Jul 21 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 19 2011

Research and development and gunfire

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

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


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

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

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

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

It sucked

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

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

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

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

So we would do that too.


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

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


Jun 29 2011

Fabricating an awesome community

Before I get started I want to be totally clear: I do not know how to fabricate an awesome community.

Apparently there was a substantial melt-down of an existing Dungeons & Dragons online community. I say apparently because I don’t know which community this is1, but I do know that Wizards of the Coast is pretty interested in it as an object lesson for their own community efforts.2 So it’s a big deal at least as a case study. It made me wonder, though, how the communities I know of that are functional stay functional. There are several pressures at work (yes, this is another pressure/flow argument, but lighter) that I can see. I’ll try to tie these to actual cases where possible.


There are a few communities I can think of where many, most, or even all of the members are proud of the functionality of the community. They are active and vocal members and consequently they exert significant peer pressure to behave well by simply demonstrating virtues and frowning on non-conformity. This is not actually helpful to someone looking to fix or create a community, though, because you get Those Guys by accident.

Or do you? The hard-core fans of Greg Stolze’s game, Reign, are by and large awesome and a half. It’s always a pleasure to chat in those forums. Now Greg has been working under a very interesting development model for Reign that I think has something to do with this. He proposes development of new content to the community and sets up a pledge system whereby anyone that wants to send him money to develop can do so. He commits to developing the new material if a certain sum is reached (say a thousand bucks). When it is reached (and it typically is), he builds the product and releases it for free. It contains a list of all the people who paid in an acknowledgement chapter.

So the community cheerfully pours money into what is essentially a philanthropic pursuit — spending money in order to generate free material from the single expert at making it. This community is therefore significantly composed of people who are proud of being part of the product under discussion. They helped make it happen and they helped make it free. This pride I believe drives a lot of the goodwill that is present there.


Now this is going to be a little contentious because there are places I go to read where I feel the community is of very high quality but there are plenty who would disagree. That certainly underlines an issue — that the quality of a community is not just based on the quantity of dickery but also on the tone of conversation. Certainly I have frequently run into people who view any disagreement as a hostile act, and catering to that risks making a community useless. That’s an extreme example, but there are shades of gray all along there. For example, in some places it might be bad form to react to a presentation of creative material with anything other than praise.3 That’s also not for me, so that will be a disconnect as well.

Okay, I have seen a single feature in the forum software, Vanilla, used to great effect. It’s a very non-violent way to manage conversations that can go nowhere good. It’s a method that does not impose restrictions on anybody at all and yet still diverts bad behaviour. These features are awesome — I like freedom and I think that in general restricting it is very very risky (mostly because someone has to be empowered to do so, and I don’t trust that person much).

This function is “sink”. It’s the simplest idea ever and nowhere near enough forum-based communities use it. All it does is disable the feature that causes forum entries to percolate up to the top of the list when someone adds a comment.

Yeah, it takes a minute.

So now a heated argument is not constrained or punished (it’s not deleted, or locked and no one is banned or admonished) but instead it is slowly replaced by functional discussion instead. It sinks off the page. One thing about this that interests me is that you would think that the heat level in an argument would indicate some level of motivation to continue it. But it turns out that clicking “next page” is pretty much always too much work for the invested parties to spend to do so. I suspect this is because the best forum train wrecks are essentially reactive and this puts a speed bump on reaction. I know my own tactic for dealing with a heated discussion I see coming is to quite reading it, regardless of who got the last word to date. If I don’t read it I have no urge to react to it. Having it quietly scroll off the bottom of the page does this for you.

Another technology I’ve heard of is Hell Banning. Personally I think this is just more dickery (and it’s essentially crafted to make other people feel bad while the “good guys” feel good, and I think that’s suspicious behaviour), but it’s kind of funny. The idea here is to ban people with bad behaviour (and that’s the part where untrustable authority enters the equation) in such a way that they do not know they are banned. They appear to have full access to the forums and can post and reply, but no one else ever sees anything they say. It’s kind of an ignore list that is enforced by the authority on everyone who is well behaved (I think I let some bias slip in there). It’s funny to imagine the troll beating his keyboard fervently and no one will react to him. It certainly directly addresses the core problem of trolling: it’s not the troll that’s the problem, it’s the weak-willed everybodies4 that insist on reacting. So in a sense, this is control that is applied to the people you want in order to manage their bad behaviour. There is a way in which I like that, I guess, but the paternalistic smell is a bit strong.

Benevolent dictatorship

We are trained to believe dictatorships are bad and that investing authority in a single person is not only risky, but that it will corrupt that person eventually.

As with the issue of community pride, there is a sense in which this has to come organically — that is, a good and effective person establishes a community with herself in complete control and everything is awesome forever. I’ve seen MMO guilds operate this way and stay functional for many years. It is not, however, something that you fabricate, and that’s the only reason I won’t address it further. It doesn’t really help anyone trying to fix a community to say, “well, if you were awesome and wielded power effectively that would help.” Maybe it does.


  1. If you know and have some details, please comment.
  2. I know this because I was chatting with Steve Winter of WotC last night. Nyah nyah.
  3. At the risk of repeating this caveat too often I’ll anyway say, I am not denigrating this behaviour. This is a valid and useful community role.
  4. Myself included on many occasions.

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.


Nov 5 2010

Playing Gamma World

A while back I wrote about a game of Pathfinder that we tried and how that didn’t work (for us, IMHO, YMMV, etc. — please take all that as read throughout so  don’t have to repeat it). We played 4e for a while and it didn’t sing. Then we went on a bender playtesting new games.

The other day I wrote about buying and reading Gamma World. Last night we played it. We played it for a few reasons. Certainly it’s a sexy little thing and demands to be played because it looks fun. It’s also an interesting iteration on the 4e rules and in ways I can mostly love. Other will certainly hate — it seems like it’s even further from the roots of D&D than ever before. I’m certain that the reverse is true, but I also don’t care where it sits on any hypothetical graph of D&D versions, so it’s easy for me to pick a side here. But mostly I needed to bring a popular game to the table so that we can deconstruct it a little and find the fun-organs (not a euphemism) because obviously when we make our own games they also need components that generate fun.

So I prepped a simple little game with an abstracted map (you live in New Desuka and you can head to the old highway, into the carnivorous forest, or down the river), a fun NPC (Doc, the Android/Doppleganger who conducts extensive obscure research in New Desuka and kind of runs the place and kind of not), and a problem (the river is being blockaded and the dabber village downstream has stopped trying to get through — and so now New Desuka is starving). This has the basic features needed to get going fast: an idea of where you are relative to what else, someone fun to talk to, and something to do that makes you feel like a good person for doing it.

And get going fast it did. It followed the usual pattern of D&D games since I was 11 — talk talk talk (adding, in more recent revisions, a static skill check or two) followed by fight fight fight and then more talk talk talk. I do not want to resist this pattern in case it’s a feature. That is, I’m trying very hard to constrain any bias I’ve developed over the past several years and play this game pretty much exactly as it is sold to me in the text.

So, there is talk talk talk and then the characters (a Giant Mind Coercer and a Mind Breaking Empath) get a river barge with whatever they feel they need (they ask for a crate of grenades — as per my advice in RPG.Net discussions of nerve gas, I give them a crate of grenades) and start sculling downstream. As they head downstream (hoping to reach the neighbouring city of Vista an in attempting this, discover the nature of the river blockade) two Cloud Worms drop from the overhanging trees on their barge! Fight!

I draw a quick map. The river with some trees on the bank. We put a card on the table to represent the barge (a stroke of genius from Bob, who’s playing the giant) and draw a narrow channel down the center of the river — in this channel you are swimming and maybe drowning. Outside the channel you are wading (double cost to enter). Simple map with tactical power in maneuver and, it turns out, at least one emergent property that I suspect Bob had planned: you can move the barge, which moves everyone on it. This, by the way, is the first clue to a major fun-organ.

The combat is painless. It proceeds quickly, amusingly, and contains rich opportunities for tactical choice. Players, even with first level characters, fruitfully explore different powers and different actions. Optimal solutions appear to be rare. This is interesting because these are pitfalls I have repeatedly fallen into in design, so the question I obviously want to answer is, “why does this work?”

At one point the giant (Claygore!) decides to move the raft so that it is out of the channel. He takes a move action to scull it one square over. I rule that this is reasonable. I could have also said “make an Atheltics check” and that would also have been cool. What is meta-cool, though, is the ease and freedom (and permission, though it’s implicit) to make that un-ruled maneuver happen. That was fun. And so what I realized at this point is that this game leaves a lot of egg out. It also leaves it out in fun places and knows where those are simply because that’s sort of always where we’ve done that. It’s only more recently that deconstructing these games have allowed us to recognize the absence of egg and therefore that we better put that in because, what the fuck, no egg.

Anyway, fight fight fight and JB’s character, Dale or Dwayne or something like that, gets flanked and that turns out to be all kinds of bad. He’s smacked down to well over his instant death marker and is gulped down by the beasts. Claygore is smacked unconscious and, rather than just halt the game, I have him awake in the dabber village attended by the little racoon people. They must have saved him, scaring off or killing the Cloud Worms. Or something. And so, while JB is rolling up a new character (an electro-kinetic plant which I name Herb (he’s a sage) but that JB gives a totally different name) Claygore converses with the dabbers and discovers why trade has broken down. Talk talk talk. And it’s fun talk and it reveals a new direction and it introduces Herb.

So as far as I am concerned, Gamma World is old-school. Combat is traditional, tactical, map-and-mini, with a relatively short list of options that all have clear narratives. It runs fast and without excessive bookkeeping (of note here are the rules for continuing damage and the meta-game timing of effects — roll on your turn, it lasts until you get to act; that kind of thing) and yet is rich enough to create circumstances that require on-the-fly ruling. And that’s important — inventing the game as you go along is something I want (even expect) from a role-playing game. It’s why Reign sings so sweetly to me — it’s just so easy to push the ORE around all over the place to suit circumstance.

And part of “old school” is the simple rules that evoke complex ideas trivially. After we played for a bit we stopped to discuss what happened for a while and one of the things I brought up was how there are some origins that are very hard to find the story in. “Yeti cockcroach” was my example. Bob suggests that this might be a giant sentient albino cockroach and that fellow sentient cockroaches have an unassailable mental block against the very idea of a white cockroach. That is, they don’t believe in him. So instead of drawing “ape-like giant” from “yeti”, Bob draws out “pale hoax”. I slap my head. Not because there is a story — you can find a story between any two unrelated things — but because the story is actually really easy to find.

Combat was pretty lethal. I set the difficulty level on that encounter a little high (they probably should have run away) but even if it was corrected, a bad roll can send you to the grave. That seems to be okay, though. Character generation is fun and fast, and if you’re looking forward to chucking the dice on the origin table again then death sort of loses its sting. That’s swell because that lets the dice stay in the open and that amps up the tension and that’s really fun.

The gonzo element is something I’m cool with in small doses. This heads into old Gamma World territory but it also treads (lightly mind you) on Paranoia turf. That’s all good — not that it means that this is the game I want to play every night forever, but because those are fun games with a clear space set aside in my head. I know what this game will deliver and so I know whether or not I want to play it. This is a great game to lighten the mood for a few sessions between other more savoury fare. And you can come back to it so very easily, I suspect, so you can keep inserting it in your calendar without much work. Certainly my 4,000 or so words of prep contain enough material for a half dozen sessions at least.

So: fun, light, and illuminating. Well worth its (very low) price tag.

The index still sucks. We had more hits this time but in one case the thing linked in the index was actually a pointer to go to a completely different page. Yup. Look up “basic attack”. Holy moly.


Oct 15 2010

When failure delivers the goods

My day job involves research. It’s commercial research and has all the limitations and caveats that that kind of research must have, but it’s still research. One of the things you learn early when doing research is that if failure is treated as failure, you are not doing research. This is because you are in search of facts, and failures contain at least as many demonstrable, recordable, measurable facts as successes. Failures deliver the goods.

So I’m not shy about having a really good time failing. This is when there is the most stuff to learn.

Soft Horizon was a grand experiment and a kind of Brooksiansecond system” for me. Not in the sense that it was huge but in the sense that it reached too far, reaching in fact for things that weren’t actually fun. Much energy was spent trying to find the fun in them. Now, any time you get to recognize your “second system” for what it is and throw it the hell away before it consumes you, you count yourself among the very fortunate. The more you can learn from it the better.

We had a case in miniature with Chimaera last night. JB and I had some play mechanisms that were very fruitful in the narrow context we initially tested.We extrapolated the mechanism to embrace a much greater context (five players instead of two and contrary intentions to those tested — supporting instead of undermining opposition), wrote it up, and thought “this will be awesome”.

It sucked so very hard.

Fortunately this is also awesome. Two things (at a coarse scale of “things”) came out of it. First was a bunch of elements of the system that were and could be reproduced elsewhere more successfully. Second was a long discussion not of how to repair it (because that’s development and not research) but rather why it failed. This long and detailed analysis revealed very powerful facts about this game, about games in general, and about the people who are developing this game. This kind of thing is pure gold.

One thing we learned is that it’s not just hard to make non-violent support and compromise tactical, it’s also not really very fun. It’s hard to find the actual conflict to really get your tactical teeth into. In many ways it’s just more fun to talk this out than to dice it — if both sides of an issue can find a common ground to examine and resolve the issue, that talk might be more fun than simulating that talk.

Another thing we learned is that the above is only true when you are doing simulation at the resolution scale. That is, when the pattern is to declare intent and then dice to determine success or failure, it’s deeply unsatisfying for some kinds of conflict. If you flip it around, though, and get some dice out based on your rough intentions and then use the play of the dice as the basis for story — “reading” them, in a sense — it’s way more satisfying. We see this in a fairly traditional context in Greg Stolze’s Reign, where everyone tosses the dice and the interpretation of these dice describes the detail and rhythm of the fight itself. The narrative for a round’s activity is discovered rather than declared and tested for success or failure. We see this as well in Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, where a declaration of intent is made, dice are brought out and rolled, and the results are bid by turns to one-up the other guy and story develops from this exchange.

Hollowpoint exploits this pattern as well, allowing the details of ultraviolent behaviour (especially when it goes wrong) to derive from big compared and manipulated dice pools.

Now it’s interesting that this is how we used to play Chimaera but it was unsatisfying for reasons we had not adequately examined. It turns out that the flaw here was maybe not so deep that the system needed tearing down. So this is the other benefit of all this talk and analysis about the failure: we got down to brass tacks regarding what the lead designer wants and why previous failures were failures. This is important because it was delivering on all (well many anyway) cylinders for everyone else before. This is a clue that perhaps not much is wrong.

What we discover is that the GM was bored with the old system. It didn’t give him enough to say about the story. In Hollowpoint this is a feature, as far as I’m concerned, because the stories are so very much about the player characters and their successes and failures. In Chimaera, though, we have a more detailed setting with opposition that wants (demands) a piece of story too. Well, once the actual issue is pinned down under the harsh illumination of some failure, the fix (or rather a possible fix to test) is discoverable. In this case we add another axis of information to the dice game and suddenly story opportunities balloon (and, better, become easier, possibly alleviating some of the creative burden on players).

The other thing we discover is that the desire to behave well (non-violently, constructively) is already built into the game and doesn’t need tactical simulation to see play. In fact it’s already part of player motivations for reasons that are much more satisfying: rather than delivering some benefit to be spent later or being a fun non-violent tactical mini-game, the larger scale map, the communities and their links to each other, suggest (in some cases insist) player action that will change the map to at least be more interesting and at best be more beneficial to everyone. We can improve the safety of the road between Makata and the Dim Tower if we can just start getting this regular shipment of soybeans through, starting a regular trade. We can stop the war between Etios and Makata if only we can get the warlord and the general together to talk this out. And these things are implied (mechanically!) by the community map already. All this work (play!) only to (re-)discover that the game already knew how to deliver what we wanted.

So that’s what I call a productive evening’s failure. We didn’t play anything through, we did some character generation and community mapping and we talked (heatedly at times) and threw a lot of dice and learned a lot of extremely valuable stuff. This is a very highly rated failure in my ledger of failures. And that’s a thick and powerful book.


Sep 28 2010

Squad scale

I have a bad habit.

To be fair, I have many bad habits, but here’s one. It may seem minor. Hell, it is minor, but it confuses others. When I talk about the “scale” of a game, I am talking about the scale of the total number of entities in play, typically. What I should be talking about is the scale of a single unit. Diaspora is a great example of this: the “platoon scale” combat is really nothing of the sort — the individual unit scale is roughly a fire team — around, four guys, say. But generally when talking about how big a fight is represented, I’d say that a platoon or two on either side is good and that more than that gets unwieldly. So “platoon” sticks in my head. “Team scale” might be better. Striker, for example, is a team-scale game too.

So this squad thing I’m playing with is not actually squad scale. Rather it’s individual scale — each unit is a guy. See, that’s what makes it stick tightly to a role-playing game, because you can make each guy go vroom and so identify closely in combat with the unit. At a team scale this sometimes works (with vehicles, notably, where a vehicle is a team and you go vroom reflexively) but much larger than that you have to find an individual to care about, and that forces you to play the leaders.

No Contact is definitely not about leaders. I think it’s more interesting exactly reversed: your leadership is gone; now what? So one reason for that is that the individual scale demands it. The other reason for that is that it maps closely on the existing table structure.

A group of people are in an inhospitable environment with no declared leader and life threatening trouble. What power structure emerges from this? Well, we already know, because we do this pretty much every time we sit down to play a role-playing game. This is the story of gaming in general so making it the premise of the game is a no-brainer. Most of the foibles of military gaming derive from trying to fit an artificial command structure onto the undisciplined democratic chaos of the actual table (though Clash Bowley solves this elegantly by letting everyone play leaders and followers alike, which is clever and a half).1 No matter how you elect the lieutenant, and even if it’s the person that normally takes charge at your table (assuming you have one of these), there will be resistance to it. The leadership role assumes knowledge that most of your table doesn’t have and makes quasi-experts of people who may not be equipped to deliver their knowledge well.

But we already know that the emergent organization of the table works — well, we know that it works now and that we’ve already booted people, had “that talk”, and so on to get it to this point — so it seems productive at this scale (the individual) to decapitate the unit. It’s also a good premise for a game: out on patrol, out of communication, disaster strikes, you’re lost, your orders are out of date, your lieutenant is dead, you can’t find the maps. What now? Everyone I think can put themselves right there (dare I speak of immersion?!) and that’s a significant fraction of the battle.

Okay, so No Contact is technically individual scale: one unit is one guy. It is intended as the combat system for a super-traditional role-playing game design: character generation, combat system, equipment list. Everything between bursts of gunfire is raw role-playing, maybe with the occasional skill check, but there are no mechanisms in place to make role-playing happen. Well, let’s face it, there probably will be. I’ll probably bolt on something that sells motivations somehow, but I can’t see it feeding a complex cycle (like Burning Wheel BITS). And probably not a forced narrative cycle (FATE Aspects). But something like Reign‘s “use this motivation and get a bonus on a roll” mechanism is deceptively simple and powerful.

Maybe I’ll steal that.

Anyway, pardon the ramble — I’ve been sick and am sporting a fever. Makes me babble.


  1. Clash, the purple on black has to go though man.

Jan 29 2010

More playtesting in Deluge

Last night we did a great run playing (I finally got to play!) in the Deluge setting but using Greg Stolze’s A Dirty World as the core system. This delivered a very different experience from our previous game using Reign, but just as (more, for me) satisfying. Here’s the current text as I write this but as always the most current is at the wiki.


Scout Charity Spence — Brad Murray
Scavenger Nemo — Tim Dyke

I (Byron) took the mighty horned helmet tonight for a further exploration of Brad’s intriguing Deluge setting.

I opted to use A Dirty World for a few reasons; 1) I knew it would work since it was based on Stolze’s One Roll Engine, 2) I had a pretty cool couple of visuals, 3) the table is amazingly forgiving for my awkward at times GMing and 4) I wanted Brad to play in the setting he was describing.

Charity (Brad) and Nemo (Tim) have been called before the Board of Technology with a mission, there has been no contact from the community of Port Haney for a few months and there have been rumours of something… odd going on in the area former called Maple Ridge. One garrulous old Technocrat of Theology understands why the renowned scout Charity is going, but why send that skulking scavenger Nemo? Charity graciously offers to leave Tim behind and take the Technocrat in his place. The curmudgeon quickly defers this honour and withdraws his complaint.

The Council of Technocrats concede to send a mail man in advance of the two and to arrange transport from the Centre to Port Haney.

Charity and Nemo head down off the mountain to the small seaside community of Burrard, where a skiff awaits them. Before they can board they are offered refreshments and relaxation, but since the two are under an hour into their journey they decline.

Nemo and Charity find themselves beseeched by Pearl of Burrard who implores the two to take a small, simple package to her sister Pearl at the Centre. Nemo and Charity see no reason to doubt the earnest woman and quickly agree to her requests. Nemo gets some fresh cheese and seal jerky as a bonus.

The pair are poled up the inlet towards the area formerly known as Port Moody. The captain of the skiff dumps them a bit further north than usual in the midst of the jungle and quickly hightails it out of there. Leaving Nemo and Charity to find their own way to the Centre with a vague wave of his hand. Nemo and Charity have been in this sort of situation before, without sharing a word they scope out the shadows following them. When the leader steps from behind a crumbled ruin, both are ready for them.

Tim and Brad both rolled very strong Observation rolls here so knew how many people were there and almost down to how old their clothing was.

“Halt. We aim to relieve you of those items you’re carrying.” begins the scruffy attired leader holding a massive machete.

“Listen,” begins Nemo, “we know what you need and want, we’re like you. We can help reconnect the mail and…”


Charity unleashes a blast from her shotgun, killing the would-be bandit outright. From the tress, both note the other shadows slinking into the wet, shadows, intent now on easier prey.

Tim rolled a Persuasive Honesty roll, while Brad rolled Vigorous Wrath. Tim got the higher set, which ruined the set the NPC rolled, allowing Brad to pepper them with buckshot. ORE is a great system.

BJM: Charity rolled Graceful Courage — a calm and accurate discharge from the shotgun. It was only later I got wrathful from losing some rolls.

JBB: One of these days we’ll have a game with negotiating that ends without gunfire.

BJM: Dude, there’s one later in the session that ends in LESBIAN SEX — you are a hard man to please.

Along the way Nemo offers to fix a farmer’s tractor, the farmer points him to a rusted out set of metal with four large rubber tires half sunken in a field. They ask about Rose of Burrard, the farmer, lonely sounds intrigued but hasn’t heard of her but directs them on towards the Centre.

As they approach the Centre they’re accosted by Jak and Bil, two young guards standing atop the berm that surrounds the Centre. A berm made of the concrete of the collapsed high rises surrounded the centre, behind the berm is a deep moat that’s been expanded and deepened multiple times. Jak and Bil do their best to stop the two travellers but once they find out it is the scout Charity and notorious scavenger Nemo they quickly become fawning fanboys and direct the two into the Centre.

The Centre (Coquitlam Centre) is a shopping mall that’s seen better days, the roof leaks, the metal has corroded into rust and one former shopping department has collapsed outwards and been converted into a floating dock used for loading and offloading supplies.

Brad’s built a handy percentile role for deluge and it was here I realized what the Centre needed.

Nemo, being an old hand in scavenging finds the old directory and leads Charity down to the administration level looking for the Mayor of the Centre. One problem, the bottom floor of the Centre is in about 5 inches of water, but they find an old drunk, Charity kicks him awake and he waves them in the general direction of Zed, the mayor. “It’s the busy shop with the people going in and out of it.”

Back on the second floor, Nemo quickly finds Zed’s, and they quickly find Zed, sitting behind a counter and living in seeming luxury, as above him a flickering but steadily burning lightbulb above his head. On the walls behind him are archaic power tools. He doesn’t seem to do much business, focusing on his mayoral duties. Charity and Nemo introduce themselves and Zed quickly shuts down the shop and insists they dine with him.

They follow him down to the dining hall (food court) there are holes in the wall but as long as there aren’t any holes overhead, the people of the Centre seem happy to live in the wet. Zed orders a suckling pig (or two) roasted for this auspicious occasion. Nemo watches them handcrank the piglet and offers a complex solution that Zed nods and smiles and says sure. Nemo fashions an automatic roasting device, using an old chain from a chainsaw or bike and a treadmill. Nemo suggests they walk on it, but one clever lad thinks walking another pig on it would be much easier. The crowd gasps in awe as Nemo’s Roasting Device works and he gains much standing in the community of this delapitated mall. Meanwhile, Charity and Zed talk business. Zed confesses that things aren’t great in the Centre, they’ve lost their shipwright and without one things look bleak. Perhaps Charity could find a way to… liberate one from Port Haney? Charity believes in the necessity of a shipwright to the further survival of the Centre and agrees.

Tim rolled a Patient Demonstration success so taught the people a better way to roast meat, while Brad failed in a roll against Zed (NPC) but only barely, but that’s enough to see that kidnapping a shipwright is essential for the Centre to survive.

BJM: In failing her check, Charity gets Corruption shifted up. She’s accepted the idea that kidnapping is okay. Not the character I intended, but cooler in a way.

Nemo discovers Rose lives in the Centre, selling chickens and eggs to meagre profits and eking out a living. Nemo delivers the package from Pearl, but something doesn’t jibe, she grabs it too quickly and goes to tuck it away, but the wrapping rips and a stained mahogany box peeks through. Nemo and Charity converge on the poor woman, Nemo grabs back the box realizing this is something valuable from the Mountain whereas Charity wants to aid Rose. Rose’s attempt to escape fail and Nemo grabs the box, just before the butt of Charity’s shotgun smacks his elbow. Rose makes a desperate plea to the scavenger soul of Nemo, “Why does it always have to go UP the mountain? There are people down here who need just as much… no more… than those atop the mountain. We need this to survive.” Nemo acknowledges the wisdom of these words and permits her to keep the box, but he is a bit envious of her, since he hasn’t found much to scavenger out east yet.

Ok… Tim and Brad both Cunningly Observed Rose was up to something. Then Tim when to grab it back Vigorous Defiance whereas Brad wanted to aid Rose with Vigorous Courage while Rose tried Graceful Defiance to get away. Tim got the best roll, then Brad and Rose got none. However, Rose used Persuasive Honesty to convince Tim to give her back the back, with Brad’s gobble dice eating up Tim’s successes Rose kept the box.

Which was a McGuffin until I realized it was a tech McGuffin!

BJM: Charity’s Vig/Cour roll was an attempt to smack Nemo’s arm away with the butt of her shotgun. Her failure causes a shift on Wrath. Gettin’ mad here.

In the morning the pair met a salty old sailor, likely the only one brave enough to navigate the Pitt Bay (Pitt River) in the Centre. An uneventful crossing and Nemo disappointed he can’t recognize any potential looting places. Charity and the captain trade anecdotes.

On the Ridge side, they’re deposited north of Port Haney. They’re being watched but in a casual way. They arrive at night and in the dark, a guttering torch invites them onwards. They’re escorted to a tavern, when outside the tavern two lean, viscous seadog walruses leap out of the water, teeth sharp and savage. Charity inquires about these, seadogs, turns out they’ve been around for about 30 years and came from the sea and only in the past decade have they domesticated them. But they’re still more beast than pet.

Bedtime. Except Charity and Nemo want to explore. Nemo stumbles in the muck and rain and is immediately escorted back inside to share scavenging stories, which works as a great distraction for Charity to explore the town. The ships here are indeed much, much better than any she’s recently seen. There are entire logbooms near the shipyards for shaping. She sketches some rough drawings for the Technocrats atop the mountain. The boats are sturdier, leak less, ride higher in the water, seem to almost skim across the surface.

Tim failed his Sneak roll, Brad succeeded.

In the morning they meet the mayor of the town, a hearty young woman who commands respect. She and Charity show an immediate familiarity. They swap maps but the mayor is holding something back. Charity, in kind, holds back some of her maps too; pulling out an older map of the area. Nemo, slightly bored and missing the civility (and ruins) of the city spots a young girl bounding up and down bursting to share something with someone. It’s the mayor’s child (a girl of 10 – 12) and she rushes up to Nemo, who refuses to ask the question until to bursts out of her like a waterfall off a cliff, “You haven’t seen oobec… that’s where you wanna see… oobec… that’s where the trees come from.”

“Can you spell that for me?” asks Nemo.

“No. It’s spelt like it sounds I reckon,” she replies.

“Where is it? Can you draw it for me?”

So she does, by drawing an arrow pointing upwards at a tree on the floor.

Frustrated, Nemo filches a map from Charity.

Opposed roll, Tim tries to Steal from Brad. And it’s close, both got sets. 2×6 for Tim, 2×4 for Brad.

BJM: Charity’s rolls is a Vigorous Courage — basically if Nemo fails, she notices and punches him in the mouth. She fails and again takes a shift increasing her Wrath. Grr grr. Pretty soon she is going to be more effective punching the weak than in fair fisticuffs. As a player, I KNOW I am going to use whatever is most effective to get what I want.

Nemo has the girl point on the correct map he’s just lifted where these trees are. It turns out a bit further north from where they landed. Charity and Nemo talk later about what they’ve learned, Charity pulls out an even older map and between the two of them they decipher ‘oobec’ refers to an old UBC Research Forest to the north of Maple Ridge.

Brad and Tim succeed on a Knowledge roll.

In the last scene, Charity is trying to convince the leader of the community here (a strong woman like Charity herself) to send some shipwrights to Coquitlam Centre. Charity is prepared to kidnap (and her increasing Corruption ensures that) but Brad wants to resolve it ethically if possible. They discuss passionately and agree to work something out, though it’s not clear exactly what got resolved. Charity seems to have made her point, but the proof will be in the pudding.

Brad makes a Corrupt Persuasion check here because Charity’s Corruption has increased, so this is essentially a seduction. Certainly the scene contains some sexual tension. Tim assists with a Patient Demonstration roll, giving charity a width increase which seals the deal. I (Brad) read this as Tim actually making the point, but the leader’s personal interest in Charity is what actually makes her accede.

Charity’s success nets her another shift for Corruption.

BJDK: Considering I didn’t take a note about the rolls, and winged it from memory, it’s interesting to see how Charity could become a Wrathful, Vengeful Scout.

Charity dismisses Nemo with a wave and snuffs the light.

And that’s where we ended it.

–BMurray (with B.Kerr)

Jan 26 2010

Clearing a path with passion

Here’s something that the RPG system ORE, particularly as seen in Greg Stolze’s Reign, does super well. It rewards focus and it does it in a way that requires no book keeping. This is awesome. Its delivery is ephemeral but highly desirable by players. It doesn’t tie to character advancement (directly) or anything like that but still players steer right into it, on purpose, every single time. The thing is the Passions.

And you can jam these into any system and it will be just as awesome.

In Reign, each character has three Passions. They are:

Duty: this is the thing that you are compelled to do according to your personal ethics. “Keep the peace,” “Get the mail through,” “Destroy evil,” “Never compromise” … you get the idea. It can change, but infrequently.

Craving: this is the thing you are compelled to do because of your own weakness. “I like killing,” “Another beer couldn’t hurt,” “Blondes.” It never changes.

Mission: this is the thing you are compelled to do because it’s of immediate interest. It changes whenever it’s resolved, so it could easily change every session.

Now, whenever a character is involved in a conflict where dice get thrown, if the player can reasonably claim that one of these is progressed by the conflict, then she gets a die (a bonus to success basically). If she can narrate two in, two dice. All three? Awesome; three dice.

The important part of this is that it can happen as often as the player likes because it’s ephemeral — the only payoff is immediate and then it goes away. But the ramifications are deep — now what used to be just a brawl is actually about your sociopathy (“I like killing”). That simple brawl is now character-defining. We’re seeing the real thing now. And characters that have some nobility do well when they exercise it, if that’s their duty and so players, who love to succeed, get paid in social/psychological currencies for doing it. You’d be surprised at how many people will pay to succeed at something that will be detrimental to them. Yay I win! I won custody of the kid! Now I can stay home and not adventure forever or at least until college! Maybe that’s a bad example.

Anyway, that’s scaffolding. What I really want to erect here has to do with the last one, the Mission. In Reign the player sets this, but I stumbled on something really swell and obvious-looking: if the GM sets this, things become wonderful.

It’s generally accepted (with some dissent, of course, and we don’t need to cover that here) that railroading is bad. GM as storyteller manipulating players so their characters will behave according to script is boring and aggravating and sours milk, encourages fungal growth, and decays teeth. We all agree to that (well, “people like us” do, as my old philosophy prof would say). But what setting the Mission for the characters does is far more fertile. It more cuts a path than puts them on the rails.

If the GM sets the Mission for all characters to “Get the mail to Burnaby Mountain”, several things happen that are desirable:

The group, all having the same Mission, have a mechanically relevant common goal.

The GM is allowed to talk explicitly to the players through a mechanical medium about what she wants. No embarrassing meta-discussion, just a scene and then, “Here’s your Mission statements.”

The players are not in any way constrained to this objective. They just succeed slightly more often when the act in service of it. Or can convince the others that they are, which when generating narration, is practically the same thing. This is downright Darwinian.

Players can wonder well wide of the path, but they succeed a little more often when they are on it, and they succeed a little more often when they are trying to get back to it. This gives everyone the freedom to do as they please within the game world, which is sometimes desirable, but also gives the GM good reason to expect that certain points in her preparation will actually get revealed. The plot may not unfold as expected (which I love love love) but at least we have reason to expect that the objective will get pursued somehow.

This, it seems to me, is a powerful tool for most play styles — usually at the very least the GM is holding some secret that she wants to reveal. She wants the little thrill of seeing the players react with surprise and say, “Wow, cool.” But to deliver secrets, she needs the players to have their characters pursue them, and most existing mechanism are unreliable or unsatisfying (silent expectation being the most common).

So that’s my big Reign mod. Have the GM set the characters’ Missions.