Jun 15 2012

Decoupling character features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apr 30 2012

Characters in context

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

Violence | Sorcery
Warfare | Courtesy
History | Piety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 29 2012

Experimenting through fake actual play

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sep 20 2011

Bessel – another Soft Horizon vignette

Here’s another commute-inspired babble based on the Soft Horizon cluster I built the other night.


The test facility, viewed from the air, is a vast concrete plain that stretches from horizon to horizon, bounded on the north and east by ancient rounded mountains and on the other by a sterile salt like. This paved landscape is marked with obscure symbology — some arcane but most mundane — warning icons and black and yellow diagonal bars, airstrip markers, the zodiac, and arrows pointing from access well to access well. It is studded with the shallow sloped blisters of the observation bunkers from which the tests are viewed and recorded.

General Hoberman, in blue and gold regalia (very fancy by most standards but here this is a utilitarian working uniform), stands inside bunker 47B surrounded by sensing equipment and subordinates. He holds an elaborate pair of binoculars and he is looking out towards MUT-7 — the seventh Machine Under Test assigned to this sector. It’s one of a hundred and thirteen tests he will observe this week. A finned and valved light gun rests on his hip in a complicated holster.

“Commence firing sequence, Mister Belgrade,” he announces in a baritone that carries easily through the large but crowded space. A young woman in simpler attire — no gold braids and very few buttons or bars, and all of that is covered by her lab coat anyway — begins throwing switches while speaking the necessary incantations from the Book of Lens. She doesn’t know what they mean — that’s research stuff — but they are important.

She speaks the last syllable (“ruk” if you must know, though obviously you don’t have the clearance necessary to know any more) and pushes an ivory-handled lever forward.

The scaffolding a thousand yards away that suspends MUT-7 aloft glows red and then white and then vaporizes, leaving a mesh of smoke trails that whisper the destroyed structure, and a column of pale green light connects the concrete plain to the sky for a dozen heartbeats.

“Astrology, report!” commands Hoberson.

“Penetration achieved, sir! And…gone. Transient penetration, maybe seven seconds.”

“Incoming!” another voice in the bunker cries. “I have thirty plus inbound from the rift!”

“Ballistic?” demands Hoberson, by which he means simply, “plummeting”.

“Over half, but the rest are descending under power!”

Enormous tentacled beasts fall from the sky, many of them thudding wetly on the scorched concrete around the skeleton of MUT-7. But some fly, or at least fall more slowly, aloft on vast bladders of lighter-than-air gas or wings or both.

“Dispatch a platoon to mop that up and an AA unit to bring down those new ones. Good work, peopl! Belgrade, get the rig reset and call MUT-8 to let them know I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” The sound of twenty four men collecting weapons drowns him out for a moment. A siren wails. “Dortmund, prepare my car.”

General Hoberson gets his greatcoat from the rack by the door and slips into it. He retrieves his driving goggles as well and fits them over his eyes as the blast doors open. Uniformed troops march around and past him at double time. The lazy smoke arc of an anti-aircraft missile drifts across the sky. Dortmund has already started the car and opened the General’s door.


Sep 19 2011

Ameris – a Soft Horizon vignette

I wrote this on the bus this morning based on a world in my last Soft Horizon plane generation session. I don’t know what it would be for — it’s too short and plotless to be fiction and it’s too long to be microfic. It’s the kind of thing I would write for myself to set tone while doing prep for a game. Normally no one but me would ever read it.


The market is a riot of colour — stall covers in silk and cotton dyed a thousand ways from a dozen worlds snap in the wind. And smells. Roasting meat of animals you’ve never seen, the sharp tang of fruits and vegetables, the thick odour of burning herbs, all bombard your senses. A seasoned traveller would find herself suddenly hungry. A neophyte perhaps nauseated, then intrigued.

But immediately as you enter Marketgate the your senses start to fog and blur — a vague euphoria begins to rise in you and serializing your needs as thoughts in language becomes a conscious effort. Your first stop — everyone’s first stop — is the autonomy vendor.

Always positioned near Marketgate, the autonomy vendors beckon you forward with stark black and white flags that trigger some animal connection to thought, and even though you are nearly mindless by the time you reach them, you have enough of your wits to buy what they sell — your mind.

Because this is such an essential service, its sale within a thousand yards of the Marketgate is strictly regulated by the Caliphate and no autonomy vendor (at least not one within a thousand yards of Marketgate) would dream of taking advantage of you. Some do, of course. The very reason a law exists is often enough to risk breaking it, and if you are very beautiful or very strong (or, Mind forbid, both) then there is some risk that the spell you buy will not be quite what you need, and that your guide might turn out to be someone other than she seems — a zombi trader.

But that doesn’t happen much any more. The Caliph is very strict and the punishment severe — a dozen years mindless — and not something someone wealthy enough to afford regular autonomy would risk.

So the autonomy vendor flashes the colours at you and spins the mandala and says the words and the fog lifts. He warns you to stay near Marketgate unless you know your way around — there’s not always a vendor nearby elsewhere in Ameris. You nod, You understand. It’s a relief already to understand things.

Now you can truly take in the wonders of Market gate — the name of the city as well as the name of the portal you stepped through to get here. Some portals are small, hidden affairs — the back of a wardrobe, perhaps, or just a wrong turn near Whitehall. Marketgate is not one of those. It is a vast stone and metal structure built, re-built, decorated, and simplified a thousand, thousand times over a period of years no one has counted. The portal itself is big enough to pass armies (and their engines) and if the bas relief that decorates parts of the gate is at all historical, then it has passed armies many times. And refugees. And things you cannot identify. All in the thousands or millions. This has always been a busy place and the steps here are worn with millions of feet and wheels and hooves and tracks and who knows what else.

Worn and rebuilt. Worn and repaired. At this time, your time, they are clearly ancient and due for repairs. The steel shows through the limestone which shows through the marble. Over there, that may be a glimpse of gold from some more hedonistic era. And there perhaps diamond from an even richer time — or maybe a time when diamond was so common as to be valueless. It’s all here in its many layers, a life’s work for an archaeologist in a single structure.

And indeed, they are here too, scurrying about and taking notes and sketching.


Juan Ochoa's sketch for the Marketgate

Jul 16 2011

In which Brad gets taught a lesson

I got schooled today.

You may have already noticed that we released Hollowpoint the other day (on Bastille day, no less, as Toph pointed out to me). We got it up and out, made some announcements, and made sure the critical info was at the web page and so on &c. One of the first things I was asked by a prospective buyer was whether or not there would be some free stuff to download from the web site.

Hollowpoint is a pretty austere game. As with Diaspora, you can’t let the page count fool you — the core of it is really simple and wonderful. Anyway, this austerity means that it’s very hard to imagine what exactly you could give away for free without basically giving up the game. The first thing that comes to mind is of course character sheets. Because, you know, everyone has character sheets.

But really? I make characters for this game on an index card and there are practically no headings, just data. I suppose I could upload a blank index card as a PDF and maybe add some examples of filled out cards. Of course, that’s just being catty — there’s obviously a genuine desire for more information and character sheets deliver that.

Anyway, almost instantly a fan takes me to task on the character sheet thing. Tony Love (his real name I swear) doesn’t berate me or even say I’m wrong. Instead he uploads this:

Yeah it’s a fucking toe tag! This is so very awesome! Death is a desired goal in Hollowpoint, so representing the character on a toe tag does two nice things (besides being simple and compact). It reminds you that you are going to die, and it lets you keep score by your stack of toe tags. You could even put them on your toe I suppose.

I am not one to let a lesson go by unlearned. Nor do I like to take the obvious away from these things when one might dig deeper. So I have decided to take this as evidence — proof even — that there are indeed things to make for free download that are worth doing and worth having. So now I’m thinking hard about that.

One of the things I’m batting around is skinning kits. See, this game can play in many genres. Really anything with a team, a mission, and dangerously bad behaviour. Someone asked me if you could do Halo with it. My brain lit up. Hell yes you can do Halo with it. Swap the DIG skill out for DRIVE so that some characters can solve problems by rampaging with a Warthog and you are basically done.

So maybe offering short kits that show you how to do this — a concept, the changes that need to be made, the recommended Trait procedure for it, some art, and a sample mission outline or two. And maybe some technical detail for weapons and tactics that are specific to the skin.

This game is already a synthesis of myriad thefts. ORE is in here, 3:16 is in here, Top Secret is in here, FATE is in here. So why not Fiasco in the post-publishing stage?

Why not indeed.


Jan 26 2011

Do I change the V in VSCA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And derived from that last: play games.


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.