Dec 20 2013

Elysium Flare


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

Mar 7 2011

Sharpening your doors

I recently ran into a mass of traffic on the Traveller Mailing List that revolved around making airlock doors sharp so that you can cut things in half with them. This sort of thing is why it’s a good thing that there’s a mismatch between the mailing address I reply with and the one I subscribed with (and can’t recall): I can’t reply to these things.

In the past I’ve mentioned that some of my duties revolve around safety. Others have to do with security, which is related. The sharp-airlock-problem is a happy coincidence of both. It also underscores the value of a chart I once found in a paper called “Probing the Improbable: Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes” by Ord, Hillerbrand, and Sandberg. Here’s the chart:

Here’s the basics of that paper. Often in safety we need to calculate very small numbers, because we want to make things that have a very small chance of being unsafe. That’s P(X) — the chance that something bad will happen. So we write complex arguments (A) that detail exactly why a given system is has such a very tiny chance (P(X)) of going wrong and such a hug chance (P(~X)) of being just fine. What Ord &c. point out, however, is that when P(X) is really small, it bears recalling that the calculation is really P(X) given that the argument is right. That’s P(A) and we use the notation P(X|A) to indicate “the chance of X given A is true”. So what they point out is that, given that on average 1 paper in a 1000 is retracted from prominent medical journals for being wrong, P(~A) is actually a very big deal. And we really can’t say anything interesting about P(X) if the argument is wrong. Saying there is one chance in a trillion of disaster is fine, but if there’s one chance in a thousand that you’re wrong, then it’s not very compelling. That big grey rectangle stands for “not very compelling”.

So anyway, sharp airlock doors, right. So the argument goes something like this: there’s a chance that a bear, a marine, or a giant squid (all examples from the mailing list, as I recall it, so don’t yell at me) will try to get into your space ship. It would be handy, given this chance, to make the airlock doors sharp so you can slam them shut on your pursuers. The math is presumably that P(squid) is quite high and so the expense is warranted.

Let’s think just a little harder, however. First, let’s agree that if everything in your spaceship goes to hell — the power fails, the hydraulics rupture, and generally everything goes south — you want everything that relies on these systems to remain safe. Now, this is a space ship, so most of the time what is outside it is, well, space. Consequently, the failure mode for the airlock doors has to be “closed”. That means that they should be constructed in such a way that if there is some kind of failure, it causes the doors to close. That probably means that the airlock doors are under some kind of constant tension (a big spring maybe) and that power and other services are used to open them rather than close them.

Okay so being as we’re talking about safety in dire circumstances, we can also see that we probably don’t want this door to close real hard or real fast — you’re just not very safe if the airlock doors carefully close to preserve the air but a) are closed so tight you can never get out or b) close on you as you try to enter to safety, cutting you in half. So, okay, safe failure, means a closing door that won’t kill you.

Already we can see that sharpening the doors might be a bad idea, but let’s continue anyway.

So the argument then is that P(squid) is more likely than P(electrical fault). That is, you are more likely to get attacked by a giant squid than to have a problem that cuts power (or other service) to the door. And keep in mind that both cases have the caveat “while you and/or the squid are trying to enter or exit” since if that’s not the case then just shut the door already and ignore the squid. More correctly, P(attempted entrance by some enemy that we are happy to kill) > P(fault in any service relating to the airlock door).

Okay, that might even be the case. You might run in very dangerous places. And you might also argue that, being as airlock doors are doubled, a pressure failure only happens if both doors fail. If we are pre-supposing no single point of failure elsewhere in the vessel (not a bad assumption) then the chance of both doors failing is the chance of one door failing squared, which is much smaller even than before. So P(squid) might reasonably be pretty high indeed.

Let’s also keep in mind that P(door) is tested every time you walk through the door, though. Now we’re not talking about the chance of pressure loss but rather the chance of you getting cut in half by the door, so we don’t get to square that (you don’t need to get cut in half by both doors). So P(door) is now the chance that you will be killed or maimed every time you use the door. P(squid) is starting to look like a safer bet as you eye that guillotine edge every time you pass by on your way to the service bay for coffee or back into the ship from an EVA. Couple that with the fact that you don’t want that guillotine to operate only when there’s a system failure. You want a big red button at the captain’s console that closes those on any marauding squids. So now one of your failure cases is “captain closes the lock on your sorry ass” as well as simple door failure.

And you don’t want to override that, or even safeguard it much, because of the apparently very high P(squid).

— BMurray

Sep 14 2010

How hard is too hard?

My wife has remarked that for some reason every commercial on some channels now looks (or at least sounds) like a Cialis commercial. Who am I to argue or even resist a little bit?

Because Diaspora says “hard science-fiction” on the cover, we are often asked what exactly hard science-fiction is1. This is always embarrassing because the definition is actually kind of a pet peeve of mine. Not because I’m pedantic about it, but rather because I’m not. Here’s my definition: hard science-fiction is science-fiction that the audience finds believable without effort. It appears, to them, to be a logical extrapolation of modern science. Note now that this is a subjective definition. This is important.

When writing this game we were conscious of the fact that there would be an audience that was not us. This may sound odd considering we never really expected to sell to very many people, but nonetheless it’s true because that’s just part of the craft of writing in the first place. And so the problem was not to deliver my vision of hard sf, but rather to somehow deliver your vision of it. You see how my subjective definition now creates a problem?

Okay, one problem with “hard” is that it’s usually coupled to “brittle”. Once upon a time (tell us a story, Uncle Brad!) I wrote simulations. I wrote vehicle motion simulators, pathogen propagation simulators, signalling simulators, and other simulators. That work has always informed my game play and game hacking, and here’s why: you cannot simulate everything. You have to decide exactly what work you are going to do and what work you are not going to do. This is because, as you drill into details across a broad spectrum you uncover more and more inter-relationship between details. This means that a minor error in one propagates to all details related to it, whether or not those details have errors. And every detail has errors. So you get a combinatorial explosion of error. The rule of thumb is: the more details you have the more wrong you are.

Okay, so here we are: hard sf is about plausible extrapolation of the future. Increase in detail makes the error increase. Error reduces plausibility. Obviously, then, the trick is to not go into detail!

This flies in the face of practically every hard or hard-ish science-fiction game ever made. Okay maybe not every one, but pretty much every one I can think of. These games are often characterized — typified even! — by lots and lots of crunchy technology detail. Computers are this big. Lasers work like this. Everyone uses this gizmo. We will communicate between planets by telefax. Bussard ramjets work. And every single detail is not only a chance to be wrong, but more importantly a chance for disagreement with your audience. And the definition of your genre (by my fiat, anyway) requires agreement above all other concerns. So this definitive design choice basically guarantees failure or at least eventual quaintness.

This is how we tempered Diaspora so that it can be hard but also agile enough to meet the subjective definition. First, we claim only a small number of facts: heat is a problem and reaction drives are all you get. Anti-gravity is unlikely. Second, we conveniently put super-technology behind the Singularity fence — when things get implausible, they occur in a place where the whole culture is ascending, which always looks like disaster from the outside. A billion souls upload themselves to a vast galactic data hub where everything is awesome, but they leave behind no record beyond a billion corpses. A super-technical civilization comes to depend entirely on its artificial brains and is wiped out completely when the power fails (superconductor rot, maybe).

So in Diaspora hard science-fiction is not so much a definition as an invitation. Beyond those small details, the universe is defined by the table playing the game, and if they have invented something that feels a lot like hard science-fiction to them, who the hell am I (or anyone) to argue? Each unnecessary detail (how big is a ship’s computer?) is excised2.

By refusing to attend to detail it could be argued that Diaspora is not really hard science-fiction. Rather what it does at each table, and taking into account the feelings of each player on the topic of plausible future technology, is simulate hard science-fiction.


  1. I was informed in one podcast interview that there is actually a technical definition that dates back a ways: hard sf is about the hard (or physical) sciences and soft sf is about the soft (or social) sciences. This doesn’t jibe much with the colloquial use and, worse, I’m not sure it’s even all that useful since most sf games are likely to be both
  2. In fact the ship design system got turned inside out after starting as a traditional naval architecture simulator — you know the kind where you are basically pretending to build an actual ship, picking components and calculating mass and thrust and all that? It was certainly compounding so many errors that the results were ludicrous, implausible because I knew how deeply fabricated they were. But it was also generating a suspicious consistency in results — when you use real rocketry physics, your ships have a fairly narrow range of reasonable sizes for most duties. Well if the size of a space craft is not all that interesting, then it seemed like we could discard that whole architectural phase and instead make a system that creates technology-consistent stats and the user can paint whatever description she likes on it. How big is it? Who am I to tell you? How big is plausible?

Aug 16 2010

Atomic Rockets

I read this morning that SpaceX is advising governments to make atomic rockets. This is interesting and amazing for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s pretty smart. For a lot of reasons.

SpaceX is in the business of (or wants to be in the business of) lifting stuff off the planet into space. Their technology is directed towards exactly this: getting kilograms out of the gravity well. This is a non-trivial problem and one of the most effective short term solutions is giant chemical rockets. There are better long term solutions, like space elevators, but they mostly involve material science that doesn’t exists yet, so while we want to be thinking and experimenting about these, we don’t want to bet on them just yet.

Regardless, we can call the problem of ground-to-orbit basically solved. We’ll be refining it and SpaceX will have a heavy hand in the commercialization of it (fingers crossed) but we basically know how to do it.

The problem is that a lot of what we want to do next is not about getting off the ground. And the SpaceX dudes have correctly spotted the fact that getting from Earth to Mars, say, is only feasible if you treat it as a totally different problem from getting off the ground. So SpaceX is basically saying that there are really good designs for long-duration space-flight that are not good for getting off the ground, but that for a small fee they will totally launch the pieces of your smart Mars ark into orbit for assembly and launch.

Obviously this is a pretty shrewd business position: NASA, quit worrying about the lift and start building huge long-term projects that assume orbit and rely heavily on some contractor to supply that while you (NASA) work hard on how to travel through huge open regions of space.

And so, atomic rockets. SpaceX specifically recommends a NERVA design (not to be confused with the Roman Emperor) which basically uses a nuclear reactor to superheat hydrogen and shoot it out the back at enormous velocities, giving you thrust. This was first proposed back in the sixties though I think the idea then was to launch the bugger straight from the ground, which we all agreed was a bad idea at some point. High velocity radioactive hydrogen is just not “green”. It also had some serious issues to surmount (material science ones, interestingly) but it looks like we can get around most of these with judicious application of iridium, which is cool because tanks and ray guns are made from iridium in David Drake novels, which I secretly read all the time.

Anyway, you don’t want this thing going off on the only planet you own, so you lift the parts into space, put it together, and set it off there. If that works really well, you might want to think about setting up a factory on the moon or something and make a bunch of them. Or at least re-use the first one a lot, because it won’t be intrinsically disposable (like many chemical rocket designs) and just needs a new load of r-mass every now and then to set on fire and shoot out the back.

This would all mean a huge need for a lot of heavy lifting from ground to space. Which is a lot of SpaceX business, I expect. Smart smart smart.

Something that strikes me as amusing is that we may have inverted our previous space strategy with this, and that’s not unusual when people are learning honest lessons from practical experience. That is, it may be the case that getting to orbit is the bit that should be disposable (contrary to the shuttle concept) and then we should not do it a whole lot. Instead, build space-craft with great re-usability in space and shoot people up into them rather than whole spacecraft. This provides an incremental method of space exploration and further feeds into a progression of leisurization of the processes: as lifting transitions from government to commercial domain, deep space travel opens up to the government (this is the SpaceX proposal). Then we expect a similar transition over a great deal of time: as the government establishes science and infrastructure, commerce can take over the travel, transporting science missions for a fee and maybe even exploiting resources in space. Governments can get on with other things (like funding the science I hope). And within all that, there must come an opportunity for leisure and an increase in opportunities for simple labour.

The SpaceX proposal is exactly on the path to real blue collar space, where folks do what they do, it just happens to be in space. Or on the moon. Or Mars. Or Europa.


May 6 2010

Document as Application

It’s time for me to think out loud about the game document as an application. All this talk about electronic books and manufacturing buckets and so forth has me thinking that practically every instance of the electronic book is at least as flawed as the paper book in some way or another. See, what the book does right is convey the content via efficient and effective use of the medium. What the electronic book does so far is attempt to mimic the book or extend it incrementally.

Seriously, an electronic device with gigabytes of space a millions of cycles per second and the best we can do is pretend to be a four dollar book? Fuck that.

Exploiting the new medium — a handy computer that does stuff besides display “Hello world” — is going to take some serious innovation. This is not a matter of making new standards or writing books using them or any of that. Real, serious changes to use the machine to do what we really want to do.

See, the game text is a compromise between what the author wants to do for the end user and what the medium is capable of doing. So when we make the machine pretend to be a book, we adopt the same compromise that the author has made for almost 700 years. I think maybe we can do better. Moore’s law, applied since 1450 or so, suggests we can do astronomically better.

What the author wants to do would, in my industry, be encapsulated in a requirements document. We don’t generally do this for books because the compromise we accept cuts so very deep — there’s just not all that much we can do. By contrast, when developing content for a computer, you want to start with the assumption that we can do anything. So now we have to constrain to what we want to do.

So what kinds of requirements would a role-playing-game-delivery-application (usually a book but now released from these bonds) have? Well, a place to start is a little use-case analysis. Here are our users (assuming a traditional RPG structure):

  • all players
  • non-GM players
  • GM players
  • readers
  • reviewers

Yeah, see, even at this early stage in the analysis we already see that we have vast possibilities open to us just be acknowledging that we can be different things to different people. So let’s look at the most function-rich (I’m guessing!) user — the GM. What does he need this document to do?

  • Display rules that are in the context of the current action at the table
  • Search for a rule by keyword
  • Display action-relevant information for each character
  • Display action-relevant information for NPCs and monsters
  • Adjust resource elements (fate points, gold pieces) for all players and maybe the environment
  • Roll dice
  • Display and modify campaign notes relevant to the action at the table and upcoming action
  • Record table audio and video
  • Convey private information to players (and observers?!)

I could go on. But starting with the assumption that we have a general purpose computer with audio-visual capabilities, a network, and some storage, we find the doors blown open on “what is an RPG if not a book?” As a GM I should be able to award fate points (in secret and in private), get updates based on player activity (“I am tagging ‘Zany funster’ for +2 because I’m just so awesome to be around.” click and fate point tallies on all machines are updated), see what aspects are begging for compels (maybe literally — a player might flag an aspect as a fun thing to tweak and the GM can respond to that red flag). It’s packed with back-channels that are both in and out of story.

So this is what I’m working on right now — what are the use cases for a Next Generation RPG Delivery System? Then after that will come the requirements proper. Then a design. And then I start developing iPad applications? Maybe.

I better go buy some books on that.


Jan 20 2010

Setting: Deluge

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Who are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What opposes you?

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

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

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

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

What motivates you?

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

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

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

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


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

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

Introduce an external mission by leveraging the character types.

Watch where it all goes.


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


Jan 11 2010

Commute reading

So I’m reading some science-fiction because it seems like, as an author of Diaspora, I ought to have a better handle on the genre than I do. Maybe not, though. Anyway, I was out of reading material and surfed for some classic Asimov for my Kindle and realised I hadn’t read his Foundation trilogy in a very long time indeed. Click click.

There is a structure to the early part of the first book (and maybe to the whole thing — I can’t recall and I’m not finished yet) that startled me. The pattern is one that would righteously suck in a game, which reinforces my instinct that games and fiction are completely separate beasts. The narrative proceeds roughly like so:

  1. The previous conflict resolution is presented (usually as dialogue) as a past event.1
  2. An amusing character is introduced.
  3. A conflict is hinted at.
  4. The conflict is revealed.

We don’t seem to ever participate directly in the conflict resolution! We only get to see it as described from a future time. There is no truth about the resolution, because we aren’t in the moment — there is only interpretation of it. This is awesome! This is a really interesting structure and one that reinforces the meta-story — this book is about pre-interpretation of history and therefore in some ways about interpretation. Having major conflicts described after the fact through interpretation is brilliant — the reader is always in the position of historian, in a sense, reviewing the past with the characters in an analytical fashion rather than participating in gunfights.

I don’t think you want to do this in a game. I think you can, but I don’t think you want to. Where there’s an itch for it you already do it, but not exclusively — that is, we participate in gunfights and we can (and often do) review them in post-game chatter, inter-game write-ups and reports, and pre-game summaries. What is highlighted for me, though, having discovered that Foundation is great fun even though it lacks the game altogether, is that these three aspects of extra-game gaming (pre- inter- and post-) are really important parts of the fun I have.

So this sort of explains why in Diaspora we formalized the pre-game summary (we have a whole Refresh “phase” in which players resolve all pre-game data like getting more fate points, resolving consequences stuff, making maintenance rolls, changing character information, and summarizing the previous session). But it also points to two more areas that might bear formalizing, or at least discussing in a new game. What happens outside the first person play is all potentially important and fun.

So thanks, Isaac.


  1. The only counter-example so far is the very first segment in which there’s no prior conflict to discuss.

Dec 2 2009

Making play work

I once did a safety analysis of artificial gravity systems in Traveller spacecraft.

I was tempted to stop there, actually. That’s kind of an article in itself — it’s turgid with meaning and ramifications and questions without even elaborating. Because what I did there (though in the context of play and therefore not nearly as rigorously or detailed as I would at work) was my job, but with a particular kind of science-fiction technology in a particular game setting instead of with my more usual target technology.

This was a great exercise for me. It never actually saw play, but it added a lot of quiet verisimilitude to a game or two — it gave me acronyms to throw around for NPC dialogue that were grounded in a context. It gave me a host of scenarios to explore as play (and really, studying failure modes of technology is practically the definition of plotting a good science-fiction story) and it was fun to do. I guess it helps that I like my job.

It also implied things about technology that I love. For example, there’s a credible argument than in a thousand years we will still use big relays that go THUNK for some things. Here at work we’ve been trying to get rid of them for years, but they remain an incredibly cheap and incredibly reliable way to handle safety-critical switching. There might be something new on the horizon, but beating that much cheap and that much functional is pretty hard.

Anyway, the exercise delivered on three axes: it was fun in itself, it informed play in a way I found fun at the table, and it was useful in the workplace as way to abstract a problem out of its context and think about it from a new angle. So I try to do it when I can.

Another place I get to do work-hobby is in typesetting. I write a lot at work — probably two- to five-thousand words a day. I also build a lot of diagrams, sometimes having to invent new symbology. And so I am often faced with new problems in typesetting to deliver complex material in a useful fashion and that lets me build game-publisher constructions in the context of learning more about my own work. Recent efforts in finding an electronic format that cross-correlates well with print have been fruitful, for example. I have several electronic layouts now that explore the issue from different angles using my work criteria as requirements but my game context as text. Am I playing at work or working at play? It’s a good life, at any rate.

I used to do this in my ungaming period (we call it the Dark Ages around home) as well — I was doing a lot of coding at work and would experiment with new languages and ideas by building gaming tools or IRC robots or something. A lot of code got built and a lot got learned and again I was working-at-play and playing-at-work.

A lot of people don’t do this because their work is not playful. By playful I don’t intend to imply frivolous (see my safety analysis above — the work is as far from frivolous as is possible; lives literally depend on it being right) but rather diverting. Enjoyable. Entertaining. And here’s where I want to link to our Trouble with Lulu recently — it seems likely to me that this lack of play is part of what alienates people from their work to the degree that they choose to become cogs rather than humans in the machine that hires them. But if solving that problem was play, it would have been done better and faster.

There are some highly professional cogs too — not cogs in the sense that they are automatable but cogs in the sense that they elect to be automata at work. I’ve met a lot of dentists like this and, increasingly, computer programmers. They don’t love their work and they don’t engage it playfully and eagerly. They may do it well (though my experience is that they don’t) but mostly they do it adequately. They selected the career fundamentally because it seemed likely to deliver a job with good pay. They get no joy from being at work and they cannot imagine getting joy from work. And consequently they generally look to maximise what does motivate them at work — pay. These people sometimes do a lot of overtime, paradoxically, traiding the leisure they do love for even more pay.

Worst of all are people who must be cogs because a human cog is cheaper to employ than a real cog. These people are de-humanised. That makes them easy to dismiss, but it is them I want to address.

This is what automation (in a broad sense) is all about: de-cogging humans. Because a person that is not a cog is free to be at play, and it is at play that our best thinking happens. So in our office, for example, we have a simple rule for everyone from receptionist to, well, the  top: if you do the same thing over and over again, find a way to automate it. Use your skills or call someone who has them, but turn that repetition into a program that does it the same way every time. Play goes up and error rates go down. The guy who loves hacking little scripts does so, and the guy who hates converting Primavera to Excel the way his boss likes it can now click GO and get it done.

And this is where our future must aim: re-humanising everyone. It’s not something we can plan for completely — it’s not a blueprint for yet another Utopia — but it is a goal worth pursuing at every turn. There is good solid work for humans all over our artificial strata of status, but there is also awful, stupid, automatable work that makes some people have to see themselves as un-human, at least for the work day. We should make a place where everyone gets to be human all the time.

I keep smelling whiffs of Marx and Engels. Hrm, mostly Marcuse, now that I think about it. Recall that criticisms of capitalism are separate from the failed blueprints to fix it. Also recall why human rights are important. It’s that first adjective.


Nov 19 2009

On being an organ

Aggregated effort is extraordinarily powerful at least in part because, given sufficient inter-communication between individual units of effort (let’s call these “cells” though real cells are already aggregates) and some time, aggregates appear to self-coordinate. That is, a functioning aggregate entity begins with individual free-behaving cells and comes to be organized. Because it becomes organized rather than electing or planning its organization, the aggregate entity also “discovers” any function it might have rather than deciding it. Even if each cell is perfectly free-willed and does precisely as it intends, with sufficient communication between these free-willed nodes there can (and maybe must) emerge an aggregate function. It might not be useful, but there will be consistent gross qualities of behaviour that we can describe.

I say that like it’s a fact because it reads better. It’s really a hypothesis. But that’s how the best science fictions starts — what if this (plausible, I think) hypothesis is true?

So cells aggregate to form tissues and organs whose disparate discovered functions allow a great level of aggregation to exist — a human being that acts and thinks and communicates. Is there a particular reason to believe that this is the terminus of these layers of aggregation? Does the chain organelle ? cell ? tissue ? organ ? human have to end at human? I’m not sure there is any reason to believe that. And if it’s true that there are higher levels of organization — that human beings could organize into things that could reasonably be seen as beings in their own right (and let’s be clear — we would not have to sense that for it to be true and more than a cell in your body, even if it was self-aware, would sense that there was a human being nearby), what do these beings do and think?

By inventing the Limited Liability Corporate we drew out the first sketch — blueprint even — for what such a super-entity might be. But the LLC is a golem — it’s a crude deliberate structure that does behave in some ways as an aggregate, but still also obeys commands from masters 1. It’s not what we’re really looking for.

Now the key to real aggregation has little to do with the individual elements — you can build powerful aggregates from elements that do no more than know their position in space, know the time, and are able to communicate. The first two functions are specific to certain kinds of applications but the third is the glue: powerful aggregate behaviour emerges when there is sufficient communication between cells. When the volume of data and the speed of transmission, and the delay time between data deliveries all cross some threshold, aggregates emerge and begin to evolve function. With the cells in our body, communication is diverse and information-rich — chemicals are swapped, transacted, reswapped, bought, and sold in myriad currencies, and cells themselves may move from place to place, carrying remote data to distant lands. Specific latencies, throughputs, and bandwidths vary, but the communication creates the aggregation.

In the last ten years the intercommunication between human beings has been skyrocketing. Even in very poor nations, large numbers of individuals have cellular telephones and internet connectivity in some form. Vast volumes of data are being transmitted. It is seductive to think that there are ways to organize this to do something great, and indeed humans are constantly pursuing this — we build non-profit organizations, petitions, companies, secret-santa lists, and on and on in an effort to plan a function for an aggregate entity. More golems here though.

What we should be looking for is the emergent entity — consistent behaviour that exists not as a matter of individual intention, but in spite of individual interests. This would be evidence that there are (not is — while the boundary between humans-as-animals is clear, the boundary between humans-as-minds is practically non-existent) super-entities that we do not control in any interesting fashion. Perhaps our golems incidentally provide aggregation of us-as-cells into functions that allow the existence of something much greater and wholly unintentional.

This is where the concept of “artificial intelligence” and, indeed, of transhumanism ceases to be relevant. It’s not possible, impossible, utopian, or inevitable — it’s irrelevant. Any artificial intelligence we create at this point will be just one more cell in these super-organisms. Any amazing changes that happen to humans are simply modifications to cells in a greater structure. As we improve communication, we make these super-entities inevitable and they (even if they exist today) have the power to shape the whole planet, and rapidly, in ways that suit their interests.

And their interests are not our interests except insofar as we keep talking to each other. Anything else they do has nothing to do with us at all. If this were already true, what would be the signs? It we could detect that it was about to happen, would we want to stop it? Could we?

Are new organisms ever still-born from cellular revolt?


  1. Though let’s be clear here. Companies — indeed every organization of humans — appear to  rapidly acquire self-interest. Just like any animal, they rapidly adopt behaviours that are solely about staying alive, even when every individual with an interest in it would be better off if it died and was re-constructed or even left dead. All organizations attempt to self-perpetuate regardless of individual interests. They desperately cling to life.