Jan 9 2012

Bundle of joy

No, no one at my home is pregnant.

However, over at RPGNow there is a great bundle of games that happens to include Hollowpoint (and Deluge for that matter). It also has a bunch of titles from independent developers that you likely haven’t heard of. Have you heard of the game, My Cat is on Fire? Toypocalypse? They are all in there. It’s about $50 worth of games for $25.


Here’s the full list of what’s in there:

Hollowpoint from VSCA Publishing
Deluge from VSCA Publishing
Toys for the Sandbox: Apothacary from Occult Moon
Mi Gato se Incendia! (My Cat is on Fire!) by Benjamin Gerber
Argyle & Crew: Adventures in the Land of Skcos and two new scenarios by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s Magical Accouterments for Creatures Great and Small by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s More Magical Mayhem for Creatures Small and Great by Benjamin Gerber
Shadow, Sword & Spell: Under Pashuvanam’s Lush from Rogue Games, Inc.
Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional by Jess Hartley
Instant Antagonist: The Creepy Cottontail from FR Press
Open Core Roleplaying System Classic from Battlefield Press
Toypocalypse from Top Rope Games
Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson
Kicking Historical Asses from Machine Age Productions
Homicidal Transients from Left of the Moon Games

Oh yeah — this is only good until the end of January! We can hardly call it the new year after that.


Dec 16 2010

Magic, physics, and system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 24 2010

So old school it hurts

Yeah, I bought a bunch of miniatures the other day.

I sometimes worry that this is at the heart of any new game idea I have: if I do it right, I will be justified in a whole crapton of peripheral activities that are not gaming but that I adore and can do alone. That’s not quite correct. I don’t sometimes worry about this. I know this to be a fact.

No Contact is proving to be exactly this sort of boondoggle. I invested several hours to write several thousand words to describe a game that I don’t necessarily want to play, but rather that I really want to prepare for, typeset, and make diagrams for. I want to paint miniatures (even this is a diversion: what I really want to do is experiment more with developing some cool bases for miniatures). I want to dick around with Illustrator and InDesign. I want to draw a bit. I want to have a research direction for picking media to watch for a while.

This reliably blossoms into a lot of solid fun for me. I love all this stuff. It never has to see publication for me to be happy (though we learned that that is fun too).

And so when I look at how I played games ever since I was 10 or so, I see the same patterns and I have to wonder, is this old-school? Is the apparently peripheral material the actual focus of this sort of gaming and in such a way as to make it definitional? I mean, I recall a friend who was really into the old Avalon Hill and SGI boxed wargames. He was a military history buff and a model maker and all that as well, but he had this huge collection of wargames. I once investigated his collection and found something that today, to me, now makes sense: they were largely unplayed but they were all carefully organized (all the pieces had been punched and sorted into third-party-provided trays) and had all been read over and over and over.

I used to borrow these games from him and play them with myself and re-organize the pieces and read the rules over and over. I sometimes got to play with others, but this was never the really satisfying part of the game for me.

So this lets me understand a little why most video games bore me — they don’t engage me outside the direct context of the game (and when I think about the games that I have spent a lot of time with, I see that they do provide additional (lonely) constructive contexts: SimCity, Civilization, World of Warcraft) and so they are never more than a diversion. There are some exceptions — I really loved the cooperative and rapid model of first-person-shooter embodied in Counterstrike. The no-respawn concept was so refreshing and fun that it really ruined the mainstream FPS for me forever — as soon as there is a respawn I am bored. And I guess you can see the cooperative element as part of the constructive component that I like.

I am wondering, then, if “old school”, at least as far as being a Dungeon Master goes, is about this component. I am wondering if it’s at least as much about  the preparation as about the play. In this light all of those charts and tables are making sense to me — they are destructive in play a lot of the time, but off-line they are reliably awesome. I recall sitting with a notebook and percentile dice and rolling magic items endlessly when I got my first AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was a mini-game for me. It was even a way to read the book — roll dice and go read the indicated paragraph. And those hours dwarfed the hours spent playing the games, I am certain.

I am also wondering, then, the degree to which designing games (see this is where I started the rambling) is just a new kind of lonely fun for me. If the game isn’t delivering it to me, and most of the modern games aren’t, then I am compelled to manufacture it. And I guess the next question is, how much of my audience is in the same boat, looking for an excuse to organize chits, paint miniatures (or, hell, even just shop for them), and roll a lot of dice to generate random results in a fat book?

And should I make games for them or encourage them to make games?


Jul 20 2010

The New Media

I’ve talked — okay really I’ve gone on and on — about  the way that publishing is changing and also about how gaming is in a position to take the vanguard in these changes, at least in part because we have limited ties to traditional methods in the first place. Sure there are still the “big boys” out there who do things the usual way, and sure there are still a lot of very small publishers still entrenched in the print-run-investment model, but gamers seem to be fast to explore new media. Now that has implicit risk, too, because sometimes experiments result in answers like, “no”, which means that while the bleeding edge explorers tend to have an open mind about trying new things, they (we) also go through new things like toilet paper, leaving a lot of guesses swirling down the can.

The VSCA has adopted a very low-risk model for its business, which happens to align nicely with new technology. Now, just this morning I was reading about another new technology and then remembering an old conversation, and I ot a little synergistic flash in my head that thrilled me because it implied that I might be able to dick around with fun stuff even more than I already do. This is a good sign, because I am more likely to do something if it’s fun.

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the VSCA made available on a reasonably fast schedule (monthly say) its current design state for all projects, as well as a few blue collar space articles, and some other stuff, hopefully containing a complete (small) game every time? By small game I mean like a subsystem for something in development, but repackaged as a small stand-alone idea. And what if it was in colour and available digitally or print on demand? I’m thinking somewhere between 24 and 96 pages, delivered regularly, purcased either per-unit or by subscription.

I’m not really approaching this idea as something I think anyone wants, yet (which is why I phrase all this as a giant question) but rather as something that sounds fun to do and has been enabled by recent changes in technology and position — I’m thinking specifically here about Magcloud‘s recent announcement that they have an iPad app pending and that they will be giving stuff away for a while.

So we’re talking here about leveraging (actually I see our methods at VSCA as more parasitical, but “leverage” leverages Leverage, which is hot right now, even though I haven’t seen it yet) someone elses work (Magcloud making an iPad app to deliver colourful content with option to print, with them managing all the customer interaction and just sending us a cheque) so that I can do only the fun parts. And this, as I’ve said before, is how technology and capitalism work together to empower pocket socialists like me, turning my leisure into Scotch.

This would enable us to produce Diaspora supplements, for example, by putting them in a concise format that still has a profitable delivery mechanism, and that is super appealing to me. I’ve avoided supplements so far mostly because the document needs to be above a certain size to make sense turning into product, but if it’s part of (even the largest part of) a magazine format, then that’s solved. It can be as large or as small as the idea is. And I’m keen on Diaspora supplements.

What do you think? Could this be a new way to make games? See, I could see Diaspora broken up into distinct stand-alone pieces that together make an awesome game. If you got those pieces one at a time, would you be happy? If you came to the complete game having played the platoon-scale game for a few weeks and a couple of social fights already, would your experience be better or worse? Now naturally this doesn’t preclude more traditional (if you can call our parasitic method traditional) publication, but rather would augment it. Maybe customers on the subscription list get a discount. Or maybe I figure if you spent $50 on magazines then you already bought a game and I mail it to you. I dunno yet and I’m not promising anything.

But I am thinking real hard, and grinning.


Mar 15 2010

Heroic fantasy

So someone at my table has been begging for some heroic fantasy. Not out loud (much) but I can see into everyones’ souls, so I know. And I know what he means — he’s not talking about the super-heroic plane-jumping fantasy we’re building with Soft Horizon. He’s talking about the nostalgiac heroic fantasy of our youths — Dungeons & Dragons and all that. What we tried to make with Pathfinder the other day (week) and couldn’t get a grip on.

And I’m in. I mean, I grew up on that kind of gaming and I still love it in my head. I have fond memories of so many great evenings that revolved around it that it would be silly to pretend that we’re so different now that it can never work. And there are two other forces here that come into play.

First we can spend some time not-designing. That will be a nice change of pace I think — we can play some games for a while and not design anything. We can build up some more experience with games rather than spend energy creating new ones. Accept some games for what they are and play the hell out of them.  That smells pretty good to me right now.

Second, I can spend some time preparing. Now I often say that I spend no time ever preparing for games and there’s a way in which that’s true — I don’t spend a ton of time making up NPCs or plotting encounters. But man do I spend a lot of time making images in my head — fragments of scenes that need to get described. Often they are triggered by music (in fact the same music that triggered exciting images for me twenty-five or more years ago) but equally often they are triggered by my own desire to make stuff.

See, I draw. For me drawing is like mathematics — I’m not very good at it but I adore it. I will never be a mathematician but that does not stop me from consuming books about mathematics and related subjects. And so with drawing — I love to draw. I dig the hybrid art that happens when I sketch on paper and refine digitally, but mostly I love the paper part. I love real ink on a crow-quill nib and managing the line that results. And buying more art supplies is always a bit of a high, so the fact that drawing invites shopping is also nice.

So starting a new fantasy game means I get to at least draw a map, and that’s great fun for me.

Naturally the next question (actually the prior question) any geek is asking is, “what system?” Normally that’d be Reign, because Reign has so reliably delivered for us in the past. I think, however, that it’s time to give Burning Wheel another crack, partially because people I think are very smart (hi, Judd; hi Johnstone) are playing great games with it. That suggests to me that some of the failings I found in it may well have been my own, so it’s time to revisit. It also plays really well in that gritty zone I love in fantasy gaming — the one where magic is uncertain and improbable and physical competence still counts for so much. The energy spent in character creation has the potential to drive longer play, I think, and I’d love to run a campaign that had some legs. A dozen sessions would thrill me.

And so now I’m drawing maps and re-reading my Burning Et Cetera books. And looking forward to Thursday night. But I always look forward to Thursday night, because no matter what the experiment, it’s with my friends.


Feb 5 2010

Mumble mumble narrative authority

As soon as you say “narrative authority”, a large body of gamers get all sweaty. After last night’s session of Deluge (played with A Dirty World for the system again), I wonder about the immediate rejection narrative authority sometimes suffers. I wonder this because I’m not sure it’s actually all that novel an idea, so I wonder what the adamant persons on both “sides” are actually on about.

I don’t often get a chance to play. I’m very frequently the GM. But recently the others at my table have been more and more eager to take up the mantle, and so I’m playing, and so I’m thinking about playing. Here’s one of the thinks I thunk. In A Dirty World, your character’s capabilities are always changing because when you lose a contest, your “skills” change. So if you get punched in the eye in a fair fight, your Courage goes down one and your Wrath goes up. This might change what your best option might be, which has the nifty side-effect of avoiding the “I hit him with my sword. I hit him with my sword. I hit him with my sword.” effect. But it does something else, too.

When I play I am well rewarded by success. And here’s where the sneakiness of narrative authority comes in. Whenever I am declaring an action that I know results in a mediated conflict — that is, whenever I say “I shoot her”, knowing that the dice will come out to decide what happens as a result of this shooting — the fact that we go straight to system for resolution means I am stealing narrative authority from the GM! Granted I am placing it in the hands of the dice (you die, I die, we flee, they get polymorphed into frogs — whatever, when it’s system-created it’s narrative authority out of the GM’s hands!) but even that is slippery.

I like to win, like I said. That means that, while I am playing a personality I want to explore, I built the character to reflect the personality, and I did that by making her good at the things I want to succeed in. That also means I am going to steer most conflicts towards these strengths if I can and that means I get rewarded (by victory) and I play this character. Because I steer towards my strength and therefore victory, though, the outcome of a conflict is skewed by my tactical ability. That means that while I don’t mandate narrative direction, I do certainly have enormous say by way of this indirect method. And so can anyone else, in practically any game. Perhaps especially in ones that place all authority explicitly in the hands of the GM but then have nice clear resolution systems. When I say, “I would like to persuade her to give use the books by bribing her with my shotgun,” I know I have skewed the likely direction of the story in favour of getting those books. And the better I am at playing the game, the more control I have.

I noticed this because any time I want my character to accomplish anything, the first thing I do is look at my character sheet and ask myself, what am I most likely to succeed with? That is, I know what I want to accomplish and see my character’s abilities as a toolkit for doing that. Naturally I pick the best tool for the job. After a long fight, Charity had taken a lot of hits to her Courage which slid to Wrath — she’s tired and bruised and on a short fuse. Kam is looking to take her down a notch in front of her compatriots by mocking her. I look at the sheet for Charity — I get by far the most dice on the table with Graceful Wrath — shooting the unarmed.

There is no hesitation — Charity is mocked after a long and dangerous night, and she goes straight to the shotgun. “Now is not the time.” But that’s me making the narration happen. The GM didn’t necessarily want the scene to go there and the ramifications might be deep (but I am partially in control of that now). As long as I have the authority to declare my actions, I have the ability to take (probabilistic) control of the narrative.

It delights me every time I discover that a conflict is mostly smoke, or can at least be seen from an angle that makes it look that way.


Jan 20 2010

Setting: Deluge

It’s always rained. Since I was a boy, it’s always been raining. Sometimes a light mist on my face with the sun shining through, spraying colours. More often a torrent so loud you have to shout to be heard. I’ve never been truly dry, I don’t think, and only once can I recall a place where the smell was other than vegetable and fungal.

I’m old enough to have known someone who remembers when it was different — when rain was rare, perhaps a few dozen days in the year. She even claimed that there were places where it never rained — empty plains of sand. Where you could actually die of thirst. That is hard to believe, of course. Anyway, she’s been dead twenty years now.

I am David, and I am one of the Hounds of our town. Village, perhaps. As I understand it, Burned Mountain, was once actually a mountain. Now it’s an island, but there are still buildings in the strait that can tear out the hull of your boat. So I know that much is true — once a million people lived within sight of here, and their world is drowned beneath my keel.

My team steals what that dead world still holds tight to its breast. And we watch the skies for angels.


The world of Deluge is our world, perhaps a hundred years after an event that changed it forever. Since that time, the world has been under a constant rainfall. Civilization as we know it has crumbled, slowly at first, but more rapidly as the rain destroyed those aspects of our world that we had thought most secure: our agriculture and our trade. The water level has risen, the temperature has risen, and all too rapidly to react to. And no one claims any more that this was all our fault, because we know whose fault it was. There are no ice caps, but we didn’t melt them. The world is a jungle of sorts, but we didn’t let that grow. The world is now slowly taking the shape that they prefer, and a day will come when they are ready to take possession.

And some of the people of this sodden world intend to be ready for that day.

Deluge is system-free but there will be places throughout that imply systemic choices. I’ll highlight these because if you intend to fit Deluge into your preferred system, these are the places where the work might be. Sometimes that work will be identifying analogous mechanism — your system does the same thing but uses a different term. Sometimes that work will require new mechanism and where this seems likely, I’ll try to point towards a fruitful path. Sometimes you’ll have to hack through jungle yourself for it.

Who are you?

Player characters in Deluge are people with grave social responsibilities — they belong to small and desperate communities that are lacking at least one essential product and the PCs are the people who have taken on the burden of finding and securing more of it, whether through investigation, excavation, trade, war, or some other means. The health of their community is paramount to them. Mechanism: the player characters should belong to a community that is mechanically relevant — players should care deeply about the health of their community and one way to do that is to tie character or player rewards to the community’s health. Another way would be to represent the community as another character and allow players to progress it mechanically, making it more powerful and interesting.

Characters wield two kinds of technology: things that are from around or before the Deluge and things that have been made since. Things from before are powerful, rare, and prone to breakdown. Those that use expendables (like ammunition or batteries) are less useful as those expendables are hard to come by (batteries in particular are going to suffer hard in this world). But a well made steel machete from before will be valuable for a long time to come.

Technology built now will vary wildly. For the most part there is little if any electrical power and so communication between communities is mechanical: people move from place to place and talk to each other or move physical mail. The ability to forge steel still exists and in principle can be mechanized where there is still power. But those places are rare now and dwindling. A decent cartridge can still be made for a revolver, and certainly a revolver can be made, but more sophisticated weaponry is less reliable and too labour intensive. Weapons exist mostly for hunting, and so they usually reflect that need — shotguns, varmint rifles, and so on. Mostly single shot or bolt-action, though there are still craftsmen out there who make more complex devices. Usually that fire their own idea of the perfect ammunition. Anyone serious about travel and self defense carries a good knife — it never misfires, and misfires are a problem when it never stops raining.

People of course still have myriad occupations, but there are a smaller number that are going to be interesting to play. You could represent these categories as classes or as skill choices (such as a FATE-style skill apex) perhaps.

Scavenger. Scavengers help their community by finding things lost in the pre-Deluge ruins. They penetrate deep overgrown abandoned cities, braving the flooded cellars and vaults, to find something that the previous scavengers missed. They dive on flooded cities and they scale half-crumpled skyscrapers for the high altitude pickings. They keep and trade secrets regarding what is hidden where. There is always a Legendary Vault in their lore that draws them to the vocation — that one big strike that will make their world easy to live well in. Maybe even that one secret that will change the world.

Mail carrier. Carrying mail from island to island or deep into the jungles is a dangerous business. Not everyone plays fair — plenty take the easy route and waylay travellers for their cargo. So mail carriers usually travel in teams, whether through common duty or disparate purposes that happen to converge. The mail carrier is always looking for reliable friends to travel with and has a sacred trust. She is always well received at her destination and so is her entourage, making it fairly easy for her to find companions on the road. Nonetheless, she is always armed and quick to violence or flight. Or both. The mail is her priority.

Trader. There are those that believe that scavenging is a dead path and that the best way to restore the splendour of humanity is through trade. Each community has things it excels at producing and things it needs. This might be a good thing to represent mechanically when thinking about how to make communities. The trader is the person that finds out what those things are, makes contact with other communities to establish deals, and then starts the trade moving. And she finds away to come out ahead herself, making her life slightly more comfortable than most everyone else. As with the mail carrier, the trader is in constant potential danger (moreso because she always carries valuable commodities) and seeks protection and companionship. She is as much diplomat as entrepeneur — communities at war do not trade.

Hired gun. The world is now a fairly violent place. The wilderness encroaches on every settlement and the rich jungles house many animals. Megafauna have returned to North America through various routes, and it’s a good place for apex predators. Lions, tigers, and bears at least, but also humans. And so for every person that needs to travel between communities, there is at least one more who wants to waylay that person. And therefore at least another that will defend him for pay. The hired gun is an expert at violence. She may be duty-bound and therefore prone to self-sacrifice (certainly mail carriers are more likely to find this sort) or she may be pure mercenary and prepared to cut a deal with a well-off bandit. And yet, even the hired gun has to rest somewhere, and functioning communities are always the most comfortable option.

Scout. The world is not only vastly different than it was — wet, wild, and green pretty much everywhere — but it is also changing at an increasing rate. A path well used a month ago may no longer exist. A landmark building may now be no more than a hill. A pond may be a lake. The only certainty is that pretty much nothing is drying up. The scout spends her time out there in that wild, usually in a relatively small area of specialty (around a community or along a few select routes between communities perhaps) and maps it well. She is highly observant and meticulous in her note-keeping. She belongs to a super-community of scouts who share knowledge and interest and when scouts meet there is a wedge for diplomacy even when all else seems ready to explode in violence. Any travelling group that can find and afford a scout has one.

What opposes you?

Other people oppose you, obviously, as communities compete for scarce resources. But there is much that binds humanity together as well, and communities that band together can flourish more effectively, often, than those that remain alone and hostile. Still, violence and theft is always the easiest short-term path, and many will choose it.

The old world opposes you. As the world crumbles back to jungle, the structures of the old world become more and more fragile and dangerous. And yet the greatest value is likely to be deep in those dangerous places — high atop failing office towers, or deep below them. Inside military vaults intended to keep people out. With spaces designed to generate great power — that may still: more than one nuclear reactor still operates. But safely? What price the lightning? The best model for this sort of thing is probably a trap or a puzzle. If your system already explicitly supports these then it might just be a paint job away. If it needs supporting you may have to write it — looking towards mechanisms that engage the player will be profitable. Skill checks or even modifying a chase mechanism or other chained check system.

The wilderness opposes you. The jungles are full of insects and larger animals that feed on anything they can catch and kill. Or simply hitch a ride on. Parasites, swarming insects, larger predators, pack hunters, and even deadly vegetation all threaten any group of humans with a mission that ends on the other side of the wilderness. And every interesting destination is on the other side of some wilderness. You’ll want to make sure you have a way to stat up monsters that can model animals here, obviously, but also think about some wildlife as a kind of trap, and think about how traps can be fun and not fun.

Finally the angels oppose you. But the world is not quite ready for them yet. Until it is, their plans may oppose you more directly — they caused this Deluge and for their own reasons, but maybe you can stop it. Is there a weakness in their grand plan? Is there a weakness in one of their smaller ones? While this setting has rich opportunities for personal goals and also for community goals, often it comes time to ramp up the goals in a campaign. Here are two new scales: ruin a local plan of the angels — a part of their grand plan requires a certain installation to continue functioning or requires destruction of a particular community that is close to an answer perhaps. The top scale is the world-saving scale — find out the weakness of the angels and use it to stop or reverse their changes to the world. Or perhaps discover that their way is better….

What motivates you?

I already touched on this, but lets enumerate player motivations. Some will be system specific, but others can be hacked into any system.

Character advancement. Success in various objectives is tied to the improvement of character capability, allowing them to take on larger scale goals (personal -> community -> global) and perhaps also become more renowned and respected. Don’t discount that last — lots of players value in-game respect for their characters more highly than practically anything else.

Community advancement. Success in community objectives results in improvement of at least one community on some axis. This requires that you find a way to represent communities in a way that is rich and interesting to advance. My advice is to make them a kind of character.

Gear. Depending on the system you use, it may be powerful to give characters better and better gear. This is actually a risky path, but if you balance the improvements well (and the scarcity of materials, expertise, and expendables should give you plenty of tools to control this) it can be great fun. When your Hired Gun finds a grenade launcher, she will not only grin but also have a new built-in personal objective: more ammo.


Build a community somehow. For any post-apocalyptic setting my preference is always my home town. My whole table knows it and it’s great fun to take a good map of the area and colour everything below the twenty (or hundred or thousand) mete mark with a dark blue. After you do this, you will see where the people went and where the wilderness is. Warning: some of your home cities will not be so interesting unless you want to posit a submarine culture.

Build characters in that community that have built in motivations and a reason to group together (the ones I elaborate above are designed for this purpose but you can think of others).

Introduce an external mission by leveraging the character types.

Watch where it all goes.


Who are the angels? Why are they doing this? Can they be stopped? Should they be? I don’t know. That’s yours.


Jan 15 2010

Soft Horizon playtesting

Wednesday night was our Soft Horizon playtest, and playtesting with my friends is always a great time. I’m pretty sure I like this aspect of gaming — playing, analyzing, testing, thinking, exploring, and drinking — better than just straight-up game play. I’m certain of it.

Our table, after four or five hours of gaming.

I don’t really want to write about the playtest — that’s in the process of being documented at the wiki. I want to talk about my table. No wait, not my pals who I game with. My actual table. The crap there in the picture.

There’s a bottle of Tallisker up there and evidence of use. There are two bottles not visible. We drink when we game. We don’t get stinking drunk (well, actually, Byron was pretty gooned by the end, but this was a reunion of sorts and there was some partying as well as gaming mixed in there) but we love our scotch. Before the game my lover, Jack, made risotto and she’s a genuis at risotto creation. And so I have to tip my hat to Kyle Aaron and his Cheetoism theory, because I am certain that he’s right insofar as the act of breaking bread and sharing a bottle is a fundamental part of human socializing. And gaming has always been socializing for me.

There’s also a lot of drawing there. I find it very powerful to draw on the table. The table in question is about thirty years old and has been drawn on — directly — since the first day I got it. It bears evidence of games going back to the 1980s, though badly eroded. Still, there’s a Striker game under there somewhere. Now I lay down a big sheet of 24-inch-wide tracing paper and tape it in place because these days we eat off that table too and marker ink is not so pleasant on your hands as you eat. Anyway I recommend this to any and all gamers — put some paper down and keep markers handy and mark up the surfaces. It’s freeing. It also speaks to an issue a fan of Diaspora once voiced — how do I keep track of scene and zone Aspects? I thought the answer was obvious — write them down! Write everything down! Hell, when we use miniatures I draw blood splatters and smoke and word balloons shouting, “Argh!”. It makes the play space intimate and fun.

And permanent. I fold up that sheet of paper afterwards. Between that and the audio (no you can’t have it), the session is kept.

There’s also some folding character sheets in evidence there, and that’s a seriously brilliant innovation for Fate games. I have to thank Jeremy Keller of Chronica Feudalis fame for that. See the way it works is it folds up like one of those seminar name plate things you get handed out when you go on some corporate course on team building. Mine for Soft Horizon folds up so that the peaked portion has the character’s name and Aspects (Aspects! That’s the smart part!) facing both player and referee. Smart smart smart. Stuff you write and change and so on is all on the flat portion that remains. You can probably make out the way the skill section works — I wrote about it previously — all seven skills are represented on the sheet and as you build your character you strike out your REFUSAL, circle your IDENTITY, and underline your EXPERTISE and you’re done! No more shopping list!

You might also note my delightful Letraset Pro Markers. These markers rock for my purposes (and you can see my purposes all over the place there) — they have a nice fine-ish tip on one end and a broand angled tip on the other. The colours are rich and the ink seems to last quite a while. The tips fit nice and tight with a positive click announcing the seal. Better than a Sharpie. I know, sacriliege. Mabe not even true, but I have new-buyer-investment syndrome.

There are some nice pens and pencils there — some Lamy devices and some Pilot Fuxion erasable pens (which I really like for gaming) and some bog standard mechanical pencils.

Anyway, that’s my space. That’s where five forty-year-olds play games and drink scotch and drink eat risotto. And make new games happen. I love my table.

I mean my pals who I game with.


Jan 8 2010

Sieving the audience

Any game (or any other text, but games here) that someone (let’s call her the publisher now, though things get muddy if we talk about specific cases) produces, has some objective. I’m going to discuss a small set of possible objectives, so let’s be clear right at the start here: I am talking about game texts (not games in the abstract — the set of rules shared by the tables’ hive mind that are executed in play) whose objective is to be played.

There are other objectives and the difference can be subtle. It’s possible to have an over-arching objective of making money and still wind up with an objective of play en route: getting played is part of the marketing strategy, for example. Some game texts do not have this marketing strategy and so may not have play as part of their list of objectives. These publishers should ignore the rest of this essay. Play as an objective can also be arrived at as a simple matter of artistic integrity (and I’ll have nothing to do with cynics who scoff at artistic integrity) — it’s not unreasonable for someone who loves designing games to hold the goal of seeing that game played higher aloft than the goal of turning a buck.

So, some publishers have as a critical goal maximising the amount that their game gets played. That’s what I’m talking about here now. If you aren’t interested in how you get games played, move on.

Getting a game played is a sieving process. There are several obstacles that have to be navigated by a prospective player (actually there are two quite separate sieve stacks but I only care about one right now), and each is equally important (mathematically — each reduces your audience by a percentage and multiplication just works that way). All are not equally easy to achieve. Here are your layers, roughly:

Awareness: this is not actually part of this sieve because awareness of the game is the objective of a marketing strategy. It’s super important, but we will take it as read here that we are talking about people who are already aware of and have some desire for the game. We’re talking about obstacles to play now.

Distribution. The percentage of people who might play who can actually get the game. If you can’t get it you can’t play it (not strictly true, but that’s in the other stack — people who play someone elses game, taught by that someone else — and that one is much easier to get large numbers through, but the source may be dependent on the output of this stack).

Readership. Of all the people who got the book, only some of them will read it through. Some will never open it. Some will try to read it and shelve it before getting far. In order to get the owner to play, they have to read it. You care about people reading it.

Comprehension. A subset of the people that read the whole book will understand it. Now this one is tricky — some play can happen with partial understanding. Sometimes a game is even improved by partial understanding1. But if it’s incomprehensible, it doesn’t get played.

Enthusiasm. The readers who understood the game now need to sell it to their table. The reader can’t2 play by herself. So the text needs to deliver enthusiasm that can be delivered to others.

Teachability. That’s a crap word. But even if the table is enthusiastic, the reader still needs to deliver the rules in such a way that the enthusiasm is sustained, otherwise the evening’s play will fall flat. So some percentage of games that get this far will halt before play gets a grip. Now a big factor in teachability is in the capabilities of the teacher, so the control the text has over this is limited. But not zero. The text can provide ways to teach.

Fun. Finally, that session has to have been fun in order to get more play. This is different than insisting that the game itself must be fun. The session in which everyone was learning the game, the very first session, has to be fun enough to create enthusiasm for more play. After that it’s largely out of the hands of the game text.

Okay, so given this sieve and given my personal interests, I want to talk about one layer that gets short shrift by publishers who ostensibly have the goal that this sieve stack implies: play. That sieve is readership.

There are several factors that limit the likelihood that someone will read a text through. Some are more important than others and some can be mitigated by others, so I’ll talk about the roles that are at the end of the process. So I’m not talking about whether the writing is fun to read, though that’s a factor, because there’s a gateway after the author that’s supposed to force the text back for revision if it’s not happening: the editor. The other major role is the guy that delivers the editor’s output to the page: the layout artist. These two roles are you last chance to retain readers.

Obviously I have a specific axe that’s making all these sparks. I just read a book I won’t name (because I don’t think personalising this criticism is valuable) that I did not read because both of these roles failed. I suspect this is a hugely fun game, but I will not get to play it unless I can get down the other sieve stack, where someone I know and love does read it and decide to teach it. It’s full of cool ideas, but they are not delivered to me.

First, the word count is about twice what it needs to be. The text itself is turgid and full of itself and goes on forever. I have some sympathy for this, because I write like that too. But the editor should have demanded that the text be cut and cut and cut again. A lower word count reduces the overall size of the book, reduces the cost of layout, and increases the options available to the layout artist.

Now you can’t just cut anything — I mean, if it takes two hundred thousand words to deliver the concept, then that’s what it takes. But a good editor can cut a lot from the best writer. This is why director’s cuts suck so hard — even great (possibly especially great) directors desperately need an editor who can smack them down. For a game to get read through, the editor needs to cut and preserve voice. Bored readers stop reading.

Second, the layout is just plain aggravating to read. Now there are a couple of common problems with layout, especially in independent titles. The first is layout that just plain sucks — the layout artists doesn’t know anything about design and has as a priority getting words on paper. This problem is not really an interesting one because there’s no sense of disappointment for me — bad layout is just bad layout. It’s obvious.

The more insidious kind of layout problem is where the artist has crafted a beautiful page that is aggravating to read. This is seriously disappointing and makes me drop a book just about instantly. A book with beautiful fonts that are too small ore stuffed into lines that are too long or that impinge on the edge of the page too closely is just about the saddest thing I can try and fail to read. Viewed from enough distance, each page is a work of art, but in the process of reading it (and again, reading it is what it’s for — a priority goal) it fails. It’s a special kind of ugliness, like a pretty diagram that fails to deliver its information.

Okay so there you go. For a book to get played it needs to get read. For it to get read it needs and editor with authority and nerve, and it needs a layout artist who cares foremost about delivering text3.

I look forward to revised editions of several games I have not played.


  1. Yes I am thinking of at least one game in particular.
  2. Sorry, Jackson, obviously not strictly true, but The Smoke Dream is a special case.
  3. On layout and graphic presentation of data in general, I can’t recommend highly enough The Visual Display of Information by Edward R. Tufte and The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. No layout artist should begin a new project without first re-reading both. I don’t have similar recommendations for being a great editor, but perhaps an editor could speak up on the topic.

Dec 3 2009

Watching language become

First off, fair warning: I just had this thought, largely unformed, in the bathroom. I don’t know what it’s going to be until I press PUBLISH. I could ramble uselessly. You’ve seen this before. It’s not pretty.

Okay, I’m reading Aristotle’s Poetics. Yes, in the bathroom. I love my Kindle. Anyway, I was just struck by the fact that what I am reading is a man trying to make sense out of language while language is making an extremely deep transition. And watching him grasp for ways to describe something that never needed description before is a familiar exercise. When we talk seriously (even pretentiously!) about role-playing games, it feels like the same kind of thing to me.

Language today has an almost entirely lexicographic basis for most people. Sure, when we talk to each other we don’t write it down, but almost all communication we receive that is other than personal face-to-face conversation at some point was a written sentence. That’s relatively new — shortly before Aristotle it was extremely rare. Now it’s pervasive. And the act of making a lexicographic sentence (like, say, the script for a film or an email you’re about to send) forces your language into a structure designed for a certain kind of communication, thence to be decoded. So sentences have things that we think of as part of language but in fact are not, in an organic sense.

I got here because I’m watching Aristotle talk about sentences and he’s not saying “sentence”. He’s grasping at the structure of language so that it can be encoded lexicographically and is mixing lexicographic and linguistic terms. He doesn’t say “sentence” but rather he says “speech”. He has no concept of paragraphs (again lexicographic) and so the Iliad is, to him, a single Speech connected with conjunctions. We would break the division down far finer than that, at least down to the sentence, but he is still groping with an idea that is fundamental about what is said rather than what is written down.

Today, though, we think in ways that are shaped by writing things down, even when we do not do so. This changes our language and our language is the way we serialise thought (our internal monologue) and therefore we think in very different ways than Aristotle did. New ideas change the way, literally, people think. The methods they use to think change.

For example, we take the space for granted. We have spaces between words, however, not because there are spaces between words when we talk — usually there are none, and that’s one of the things that makes learning a foreign language so hard! We read the foreign language but what we hear completely lacks those spacing cues that separate words. Similarly, the period — the device that makes the sentence a sentence — does not exist when we speak. Sometimes we stop and sometimes we move right through the place we would put it were we writing. We tend, however, to obey it implicitly, but I have to wonder if that’s new too — Aristotle probably didn’t use one, for example. I’m betting he didn’t even necessarily put spaces between words because that’s not how one speaks, and Speech is still the root of his language.

So anyway, now when we think and talk we have adopted many characteristics of the lexicography we use to transmit the language. And so watching Aristotle grapple with this very new idea — now that we can see language, we are compelled to describe what it is — is thrilling. He is developing ideas that we still use as building blocks today (though for much more complex and abstract structures) but he is groping in the dark. Almost none of the groundwork that a schoolchild has for thinking about language exists yet for him. He is very much like a blind man seeing for the first time, and trying to describe what’s happening.

Well now it seems downright trite to talk about role-playing games. But really, when we try to talk about what exactly they are and how to make them do what we want them to do, we are in the same situation as Aristotle — we don’t really know what it is we’re talking about yet because for so very long we just did it without thinking about it. And so it should hardly be a surprise that there are still a lot of false starts and bad ideas. We should be prepared for constant revision. But we should also not shy away from such a thing — the abstraction of the sentence has led to places that Aristotle literally could not imagine. He did not have the tools to build the tools to build the tools to predict, say, The Simpsons. Getting a grip on games in a deeper way could similarly pay off in layered complexity and abstraction.

A critical difference, however, is niche. One of the reasons that the sentence exploded the way everyone does everything is that it had widespread application. Billions of people employ it and repurpose it constantly. It gets thought about every day, entirely by accident as well as deliberately, and we enjoy the fruits of that thought all the time. That is not going to happen with games. And so we will probably want to steal.

And so I am reading Aristotle.