clearly ancient and due for repairs. The steel shows through the limestone which shows through the marble. Over there, that may be a glimpse of gold from some more hedonistic era. And there perhaps diamond from an even richer time — or maybe a time when diamond was so common as to be valueless. It’s all here in its many layers, a life’s work for an archaeologist in a single structure.

And indeed, they are here too, scurrying about and taking notes and sketching.


Juan Ochoa's sketch for the Marketgate

Apr 7 2011

Everything might not be a potential RPG

I had the good fortune to talk with some very smart people in the game design community last night. Cool people, too. Fun, witty, social — you know, all those good things that make human interaction more fun than television. At one point, one of these people (might have been Cam Banks or Rob Donoghue, but don’t make me sign anything to that effect), during a conversation about role-playing game licenses, talked about how much fun Grand Theft Auto was and whether that could be captured.

This gets into the same place that fiction licenses do for me, though perhaps moreso. These things have fundamentally different design goals and so adapting an existing work to a role-playing game is a big deal. Selecting the right material is a way to lighten the load, but also recognizing when you will need to make changes so deep that there is no longer an interesting relationship between the products.

Different design goals

There are three media interesting to me in this conversation: fiction (written, televisual, cinematic1), video games, and role-playing games. Here are what I see as the core differences in design goals between these, and this will be the place we need to do the most work to translate from one to another.


All of these things have protagonists. In fiction, however, the protagonist is typically an individual, and this is a critical problem to resolve when translating to an RPG, because in an RPG the protagonist is usually a team — you have five people at a table and they all want to feel like they are part of the developing narrative in a meaningful way. There is some fiction that is not about individual protagonists, in which a team operates as a team (rather than as a series of stories about individuals), but it’s rare. Leverage springs to mind, and it consequently strikes me as a great choice for a very close translation.

Video games are far more often about individual protagonists. In Grand Theft Auto, it sounds like (and I haven’t played it, so this is hearsay and assumption, but I have played other video games) the closest you get to team play is when, online, you invite another player character into your car and you run someone over together. Cool, but closer to sidekick than co-protagonist. And certainly not very teamy. I’ll ignore the obvious close relatives in the video game world — those which already are role-playing games to some extent or another — as trivial examples for translation.

So somehow this needs to be resolved. GTA the RPG becomes “about” either a team of bad guys blowing shit up in a city very like a real major city, or it becomes a serial tale of individuals (a solution I dislike intensely, but that’s personal and we’ll see why later I think). The team solution is a good one, but we need to recognize that it’s a new beast now. We have drifted very far afield in this one step.2

Non-systemic rewards

Fiction has no systemic rewards because it’s non-interactive. All your rewards are non-systemic.

Video games have rich systemic rewards (character progression, high scores, achievements, plot advancement).

Role-playing games have blurry but rich systemic rewards that are similar to video games.

When talking about a GTA RPG, however, conversation rapidly turned to how fun the sandbox component is — how much fun it is to just blow shit up. This morning while riding the train, I thought a lot about why that’s fun, and came to the conclusion that it’s an important non-systemic reward that is intrinsic to video games (some live and die by it) and not present in role-playing games. It’s also the meat and gristle on the bones of all fiction: visual and auditory kazow.

In a GTA-like game 3 you are jazzed about blowing the top off the Chrysler building with a rocket launcher because it looks and sounds awesome. You also get to tell your friends how awesome it was and they can repeat it. This reward is unavailable to you in an RPG.

There is also an element of discovery, and this is, to some extent, available to you in an RPG. When you discover that you can ride a tricycle off the MGM hotel roof and paraglide safely to the street, while it looks and sounds awesome, it’s also a feat of discovery that’s worth telling others about. That’s something you might want to replicate in an RPG translation. Certainly you need your game to support the statement of intent, “I drive off the roof of the hotel and deploy my paraglider” with a nod from the GM, maybe some dice, and admiring hoots from the table.

So some of that you can do and some you can’t.

With fiction, your non-systemic rewards are the revelation of the narrative, the imagery presented, sometimes a delight in the use of language, and often the thrill of guessing events correctly (or incorrectly — that’s sometimes more fun). Most of these you can get from a role-playing game but it’s a tricky space because there is so much interaction in the development of the narrative. And some of it just isn’t in the rules — delightful use of language is not going to come from someone readingĀ  box text, no matter how well-written, unless the reader performs.

RPG non-system rewards are the most interesting to me because unlike the previous, they step entirely outside the activity. The most valuable non-systemic reward in a role-playing game (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c, but also it’s totally true for everyone) is the way the course of the game mediates, amplifies, and facilitates the social interaction at the table. The deepest non-systemic reward is the joy of five people sharing a great evening together. Board games get this too, obviously. Sometimes a video game gets close (I’ve had some fun Ventrilo sessions while playing World of Warcraft). But in a table-top RPG it’s absolutely central.

My suspicion is that this social reward of role-playing games is closely related to the team construction, though I will also say that Fiasco is an awesome counter-example. I’m also tempted to place it in a category of its own, though, and one that I want to spend a lot more time in.

So what, Brad

So this. There are two things going on in a translation that are interesting to me here and now: there is the conversion of non-systemic rewards present in the source material to something equal but maybe different, and there is the need to retain the non-systemic rewards already present in the destination media. Who gets to play Doctor Who? I’m not saying that’s impossible, but I am saying it needs to be addressed — it won’t be very satisfactory to just emulate the source material’s universe and then let loose regular folks. Somehow you need to get as many as six people engaged in the fiction without devolving their participation to just listening.

This means that some properties will be very hard to handle. It also means some will be especially tasty. Firefly and Leverage look tasty. Smallville sounds tasty though I have never seen it. These examples tell me someone in particular is doing a very smart job of selecting properties to license. Spiderman sounds like crap, but The Avengers sounds awesome. Doctor Who sounds very iffy to me, but I understand that the issues above are not unaddressed.

I will now admit that I have little experience with licensed RPGs. They are all necessarily too heavy on setting (even if they say nothing more than “we expect you are familiar with all this already”) for my tastes. So I could be out to lunch about the challenges. But I do know these three media somewhat, and they are all doing different things. They are not different ways to do the same thing (tell a story) but rather they have orthogonal goals and alignment between them is accidental. There’s no reason to suspect that an awesome book will also be an awesome game.

But as Cam has demonstrated, with careful selection, thought and design, it can be.


  1. I recognize that grouping these together is an over-simplification — gimme a break. Some shit was slung last night about blog posts longer than 500 words. I don’t think I want the sub-500 word audience very badly, but I also realize you are not going to sit through 5,000
  2. Here’s where I plug Hollowpoint, which gets a lot of GTA feel packed into a team-oriented non-visual medium. I think it’s a good accidental translation.
  3. That’s deliberate because I am not actually discussing GTA but rather a fiction in my head based on second and third party knowledge.

Nov 8 2010

Fictional writing

I tried my hand at writing some fiction this weekend. I do this periodically (sometimes I even try poetry, but I will spare you even a discussion of that) and the results are usually about the same. I can write an interesting scene very rapidly but I have no idea how to string these together into anything like a plot. What’s going to happen? How do we get from A to B and make interesting things happen along the way? I just can’t do it.

Now of course that’s too strong. I probably can do it. Hell, I am certain I can do it. But I rapidly hit my I-don’t-give-a-fuck barrier — I’m just not interested in fabricating this plot. Even when I sit down with brainstorming tools (whether index cards and cork board or mind-mapping software — seriously, you can all stop giving me technology advice because I’m certain it’s not a technology problem) what I invariably get are elaborations on characters and places and maps and things and … well, and everything except what actions lead to what other actions.

Without this linkage there is no fiction, per se. Rather what I’m doing is prepping role-playing game adventures here — I am setting up surroundings and situation and people that are just dying for someone else to come in and declare an interest and move in an unusual direction, perhaps revealing something awesome I invented or, even better, forcing me to invent something on the fly. I expect my characters to do their own work and they just don’t do it through me.

Now certainly this is a crippling disability for a writer (at least for a writer of fiction) so it’s a very good thing that I’m not one. It’s a talent for a RPG referee, though, because it makes game preparation effortless. Well, not effortless, but a joy in itself — part of the game or even isolated recreation. I have a good time doing this so there’s no reason to think of it as work or even effort. It’s play. Stringing a plot together, however, is worse than work.

The really frustrating part (though I don’t want to undermine that having the technical skills and energy to fabricate a novel without some ineffable little piece to follow it through is fairly frustrating) is that all of these forays are basically games that are begging to be played and I only have one game night a week. And many of them imply multi-session games, ideally without too much interruption, so deploying all of them would eat up a year or two of game nights. I really need to game more frequently to get these things out of my head.

So this weekend I learned in my fictional space that there is a drill site over an ancient ice-sealed lake in Antarctica that has a startling relationship to an industrial water-mining site on the moon. I won’t learn for sure what that relationship is until I get some players to fill out this characters and try to find out more. Because not only do I not know, but I am also not keen on inventing why. I guess, in a way, I want to be surprised.

So no National Novel Writing Month for me. I know I can manage the output — certainly I meet or exceed that some months at work anyway. Word volume is not onerous for me at all. Just typing is a joy — I could write complete bollocks for ten thousand words, pure stream of consciousness bullshit, and love every second of it. But fifty thousand words of unconnected scenes is not something I necessarily want to sign my name to, and maybe especially because that would be somewhere between ten and twenty new game preparations and I will never get all that played.

Okay here’s the bridge. I have said in the past that a lot of RPG effort, whether in game design or game prep, smells a lot like the work of a frustrated novelist. Even where the novelist is not frustrated, it still smells of cheap fiction. I think this is good and true: I think that the best games are shitty novels or movies. I think that some of the crappiest films probably would have been great games. And I am certain that the best films and novels would make awful games. This also looks a lot like sour grapes, too, I know.

But really, to craft an elegant plot you need to have characters that act reliably. And that means that either the characters you control — the NPCs — are the primary agents with respect to the action (or at least the change in action) or the player characters are. And if the player characters are the primary agents and they are doing everything that your plot needs in order to be revealed in all its genius, then they are either reading your mind or your script. That seems like a dangerously boring place for a game to go, at least for my table (and this is certainly a care not everyone takes: gaming tables can be very startlingly different, even playing the same game).

Hm, that just looks like another screed against railroading, but that spike’s been hammered in and it’s not really what I care about here. What I care about is the creative needs of the players, including the referee. If the ref has a genuine and compelling creative need to plot, she might be better off writing a novel. At least, speaking as someone who is missing this organ, she has the kit to pull it off. I am jealous and it bugs me that much more that she would use this talent I lack to build a crappy game.

Here’s what I want to do as a GM/ref/whatever: I want to show off. I want to slowly reveal a lot of cool stuff I made. I want to talk as a character that I spent a lot of energy developing. I want you to slowly explore a map that I inked. I want you to peek into rooms I want to describe. And I suspect that every referee has this essential desire to show off. Where this desire fails us is when we want to show off something that’s contrary to the needs of the game.

I’ll probably go back and edit that so that it makes some sense. It’s mostly frustration at lacking a skill I want to have, but not badly enough to learn it. I want to know how to play the piano, too, but in a “wake up in the morning with the skill to play Beethoven” way and not a “signing up for lessons now” way. Wishes without plans are just wishes. But goddamn I have read a lot of games that reek of failed novelist.

I live in terror of writing one, of course.


Jun 24 2010

Love affair with competence

I’m reading some great bad fiction. In fact I was up until almost 4am reading fiction that I am almost embarrassed to admit I was reading. But I’ve often said that bad fiction makes great games and great fiction makes bad games and so maybe I can call it research. Maybe I can even write it off next tax day. Maybe I just adore some bad fiction even though I am not necessarily enriched by it. Being a game designer (of sorts), however, and feeling as I do about the relationship between fiction and game, maybe I am part of a small sector that’s even enriched by it. Lucky me!

Anyway, the book I finished is part of a long line of books (one of which was made into an awful movie — not just “bad” but also not enjoyable) with a character that epitomises another pet idea of mine, the competence myth.

The competence myth is the story about the guy (it’s almost always a guy still) who gets it right. A lot. And who, on the way from troubling inconsistency to successful resolution (usually through violence), faces the betrayal and incompetence of his supposed peers as his chief obstacle en route to success. He has no peers. He is the best.

This story form is pretty familiar. Dirty Harry is a great example. There are all kinds of things wrong with Harry Calahan. He’s a bastard. He doesn’t play by the rules. He makes the department look bad. Sometimes he even makes choices that are, strictly speaking, illegal, and that’s not so good when you’re a cop. He probably drinks too much. But he has his code, which the fiction of the samurai (though in North America they were called gunfighters) would find consistent: do your duty. Do it well. See it through. Even when the chief of police doesn’t like your methods and the D.A. won’t touch your case because you didn’t have a warrant and you’re suspended and have to leave your gun and badge at the desk, you go home to the old .45 under the bed and get down to business. And at the end of the day, you solve the problem so well that no one looks too closely at how you got from A to B. Your critics are silenced, one way or another. The incompetent fall by the wayside. You probably don’t get the girl.

Today the computer geek is a new kind of gunfighter in this same sense. This is the same myth we see for ourselves, facing down the unnecessary bureaucracy and control, battling “reviewers” who don’t know C++ a fraction as well as we do, doing things “right” rather than “correct”. It’s the same sort of story we see ourselves starring in, it’s just less violent. And so we identify — the hero of the competence myth is not just someone we want to be, he’s someone we think we are. Oh sure, we admit we’re not that good, but the story parallels with our lives are just too close. Maybe we are kind of the same.

The hook for this particular character, in the book I just finished, is that he’s one step more. He is not just the best but he’s older (father figure alarms) and he’s quiet and he doesn’t like pretty much anyone. Except those he sees as competent or at least aware of their failings, which is a kind of competence. Now, see how this sneaks up on you? He’s not just a guy you hope you are or might be. He’s a guy you want to like you.

Seriously. When you read about him shrugging off some loser with stupid questions about his field of expertise or sneering at someone using the latest and greatest gizmo to compensate for a lack of skill, you don’t just think “yeah what a loser” but you also run through the scenario in your mind with you as the loser. Except you’re not a loser. You know what gear to choose that would impress Mr. Swagger. You know just the right thing to say to make him nod grimly and respectfully. You know how to act so that he’ll like you.

You’re in love with this guy. He’s a fictional character and you are dreaming up ways to please him. Maybe that’s partly because he’s your father (maybe not the father you have, but certainly an idealised father — fair, wise, capable, duty-bound, honourable — basically my father, certainly, but maybe the one you wished you had if you weren’t so lucky) and partly because he’s both a goal for you and a self-image. He’s who you want to be, he’s who you think you are, and he’s a man you want to like you. To respect you even. To confirm your membership in that club.

This book (the whole series, really) has a lot of flaws in it, but the one thing it does, for me at least is hook you right through the cheek with adoration for the character.

Oh and every single action scene would be a great moment at the gaming table, and I know just how the dice fell in whatever system I’m fiddling with at the time.


Jan 11 2010

Commute reading

So I’m reading some science-fiction because it seems like, as an author of Diaspora, I ought to have a better handle on the genre than I do. Maybe not, though. Anyway, I was out of reading material and surfed for some classic Asimov for my Kindle and realised I hadn’t read his Foundation trilogy in a very long time indeed. Click click.

There is a structure to the early part of the first book (and maybe to the whole thing — I can’t recall and I’m not finished yet) that startled me. The pattern is one that would righteously suck in a game, which reinforces my instinct that games and fiction are completely separate beasts. The narrative proceeds roughly like so:

  1. The previous conflict resolution is presented (usually as dialogue) as a past event.1
  2. An amusing character is introduced.
  3. A conflict is hinted at.
  4. The conflict is revealed.

We don’t seem to ever participate directly in the conflict resolution! We only get to see it as described from a future time. There is no truth about the resolution, because we aren’t in the moment — there is only interpretation of it. This is awesome! This is a really interesting structure and one that reinforces the meta-story — this book is about pre-interpretation of history and therefore in some ways about interpretation. Having major conflicts described after the fact through interpretation is brilliant — the reader is always in the position of historian, in a sense, reviewing the past with the characters in an analytical fashion rather than participating in gunfights.

I don’t think you want to do this in a game. I think you can, but I don’t think you want to. Where there’s an itch for it you already do it, but not exclusively — that is, we participate in gunfights and we can (and often do) review them in post-game chatter, inter-game write-ups and reports, and pre-game summaries. What is highlighted for me, though, having discovered that Foundation is great fun even though it lacks the game altogether, is that these three aspects of extra-game gaming (pre- inter- and post-) are really important parts of the fun I have.

So this sort of explains why in Diaspora we formalized the pre-game summary (we have a whole Refresh “phase” in which players resolve all pre-game data like getting more fate points, resolving consequences stuff, making maintenance rolls, changing character information, and summarizing the previous session). But it also points to two more areas that might bear formalizing, or at least discussing in a new game. What happens outside the first person play is all potentially important and fun.

So thanks, Isaac.


  1. The only counter-example so far is the very first segment in which there’s no prior conflict to discuss.

Jan 5 2010

By request: Micro-fiction in Diaspora

Fred Hicks asked if I’d talk a little about the role of the micro-fiction in Diaspora and so I will.

First let’s be totally above-the-table here. I’m going to talk as though what we got is what we intended and as though what it does is what we wanted it to do. This is a habit of speech with me. The reality is that we were working through the creation of the text from a starting point of no idea to an end point of refining stuff that happened in the middle. There wasn’t a template for what we built until very late in the game. But I will analyze what I think the micro-fiction does because I think it was our target, it just wasn’t our clearly stated and totally deliberate target. In future it will be more deliberate because I think it works.

Zoom out and step back. I have heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve read a lot of great books, though, that don’t need illustrations and so I’m tempted to believe that a well chosen thousand words is better than any picture in some contexts. I am motivated to deliver, at work and at play, as much as possible in text before resorting to illustrations because I think that illustrations should, well, illustrate the point. That is, they are ancillary to it. Augmentation. A nudge because sometimes the words are complex when delivering a complex idea. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s not clear to me that pictures replace a thousand words.

Zooming in now. When we started building Diaspora artwork was not in the plan. Illustration is, however, essential for delivering context to a game and it’s also essential for delivering enthusiasm. So I think early on we felt instinctively the need to inject context with little blurbs of fiction. These are our proto-illustrations of what happens to characters inside a Diaspora game. It partly works because people are used to receiving science-fiction in text anyway — my favourite authors never needed any, to my recollection, and yet I have great pictures in my head of ringworlds and monoliths and starfaring museums. So I can send you pictures without drawing any, which is a boon with four writers and no artists on the project.

So the micro-fiction in Diaspora followed an illustrative pattern: small images that don’t eat a ton of space and attention, but draw out what’s cool about the immediate text. Where possible they came from actual play because, frankly, if contextual imagery wasn’t coming from play then there wasn’t enough playtesting. Later we would make some up from whole cloth, but by that time we had a pretty good idea that what we imagined about play would be true — we had a couple of years of experience by then.

Eventually we realised what we were doing and established some rules for the micro-fiction: there would be some for every chapter and most sections. It would be short — less than a page except in two special cases. It would come from actual play if possible but would always come plausibly from actual play. It would deliver some emotional impact — it would be cool as well as instructional. It would introduce jargon in context so that players knew how to talk cool in the game, or at least would know how to imagine talking cool. And it would introduce a little wonder. A little awe. Because those things are part of what the game needs to deliver in this genre, and so it’s nice to get a little sent your way while reading it too.

We also knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want to deliver a whole setting, so some of the fiction is inconsistent because you (we for sure) might play several separate campaigns and things might be inconsistent and that’s just fine. It’s awesome, even. So embedded in that fiction is some permission.

We didn’t want a lot of fiction and we didn’t want whole stories. Stories are not illustration. They are more demonstration. We wanted to augment the text and not interrupt it. But we did want the voice of each author, and so we solicited material from everyone for the fiction and we got enough that we could cull some out and only take the best or at least best-suited. Being short, it was something each author had time and skills to produce effectively because it drew mostly on their experience of the game itself.

There are two long pieces in Diaspora, though, and they frame the whole text. The first is the story of Lawrence, a person who lives somewhere wondrous and lethal and certainly not a place where humans evolved. It actually started as a short story for a different purpose but I suck at writing short stories, so instead it lies with no story but as a study of character and place intended to deliver the wonder I talked about before and the alien and, maybe most importantly, the commonplace: Lawrence lives somewhere incredible and does incredible things but he’s still just this guy, with his little place in a huge universe. He could be you. He is the extreme of the “blue collar space” concept — the guy who’s just a farmer but who farms alien life at night because during the day the sun will kill you. An ordinary man in an extraordinary place, which I think is clearly what we want players to be too. Maybe not always characters, but always players.

The second long piece is a real story, the one about Dave and the slipknot discovery. Again, it’s an ordinary guy in an extraordinary place, though this one (written by Toph and not me) shows an ordinary place becoming extraordinary. Without making Dave a superman. Or anyone else. Not even the high tech aliens that change everything are supermen. Everywhere you look in Diaspora, it’s just folks. Sure, they often wield extraordinary things at extraordinary scales, but you could still share a beer with them and they still go to the bathroom and worry about their kids.

So that’s the story of the micro-fiction in our game. We wanted to illustrate without drawing and as our source material was text, we felt text could do the job on several axes: show the system, show the “setting”, and deliver a little wonder in a small package. I think if anyone wanted to know in future what Diaspora was “about”, they could do worse than to borrow someone’s copy and read, at random, the stuff in italics.


P.S. Thanks Fred — in writing this I was forced to go back to my copy and read some of the fiction there. It does deliver, as you say, and that’s something I didn’t really get a chance to appreciate while it was going through the chores of being written.

Dec 15 2009

Bad fiction and tears

I cry in movies. Ask Jack — I invest so heavily in fiction, whether written or film, that I’ll cry whenever my buttons are pushed. Some commercials make me tear up.

The thing is, I cry at bad fiction. Not only and not mostly, maybe, but I certainly cry when I read or watch some parts of some fiction that is really not especially well crafted. It’s just very easy for me to invest in human interactions adequately represented. This is especially funny for others when we are watching, say, Planet of the Apes. I can’t believe they blew it up either!

So if I’m emotionally invested, how is that fiction “bad” in any interesting sense? Well, I really dislike the idea that anything that entertains you is somehow “good” or maybe “good enough”. I love entertainment and sometimes something light and shallow is what I want. Sometimes I want a quart of scotch, too. Or a gallon of ice cream. But I have to decide whether that’s really how I want to spend my time and energy.

And sometimes it is, and that’s because I invest. If I didn’t invest, bad fiction would be worse than bad, it would be dreary. And to be honest, a lot of fiction is dreary to me — it doesn’t sell me its characters and consequently, no matter how pretty, I am not transported. I don’t care. So that’s maybe the extreme case — bad, bad fiction.

Good fiction is a different beast. I don’t read it as fast and I might not even find myself invested. But at a level above emotional identification, I feel personally improved. I have learned something and often I have been inspired to make something. While reading Solzhenitsyn I got a blog post a day — my brain was on all the time. It felt great.

The past week or so I’ve been reading some less good fiction. A new Jack McDevitt novel (I cried at the end — what a sucker!) that was fun and now a Stephen Hunter novel that is even more compelling (and I already cried once while reading on the bus — very embarrassing) are being ingested. But the output — the amount of read content that gets converted into interesting thought and (maybe) interesting writing — is low. I write about television. I am not thinking as hard generally and that’s a little depressing.

On the other hand, that bad fiction is generating game ideas, and that’s cool. I have always suspected there was a relationship, and I am not dissuaded since this experiment started. Moorcock and Moebius are driving my thoughts about Soft Horizon (the setting and the play) but in a very real way Solzhenitsyn drove more complex thought about system and personal interaction. It’s as though they operate at difference levels of thought — different stances, even. In one case I am definitely identifying and immersing in story — my stance is as observer of events. In the other that happens to some extent, but more I am immersing in thought about thought — my stance is as reader of text.

In that respect “good” and “bad” are crappy labels. I don’t actually use them to imply quality. I use them because we all know what we mean when we use them. We pretend we don’t and we map them onto ideas like “boor” or “effete” but we do get it. We know that hard, complex reading is good for the brain, that it drives and inspires more complex thought and thoughts about thought. Similarly we know that engaging entertainment doesn’t always (maybe usually) doesn’t do that but it does something else, something more animal and more immediately appealing. When I say “bad fiction” you know that’s the kind of thing I mean. But removing the judgement value and seeing “good” and “bad” as abstract labels, these are pretty clear categories. Of course there is material that achieves both and of course different people may find different levels of immersion (got you!) or flow or inspiration or investment. But generally these labels are at least comprehensible.

And so when I say that bad fiction makes good games, we see why. Fiction that engages emotionally and visually, that grabs at big archetypes that are easy to understand and story shapes that we know in our spines are the kinds of things that work in games because we need to think fast at the table. Any story element that’s going to work has to be invented and deployed almost as fast as it takes to speak. And not only does it need to be deployed, it needs to be instantly received as well. And that means it needs to be visceral — spinal even. It needs as much shared subtext as possible so that the slightest effort produces rich communication. And bad fiction does that. “A dark and stormy night” is a great way to set a scene for a game. “I am your father” resonates like crazy instantly.

So maybe it’s true that bad fiction — fiction that is no more than it looks at first glance — works because we get it instantly. And we can create it almost as fast. When I say, “Your mentor turns to you as Vader approaches him. He smiles. He waves you on, and Vader prepares to strike him down,” you know what your role is. You know what you feel. And so you are free to feel it, because you are not being asked to investigate it. Bad fiction makes good games. It has to flow easy there.

Of course there are exceptions. But look at the market leaders: in these games you know what your role is, instantly. You improvise trivially, effortlessly. Something in there works. I contend it is the crappiness of its fiction.