Nov 9 2010

Recreational drinking

When I was in high school I did a lot of recreational drinking. That was different.

Last night I went to a scotch tasting event at Liberty Wine Merchants in Point Grey. Now, I like these guys already because they have a great selection of rare scotches and I’ve brought home more than one bottle from there that made me extremely happy. So when I read that Bob Kyle from Rare Drams (and I apologize for that link — the web site is awful) was going to be there to show off some Speyside selections they made, I signed up.

I wouldn’t sign up for something like that alone, of course — I sent the alarm out to Toph (aka C.W. Marshall, the guy on the cover of your copy of Diaspora) and he sent the call out even further. Well, at least far enough to drag a friend of his in, and right there was a major social victory for me. I got to meet a friend of a friend that I hadn’t yet met and that usually goes well. It certainly did this time. So anyway there were three of us, which is a good number for breaking ice because there’s a kind of defensive minimum achieved. That lets me relax pretty well and then of course there was a bunch of scotch as well.

When we arrived there was a substantial cheese platter on the table from the unmatched Pane E Formaggio (whose web site also kind of sucks — what is it with Flash and web sites that don’t do anything, anyway?). That was very good. Then there were a couple of beers on the table as well — I can’t recall the brand but there was a pumpkin ale I refused to risk and a bitter that was superb. So that’s a pretty swell warm up to a room filling with strangers. Food, some beer, and impending scotch.

Bob Kyle is a likable white-haired individual in a kilt and he seems to know his topic. Speyside scotches are not my cup of tea, generally, maybe partly because my sense of smell and taste are not all that great. So, if I were in a charitable mood, I’d say the Speysides are too subtle for my palate. Normally I say they are boring. Of the six that Bob brought, however, I’d have happily walked away with three.

These are not the usual distillery products, but rather cask selections made by the folks at Rare Drams. They have the difficult and undesirable job of going from distillery to distillery and tasting specific casks until they find one that they like, and then bringing it home to put in bottles. See, normally a distillery that produces single malts blends a number of casks together to produce the signature product that they have been selling for however many years that’s been going on. We’re not talking about vatted or blended booze here — it’s all from the same distillery, it’s just balanced from various batches to reach a recognizably similar taste. So when Bob and the gang go and find that one cask they love, it is usually because it has something distinct from the usual bottling, and so that in itself is reason to taste.

These are not cask-strength, mind you, like an Aberlour A’bunadh, say. They dilute these down to 50% or so (it varies by the age of the scotch), which they feel is an optimal drinking strength. I’m okay with that — some of the pleasure in a cask strength is related to the pleasure in eating spicy food or deliberately using too much wasabi. That is, it’s about machismo. Not in the case of that Aberlour up there, mind you. So these are strong, but deliberately so. You may have guessed from other things I write about here that the fact of that deliberation is already pretty appealing to me. I like it when smart people do things on purpose.

Of the three scotches that struck my palate the right way, two were big surprises.

The first was a young Speyside who’s name I can’t recall because it had far too many letters. Anyway, it was a pale thing with the usual mild citrus and florals going on in the nose. Boring. But when it got in my mouth it was something else entirely — not the taste, specifically, though that was stronger and more interested than the smell promised, but the feel. This scotch had a substantial oil content that really filled the mouth with a big round taste. This is sufficiently unlike most Speysides that I was sold — it managed to deliver the taste sufficiently, which suggests to me that a lot of what I dislike in Speysides is the feeble delivery and not the taste itself.

The second was from the Macallan distillery. I’m not a huge fan of Macallan but I’ll certainly drink someone elses bottle of it. This cask they drew from, however, was basically all the good things in a Macallan dialed up to 11. Again, a big mouth-feel as well, distinct from the shelf product and lots of savoury-sweet notes like chocolate or something.

The one that stole the show, though, was naturally the most expensive one on the menu. I’m saving up to get a bottle. Apparently it’s from a private distillery that lacks even a name, and when the folks from Rare Drams tried to help the owner come up with a name, he proved resistant to the idea. He sounds like a stubborn old goat, which is probably ideal for scotch construction. So they bottled it under the name “Possibly the Finest Distillery in Scotland”. This was a wicked construction with a sweet-bitterness to it like burned caramel or those Callard and Bowser treacle candies I used to eat in the back seat of the Honda Civic CVCC (the one my father had cannibalized letters from another Honda so that the back logo read “DOODAH” instead of “HONDA”) on road trips to Whistler with my family. Extra credit for invoking pleasant memories of my childhood.

So I’m saving up.


Addendum: Just remembered that as we were wrapping up, I won one of the door prizes. It’s a distressed khaki cap with the logo for “Big Peat” whiskey on it and a tasting glass with the same logo. I’m not a big cap wearer, but my wife is thrilled because it’s soft and fits tight and looks swell on her and when she trims down her Mohawk it gets chilly on her skull.

Aug 4 2010

Where we ignore our Fate

I’ve talked before about compels and how they don’t quite work as described for me. And apparently for a lot of people, actually, judging by fan feedback for Diaspora and other sources. Fact is, at my table they just don’t drive the fate point economy like they are supposed to and I’m not comfortable relying on a mechanism that isn’t actually mechanical — that is, that is really a paint job over the statement “you ought to play this way or it kinda doesn’t work”. I want mechanism to function, every time, or I want no mechanism and a clear statement of intent. I think.

Anyway this all gelled in my head (what a mess) on the way to work this morning as I surfed Story Games and my own notes trying to dream up ways to really ignite my playtest session on Thursday night. It has to do with the way people don’t “get” compels, the resistance to paying players to do what they said they wanted to do, and the way the fate point economy stalls unless everyone is in the same headspace as the designer. And sometimes even that’s no solution.

First, playing with people you know are awesome only demonstrates your game will work with awesome people.1 So will just chatting up a good story over whiskey. A good game needs to deliver that, not just make it possible. It’s always possible with any game, given the perfect people. We need to at least facilitate it and at best generate it. Which is interesting, because in the last session of Soft Horizon we learned that there is “a machine that makes kings” and that’s what I want in my game.

My instinct is that the solution can’t be complicated. Or at least it can’t be revealed by complication. Once we get its head above ground, we may have to construct a more elaborate trap, but here’s my plan to flush it out.

Eliminate the refresh. You heard me, and thanks Paul Beakley for the revelation (though now I can’t find his post). Characters all start with zero fate points. There are no compels in the game.

The refresh at the beginning of a session starts with the referee putting a big stack of fate points in the middle of the table. All players should be looking at this stack and licking their chops.

Whenever a player makes a decision to act based on one of her Scopes (not Aspects directly!) she mentions or points to or otherwise indicates the Scope (I’m kind of partial to a little ritual here, say starting the decision narration with the Scope text) and takes a fate point from the stack. If anyone thinks it’s dumb we expect them to speak up, just like any time narration generates mechanical effect.

That’s it.

Part of what led me to this is the stuff I already pointed at, but also while I was looking over character sheets for cool stuff to compel, I realized first that I didn’t really want to do the compelling and second that the Scopes are really great decision drivers. And loading up Scopes with more power seems like a good idea to make the number of them a relevant trade-off against the number of Aspects (keeping the zero-sum construction we use now). I mean look at these Scopes:

The Hag (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
My Faith
The Lost One (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
Asandalos (the god of Death)
Form of a Machine
The Madwoman (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
Death Shaman
The Broken Blade
My Reputation
My Ceremonies

As a player, if you were faced with a hard decision and looked down at your character sheet for inspiration, these all pretty much sing to you. And they are containers for Aspects that have a different mechanical use, but also elaborate the context of the Scope. The character sheet becomes a rich place for narrative inspiration for the player and less of a cheat sheet for the referee. And it should be — we spent time and energy and laughter and good liquor in writing those. They should pay us back in play.

So with the compel gone, Aspects are polished to an elegant and glimmering razor’s edge: tag one and get a bonus. That’s it. No whiffling about what you can or can’t demand/request/suggest and no implication that you need to play at a certain minimum correspondence to the authors’ style. Whatever you narrate (though you will want to check out the Hollowpoint section on “Adult Diapers” for a discussion that transcends this) it nets the same benefit, which is the “Can I have a bazooka” effect I talked about earlier. Yes you can.

The only remaining question regarding tagging Aspects (and now there’s only one word for using an Aspect, too, which makes so much more sense to me and will facilitate teaching the game) is who gets paid? So try this on for size: tag yourself and pay the pool; tag any non-agent and pay the pool; tag an agent and pay them.

Tagging an enemy’s Consequence? Pay him.

Tagging a friend’s Aspect? Pay him.

Tagging your own? Pay the pool.

Tagging the zone? Pay the pool.

Now we have a mechanism by which fate points should organically zoom around the table. When you’re low you know how to get more. When you see your friend is low, you know how to recharge him (make him awesome!). When you are rich with them, you spend easily.

I think that this isn’t really Fate any more. We should probably rename Aspects, though I expect we will still say “Aspects” around the table. So I don’t know what to do about that, though our culture will have more momentum than the culture of a table new to the game and playing from scratch. So maybe that’s a non-issue.

Fate sure polishes up nice, don’t it?


  1. I feel compelled (lol) to note a couple of things here. First, this is not a dig at a particular designer or a particular game. We all probably do this too much and the obvious target, Evil Hat’s “Dresden Files” game, is likely the least viable target given its broad playtest base. So back off! Second, this is a necessary part of playing and designing at the same time — if you weren’t playing with awesome people you probably would not have the inspiration to design based on their play.

Jan 15 2010

Soft Horizon playtesting

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

Our table, after four or five hours of gaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean my pals who I game with.


Dec 11 2009

Social life of a gamer

Last night we had a great playtest/design session for Soft Horizon. Now there was a lot of pretty geeky talk — between testing game mechanisms, revising them, and honing word choices, we exercised several niche areas of expertise and had a few good laughs about stuff that no one anywhere else would ever laugh about. That’s a good evening, as far as I’m concerned.

What really struck me last night, though, (and this was before we got into the Caol Ila, so it’s not drunken-maudlin) is what great people we have at the table and just how much I love the whole process. It’s social, cerebral, analytical, goofy, bawdy, funny, and stupid by turns and in combination. And I can detect no malice — there’s a deep comraderie here that makes me proud to host the event.

Others have talked about how food is important and I think this is absolutely true. We start with dinner and it’s mine to provide. This does not strike me as a burden — this is my offering, my response to the fact that a few people I love have travelled and scheduled to be there with me and talk about unusual stuff that we all happen to care about. So I care if people enjoy it and I love it when they tell me they do. We thank each other and we laugh and we literally break bread and pass the food around and enjoy eating together.

Eating is very primal and offering food to someone is, I suspect, a very big deal indeed to some part of the brain. Not the front part necessarily, but somewhere in there someone giving you sustenance is recorded as important. It both indicates and creates trust. And obviously trust is a big deal — when you are arguing with someone you like, it is essential that you trust each other. If someone is making a strident point I want to trust that this indicates it is important to them and not suspect that they are enjoying beating me with false indignation. There are precious few people I trust in this way, which is why I don’t engage in internet argument much any more.

Once food is done (and in this case some gifts handed around — distracting colourful three-dimensional mazes that I will later find infuriating). The game comes out, the recorder gets turned on, and we open the scotch — last night we had leftovers of Caol Ila 8-year-old cask strength and a nice traditional Ardbeg 10. Both were brought to the table last week when Toph and Tim made an emergency liquor run. Both are delicious. My wife abstains, but comments on the smells — she can often identify scotches from across the room. We pause to talk about what we like about what we’re drinking. We enjoy each others’ appreciation of the gifts of toys and spirits.

And we get down to it. Bouyed by what we’ve shared, we approach the design problems earnestly and with both fun and passion at the fore-front. We (generally) say what we mean and give and take and get things done that we are satisfied with. Or we record our dissatisfaction and think about how to fix that. Jack, who seems uninterested, is obviously listening from over where she’s working at her computer — occasionally a comment comes from over there and it’s on-topic and interesting. She’s part but apart, which seems to work for her.

We part with some accomplishments recorded, having enjoyed the company and the food and the process. We feel smarter and friendlier and productive.

Games improve lives.


Nov 16 2009

Drilling for scotch

Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic are the last century’s space travel. Many of the same kinds of challenges present themselves: extremes of environment, remoteness, and the unpredictability of the unknown. We travel in great ships packed with supplies and we cope desperately and brilliantly with adversity. So when I saw today the latest episode of the ill-fated Shackleton expedition I rejoiced — not just because Shackleton’s story is amazing, and not just because it involves drilling in the Antarctic, but also because of the pure, crass, pedestrian goal: to dig up Shackleton’s abandoned cache of scotch whiskey.

This is, of course, the essence of “blue collar space” — the shift from government interests to corporate interests. The change from large scale pure research to simple exploitation. It indicates a fundamental shift in the quality of the technology. A similar space-related effort would be a mission to the moon to retrieve Alan Shepard’s golf balls, financed by Dunlop. So this thrills me, because it’s a step towards the personalization of technology: the day when you go to the moon to play golf.

Now there’s nothing to say that Shackleton’s whiskey is especially good — obviously it is interesting largely because a) it’s buried and b) it was Shackleton’s and not because it was delicious (though let’s be clear — it is whiskey, so it’s got a head start). And it would be a mistake to think that the whiskey company involved is going after this whiskey because it’s awesome — it doesn’t matter what it tastes like. They are going there to revive the brand. Ostensibly, they are going there to determine whether or not to revive the brand but, let’s face it, you don’t spend this kind of money on marketing unless you intend to market something with it.

And that’s cool. I have no problem with companies investing marketing dollars in this kind of venture: let’s go get Shepard’s balls. Who funds it (and why) is not interesting. Being able to say, “we went to the moon to get some golf balls” is interesting. Not on the surface — as an objective it is incredibly banal — but because we can do something so amazing for such banal reasons. The banalification of the amazing is part of the process of making the impossible possible. In order to ready it for future banalizing.

A friend and I used to drive great distances for a beer. Just to have had a beer after a long journey. Because when the destination is banal, you force yourself to attend to the journey itself. And so, “let’s go to Alaska for a beer” was about the journey to Alaska and not about being in Alaska. About the transition rather than the end state (get it?). In the case of Shackleton’s booze or Shepard’s balls, the same logic applies — it is interesting to make the journey so economical and, presumably, to pack it with ancillary value, that the objective can be so shallow.