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 2 2011

Nasty, brutish, and not very short game design tools

Bear with me here because I have a head cold and it may affect my brain, so the narrative in this post may wander a little. The idea, however, occurred to me while healthy so let’s suppose it’s sound enough.

Okay, so I’m reading Hobbes’ huge work of political philosophy, Leviathan. I’ve read it before, occasionally under duress. Hobbes is a very conservative philosopher — he’d be at home in any decent quality assurance team. He has no problem at al saying you should start your argument from first principles and then actually doing it. So Leviathan, which is a many hundreds of thousands of word argument against the French Revolution and maybe specifically against some thing pamphlet by Thomas Paine (who I vastly prefer reading most days), starts from first principles.

First he rails against terms that have no meaning, picking a few pointed examples so as to also poke his contemporaries (like Paine, certainly). He says, for example, if you stick two words together that are meaningless in reference to each other, such as “Free Will”, then they are together meaningless. They are an absurdity. They are mere noises. This is good stuff — you don’t have to necessarily agree with his demonstrations to agree that using meaningless terms is dodgy philosophical work.

Then he starts defining the terms he’s going to use in his book. He starts as low as he can go and then builds up a vocabulary for talking about why people do things. What motivates them, what is good in them, what is bad in them, and so forth. In fact he does this for six chapters.

So this is six chapters packed with carefully defined words about human capabilities and motivations and interactions. And better, they are almost all defined with their opposites. Good and Evill are defined. Attraction and Aversion. Terpitude and Pulchritude. And so on. This is an enormous effort and fascinating to read.

Insert the sound of an old vinyl record scratching as I bang the tone arm off it.

Games are machines.

That’s why we use words like “mechanics” (well, you all do — I prefer “mechanism” because “mechanic” sounds like a guy who fixes my car (and I don’t own a car)). When we make games, we make all kinds of little pieces (or steal them) and fit them together so when you pull one, this other one spins, and tightens another, that causes a player to twitch. Some of the machines are fitted loosely and need constant attention from the operators. Some are fitted very tightly indeed, and admit no fingers except at the designed interfaces. These create different play experiences.

At the interfaces are a lot of guages and dials and lights. We have skills, attributes, hit points, aspects, stats (whatever that means), armour class, base attack bonus, beliefs, and on and on. This is the dashboard — the character sheet — and all those things are indicators and controls. If one changes, it better mean something to the operator (otherwise it’s clutter on an essential instrument!) If the player tweaks the value of one, something better change in the outputs of the machine.

Now when crafting this dashboard a designer often runs into one prosaic, painful, trivial-seeming, and yet essential problem.

You may now imagine the music has resumed.

You need to name all these things because they will mostly need to be words on a character sheet. You will need a lot of words that are about peoples’ motivations and abilities. It would be ideal if you had their opposites handy as well, because it very often happens that you want to label extreme ends of a range or that you want people to choose between two conflicting options. It would be great if the definition was handy and clear as well, because it’s always a thrill when you not only find the right word, but you also find the exact perfect right word.

If only we game designers had a good list of words like this.


Jul 14 2011


I want to talk a little about motivation because we just released Hollowpoint and it almost didn’t happen because I had none.

At some point during the project I lost interest in it. Not because it’s not a great game — it is a great game! — but because…well, I don’t know really. Ennui, maybe. Ennui is my pinnacle stat some days. I am trying to get a handle on what broke through that barrier though.

The first breakthrough was technological. Sometimes during the editing process the whole thing just seems too cumbersome to do well and so, by extension, at all. At some point, however, we found we already had some pretty nifty tools for handling commentary and and status by remote control (recall that by this time I had moved to Toronto, so me and the other primary author, C.W. Marshall, were a few thousand kilometers apart). That broke through the first barrier.

I’ll be honest here, though — while the tools are powerful and effective and reduced the work load a bit, what helped the most (for me) was that they were novel and nifty. I wanted to play with them and the project game me an excuse to do so. This is a big motivator for me: shiny things. I always try to tie shiny things to a project because I know that will get hours from me into the project reliably. So the tools are great, but the novelty of them is important. That’s crass and superficial and unprofessional but it’s a fact and you don’t want to try to bull through facts with willpower and platitudes. If ennui is a brick wall, facts are vault doors.

Then I kind of stalled again. And while I was stalled, some kind soul out there posted on wondering whatever happened to Hollowpoint.

That was it.

The big motivator is that someone is enthusiastic about the end product. We forget that sometimes — that there is somewhere out there who is waiting for you to finish and is excited about it. Again, it would be a mistake to look at this too far apart from oneself — the reason this is motivating is Vanity, pure and simple. I really want to please this person because I really want them to like me. That’s incredibly motivating.

Interestingly, I already knew this from playing role-playing games in general. I know that it’s very motivating for players to have a non-player character compliment their character. A beautiful person’s favour, a look of awe at their awesome behaviour…anything really. We transfer the attention from character to player effortlessly (Dennett would say that’s because we use the same tools to simulate emotion that we use to actually experience it, so there is a deep way in which there is no actual difference between pretense and reality except insofar as you seem to be able to pop out of the simulated state) and so we feel good. Wow that was a long parenthetical — if it wasn’t so funny I’d change it to a footnote.

Anyway, there’s the message for motivation: embrace your weakness. It’s similar to Larry Wall’s three virtues of the computer programmer: Hubris, Laziness, and Impatience. If you feed your project through your vices, you will be driven to progress.


May 8 2011

Workflow and releases

Hollowpoint was stalled for a long time and, while I have plenty of “I am really busy” excuses, I think the real excuse has to be, “my workflow sucked”. A night or two ago, however, it came together and it did so by leveraging good industrial tools rather than by softly hacking together ways to talk nice to each other. So this is not about how you can reach your inner Protestant but rather an acknowledgement that when you own multi-thousand dollar tools you should pay attention.

I’m practically a communist. I think that the capitalist system does a lot of things really well, but that there are some weird edge cases confronting us that demonstrate its impending failure–or ours, if we cling to it despite the failing. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that but rather use it to explain my difficulty in accepting that an industry-standard tool might get something as soft as collaboration right.

The thing is that it’s pretty easy to sell collaboration and brainstorming tools based on how amazing the end user suspects they will be rather than on how amazing they actually will be. There are a lot of reasons for this, but a lot of it is related to how pretty something is (mind mapping software springs to mind here, which is rarely more interesting than putting my editor in outline mode, but I have a topologist’s need to make doughnuts out of coffee mugs) and how well organized things seems to be. Well, getting work done isn’t really about pretty or tidy or organized. These things can help spur some enthusiasm but they do not bear directly on getting the job done.

We have been exchanging drafts and notes using PDF, marking up with comments using Acrobat. This is mostly because we have it, so we use it. We didn’t buy it (or get granted it, in the most recent iteration) for this purpose, but if there’s a screwdriver in the toolkit and you have a screw that needs screwing, well, there it is.

So we had a tool but still no good workflow, and the ad hoc method I was using was making the process extremely tedious. And then I set my suspicion of clever tools aside and looked at what I had here in this product, and I found that it supports a workflow. One that works. I raised an eyebrow, Spocklike, and tried out the review tagging in comments.

So, instead of reading the PDF and looking for comments, I split the window into the PDF image and a review comments list. Now the comments are clearer — rather than reading a marked up document I am reading comments that refer to the PDF as an example. The work is inverted and I’m now concentrating on the part I care about rather than the part I read a thousands times.

That’s already pretty good. But now I also see that I can reply to comments and tag them as accepted, rejected, completed, deferred…all kinds of possibilities. And as I save it (in Dropbox, so the reviewer can instantly see comments on comments) I realize that what I have here is a laser-focused discussion forum with the document as background. And suddenly I am banging out the comments one at a time, with great focus and with clarity in my responses. Yes, do that bit, click done. No, don’t agree, note why. Yes, do, done. No. Don’t understand please send more info. Yes, do, done. Yes, do, done.

In two sittings I had all comments addressed in a review cycle that has taken me months to even look at with any real industry. And that’s not because I had something nifty I wanted to take out for a spin, but rather because I had something extremely powerful at my fingertips that I had been suspicious of until now.

From now on, that’s certainly how I’m handling peer-review edits. I recognize that this limits my reviewers to those who have the same expensive tools, but that happens to be okay in this context. It might not be in another and that would (will?) be frustrating. So now here is my list of tools that have totally been worth the money:

  • Good typefaces,
  • InDesign,
  • Illustrator,
  • Acrobat (double points for being useful in ways I didn’t anticipate),
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox.

So thank you Adobe, you corporate motherfuckers. You know what you’re doing and I will pay more attention.


May 2 2011

Office space

So I almost have an office now. Thanks to an old acquaintance (the acquaintanceship is old, and old enough that we’re both also old now, at least by any measure I used before I turned 30) I have a place to sit down. Rich Lafferty, a co-agitator on the EFNet #perl IRC channel back in the day, brought me two wooden stools to add to my furniture in my tiny flat in Toronto. So now I have the following furniture: two stools and an air mattress. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to have an intermediate state of relaxation between standing and lying down. At the very least it means I’ll spend less of my leisure time asleep.

A decent stool combined with a kitchen counter is enough of an “office” for me to work I think. I’m sure it also contains sufficient obstacles to let me procrastinate at least as much as usual, but there’s no genuine obstacle now between me and completing the Hollowpoint layout work. I even got rid of the scanned art I was using previously, so my lack of a scanner is technically no obstacle to adding new art as needed — the new stuff is all digital.

The temptation, of course, is to work on Diamondback instead, because it’s newer and has weaker direction at the moment. But I’m really itching to playtest it in its current state and I have no one to playtest with here yet, so that itch will go unscratched for a bit.

Anyway, with luck I’ll be more visible from now forward. Shout at me. I like it.


Jan 20 2011

Your Terrible Gaming

Over at A Terrible Idea, the Terrible Author has a pretty cool project brewing. Go have a look and maybe make a buck telling a humorous anecdote about your crazy gaming experiences.

Oddly, I don’t have any. But we’re gaming tonight and we still have a lot of scotch around, so we might make some.


Nov 8 2010

Fictional writing

I tried my hand at writing some fiction this weekend. I do this periodically (sometimes I even try poetry, but I will spare you even a discussion of that) and the results are usually about the same. I can write an interesting scene very rapidly but I have no idea how to string these together into anything like a plot. What’s going to happen? How do we get from A to B and make interesting things happen along the way? I just can’t do it.

Now of course that’s too strong. I probably can do it. Hell, I am certain I can do it. But I rapidly hit my I-don’t-give-a-fuck barrier — I’m just not interested in fabricating this plot. Even when I sit down with brainstorming tools (whether index cards and cork board or mind-mapping software — seriously, you can all stop giving me technology advice because I’m certain it’s not a technology problem) what I invariably get are elaborations on characters and places and maps and things and … well, and everything except what actions lead to what other actions.

Without this linkage there is no fiction, per se. Rather what I’m doing is prepping role-playing game adventures here — I am setting up surroundings and situation and people that are just dying for someone else to come in and declare an interest and move in an unusual direction, perhaps revealing something awesome I invented or, even better, forcing me to invent something on the fly. I expect my characters to do their own work and they just don’t do it through me.

Now certainly this is a crippling disability for a writer (at least for a writer of fiction) so it’s a very good thing that I’m not one. It’s a talent for a RPG referee, though, because it makes game preparation effortless. Well, not effortless, but a joy in itself — part of the game or even isolated recreation. I have a good time doing this so there’s no reason to think of it as work or even effort. It’s play. Stringing a plot together, however, is worse than work.

The really frustrating part (though I don’t want to undermine that having the technical skills and energy to fabricate a novel without some ineffable little piece to follow it through is fairly frustrating) is that all of these forays are basically games that are begging to be played and I only have one game night a week. And many of them imply multi-session games, ideally without too much interruption, so deploying all of them would eat up a year or two of game nights. I really need to game more frequently to get these things out of my head.

So this weekend I learned in my fictional space that there is a drill site over an ancient ice-sealed lake in Antarctica that has a startling relationship to an industrial water-mining site on the moon. I won’t learn for sure what that relationship is until I get some players to fill out this characters and try to find out more. Because not only do I not know, but I am also not keen on inventing why. I guess, in a way, I want to be surprised.

So no National Novel Writing Month for me. I know I can manage the output — certainly I meet or exceed that some months at work anyway. Word volume is not onerous for me at all. Just typing is a joy — I could write complete bollocks for ten thousand words, pure stream of consciousness bullshit, and love every second of it. But fifty thousand words of unconnected scenes is not something I necessarily want to sign my name to, and maybe especially because that would be somewhere between ten and twenty new game preparations and I will never get all that played.

Okay here’s the bridge. I have said in the past that a lot of RPG effort, whether in game design or game prep, smells a lot like the work of a frustrated novelist. Even where the novelist is not frustrated, it still smells of cheap fiction. I think this is good and true: I think that the best games are shitty novels or movies. I think that some of the crappiest films probably would have been great games. And I am certain that the best films and novels would make awful games. This also looks a lot like sour grapes, too, I know.

But really, to craft an elegant plot you need to have characters that act reliably. And that means that either the characters you control — the NPCs — are the primary agents with respect to the action (or at least the change in action) or the player characters are. And if the player characters are the primary agents and they are doing everything that your plot needs in order to be revealed in all its genius, then they are either reading your mind or your script. That seems like a dangerously boring place for a game to go, at least for my table (and this is certainly a care not everyone takes: gaming tables can be very startlingly different, even playing the same game).

Hm, that just looks like another screed against railroading, but that spike’s been hammered in and it’s not really what I care about here. What I care about is the creative needs of the players, including the referee. If the ref has a genuine and compelling creative need to plot, she might be better off writing a novel. At least, speaking as someone who is missing this organ, she has the kit to pull it off. I am jealous and it bugs me that much more that she would use this talent I lack to build a crappy game.

Here’s what I want to do as a GM/ref/whatever: I want to show off. I want to slowly reveal a lot of cool stuff I made. I want to talk as a character that I spent a lot of energy developing. I want you to slowly explore a map that I inked. I want you to peek into rooms I want to describe. And I suspect that every referee has this essential desire to show off. Where this desire fails us is when we want to show off something that’s contrary to the needs of the game.

I’ll probably go back and edit that so that it makes some sense. It’s mostly frustration at lacking a skill I want to have, but not badly enough to learn it. I want to know how to play the piano, too, but in a “wake up in the morning with the skill to play Beethoven” way and not a “signing up for lessons now” way. Wishes without plans are just wishes. But goddamn I have read a lot of games that reek of failed novelist.

I live in terror of writing one, of course.


Oct 21 2010

Re-re-relearning a lesson

Here’s a lesson I learn every month or so, and it’s a variation on an adage that’s not all that useful. That is, the adage is not very useful but the variation is. The adage is, “if you want something done right you have to do it yourself.” This is just not true — it almost always pays to hire experts to do things right that you are not great at and to let them have a free hand in doing it well. This variation, however, is true: if you want something to get done, start doing it.1

This is obvious as hell. If you don’t start it then there is no way it can get done. Duh. But it applies in subtle ways.

Here’s one. Planning is not doing. Planning is useful in many different ways. It lets you rough out budgets, it lets you get close to figuring out what the project resources might be, and it lets you structure the project in your head before beginning. But there is no way in which it is doing the work. Plan all you want but you will never be any closer to making anything. It might be best to phrase this another way: planning is its own project.

And another — acquiring, evaluating, learning, and configuring productivity tools is not doing. A lot of great stuff got done before the iPad was invented, and that might indicate that it is not an essential tool for many kinds of project. Now, by all means, if you are starting, say, as software project and you have no tools, then you need to pick some. But you don’t want this to be a search for perfection. In particular, you certainly do not want to find that one tool suite that is already perfectly tailored to your process (what, you have a process already and you don’t even have tools? Your cart is not only in the lead, it’s not attached to the horses at all). I’ll go so far as to suggest that you are probably wasting your time getting a great tool and then configuring it for your “special needs”. The fact is, our needs are not very special. The process implied by the default configuration is probably as good — probably better, even — than the process you’re attached to in your head. Finding and deploying your tools has become its own project. So unless that project is going to deliver product directly when it’s done (it’s not), make it a very fast project indeed.

Another one? Okay sure. If nothing is being delivered, nothing is happening. Many managers know this but read it differently — instead they think that if they don’t hear about things happening then nothing is happening. And so they demand to hear about things. Now everyone has to take time out to inform the manager. Give me a fucking break. The job of a manager is right there in the name of the job: if you are managing a project, then go out and manage it. Find out where things are at. Look in the document, maybe, and see what’s changed. Read the change log for the version control system. Talk to a developer. Manage some shit yourself. And if the changelog is full of changes and the document is full of revisions, then for sure things are happening. If it’s all still in someone’s head then, while a kind of progress is being made, nothing is actually happening yet. The way I once said this is, “if it’s not written down then it didn’t happen”.

If you are waiting for someone to do something that you could do, then do it. Make a thing happen. Change the code, the document, whatever, and log your changes. Inform the person you are waiting for that it’s already done. Give them something new to do. Or fire them, if this happens enough. This is not really advice for managers (well the firing bit is) but rather for peers — when you know something needs to get done and you know what it is and the guy who is supposed to do it isn’t doing it, then you you can keep waiting or you can do it. Which you choose depends mostly on whether you really care about getting the thing done.

And down there is the heart of the thing. Do you really care about getting this thing done? Because so many of the ways we choose to not work are really ways to avoid it. We do a lot of actual work in order to avoid the work that we need to do. Maybe more. So it’s not even just laziness — avoiding any work at all — but fabricating work that doesn’t need to happen in order to avoid doing something we don’t want to do. Whether that’s futzing with tools or claiming you are waiting for someone else, it’s the same thing. We could be making the objective happen but we aren’t. We have a way to lie to ourselves about how we really are, about how fixing the configuration file for this tool is absolutely essential to proceeding, but we all know that default-configuration word processors can be typed into just fine.

So, for the 93rd time this year, if you want something done right, well, get on that. Make something. Write it down where someone else can see it. If you’re one a team, act like it.

I really do love my job.


  1. This ties into my instincts regarding free-will and that underlines my objection to most objections. You either believe you have free will or you don’t. If you don’t, then you can wallow in helpless inaction if you like, but you don’t get the respect that a free-willed being deserves. You get treated like an animal or a plant, because that’s what you have declared yourself to be. If, on the other hand, you believe you have free will, then fucking exercise it already. Accept that what you do, whatever it is, is what you wanted to do. If you don’t like that then do something else.

Sep 24 2010

So old school it hurts

Yeah, I bought a bunch of miniatures the other day.

I sometimes worry that this is at the heart of any new game idea I have: if I do it right, I will be justified in a whole crapton of peripheral activities that are not gaming but that I adore and can do alone. That’s not quite correct. I don’t sometimes worry about this. I know this to be a fact.

No Contact is proving to be exactly this sort of boondoggle. I invested several hours to write several thousand words to describe a game that I don’t necessarily want to play, but rather that I really want to prepare for, typeset, and make diagrams for. I want to paint miniatures (even this is a diversion: what I really want to do is experiment more with developing some cool bases for miniatures). I want to dick around with Illustrator and InDesign. I want to draw a bit. I want to have a research direction for picking media to watch for a while.

This reliably blossoms into a lot of solid fun for me. I love all this stuff. It never has to see publication for me to be happy (though we learned that that is fun too).

And so when I look at how I played games ever since I was 10 or so, I see the same patterns and I have to wonder, is this old-school? Is the apparently peripheral material the actual focus of this sort of gaming and in such a way as to make it definitional? I mean, I recall a friend who was really into the old Avalon Hill and SGI boxed wargames. He was a military history buff and a model maker and all that as well, but he had this huge collection of wargames. I once investigated his collection and found something that today, to me, now makes sense: they were largely unplayed but they were all carefully organized (all the pieces had been punched and sorted into third-party-provided trays) and had all been read over and over and over.

I used to borrow these games from him and play them with myself and re-organize the pieces and read the rules over and over. I sometimes got to play with others, but this was never the really satisfying part of the game for me.

So this lets me understand a little why most video games bore me — they don’t engage me outside the direct context of the game (and when I think about the games that I have spent a lot of time with, I see that they do provide additional (lonely) constructive contexts: SimCity, Civilization, World of Warcraft) and so they are never more than a diversion. There are some exceptions — I really loved the cooperative and rapid model of first-person-shooter embodied in Counterstrike. The no-respawn concept was so refreshing and fun that it really ruined the mainstream FPS for me forever — as soon as there is a respawn I am bored. And I guess you can see the cooperative element as part of the constructive component that I like.

I am wondering, then, if “old school”, at least as far as being a Dungeon Master goes, is about this component. I am wondering if it’s at least as much about  the preparation as about the play. In this light all of those charts and tables are making sense to me — they are destructive in play a lot of the time, but off-line they are reliably awesome. I recall sitting with a notebook and percentile dice and rolling magic items endlessly when I got my first AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was a mini-game for me. It was even a way to read the book — roll dice and go read the indicated paragraph. And those hours dwarfed the hours spent playing the games, I am certain.

I am also wondering, then, the degree to which designing games (see this is where I started the rambling) is just a new kind of lonely fun for me. If the game isn’t delivering it to me, and most of the modern games aren’t, then I am compelled to manufacture it. And I guess the next question is, how much of my audience is in the same boat, looking for an excuse to organize chits, paint miniatures (or, hell, even just shop for them), and roll a lot of dice to generate random results in a fat book?

And should I make games for them or encourage them to make games?