Dec 20 2013

Elysium Flare


I’m working on a new project. It started as a bit of a lark, a dare even — I was thinking about the kinds of games I didn’t feel strongly about writing, or more correctly the kinds of settings I wasn’t keen on. And I though, well, it would be something of a challenge to write something really effective on a topic I wasn’t very enthusiastic about. Maybe it’s a test of professionalism (can I write to spec) or maybe it’s just me admitting to myself that actually I kind of do love some genres that I don’t want to love.

So I dredged around for something that I thought hadn’t been done well and was also something I wasn’t keen on and I decided that the world needs a strong space opera game. Something that you could run a Star Wars story in without feeling like you were strapped to the Lucas canon. And so I started writing Elysium Flare, a completely novel space fantasy setting for Fate Core. Right now there’s around 20k words done and it looks like that will at least double before we’re through.

Helping me in the creative process is the brilliant Colombian artist, Juan Ochoa, who has been doing conceptual sketches of aliens and space craft and generally firing my imagination. The end product will feature plenty of his work and if I’m really ambitious, it will be available in full colour.

Now of course I can’t leave a game alone. I can’t just write a game that has aliens and call it space opera. I need it to do something special, something novel, something derived from but outside of the setting. Okay, I admit it, I generally need a game to say something important to me. So the salient feature of this space opera setting is alien species. There are lots of them — the cantina scene in Star Wars was a formative image for me — and so I have to wonder what kinds of things that implies and so of course what kinds of mechanisms will support those implications. There is a sense, then, in which Elysium Flare will be about (mechanically) diversity. Not in any deep sense, I fear, since I am not a social scientist, but in some sense.

But there’s another thing that’s crept in that I hadn’t really intended. I watched the Star Wars films a few times to get my head into this place, and I also read a lot of classic science fiction from the fifties and sixties and decided that there is another axis of exploration for this genre — it it divides it starkly from our objectives in Diaspora: the game needs mystical and psychic elements. That is, it needs physics to be more than just our natural physics. This will not be a game that celebrates skepticism and gritty science.

I’m not prepared, though, to just way my hands and shout “it’s magic”. It’s a cheap gag and at once too easy and too hard. It’s easy to do, to simply avoid explanation, but it’s hard because just waving your hands opens up the possibilities to, well, anything. Worlds need boundaries and structure even if we are going to admit to forces other than the natural. And I am certainly not pleased with the kind of sleight-of-hand behind “magic is science we don’t understand” because, well, I just call bullshit on that. All respect to Clarke, but if you have a scientific method then unexplained phenomena are never magical. Just avenues to explore.

So in addition to aliens, I am keeping to a consistent “three worlds” model of science. There are natural physics, the sciences that affect our real world. We may have to admit to some modifications to allow faster-than-light travel and cool looking spacecraft, but we can still call them natural though different. But then there are also mystical physics — laws and models that describe the impact of forces external to the universe on the universe. You could slot The Force in here if you are a Machete-order fan or just plain don’t buy the organic explanation for it. Or if, like me, you simply prefer your Force mystical. And finally in order to encompass real space opera, I’ll stir in psychic physics — the power of the mind as something not strictly explicable by natural physics. A kind of internal rather than external mysticism.

So now that I have a bunch of aliens and a bunch of different physics, of course the work demands that I start drawing lines between these things — some species use some physics more than others. Some cannot use one or another. Some are preternaturally skilled at one or another. We start to buy a little diversity from the otherwise unrelated idea. That’s always satisfying to see emerge from your writing.

Anyway, no date yet, but it is moving pretty fast.



Jun 15 2012

Decoupling character features

I was reviewing some of my Soft Horizon notes this morning and discovered an interesting accidental feature of the system I’m currently testing. This system borrows from ORE, from Hollowpoint and from FATE and so it has a lot of recognizable key words, but it’s really none of the three.

FATE has this great internal symmetry and consistency. There are very close relationships (to the point, if you wanted to criticise, of identity) between many features — for example, an Aspect is equal to two points on the dice. A stress box is equal to one point on the dice. Depending on variants, Consequences are worth some number of points on the dice (when you have fixed values for Consequences the relationship is tighter). Skill values are points on the dice.

So the dice, the skills, the aspects, and the consequences are all intimately related to the stress track. This means that any bonuses in one place can be seen as (roughly) equivalent bonuses or penalties some place else. A skill of 3 is the same as a skill of 1 with an aspect. Or the same as a skill of 5 against a lower stress track.

Obviously it’s more complicated than that and depends on variants, but these relationships are close no matter how you slice it. This is often a good thing — it makes it easy to manipulate the system and understand the ramifications of changes. A free taggable aspect is +2 on the dice with an attendant demand for extra narration. Easiest effect system ever. And very hard to unbalance accidentally. Awesome features.

I find myself sometimes annoyed at this. Sometimes it feels like a lack of differentiation. I think this is part of what drives people to pare the system down to a page of essentials — there’s a suspicion that there’s less to the system than it seems. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just this sense that it could be re-factored to reveal some very simple truth about it. That’s probably true and probably why almost every version has all kinds of fairly deep changes to the core.

Soft Horizon has disconnected a lot of these things. Your skill rank has no direct relationship to your opponent’s stress. The links that exist are complex and multivariate (without being difficult in play — in play it’s a breeze). A higher skill has a variable effect on capability; generally better but with surprising negative possibilities that derive from being awesome. By that I mean that your chance of fumbling does not increase, but the chance of a move that might be read as over-confident or over-eager can easily result (Hollowpoint fans know what I’m talking about here).

The bit that struck me this morning was stress. Stress and skill are so decoupled that additional stress boxes are not the same as being more skilled at defense. That’s really cool — that’s something I want. Now you are never trading off a defensive skill against another stress box when creating characters or monsters — stress is something else again. They’re not quite hit points either — they aren’t equivalent to a fixed damage system either. This lack of equivalence means that a power or artifact that gives you an extra stress box (or takes one away) is very different from a bonus to a skill. That’s great because that gives you another way to reward characters or distinguish foes. And it turns out there are a bunch of those now.

Better, and this is the risk one usually faces with this kind of design, it is decoupled without increasing complexity, so there are limited ways in which the system can feed back on itself and run away. That means there are (probably) no defects that create super-characters through unforseen feedback loops. That’s got to a good thing, right? Well, I admit, having a super-character show up can be pretty good for publicity, but still, not so good for the game. Sure you can rule them away, but as a designer I would be embarrassed as it reveals a failure even if the end user can fix it.


Apr 30 2012

Characters in context

So since the early design stages of Soft Horizon there have been 6 major stats and when arranged in a grid:

Violence | Sorcery
Warfare | Courtesy
History | Piety

…we get two axes on which to generalize about a character. You can add up the values horizontally and determine whether the character is defined by (in order) Tactical, Strategic, or Abstract (Mental)? skills. You can add the columns instead and learn whether Substance or Essence dominates. Now in most games this would be interesting and help define the character, but in Soft Horizon, because we are looking to facilitate one-on-one play, the character’s focus becomes the context for the whole game. If a player will prefer some category of skill over another, then play will tend to be categorized similarly. At first I resisted this but then realized that this actually differentiates each campaign in a dramatic fashion. So let’s look at my Bus Notes.

tactical character is superheroic in the individual, personal realm. Her allies are named sidekicks, similarly renowned. She bargains directly with gods and is comfortable threatening or defying them. She deals with beasts and spirits and men and not with nations or armies. Her adventures are personal.

Traits for a tactical character should talk to relationships — who does she care about and who does she hate? Wo loves her unrequited? Who does she pine for? Who seethes secretly, planning revenge. Similarly, her traits are also her things — her weapon, her armour, her artifacts, her clothes.

strategic character is a great leader. Her allies are champions, lieutenants, special forces, cults and factions, nations and political parties, families and races. She deals with religions and not gods, nations and not kings. Her adventures are historic.

Traits for a strategic character should speak to promises and debts — who owes her and who does she owe and, more importantly, what is owed? Who struggles under oppression and looks to her as a saviour? Who blames her as the oppressor?

An abstract character is a sage or priest of great fame. Her allies are whole fields of study or alignments of gods. They are concepts like law or nature or they are entire ages of men. They are secrets and miracles.

Traits for an abstract character should speak to ideas and ideals, to facts and prophecies. What does she believe that no one else does? What great error can she never acknowledge? What fact does she know that no one can face?

Apr 29 2012

Experimenting through fake actual play

Note that this was originally posted to Google+. So’s everything here in the past few months and for the forseeable future.

So I’m fiddling this afternoon with new ways to make Soft Horizon work again, and right now I’m experimenting with a 2-3 player system that uses Hollowpoint as its inspiration rather than FATE. The end result is fairly cool. Here are my notes:

To feel this out, let’s consider a conflict (in Hollowpointy terms): your character must travel through the uncharted wilds from Port Kells to Along Bay. It is dangerous and strange. We begin by setting the scene and the stakes:

GM: You need to get to Along Bay, but it is wild and uncharted; very dangerous. How do you want to proceed?
Player: We will march my armies through the wilds, taming it as we go, establishing outposts that will one day become towns!
GM: Okay, so Strategic and you’re using Warfare?
Player: Yup, so 5 dice.
GM: Okay, in your path are several Unknown Kingdoms, men who have been lost to the world and who cannot see past their own borders. They are great and powerful, so I’ll say they have 5 dice. They also have a weak leader, Bor Aval, with 3 dice.
Player: Hmm, that’s pretty hefty. I’ll bring in 4 dice from my reserves (pays a point) to represent my Champion, Herald. Let’s see how it plays out.
GM: roll. I have 3×4 and 2×2 for the kingdoms and 3,4,5 for Bor Aval.
Player: I have 2×6 and 2×1 and a 5 for my Warfare and 2×2, 5, and a 3 for Herald.
GM: 3×4 goes first. As your army advances through the jungle, you are assailed by wildlings. They are ruthless and shatter your plans for the advance. I take one of your 6s. Next up is Herald.
Player: Herlad wades into the wildlings, slaughtering them by the dozens and leading the charge through their defenses. I’ll take your 2 obviously.
GM: I got nothing left, your 2×1 from Warfare.
Player: We take the wildling kingdom and leave a garrison behind. We begin teaching them the Old Ways to civilize them.
GM: Okay that’s one victory. You need two more to get to Along Bay. Bor Aval is still in the picture since he hasn’t taken any effects. I have 3×2, 5, and a 3 for the wilderness and 6,4,3 for Bor Aval. He’s clearly keeping his distance, saving his presence for some opportune moment in your travel.
Player: I have 2×4, 6,5, 1 for me and 5,4,3,1 for Herald. I’m going to tag my Preparation — Blessings of Pernath — for this one. We hold service in the wilderness after defeating the first kingdom and invoke Pernath’s promise of success and light. That’s 2 new dice to me, so a 2 and a 1. Now I have 2×4, 2×1, 6, 5, and 2.
GM: Okay, with my 3×2 you reach the dark depths of the jungle and your army is beset by rot and disease. I’ll take a 4. Your 2×1 remains.
Player: My armies drain the swamps at the Heart and establish another outpost and church. The light of Pernath keeps the jungle at bay and we slog on.
GM: Good, that’s 2 Victories! Only 1 more to reach Along Bay. I have 2×5, 6, 4, 3 for the wilderness and 2×4, 1 for Bor Aval. Finally!
Player: My armies have 2×5, 4, 3, 2 and Herald has 2×4, 6,2. I think I’m going to burn one more trait to seal this deal — I’ll burn King by Birth to add two dice. Basically we are going to arrive at each wild community in full parade, with the light of Pernath shining from us, demonstrating our divine right to rule.
GM: Nice. Go ahead.
Player: A 4 and a 2. Woo! I have 2×5, 2×4, 2×2 and 4. Herald still has 2×4, 6,2. My 2×5 goes first?
GM: Yup.
Player: We aren’t just advancing. My armies are building a road as we go from the Heart to Along Bay. We are shattering this wilderness, putting outposts and signal towers all along the way. I’ll have your wilderness’s 5.
GM: Your 2×4 is next, either yours or Heralds.
Player: Herald’s, I think. Bor Aval and his no ragged mobs try to block the road and Herald challenges him to single combat. The battle is fierce, but Herlad takes the day and we mount Bor Aval’s head on a pike that leads our advance.
GM: Your own 2×4 is last for the third victory.
Player: We march into Along Bay, victorious, preceded by our roadbuilders.
GM: You are met with cheering crowds. Already there is traffic along Heart Road and signs that the new communities will thrive. The menace Bor Aval is defeated and the wilderness conquered, at least between these two city-states.

So, this implies traits (either burned per Hollowpoint on paid for per FATE) and that some traits can be created as preparation before a conflict (a maneuver). It also implies some kind of finite reserve pool of dice that can be used to represent allies. The GM will need rules for how to choose how many dice to bring to bear. I note that if the player had chosen a tactical solution (say, Violence, to simply bull his way through the wilderness D&D style) the story would be completely different. Similarly, if the character had chosen an abstract contest with, say Piety, to find a safe path through the wilderness by negotiation with a God, we would also have a very different story. Three victories is arbitrary but a good stress track length.

Jan 22 2012

Dance with me, 4e

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sep 2 2011

Nasty, brutish, and not very short game design tools

Bear with me here because I have a head cold and it may affect my brain, so the narrative in this post may wander a little. The idea, however, occurred to me while healthy so let’s suppose it’s sound enough.

Okay, so I’m reading Hobbes’ huge work of political philosophy, Leviathan. I’ve read it before, occasionally under duress. Hobbes is a very conservative philosopher — he’d be at home in any decent quality assurance team. He has no problem at al saying you should start your argument from first principles and then actually doing it. So Leviathan, which is a many hundreds of thousands of word argument against the French Revolution and maybe specifically against some thing pamphlet by Thomas Paine (who I vastly prefer reading most days), starts from first principles.

First he rails against terms that have no meaning, picking a few pointed examples so as to also poke his contemporaries (like Paine, certainly). He says, for example, if you stick two words together that are meaningless in reference to each other, such as “Free Will”, then they are together meaningless. They are an absurdity. They are mere noises. This is good stuff — you don’t have to necessarily agree with his demonstrations to agree that using meaningless terms is dodgy philosophical work.

Then he starts defining the terms he’s going to use in his book. He starts as low as he can go and then builds up a vocabulary for talking about why people do things. What motivates them, what is good in them, what is bad in them, and so forth. In fact he does this for six chapters.

So this is six chapters packed with carefully defined words about human capabilities and motivations and interactions. And better, they are almost all defined with their opposites. Good and Evill are defined. Attraction and Aversion. Terpitude and Pulchritude. And so on. This is an enormous effort and fascinating to read.

Insert the sound of an old vinyl record scratching as I bang the tone arm off it.

Games are machines.

That’s why we use words like “mechanics” (well, you all do — I prefer “mechanism” because “mechanic” sounds like a guy who fixes my car (and I don’t own a car)). When we make games, we make all kinds of little pieces (or steal them) and fit them together so when you pull one, this other one spins, and tightens another, that causes a player to twitch. Some of the machines are fitted loosely and need constant attention from the operators. Some are fitted very tightly indeed, and admit no fingers except at the designed interfaces. These create different play experiences.

At the interfaces are a lot of guages and dials and lights. We have skills, attributes, hit points, aspects, stats (whatever that means), armour class, base attack bonus, beliefs, and on and on. This is the dashboard — the character sheet — and all those things are indicators and controls. If one changes, it better mean something to the operator (otherwise it’s clutter on an essential instrument!) If the player tweaks the value of one, something better change in the outputs of the machine.

Now when crafting this dashboard a designer often runs into one prosaic, painful, trivial-seeming, and yet essential problem.

You may now imagine the music has resumed.

You need to name all these things because they will mostly need to be words on a character sheet. You will need a lot of words that are about peoples’ motivations and abilities. It would be ideal if you had their opposites handy as well, because it very often happens that you want to label extreme ends of a range or that you want people to choose between two conflicting options. It would be great if the definition was handy and clear as well, because it’s always a thrill when you not only find the right word, but you also find the exact perfect right word.

If only we game designers had a good list of words like this.


Aug 12 2011


Well, Hollowpoint is looking like a success! It’s been about 4 weeks so far and we’ve moved 150 or so physical units and we released the PDF yesterday to substantial overnight sales. Hurray for us!

However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. What I noticed in this past four weeks is a very interesting qualitative difference in the sales. Now, before I get into what that is, I’ll outline what I see as critical differences between Hollowpoint and our other data point, Diaspora. There are many.

The biggest one is that this is not a FATE game. This is a system we developed for the express purpose of making fast, highly decorative action scenes that do not rely on simulating combat at the level of focus that many role-playing games do. This is not a guy-vs-guy combat system (I attack Larry, I roll to hit, I kill Larry). This game is more about describing your success and failure to meet your intentions with a chosen tactic. Anyway, in the context of this discussion the interesting thing is that it is not a FATE game and therefore there is no pre-existing fan base to draw on. When we built Diaspora I don’t think we realized quite how much default attention that would get us.

Another difference is that Google+ arrived at almost the same time as our release and so we were able to leverage it to spread the word as well as talking with fans at RPG Geek and This forum has a very different structure from regular discussion forums and has a different pattern of repetition — while a forum reaches a large number of people you don’t know, that number is largely fixed. With Google+ (and this is similar to Twitter but frankly has far deeper reach) we were able to reach a lot of friends of friends of friends while talking to a smaller set of people initially. I think this got us attention in places that we wouldn’t normally get to at all and may be the sort of breakthrough that starts to undermine the “browsing” exposure advantage that physical game stores have.

We also adopted Fred Hicks’ Bits and Mortar strategy, offering the PDF for free to owners of the hard copy book. I think this changes purchasing on several axes and so is a very hard effect to measure. It seems likely that it drives up hard copy purchase while driving down digital purchases. I can’t prove that, though. I know we still have a lot of digital-only sales going on.

So anyway, what’s different that warrants a thousand words? Well, the reaction.

The reaction is slower and smaller, but then so was our marketing and our target audience. So that’s not unexpected. But the reaction is also far more active. By that I mean that early reactions to the game are mostly examples of immediate play! This is really exciting to me. I mean, I am cool with selling people a book to read, and I certainly write with the intention of pleasing a reader, but the fact that the very first reports on the quality of the book were actual play reports is an awesome fact.

Certainly a major factor here is that we built a game that sets up and plays out in a few hours. That facilitates this kind of quick reaction. But there’s also usually a couple of sessions to any game where people are feeling out the rules and play is not all that satisfying yet. We have seen less of this with Hollowpoint. The majority of play reports are in the “holy crap this was awesome” category, and that’s pretty exhilarating.

Another factor is that I think we reached people who were very open to trying something new in this genre and honestly I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough. I suspect it happened in part because of the depth of the Google+ impact but I can’t prove it. The reason I say that this is a kind of breakthrough is that modern action almost always emphasizes guy-vs-guy detail. It gets grittiness by tracking ammunition and graphic wound calculation and accurate weapons simulation. Hit locations. Blood loss rules. One-shot sniper rifle kills. I think that kind of thing is boring and was hoping someone else would so I could sell a copy of the game to that person and call this a success.

Instead I found a lot of people totally open to this concept, to this level of abstraction, and, frankly, to this orthogonal1 approach to the whole problem of role-playing action scenes. As with Diaspora, the core concept of the game design seems to be a kind of in joke: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we used this hippy concept to do that extremely traditional genre.

Anyway, it looks like the joke has been well received. Certainly this is a game that I love running and playing and I am relieved to once again find I am not alone in my bizarre tastes. Thank heavens for the internet, where there is always someone to share your perversity.


  1. Not claiming originality here; there are plenty of games that do not do guy-vs-guy conflict resolution. Just claiming it’s especially novel in the context of this genre.

Jul 21 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 19 2011

Research and development and gunfire

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

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


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

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

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

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

It sucked

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

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

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

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

So we would do that too.


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

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