Jan 22 2012

Dance with me, 4e

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 2 2012

Brittle railroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 26 2011

Online gaming disappointment

Having had several chances to use Google hangouts for gaming in the past while, I will give my conclusion: it kind of sucks.

There are several reasons for this sucking but first let’s look at what doesn’t suck: hanging out with new people and seeing them laugh and speak and participating in same is wonderful. I adore it. It’s good fun and should be done over and over again.

But gaming — especially role-playing gaming — requires reliable pacing and participation to keep the action forefront in everyone’s mind. Engaging each other in the fiction requires constant control of pace. And this is one place where the hangout kind of sucks.

First, the mediator has no effective control over activity. People come and go as they please, speak when they want, and there is no effective way to control all of this as, unexpectedly, most of the body language and related cues we use to do this fail to translate over the video and audio stream. With significant attention and preparation this could be managed by a motivated mediator.

Second, the technology is inconsistent, creating constant distraction. Some video feeds are great, some are awful, and some are absent. Awful video feeds are awful in different ways — bad lighting, bad resolution, high latency, occasional drop-outs. All of these impact the pace of the game (especially drop outs) and make things less effective. Audio is even worse, in a way, since despite having video we are really there to talk and therefore (one hopes) to listen. So bad mics or mics that are not echo-correcting or mics that are awesome and picking up the dog, the neighbours, and the dishwasher, are all highly distracting.

It is the nature of this place that you cannot control the technology available to the attending parties. If you could, things might be much better — you get great responsivity thanks to low latency, which makes mediation much easier. You get good visual input from everyone and you get reliable, comprehensible, audio with no feedback echo or shriek. You could finally ignore the technology and get on with the communication.

There’s no good solution for the dice yet. Every option is make-shift requiring window swapping, hidden information, or otherwise blocking the pace but forcing context switches. There really is no substitute for physical dice, on a table where they can be manipulated and seen by everyone at once. I hope we can get close, but so far the solutions are so distant (and of course highlighted by games that need all these axes of information, like Hollowpoint) that the pace of the game is crushed by the defect.

Finally, and this is more personal, I live with my wife. I love her dearly and I interact with her all the time. When there’s a game at our house, she doesn’t play but she does interact and she’s witty and nice and insightful and welcome. When I’m away gaming somewhere else I am, well, somewhere else and so she does not feel ignored even though she is not participating. But when I’m focused on communication for hours through this unstable and sometimes hard to understand medium, I am present with my wife and necessarily ignoring her. This sucks and is not acceptable.

So for now my preference for online gaming must remain text — IRC or Google Docs — and I think I will have to impose a minimum technology level on particpants. If we can’t all play at full speed, it’s really not worth playing to me. I’d rather just hang out with you and laugh and have a drink and introduce my girl and like that.


Aug 25 2011

Hollowpoint mission design

I’ve had a chance over the past few weeks to get lots of input from actual play and even to participate in a couple of games with new players acting as ref. This has been very insightful and led me to think a little harder about what makes a mission work. As usual, a lot of game design for the VSCA is translating what we do instinctively into a set of rules and we frequently leave a few things out — sometimes on purpose, mind you — and therefore leave to instinct.

One of these is the fact that in Hollowpoint there’s no strict mechanical pressure to use one skill over another. The intention is that this pressure comes from the context of the scene and a certain amount of peer pressure to narrate appropriately and therefore not use KILL in an interrogation. The rule is fairly straightforward: if you KILL someone they are dead. Dead people do not give up information (though it’s worth noting for those of you out there skinning this cat — if you have magical powers — like talking to the dead, say — in your game, KILL might be a great way to get information). Therefore successfully killing someone fails the objective for the scene.

So let’s try to codify this a little by breaking out some basic scene objectives.

If you are trying to take some territory (flee a bank robbery to safety, say, or occupy an enemy fortress), KILL is a very good choice. KILL takes territory by eliminating resistance. TERROR is also very good. TERROR takes territory by neutralizing opposition (whether they flee or collapse is irrelevant). Despite the name, TAKE is not a good fit. CON might be a pretty sly way in if the story is good. DIG is not helping. COOL…well, I’ll talk about COOL because it’s a kind of universal skill though not in a way I see as problematic. You can use it for practically anything but they are almost all hard stories to tell. Pick COOL as your peak stat only if you’re up for some very creative narration that works. For taking territory, I’d say no, generally, but there are stories out there that scream “yes”.

If you need to gather information in a scene, KILL is not helping. TERROR might. CON is always good. DIG is the obvious choice. TAKE…well maybe, depending on the specifics and the story the player comes up with. COOL, well I already talked about COOL.

If a scene is about putting the Fear into someone — making them toe the party line by encouraging them forcefully — and that someone is not present in the scene as a principal (you are “sending a message”), then KILL is okay! TERROR is a perfect match, clearly. CON not so much. DIG, maybe, with a good story, but generally a tough sell. TAKE? Don’t see it, but again if the story to date sets that up, maybe. Just to be clear, the horse’s head in the bed schtick was clearly TERROR and not TAKE. The characters didn’t keep the head for anything. I know, no one knows what happened to the body. Maybe they took that. Whatever, you’re quibbling.

Now if the scene requires that you acquire something from somewhere, KILL is not useful at all: KILLing doesn’t get you things, it kills people. TERROR is pretty weak too. TAKE, obviously, is perfect, but so is CON. DIG is a hard sell unless the thing you want is information.

If you need to accomplish something without alerting authorities1 then regardless of the objective, KILL might be the wrong choice.

Now this is still kind of vague (though less, so, I hope!). If the scene is set such that someone has a brilliant territory-taking solution with DIG, well, let it stand. The system self-balances even if everyone always takes their peak skill through a few mechanisms:

  1. Typically there will be a diversity of peak skills and the optimal solution to a simple fight is to all use the same skill. Therefore some people will be using weaker skills in the optimal group solution.
  2. Having a lot of dice can be a problem, so it may be the case that you want a weaker skill. This is more often the case when asking for help — you might figure 7 dice is perfect, so you want to use your peak (5) and get help from someone elses 2. Or maybe use your 3 and ask for help from their 4. You’ll have to work out for yourself where the sweet spot is for dice, but let me tell you, getting a 6×5 and a pair of 1s sucks hard. You leap out unprepared, surprise them, take a die, and then stand around as a target.
  3. The Catch requires a specific skill. Make it one that is not clearly primary to the context (escaping a guarded fortress but you have to crack the key code on the door with DIG or it all fails!). Use the Catch if skill use is getting dull. If no one is very COOL, make the Catch a seduction!
  4. A principal in a scene creates two targets to take out, and they could be taken out with different skill effects. If the objective is to interrogate the principal, then KILLing the henchman is fine, but someone better be doing something else to the principal.

Now you might be thinking, well, what about that rich scene, where someone is killing guards while someone else is taking the objective and someone else is hacking the computer system down. How does that happen when everyone picks the perfect skill for the mission? Well that’s easy — whatever skill gets brought to bear, it is useful in picking off dice before the effects actually get laid down, and so those skills become part of the story even if they are not strictly addressing the objective of the scene. That is expected and desirable. That happens very frequently unless the team lacks diversity and everyone has taken KILL 5. Or COOL 5, though those scenes are intrinsically awesome.

Well they better be. If you are narrating for a COOL 5 character, you better be on your toes and prepared to sell it. Flick that cigarette butt off the bouncers jacket and stride on through the door, partner. Flash that grin. Be confident as hell not just because you are the dog’s balls, but also because Amy is outside with a bazooka and she likes you.

She likes you a lot.


  1. Hey, it happens — set the scene: “The heat is on and you can’t afford to get noticed now. That last firefight in the junkyard might be a valuable diversion for this next action, but another mass murder could bring the hammer down on you. Your boss can only protect you from so much.”

May 30 2011

My trouble with fiction

I have a problem. It’s not your problem. What I describe below as the effects of my problem are not necessarily your effects. But whenever I find that I think a certain way, I wonder if I am not a category (since it seems less likely that I am absolutely alone, as the internet constantly proves for sexual preferences). So I’m going to talk about my problem with the hope that it might explain larger scale behaviour in some gaming subcultures.

I don’t like fantasy gaming much. It’s okay for an evening or two, but it has a…lightness, I guess, that I don’t like in large doses. I don’t mind refereeing it, though. In fact I like doing that a whole lot. I love science-fiction and modern gaming.

When I was fifteen, the obvious reason for this was that I was vastly smarter than all other gamers and that I had deeper and more meaningful interests that were explored in science-fiction, rather than the escapist and romantic interests present in fantasy settings. Obviously this argument has holes in it, and these became apparent when I went to college and discovered that I wasn’t all that smart.1 In fact I regularly encountered people I respected brain-wise who loved fantasy.

More recently I discovered that I don’t like fiction all that much. I like it as a critical pursuit — I like thinking about it, disassembling it, tracing references, researching the author’s background and intentions. But I don’t much like just submerging myself in most fiction. There are exceptions. Some are laudable and many are embarrassing. I can’t explain my preferences. But certainly one thing I don’t like at all is fantasy fiction. And I have a very low tolerance for bad fiction. Or even weak fiction. Except for those aforementioned embarrassing bits.

Recently I thought about both of these things, wondering if there was a connection. I think there is.

When I game, I don’t read the fiction. If it’s a fantasy game, I skip the setting sections or if I read them, it’s a chore. Actually, even if it’s an sf game I probably fall asleep in the background material. I really don’t give a shit. And when I realized that was my default behaviour, I got a big fat clue about my preferences.

If I don’t read the fiction for an sf game, I can still count on a ground-state reality that is part of the setting. That means that I can, as a character, plan and plot in detail using knowledge I have with the certainty that anything derived from facts is also a fact. If my character has access to the information underpinning the fabrication of gunpowder, I can find a way to make gunpowder. This is essential to my fun: I like to construct solutions that are outside the framework of the combat system or even the skill system. I like to manipulate my knowledge of reality to create solutions. When this works, the dice rarely hit the table to solve a problem.2

Unfortunately, I can’t count on this ground-state in fantasy. Any given piece of the puzzle might be arbitrarily barred to me — it could be (and often is) that gunpowder “just doesn’t work” in the game setting. But I need to know the setting in detail (and, worse, in similar detail to my knowledge of the real world) in order to have my kind of fun. But the setting information is boring the hell out of me. Hence, no fun.

This suggests a counter-example that illuminates the situation for me even more: I do like fantasy with strong player authority over the setting. I really enjoy myself if there is a mechanism for me to state facts. Maybe that’s why I still break out Nine Princes in Amber occasionally, despite (apparently) hating fantasy fiction: the arbitrary gunpowder logic problem in the setting (gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber) is subverted by what amounts to a player authority mechanism in the fiction (I’m still talking about the novels here–it’s just that Corwin has a kind of player authority): Corwin finds (creates, declares as fact) a material through his arbitrary magical powers that behaves exactly like gunpowder when it’s in Amber. That’s my kind of solution.

And it’s a solution that has a narrative that aligns with my interests: even though I (player) didn’t go through the logic of making gunpowder, I (the character) did as part of my story explaining my declaration (there is another magical way to make gunpowder that I am clever enough to know about). Being able to declare truths in the context of the fiction is as powerful for my fun as being able to rely on truths I already know. This also explains why I’m not averse to running fantasy games at all — as referee I have that declarative power practically by definition.

This probably underscores another problem and, in a way, my aversion to fantasy is a solution to it: when I do start to understand the setting material for a fantasy game and yet am denied declarative authority within the setting, I will hunt edge cases. Places where the story breaks down under logic and yields unintended super-powers. And these places must exist because, logically, fantasy is necessarily broken: the fiction is a limited fabric (it must be — reality is so very much bigger) that cannot hold its shape beyond the intended focus of attention. This makes me a dick at most tables, and I don’t like being that guy.

So I don’t go there any more.


  1. This is not strictly true. I discovered in college that I was pretty smart but also that I was surrounded by peers as well as superiors — I was certainly no longer unique or even close to it. Bear in mind I was (and probably still am) measuring others’ intellect by my own experience with people. So no intellect was actually being measured.
  2. I am certain that many a referee who has tried to manage my behaviour has vowed never to let me near their table again. This is part of why I describe my preference as a problem.

Apr 7 2011

Everything might not be a potential RPG

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

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

Different design goals

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


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

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

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

Non-systemic rewards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what, Brad

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

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

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

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


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

Jan 26 2011

Do I change the V in VSCA?

I haven’t spoken a lot about games lately because I haven’t been thinking about them very hard. Even at the table on Thursday nights, I’ve been coasting — just playing, having a good time, and not thinking too hard about how things work, why they fail, and what that means for any given game design that the VSCA has in the works. There are several excellent reasons for this.

First, there are no VSCA games that are currently in deep thought stages. There’s Hollowpoint, which I am laying out now and so any deep though about it is likely to derail the release. Better not to think about it. Chimaera is still pretty nebulous and needs detailed work from others, so I’m not thinking about that. Soft Horizon is in a strange state that I interpret as needing time alone with itself — I am confident that when I come back to it I will see some simple ways to fix it and then there will be an explosion of new words.

Next there’s the fact that I am not getting a lot of non-fiction reading done during my commute, and non-fiction is what usually fuels thought about games and consequently blog posts.

The most important culprit, though, is work. I’ve been working with a research and development team in the field of transport automation for many years now, and for the past three or so the entire team has been in our Toronto office. Except me. I’m in Vancouver.

I love Vancouver but I also love my work, and working with a team of smart dedicated people over several thousand miles and a bunch of time zones just plain sucks. I discovered this for sure last winter when I went to Toronto for two weeks to wrap up some work that needed physical attention on real hardware and I had a blast. I had more fun and got more done than any two month period here in Vancouver. The energy of working right with the rest of the team was very high and reminded me of my early days in the business when I was packed with enthusiasm about everything. And I realized that was because I was surrounded by people sensitive to enthusiasm and so there was an amplifying effect. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

People in Toronto have been trying to get me to move out there for at least six years now and I have always resisted. There are a lot of reasons for that — my girl’s health has not been stellar, for example — but chief amongst them is simple inertia. I hate to change direction.

Now, though, I see that I have basically come to a complete stop and so changing direction is not really an issue. I need to get moving again and re-energize myself for the sake of my work. And so, sometime in mid-April, I will be moving with my wife and animals to Toronto in order to work directly with my R&D team.

I understand there are people in Toronto who play games, so I’m not too worried about building a new table of smart people, but I deeply regret having to leave the one I’m at now. We have a lot of unfinished business (right up there in the second paragraph) and, although of course we can play by IRC or Skype or whatever, I don’t want to design games that predominantly play well in those media and that’s what would happen. I want face-to-face social gaming to work and so that’s really how I have to test it.

Obviously (I think) everyone sees themselves as the center of the universe. I am no exception, and so I have some fear that the gaming group will be unable to sustain itself without my binding and brilliant presence. I don’t know that this fear is unfounded (certainly as far as location goes, my place seems the most amenable for everyone, but that can be fixed) but I am trying to let that go — whether or not the gang keeps gaming together is up to them and for their own reasons. I hope they do, and not least because the opportunity to remove myself from the playtest results is very appealing as an experimental methodology. Nonetheless, I instinctively see myself as indispensable and in a way this is a challenge to them to make it not true.

It’s a challenge to me, as well, because I don’t like people very much. I also love them, but I am very good at finding faults that cannot be (in my eyes) redeemed as a way to excuse myself for opting out of social events that aren’t completely wonderful all the time. So finding a new group will have its own challenges — getting this group perfected took more than 30 years. I like challenges, though, so I hope to rise to it.

The bottom line, though, is that a third of my life is asleep and a third is at work, and of the remaining third only about a tenth is gaming. That’s a thirtieth of my world and I can’t really let that dictate the third it impacts. So it’s a very hard decision (obviously you want to weight those fractions — that thirtieth becomes very heavy because I dearly love my table) but I think in the end a clear one. And so I signed my relocation offer yesterday with the full support of my wife and lover and closest friend, and it’s a done deal.

By April I will be inflicting myself on the Greater Toronto Area. Lock up your gamers.


Jan 11 2011

Compels that might work better for me

Some compels work for me. Most often they feel contrived and that might be because we lack a certain skill at the table, but whatever the root cause, they kind of suck (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c.)  The always smart Ryan Macklin recently posted an article about a Mutant Healing Power aspect that made something go click in my brain, though.

You should read that so I don’t have to summarize before I get to the point.

The bit that clicked for me is the indirect and non-manipulative way that a compel is suggested. This is something that we will want to make clear in any future version of FATE. Like really really clear. The guy has the aspect Mutant Healing Power and so the compels relate to the way the outside world reacts to that and not so much about the actions and decisions of the character. Suddenly it’s not an imposition any more!

You get into a fight, say, with people who were expecting you. They know you have Mutant Healing Power and so they brought bazookas instead of crossbows. That’s the compel right there!

“Okay the bad guys have bazookas and you get a fate point.”

“What the fuck?!”

“They know about your healing power and so they came prepared.”

“Holy crap. Okay, I think I want to buy that one off.”

See, suddenly the buy off for a compel you don’t want to deal with makes sense too. You don’t feel cheated (it’s not like they brought nuclear weapons, which you would have to buy off) and with that extra fate point maybe you can take them anyway. This is an awesome compel but the key to it is that no one is asking the player to do anything with her character. Instead the outside world is behaving extraordinarily in response to your character’s stated features and you get paid.

Here’s the other one. Some people think that they can learn how to use your power for Science. Now there is a whole sub-plot related to your aspect — the people that want to vivisect you and make medicine for the good of mankind. Or maybe just make super soldiers to dominate the world. Whatever. And every time this sub-plot based one your character comes to the fore, you get paid or can pay to make it go away. This one is trickier and will be less satisfying to some but it’s still pretty good. At some point it might become a more direct part of the plot and then maybe be less about the aspect and more about regular play, in which case it would no longer be a compel. Unless they bring bazookas, of course.

All this requires a little more prep from the ref side, but it’s better spent than the compel prep I’ve been doing until now because there’s a real payoff and no discomfort. I think this will make all the difference in compels. You don’t behave weirdly because of your power — the rest of the world does. And you get paid for that.

Thanks Ryan!


Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.

There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.

A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).

Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.

A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.

We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.

The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.

Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.

The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.

So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.

Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.

So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.

And derived from that last: play games.


Dec 19 2010

Say yes or roll the dice is not about Fear of the GM

Over at RPG.net there is significant misconception. It’s not a place that’s terribly conducive to calm and genuine discussion, so I’m elaborating on it here rather than there. Anyway, the idea is that “say yes or roll the dice” derives from a fear that the GM will deliberately undermine player plans and expectations. The motivation for this is not clear, so embedded in the assumption is the further assumption that the GM will be a dick. In fact, if you argue in favour of “say yes or roll the dice” in many venues, there is a cadre of well-meaning folks who will leap to the conlcusion that you are afraid of your dick GM.

This is, of course, bullshit. It’s not unusual, though, for people to ascribe to malice what is actually miscommunication. In fact, that might be the basis of practically every armed conflict in human history. Certainly of every bar fight. Well, that and animal territoriality. Anyway, I just recently transcribed almost six hours of table audio from a recent game and I can tell you definitively why “say yes or roll the dice” is somewhere between excellent advice and essential advice, regardless of red herrings like “character immersion” and “Big Fear”.

If you have five different people at the table, there are five distinct models of what is happening in the game fiction. The GM has been burdened with the one true model — she is the only person that is empowered to grant or deny queries about the truth of the world. But no matter how much information the GM surrenders and no matter how it is done, the player’s internal models will all be different. This is because humans do not read each others’ minds. It’s also because no matter how much prep the GM has done, her model is also incomplete — there are blurry and even blank spaces that she intends to invent on the fly should they come up. This is necessary: it is impossible to build a complete detailed model of the game fiction. You have to be vague and supply details exactly when they are needed in many cases. A perfectly detailed world model would be an actual world.

So the model itself, in it’s canonical form (in the GM’s head and notes), is incomplete. It’s also communicated incompletely. There is no way for one human being to perfectly communicate complex information perfectly. Words will be taken in different ways than intended, tone will be decoded in unexpected ways, some data will simply be ignored, and new information will be invented.

This is not so obvious while playing because (especially when well immersed) you generally don’t question your internal model. So, you have what you act on as a perfect model constructed from the imperfect communication of an incomplete model. Holy crap, how do we even manage to play at all?!

Well, without “say yes or roll the dice” is a disaster — players must constantly refine their model with the GM by requesting greater and greater detail or by guessing and being corrected. This is not because the GM is being a dick. It is because she has a weak model communicated badly and there is absolutely now way around this. So how come every game isn’t a disaster? Easy! Because practically everyone secretly uses the rule “say yes or roll the dice” to some extent without verbalizing it. GMs everywhere incorporate player models stated as intentions (“I want to swing over there from the chandelier!”) into their narrative when their own notes are blank, blurry, or boring with respect to the supporting details of the intention (there is a chandelier). They just don’t formalize it.

And sometimes they don’t. It can be frustrating, especially when one assumes (as one generally does) that the model is getting communicated perfectly. Or even when one assumes that the model can be communicated perfectly. Or even adequately. So what this rule does is force you to look right in the eye the monster of a fact that we suck at modeling and communicating our models. And when you do that, it becomes perfectly reasonable to do what you’ve already been doing: agree that there is a chandelier even if you didn’t write one down.

This breaks immersion when someone says they want to swing from the chandelier and the GM says, “Oh I never thought of that — okay, there’s a chandelier now and you can swing from it.” It doesn’t break immersion when the GM says yes (“Okay you launch from the chandelier!”) or rolls the dice (“Make an athletics check to do that!”). Because the chandelier is not interesting. The action is. There’s no reason to deny the chandelier.

Now what will be argued is the degenerate case. “I ride in on a school of exploding land-borne squid!” Should you say yes or roll the dice?

You should say, “don’t be a dick.” Unless it fits the scene, of course.