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.


Apr 25 2011


It’s been a while, I know. And what’s worse is that, in the interim, I haven’t been doing any gaming, so I don’t really have any gaming thoughts to deliver. What I have been doing is moving from Vancouver to Toronto. So now I’m in Toronto in a tiny condo with my girl, my three cats, and my dog. And that’s it — the furniture isn’t due for a few weeks and frankly I don’t know where it’s going to go when it gets here.

My first task, now that I have internet functionality at home and have got into the workplace where I have a regular and comfortable workstation, is of course to establish gamer contact and start thinking about design, publishing, and the business again. So this will ramble as I cover my thoughts on these (somewhat) diverse topics.


I already said I haven’t thought much about design. But I have thought a little and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be working on Diamondback, a supplement for Diaspora. This came out of a discussion on RPG.net about Diaspora and mecha. Now, I don’t actually know much about mecha as a genre (nothing, really), but I did play a lot of Mechwarrior and so I get what’s cool about giant walking robots. I spent a few thousand dollars on little plastic ones. As is typical with me, however, I never paid a moment’s notice to the backstory for it. Yeah, in video games I always click click click right through the dialogue until there’s a decision to be made. I play World of Warcraft, for example, but I have no clue about the “lore”, as they call it.

That of course means that I will be writing my own. Or rather, consistent with VSCA house style, the rules will imply a setting and I can hope it will at least not be (literally, anyway) derivative: having no contact with existing material there is little chance I will copy it deliberately. Of course, this sort of material is usually drenched in archetypes, so there are even odds that I’ll closely parallel something between most and all of the existing genre content.


This move has seriously disrupted work on Hollowpoint, and that means we will probably miss the deadline for ENnie submissions. I’m okay with that, though I doubt Toph is, because I don’t really want to compete with Dresden Files RPG as well as Pathfinder and whatever new Eclipse Phase material is out there this year kicking ass. Oh, I’m sure there’s something even more terrifying to compete with next year, but it’s not really a decision at this point so I am prepared to declare those grapes extremely sour.

I’d love to say there’s something else on the horizon (nudge nudge) but there’s not at the moment and the geographically fractured design team makes that situation even more chaotic than it would otherwise be. Still, I anticipate a great deal of creativity over the next few months and, if the VSCA can get a few Skype sessions together, maybe as much or even more work than we would normally get done.


The first quarter of 2011 has been kind to us. Diaspora sales remain high — our Poisson curve has so far has refused to turn over as predicted and instead we continue to make pretty consistent sales numbers — very slightly lower than last quarter, basically, which was good. In another post at another time I’ll talk in more detail, but certainly I expect to be chatting with Fred Hicks soon enough about another print run. This makes me really happy — to see Diaspora behave as what they call an “evergreen” title is a joy. Lots of games start out popular, but the real feature of a great game is whether people continue to play it. Certainly we did (and hopefully will again) over many years both before and after publication. And I suspect that steady sales is an indication that there is plenty of play, budding off new owners.

Well, I hope that’s what’s happening anyway.


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 reading  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 15 2010

Empire building

There once was a time when I had a 286 computer running DOS. Around this time, I ran my first empire-building game. It was a big hit. We spent tons of time with it and never even got close to using it as intended. We mostly made maps (by hand, because there was no way the computing power was up to it — actually the software) and designed spaceships (with the Traveller:2300 Star Cruiser rules, if I recall). At some point one of our motley crew built custom software to facilitate the game, complete with a rotatable 3d star map and travelling-salesman solver to find optimum jump paths. That was awesome.

The idea of the empire building game is simple. There is a universe full of worlds and you don’t know much about it. You make space ships and zoom around discovering worlds. You exploit them, increasing your resources and your ability to make space ships. Eventually you run into other people and fight it out for domination of the galaxy. The joy of it is that you can play the empire part by email and use it as an excuse to occasionally wargame the space fights.

That’s the idea. I’ve done this a few times and I don’t think we ever once got to a fight. The thing is, a lot of the fun is in building space ships and exploring the universe. This may be related to the fact that my table like character generation a lot, so we’re in the “prep is play” camp, and a lot of this empire building game is basically prep. You make things, you organize them, you submit them for approval, and you get new data to integrate into your file. You sort of have to love data management. With occasional fighting.

So this time we’re using the rules I wrote for the last time, Starfight, which were originally written for use with a different space fighting game. This time I figured I’d use Diaspora because its ship construction is interesting but simple and we already know and love the space combat system. And it’s designed to stand alone. It seems like a match to me!

Also this time around we have Tim’s sons in the mix, and they are only a little younger than we were when we first tried this. Holy crap, that brings it all home.

Anyway, I did a lot of thinking in my head before starting this because the best time we ever had with this was the first time, and I want to recapture what was fun about that. Part of what was fun was that we had no tools but pencils and blank paper at the time and had to figure out how to manage our data. I didn’t think that was the fun part before. I am certain now that I was wrong. When I think about how cool that first game was, I think about coloured maps drawn with rulers, Lotus spread-sheets, and custom software. But how do you recapture that?

Well, the first thing I think is to realize that folks probably won’t actually use pencils and rulers. But that wasn’t the essence of that success. The essence of it was figuring out what to do with limited data. Figuring out a way to represent it for yourself. So this time around the coloured pencils might actually be some mighty sophisticated software, but under the covers the principle is still this: it’s your problem. So my solution (or rather my experiment) is to provide very limited data to the end user, but it’s the essential data. That is, rather than keep a database of all the details and spit out custom awesome maps, I am just handing out the data. And because there’s nor sophisticated database, it’s not complex data.

For the first turn, players get their homeworld data, which looks like this:

Vagkim (Tim’s home world)

-1-> Faran
-2-> Cozan, Meschist
-3-> Nisqit, Nolaquin

All this means is that Tim’s home planet is called Vagkim and that there is a system called Faran one jump away. And Cozan and Meschist are two jumps away. Nisqit and Nolaquin are three jumps away. Now you can draw a map.  It’s mostly a conceptual map because you only have distances and not bearings, but the fact is no one cares about bearings in this situation. I mean, if you wanted to reconstruct what the sky looks like from your homeworld then sure, you need to know what direction things are in, but if you just need to know how close something is to something else, then all you need are distances.

The other data stored are the resources. These are three numbers: Industrial, Raw, and Social. To start only your homeworld has any. Once a world becomes friendly to you, you can exploit its resources. What you get depends partially on its available resources and partially on your method of exploitation. You can strip mine it, install a corporate presence, or try to run the government.

Oops, drifting afield here. Anyway, managing this data is not very onerous and you can do it all graphically which i fun. Fuck those databases, frankly. Give me a pretty network graph.

And the other thing you do a lot of is make ships with the ship construction system and there is no way that’s not fun. You need to keep track of your ships and that’s your problem and that’s part of your fun. Fortunately Diaspora ships are pretty easy to make and do not take up much space to describe. They are also trivial to verify unlike Traveller:2300 ships which I pretty much just had to take as given, errors and all, because I wasn’t really keep on checking the volume calculations to the third decimal place. One might find oneself encouraged to draw space ships, even.

And then all this takes place on a little mailing list so there is also an implicit invitation to share, and that is part of the program as well. Part of what was really cool in the first iteration was sharing with each other just how we had decided to organize the data. Showing off our cool maps, for example, or our ship drawings. Or the software we wrote. The combination of a problem to solve and an eager audience was really what drove the fun.

I hope. If I’m right then we will recapture some of what was cool in 1986. If not, well, maybe we’ll at least have an excuse to fight space ships. Make guys and then make them fight is the cardinal rule.


Nov 9 2010

Recreational drinking

When I was in high school I did a lot of recreational drinking. That was different.

Last night I went to a scotch tasting event at Liberty Wine Merchants in Point Grey. Now, I like these guys already because they have a great selection of rare scotches and I’ve brought home more than one bottle from there that made me extremely happy. So when I read that Bob Kyle from Rare Drams (and I apologize for that link — the web site is awful) was going to be there to show off some Speyside selections they made, I signed up.

I wouldn’t sign up for something like that alone, of course — I sent the alarm out to Toph (aka C.W. Marshall, the guy on the cover of your copy of Diaspora) and he sent the call out even further. Well, at least far enough to drag a friend of his in, and right there was a major social victory for me. I got to meet a friend of a friend that I hadn’t yet met and that usually goes well. It certainly did this time. So anyway there were three of us, which is a good number for breaking ice because there’s a kind of defensive minimum achieved. That lets me relax pretty well and then of course there was a bunch of scotch as well.

When we arrived there was a substantial cheese platter on the table from the unmatched Pane E Formaggio (whose web site also kind of sucks — what is it with Flash and web sites that don’t do anything, anyway?). That was very good. Then there were a couple of beers on the table as well — I can’t recall the brand but there was a pumpkin ale I refused to risk and a bitter that was superb. So that’s a pretty swell warm up to a room filling with strangers. Food, some beer, and impending scotch.

Bob Kyle is a likable white-haired individual in a kilt and he seems to know his topic. Speyside scotches are not my cup of tea, generally, maybe partly because my sense of smell and taste are not all that great. So, if I were in a charitable mood, I’d say the Speysides are too subtle for my palate. Normally I say they are boring. Of the six that Bob brought, however, I’d have happily walked away with three.

These are not the usual distillery products, but rather cask selections made by the folks at Rare Drams. They have the difficult and undesirable job of going from distillery to distillery and tasting specific casks until they find one that they like, and then bringing it home to put in bottles. See, normally a distillery that produces single malts blends a number of casks together to produce the signature product that they have been selling for however many years that’s been going on. We’re not talking about vatted or blended booze here — it’s all from the same distillery, it’s just balanced from various batches to reach a recognizably similar taste. So when Bob and the gang go and find that one cask they love, it is usually because it has something distinct from the usual bottling, and so that in itself is reason to taste.

These are not cask-strength, mind you, like an Aberlour A’bunadh, say. They dilute these down to 50% or so (it varies by the age of the scotch), which they feel is an optimal drinking strength. I’m okay with that — some of the pleasure in a cask strength is related to the pleasure in eating spicy food or deliberately using too much wasabi. That is, it’s about machismo. Not in the case of that Aberlour up there, mind you. So these are strong, but deliberately so. You may have guessed from other things I write about here that the fact of that deliberation is already pretty appealing to me. I like it when smart people do things on purpose.

Of the three scotches that struck my palate the right way, two were big surprises.

The first was a young Speyside who’s name I can’t recall because it had far too many letters. Anyway, it was a pale thing with the usual mild citrus and florals going on in the nose. Boring. But when it got in my mouth it was something else entirely — not the taste, specifically, though that was stronger and more interested than the smell promised, but the feel. This scotch had a substantial oil content that really filled the mouth with a big round taste. This is sufficiently unlike most Speysides that I was sold — it managed to deliver the taste sufficiently, which suggests to me that a lot of what I dislike in Speysides is the feeble delivery and not the taste itself.

The second was from the Macallan distillery. I’m not a huge fan of Macallan but I’ll certainly drink someone elses bottle of it. This cask they drew from, however, was basically all the good things in a Macallan dialed up to 11. Again, a big mouth-feel as well, distinct from the shelf product and lots of savoury-sweet notes like chocolate or something.

The one that stole the show, though, was naturally the most expensive one on the menu. I’m saving up to get a bottle. Apparently it’s from a private distillery that lacks even a name, and when the folks from Rare Drams tried to help the owner come up with a name, he proved resistant to the idea. He sounds like a stubborn old goat, which is probably ideal for scotch construction. So they bottled it under the name “Possibly the Finest Distillery in Scotland”. This was a wicked construction with a sweet-bitterness to it like burned caramel or those Callard and Bowser treacle candies I used to eat in the back seat of the Honda Civic CVCC (the one my father had cannibalized letters from another Honda so that the back logo read “DOODAH” instead of “HONDA”) on road trips to Whistler with my family. Extra credit for invoking pleasant memories of my childhood.

So I’m saving up.


Addendum: Just remembered that as we were wrapping up, I won one of the door prizes. It’s a distressed khaki cap with the logo for “Big Peat” whiskey on it and a tasting glass with the same logo. I’m not a big cap wearer, but my wife is thrilled because it’s soft and fits tight and looks swell on her and when she trims down her Mohawk it gets chilly on her skull.

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.


Aug 5 2010

One year ago today-ish

August 7th will be the first anniversary of the sale of Diaspora. In point of fact, I put it on sale sometime around midnight on August 6th, but our first confirmed sale to someone who was not an author or an author’s mom was very early in the morning on August 7th. So we are coming up on a full year of Diaspora and that makes me feel pretty damned good. Here’s why.

We did it because it was fun to do. We loved the things that Spirit of the Century taught us even though we revised our SotC experience during play very heavily indeed. I like — even require — this part about role-playing games.  It’s part of the fun I have. I get the whole rules-as-written thing, especially as I get deeper into game design and find — paradoxically — that I have to play closer to rules as written than ever before. I sympathise. But I don’t think it’s as fun as hacking on the rules to make them fit the evening and I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation from role-playing game designers in most contexts (I would certainly exclude GM-less games from this, for example, for reasons I haven’t thought through yet but that I suspect are interesting).

Anyway, we hacked SotC and loved Traveller and so we birthed Spirit of the Far Future which was a lark and good fun and got played by us. Business as usual.

Then we learned about Lulu and the whole print-on-demand concept. And this meant we could go from hack to product with close to zero risk. We could hold a printed hardcover of our rules in our own hands! A real book!

And that was really it — it was a vanity product in the strictest sense. We’d make ourselves some books because that would be really cool and, because it was zero extra work, we’d let other people buy one if they wanted one. There is no interesting way in which this is a business here. It’s just a lark with a trophy at the end and an invitation for like-minded people to get themselves a copy.

As we got started on preparing the text for this, we realized that in making the product available, we actually were assuming some new ethical responsibilities as well as opening up new opportunities. There’s not really any such thing as casually offering something for sale at a profit. Profit being the key word there, and we were certainly thinking very early on that it would be nice to get a bottle of scotch out of the deal. So now we had to raise the bar on what we would sell customers — it had to be worth the money, and it was going to cost some money even if we made zero profit.

There also came the opportunity of being an author on a “real” book. By making it available for re-sale, having a genuine customer base, and registering the book with Library and Archives Canada with a real-live ISBN, we changed what we are to the world. We are authors in a legally binding sense (though what we are bound to is not much). If you go to the archives in Ottawa, you can see our book. You can borrow the loaner copy. We are part of the international acknowledgment of participation in the sum total of recorded human knowledge and art.

So are a few hundred million other people you never heard of. But still, it’s a kind of club and I’m happy to be a member.

Today we publish in hardcover and softcover. We have an electronic version. There are fan hacks all over the place that turn it into exactly what they want. Other people talk about its virtues and deficiencies in public places — they actually care enough about it to say something one way or the other. There are attackers and defenders — it’s a big enough deal to choose sides. That all makes me very proud.

As I write this we’ve sold over 1,500 copies. I don’t know exactly how many, but it’s close to and more than that. You can buy it in real stores or have it printed for you through Lulu or delivered to your computer by RPGNow. And we’ve obviously been working on some new projects now that we know we can do this if we want to. And we do.

I’ve talked before about the surprise at the initial success. I won’t tell that story again. We’re up for an ENnie for best rules, which the math suggests we can’t win (> 7000 voters and only 1500 copies sold suggest there just aren’t enough owners to compete) but I am blown away that the four of us were  nominated and want to thank all the little people. We’re all little people, just folks, doing stuff they want to do. My pals at the table, my grandfather for making me think creativity was intrinsically valuable, my father for making me feel duty in my guts, my mother, my sister, my enemies, my workmates…it all went into the machine that makes stuff.

Anyway, enough of the maudlin bullshit. We’ve brought in enough money to have to pay taxes and we’ve bought a lot more scotch than we expected to. We split the money four ways, so no one is quitting day jobs (or even night jobs for that matter), but we had huge fun making the book and even more talking with more and more people about playing the game with the book. It’s been a really swell year that’s made me feel better about gaming and about myself than many prior years. If it’s always like this then I will always publish games.

It’s got a great beat and I can dance to it. I give it a 9. Would go again.


Jul 28 2010

Getting back in the game

The VSCA has at least two games that are almost ready to publish. Before we get there, though, we need to get back into playing these games after almost a month away from it all! This is surprisingly hard work — enthusiasm you generate at the table fades rapidly over time and can be very hard to recover. Flailing around trying to even remember what was cool about it is painful. Sure, you can start over with a new character and world creation session (and this is often the solution we use) but this is in danger of being a never ending cycle. And we love character creation, so there is little resistance to doing this. Danger, Will Robinson, as they say.

Trying to bull it out and just fabricate the enthusiasm is dangerous too. After an hour or so, if it doesn’t come back to you, the session is shot. You’ll either play through and be dissatisfied but be in no position to decide whether it’s the game or the situation that caused it (which doesn’t help design and development at all)  or you’ll quit early and play Battlestar Galactica because it’s a reliably awesome game with built-in enthusiasm generation.

Oh yeah, I already thought about that last bit. Can you make a role-playing game with built-in enthusiasm generation? I think that, because it’s usually a staged event, the initial session is exactly that and then you count on momentum and regular play to keep that up. And that works.

Anyway that’s not what I’m here about. I don’t intend to re-design these games to create mechanisms for generating flash every session. I think that’s a problem of a whole different sort and I also don’t want to go back to the drawing board for these games. Instead I am thinking about what I am actually going to do to regenerate enthusiasm. As a referee for the game (and host as well, which is a related issue) I am assuming an obligation to make the session work. Certainly I expect the players to cooperate and stuff, but I have already taken up the mantle and the viking hat and so whether or not it is my moral duty, it is a duty I have decided to adopt.

So the problem of “how do I regenerate my enthusiasm” is now “how do I propagate my fabricated enthusiasm”. Interestingly, this latter one is easier than the former. Huh? Because I love to teach, to demonstrate, to mediate. I am already enthusiastic, not necessarily about the topic but about the process. So that’s step one: I will deliberately take on the responsibility of re-selling the campaign.

STEP ONE: Deliberately take on the responsibility for re-selling the campaign.

(I was just re-reading Diaspora this morning and loving the rule call-outs in it. They work. I will re-use them.)

So part of what was making me enthusiastic about this campaign back when we started generating characters was, not surprisingly, my character. Yes, even when I intend to referee, I usually generate a character. It becomes and NPC and may die or something. That’s not important. The character is my touchstone in the world, and that’s important. It gives me a person to imagine acting in the world and some eyes to see through, not so much during the game but before while planning. And given my prep style, by planning I mostly mean “thinking about” and not necessarily writing anything down.

STEP TWO: Grab the thing that used to be fascinating and look through its eyes at the world.

If this doesn’t generate a spark for you then it’s possible there never was one. So for me, this is The Gan, a mechanical shaman in a mechanistic world who talks with ghosts. Until recently she was certain that there was no such thing as ghosts — that she and all her machine-exorcists were charlatans. That changed, though, and with it everything else. Now she collects the raiment of the cultures she visits outside the Machine of her world, Cognate, which are places where spirit and ghost and the unexplainable are expected features. They are assumed rather than denied.

Okay so now I have eyes and a mind. I will add a voice. I will riff a vignette where The Gan is the eyes of the scene. I’ll use some things generated by the other players in this vignette because I don’t want to simply preach or tell stories, but rather I want to make them excited about their creations too.

STEP THREE: Tell a story that celebrates the creations of the other players.

Doing this is a form of praise and people love praise. Even people who know you are manipulating them with praise still love it. It’s like the swallow reflex. You have no choice even though it makes you feel dirty sometimes.

Okay maybe that’s too vivid. But remember every picture in your head there is your own fault. I didn’t say anything about oral sex.

So I write that because writing gets me jazzed too. I just like doing it. Here’s what I came up with:

Ee-ket holds up the sky, she does
And sunset is all the colours of her ass.
She chases death for laughs, she does
And she lets him kiss her coloured ass.

Ee-ket is dead as shit, they say
They tore her to pieces for sport and for joy.
The chimps devoured her brain, they say
And danced in her sky without joy.

The sky stands aloft
But the earth now free
Of elaborate fickle bonds
Is torn by the whims of murderous
Lusts. Ee-ket still holds up the sky, she does.
Sunset is all the colours of her ass.

— a folk song of the Timpani mandrill tribe, Rotten Spray Cove


The Lost One, the old hag, that bitch who moves you where there are no gates, she’s missing now and you are stranded (at least Stefos says you’re stranded — “There are no gates here. None secret, none hidden, none.”) on a rich island in the sky of Sephira. It is hot and humid because it is nearer to the sun than most, and you are the guests of the King of Rotten Spray Cove, a crowned baboon who rules over an ancient city carved from living granite and strung with jungle creepers and vines. Every building is open to the sky and the locals revel in the sudden rainfall that drenches them ever few days.

Stone faces are carved into every flat surface and stairs lead up and down needlessly everywhere. The city is home to all apes (well, all that have hair) and some monkeys, but each kind tends to keep to itself in regions of the city unmarked in any way you have yet determined, though the gorillas among you suspect scent is the key. The only race without a place are the Rakes, murderous bands of chimpanzees that rush through the broad stone streets at night and kill without purpose and without fear of punishment. Sometimes they are slain in this night frenzy, but they are never pursued in the day. They’d be easy enough to catch as they sleep all day, wherever they were when the sun rose.

And so it is, for some of you a little familiar, and you rest in the care of Badang and Ripat, the bonobo diplomats of the king’s court. You can hear inane laughing chants of the baboons as the sun sets, their song that keeps the Cove in the sky where it’s warm. You are comfortable but stranded. The Gan hums and clicks and whirs and Ord lies dead asleep (he seems to either feel rage or sloth and naught in between). Stefos paces.

A babble rises in volume to a thousand-voiced cry in the city. Badang, the smaller of the pair, rushes in. The King has been poisoned.

Poisoned. An invisible killer has somehow returned. Ee-ket’s pact has been broken and the nameless god she chased away has gained some purchase again.

The Gan strides to the window that overlooks the Meet, the vast assembly space where the King holds — held — audience at the base of his ziggurat. The Gan inhales, which is something none of you have ever seen before. He turns and says, “A plague is on the wind.”

Now this is incomplete — I really grabbed on to one player’s creation, the ape-world of Sephira, which has lots of embedded culture and has a great rule: there is no invisible death. Inhabitants die of violence and stuff like that but there is no poison or disease. Whenever someone hands me a rule, the hook that it obviously recommends is to break that rule.

STEP FOUR: Break a rule to break the ice.

This works because I know I have at least one player invested in that rule and I know they trust me. And so I reasonably expect that the reaction here will not be “Brad is a cock for ruining my creation” but rather the in character reaction, “Oh my goodness everything I have believed is turning out to be false — how could this be?”  Hopefully followed by, “we better investigate.”

When we meet I will re-tell this. Some things might change. I will try to make each player think about what this means to them by offering some narrative about them as the event unfolds — it’s essential that everyone be attached to the opener.

STEP FIVE: Touch everyone.

And then I’ll sit back and hope it works. When everything goes right, the players attack the hook and create the game. I have several cool NPCs to talk with, and that often livens things up. Whatever, the point is, if it livens up, the session will work.

If it doesn’t, I have Settlers of Cataan handy.


Jun 25 2010

The Outsider

Last night we ran a first session playtest of Soft Horizon in hopes of getting a full campaign running so that we can get a feel for the durability of the system. We had a nice full table, adding a friend of mine from way way back (him mom DM’ed the first game of D&D I ever played), and everyone engaged nicely with the play and with each other.

In play I built a character named Gan. I wanted Gan to be very alien and I chose to do this just by being uncomfortable and uncertain once taken out of its element. But Gan is a mystic, so the degree to which it does understand the “natural” world is its supernatural power — it comes from a race that would, on average, disbelieve most of the rest of the multiverse as impossible. I added no more details in order to see what would happen when others described interacting with Gan.

I’m not sure what order to tell this because the parallel is so tight, but we finished character creation and Bob had a problem with it. Now, Bob is the outsider at the table tonight. I mean, we’re (I hope) a warm and inviting bunch and we’d just shared a fun meal and so as animals we were pretty well aligned by the time the whiskey came out, but Bob is still amongst near strangers. This gives Bob the gift of insight.

It’s not really insight, exactly, but it’s a lack of assumptions. This is super powerful. It should be a super power: ASSUMPTIONLESS MAN! So Bob says that in reading Diaspora, one of the things that binds characters together is the phase in which we incorporate other characters. And Soft Horizon lacks this. It’s true.

We’ve had a problem with the existing system that we hadn’t tinkered with. Phase Four is the Alone phase. You describe a time when you were lost or abandoned by the team and had to act on your own. This phase does some cool self-discovery stuff and often gives you things you didn’t know would happen. Unfortunately it has a hitch — there’s something about being alone that makes you tend to think “Tenacity” when you wonder which skill to pick for it. And, as Bob pointed out, unless you go to six phases it means there’s never really any group cohesion generated. Phase three announces the cohesion, but nothing cements it.

So by being the outsider, Bob sort of gives us permission to chop down that tree and plant something else. And so we change this phase to Salvation: narrate a time when the person to your right saved your life. Give her a skill based on that story. Listen to the narration from the person to your left and take the skill they give you. Now pick one for yourself based on all this new knowledge.

Several things happened. We got cohesion — we now have five new stories that are all about the group keeping each other alive. Cooler, the group has a history of at least five implied stories, many with characters that need exploring now. As a ref, this means I have tons of raw material to make new things happen. But the coolest thing that happened is that I got to see my character, who I had deliberately made weird, through Bob’s eyes, and he gave me something way better than a skill choice (though he gave me that too). He gave me a definite article.

My character, Gan, has a sense of self and so has a real name. But Bob’s story refers to the Gan. The Gan is a thing to everyone else. It’s unique perhaps and it’s alien and it does not get a proper name in the same sense as the others. It perhaps doesn’t even experience autonomy. The Gan is a machine. A special one, but just a machine. In this game, the Gan is a machine that talks to gods.

So the Gan is an outsider too, and I hope to play it as a force for the same sort of re-interpretation. A source of new perspectives to drive story into unexpected places. What does the Gan care about? Not food or air or water or life, certainly. Not lust. But love, perhaps? What shape would that take? What will the Gan’s gradually learned affinity for its fragile meaty charges look like?

I am looking forward to this.


May 7 2010

I am a collaborator

Getting six people to work on a focused goal is pretty easy — I’ve run teams plenty of times and it’s just not all that complicated. It works easily, however, because the social structure lets it basically be me with five extra sets of arms. That is, I plan and organize and command and review and collate and present. My team members get their piece done according to my plan. This is not collaboration. It’s a way that some things work, and it’s good, but it’s not collaboration.

VSCA projects, by contrast, are strictly collaborative. Each author has (theoretically) equal input and consequently organization needs to coalesce rather than emerge whole. This means that we need a richly iterative model in order to get work done. This was brought home for me recently while discussing Chimaera progress with JB, during which I tried to explain how we were going to bootstrap the idea into a game. All too often I have no idea what I am doing until I try to explain it to someone else, at which time I discover that I really do have a methodology.

The essence of VSCA collaboration is play. We never go away and write a game whole and then playtest it, but rather we playtest very coarse drafts and fragments of subsystems and revise based on the information from that and over and over and over. Always playing. We don’t have meetings, we have game nights. But we’ve had precious few game nights in the past two years that haven’t also been game designing. I don’t think I can go back to “just play”. This is play for me now.

So we don’t really do anything with a project until someone writes enough to play with. It can be just a subsystem or a dice gimmick, but it has to be enough to drive an evening’s play and discussion. So we start with this kernel of a few thousand words in which someone tries to explain the game. It doesn’t need to be refined and it doesn’t need to have a “voice” yet, but it does need to convey enough to everyone else that we can all get our teeth into it. Until this happens there is no project. I don’t care how much information you have in your head, until you share we aren’t collaborating.

Once we have that kernel it goes up at the wiki where anyone can hack at it. Now all kinds of semi-organized work happens. Links to AP reports and audio go up. New text goes in. Micro-fiction from play or imagined play goes in. Proposals are made. Things get re-organized. Images and other art tests get made and linked up. Basically the wiki becomes a multi-media creative collage of effort from the collaborators. It’s a mess. Probably no one can play with it but us. But we certainly can.

Every game night that is exploring a project is recorded. Immediately after play, someone tries to capture the essence of what we learned that night and post it up at the wiki. Early on there are more questions than rules, but that’s cool. We are confident that an organized project will show itself over time. We don’t need to make it happen yet.

The basis of iterative development is obvious — the idea is that you cannot design perfectly and then implement. That is, designs are always flawed. With that as your core premise, one solution is to design only a minimum and then get it working in as real an environment as possible, take notes, and push those back into design. Revise the implementation and re-test. This avoids designing shit you don’t use and highlights stuff you didn’t know you needed. Anyway, all of this is familiar to software designers and fits nicely into the led-team model.

It also works for peer collaboration. In fact it works better for an important reason: it establishes a certain amount of investment (even ownership) in all the collaborators. The core idea will change — although that came from one person’s head and was perhaps perfectly clear in there, in play and revision the author’s peers will take what they like and expand it. They will tear down what they don’t like. They will tell you what they saw when they played and it will be different than what the initial author saw. The game, in short order, will be other than what the originator intended. This is real collaboration and it’s terrifying.

Allowing your vision to be influenced by others requires an incredible amount of trust, especially from people who are trained to operate in an authoritative role. We (people like me, I mean) expect to command with a limited amount of dispute after a certain (brief) period of initial research. But when everyone at the table is at least as smart as you, you can no longer afford this ego-friendly attitude. And it makes you realise that, because the disputes and changes are emerging from real play and an effort to have real fun with diverse brains, it is a reflection of the interests of a potential audience as well. And consequently you are tricked into respecting the audience in the same fashion. The game now has its own design goals (or perhaps the design goal of the gestalt brain that the collaborating team represents) and these goals are roughly representative of the audience, because any gathering of four or five people probably has many general qualities that are represented by a much broader subset of people. I might not be well represented by any substantial group of other people, but the intersection of the interests of five of us certainly is.

So respect and trust are created by earnest iteration over play. Play. Let’s say that again. Play. That’s an order.