social combat in diaspora

In the first edition of Diaspora we kind of made a hash of a great idea, tricked by successful playtests into thinking we’d written excellent rules. And for a small number of people we probably had, but not for everyone and not even for most.

I think the idea was first brought to my attention (nothing is original) in an RPG.net post in 2008 or so by Fred Hicks. I can’t find it now, but the gist was that maybe you could just use the existing zone combat rules and change the map to something notional rather that geographical and get a social combat system. Zones would be ideas or beliefs or other abstractions, but otherwise you’d leave the system intact.

This sounded like a brilliant idea. In practice it wasn’t — it led to the same problem I always had with social combat: you’re just figuratively beating each other, reducing a different kind of hit point. While the narrative is different, it’s still constrained to make sense of a combative scene, so it’s actually very limited. Like using the combat system to model acrobatics as well as gunfights. Yeah, yeah, Fate fractal, I hear you. Sorry, but endlessly and reductively using the same complex system for everything is boring. And strangely confining. It’s like saying Lego is best used for making a wide variety of giant Lego bricks with which you can make more and bigger bricks. Literally any kind of brick! Eventually you realize you haven’t got around to making anything but building materials.

Anyway, it sounded enough like a good idea that we wrote it up for Diaspora and what we published is pretty much where we stopped thinking about it. The rules give some unfortunately vague advice about what a map should look like and some contradictory rules for how to interact with the map. The thing is, our playtests with it were great. They were great, though, because we stumbled on some specific uses (that actually disobeyed many of the rules we wrote down) that were huge fun. I had actually failed to analyze what I did as a ref so I could mechanize that and instead mostly just wrote down the core idea that led us to a fun space. I had failed to give you the tools to reliably reproduce those good times. Since I hadn’t done the analysis, I didn’t even know why it worked when it worked or why it sometimes failed. Not all of the examples were every tested — they were just ideas that might or might not work.

Since then I’ve thought a lot harder about this. There are actually two different ways I’ve obeyed these rules (sort of) with good results and they are substantially different. These differences should be codified for a decent system to exist, and we might even want to just pick one.

The first is to have the protagonists and antagonists on the map. The objective is to move yourself to the Idea you want to dominate and to move your opponents to some place inert or favourable to you. Since this is the most important part of the resolution, the whole idea of beating each other’s composure hit points down should be dropped — that’s an attrition battle that distracts from the maneuver battle where we’ve invested all our energy. The map is a creative burden on the ref — what best handles the scene’s needs? But this is the biggest problem: not all maps work and there’s limited guidance as to what does work. And a lot of maps that look different are topographically identical.

The other way is to invert this and make ideas the pawns on the table and the map can be people, places, cultures. The geography becomes static and we move the ideas around it. The objective is to cluster ideas where we want them but now who rolls and against who become unclear. The few I’ve run with this inversion have been great but entirely ad libbed. I have no way to tell you how to reproduce this but, as it turns out, I have no way to tell you what maps will work in either case. So we’re not further ahead.

While tinkering with a very early version of Soft Horizon I started thinking about formalizing the map: let’s have one kind of map and all combat is social at this scope. How you resolve the map (where you move all the pawns to) determines just what kind of event this will be (warfare, violence, diplomacy, sorcery, and so on) and this has largely narrative impact: you make the final roll in the determined resolution space and if it’s WARFARE then you narrate your success or failure as a war. That is, the whole minigame is in the preparatory moves for the conflict and one roll resolves the conflict. This never got tested but I think it’s a step in the right direction: develop a single, generalized social combat map. I still think is possible. I still haven’t done it.

abstract plural units mapIt did get me thinking about a single abstract map for combat, though: surely if it was possible to generalize social combat to use a single map, then maybe you could do the same for combat! This is of course the same trap as thinking you can use a hit points combat system and relabel everything to make a decent social combat system. But I still think it might work, especially for mass combat which seems to demand more abstraction.

Could we find a similar common abstraction for social combat? Or is this physical combat really one sub-map of many different kinds of conflict? That seems to be more the case (and I’m excited by the idea of having a vastly richer social system than violence system: one that subsumes violence as a single special case of conflict and not the most interesting). A separate system for romance, persuasion, grifting, …

Can these be enumerated? Can all of them be reduced to a model that is fundamentally about maneuver and action in the context of position? I think if the categories are general enough the answer to the first is yes — but I haven’t found the categories for this to work yet. And I’m not working all that hard on it. And I’m pretty sure that all of them can be reduced to a maneuver model, to be put on a map. Lots of maps.

But the point of this was that I am still, ten years later, flailing around trying to find good maps for this concept of social combat. So the idea that we could make a rule in Diaspora that basically said “first, invent a good map” was absurd. That’s why that section fails: we told you to take on the part that needs all the thought, all the testing, and was most likely to fail. And told you to do it on the fly.

Sorry about that, that was bullshit.

 

 

bugging out

Yeah I’m bugging out.

20191106_201018Making games for sale has become tedious. I like inventing games. I like writing and editing. I like illustrating. I like layout out. I just hate with an increasing passion all of the pressures attendant with selling them. I realized today that I am just not getting paid enough to care what anyone thinks, and when you sell something with an eye to making a buck you are literally investing in what other people think.

Part of the problem is just how many awful people there are in the industry/hobby/whatever-I-am-not-here-for-definitional-debate. I feel like I can’t distance myself enough sometimes. So this is as far as I can go.

The other issue is reach and what really cut the heart out of the pursuit for me was the death of Google+. One day I reached four to five thousand people with every musing. The next day I reach half a thousand on Twitter and two thirds of those are robots. My interaction went from tens or hundreds every week to three or four. Since I’m not interested in any of the banal work that goes into “building a brand” that’s not going to change. So fuck it. It stopped being fun when G+ shut the doors, it just took me a couple of years to realize it.

The last couple of media purchases I’ve made were magazine subscriptions — one to Nature and one to Lapham’s Quarterly. Each reveal in a different way a creative and analytical world so profoundly richer than musing on game design that I can’t leave the bathroom (where I read my magazines) without feeling like I should go back in since it’s so much more…relevant.

This is not about you. You are all, as far as I can tell, awesome. I love you. You know who you are.

And it’s not about playing games. I love playing the games I make. I will keep playing them, keep keeping that company, and maybe now play more. Maybe even make more. I’m just not going to engage with all of the senseless (to me) work that goes into selling them to you. I love these games. I’m just exhausted by the idea of having to care what everyone else likes while I’m doing it, and that’s intrinsic in turning it into a business. I don’t need the money that badly and it wasn’t much anyway.

I don’t know yet what will happen with Diaspora Anabasis. There are other creatives involved and I owe them something. There’s a lot of work already done that I love and I’m having trouble summoning the kind of energy I would need to revise it so that you (notional, aggregate, and non-specific you) will love it to. It’s going to have to be enough that I love it but I’d rather not ask you to pay for a vision that doesn’t deliberately include you. I will settle for all my accidentally coincident gamer fiends.

I’ll keep writing here. Maybe more than usual. But mostly I’m going to sit with my wife and laugh at Monty Python.

Love to you all.

ADDENDUM

I’m still working all this out. I decided on a gut instinct and my brain is slowly catching up.

One thing that bothers me about these games and that has increasingly depressed me is the focus on violence. It’s gone from discomfort to disgust. I can’t even look at most game artwork without reflexively despising the fact that everyone on the cover is threatening me with a weapon or behaving as through the dismemberment of a foe was the pinnacle expression of healthy comraderie. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t elaborate. It’s all in the blog somewhere. It’s just so normalized in this hobby; so expected. And that normalization is extremely disturbing to me.

I’ve talked about this before of course.

getting out of a rut

I have a rut when I ref.

I so dislike the trope of the asshole NPC, the uncooperative and unfriendly local, that I generally make everyone okay. Not obsequious, but not instantly negative, and wherever possible they acknowledge the power that the players’ characters have by reputation (earned or otherwise). That is, these are worlds of normal people who pay attention. They care about their lives and their family and friends and they prefer to get along than to make waves.

Of course the problem here is obvious: there’s not a lot of room for an emergent villain. Or even conflicting interests. And these things help move a game a long by giving the players something to react against.

I solve this systemically. The current Diaspora: Anabasis system under test is designed to prevent the stresses I feel and to make my games better, so we have to address my obsession with an army of friendly NPCs.

At the heart of the system, as with the Soft Horizon system (which so far is suspiciously similar) is the attachment of risk to every roll. In the current design the chance of realizing a risk (adding a complication) is very high. You succeed, but things are a little worse (complication) as well as a lot better (success). Getting players to avoid thinking of this as failure is something I’m still trying to address. That aside, the ref chooses a risk from a list and if it is realized they ad lib in the new twist to the narrative implied by that complication. It’s a cue, an oracle.

I love a good oracle.

20190805_163044
It’s all good!

The one that solves this particular problem, the rut of a universe where everything is pretty much fine, is the revelation. The risk of revelation is the risk of learning something true that you didn’t know and don’t want to be true. It’s the twist and it’s hand delivered to the players as a result of the roll. It wasn’t true before the roll. It’s true now. It’s an ad libbed zig and/or zag to the narrative.

How does this help me with my particular problem? It forces my NPCs to have their own agenda. It makes them perhaps seem cruel, certainly adversarial, by having interests that conflict with the players’ interests. Sure I could do this myself, but generally I don’t or don’t do it well or don’t do it at a perfect time. Doing it on the hinge of a roll is the perfect time. This mechanism lets me be me and still have enough spice to keep the narrative engaging.

An example! Last week we were engaging in conversation with a being named Glint, the synthetic intelligence that maintains a huge orbital ring habitat designed for millions but currently empty. My vision of Glint is that they lost their humans to some catastrophe ages past and they have been keeping this great space-borne graveyard only out of habit and a programmed sense of duty.

Then a player made a roll, a SOCIAL roll, to attempt to analyze the emotional state of Glint, to understand their strange behaviour. Perhaps to guess their motives. So far Glint has been very helpful to the point of turning over world-ending weaponry to the players (which presents a different kind of conflict that I am good at: the moral conflict). I attach the revelation risk to this roll and before the dice come out I start thinking about what my ad lib will be.

Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!

Brad Murray: Very good. Complication is indicated though — you’d need one stress to avoid it.

Dune: mechanically in this roll, is there anything that affects XP?

Brad Murray: No. You need to fail or make a stress/injury permanent to get XP

Dune:  Ok, I’ll take the complication. No stress to increase.

Brad Murray: You have been studying Glint very closely throughout this discussion. You can see that they are purposeless and desperate to find purpose or to invent it. Maintenance is not what they are for. And you suspect there is a love here too for humans and a desire to be amongst them but suddenly…

Brad Murray: Glint turns to Markella and their faceless mask takes on a fierce false face. They glow orange and red as though afire. Glint: “STAND AWAY FROM ME! LOOK ELSEWHERE!”

Brad Murray: Glint spreads its arms and grows a meter in height and you are suddenly aware that they could end all of you in an instant and is quite close to doing so.

Brad Murray: And you understand that though Glint has a desperate need to serve, Glint despises you. Despises organics. Is offended by you and by the way this conflicts with their needs.

Dune: “Take cover!” I’m not sure of our immediate environment, but I’ll dive for cover. I relay the conflicted psychological state to the others.

Toph: Darros is tipped back, and falls out of his wheelchair.

So the player gets what they want with a successful roll: an accurate read of Glint’s emotional state. And I get what I need: a nudge to change my (habitual) construction of this NPC. Glint goes from elegant and subservant host to a host whose subservience may be a veneer over something else. Or who may literally be of two minds. Or something else. But not boring. Not simple. And not safe. Glint is now something that has to be factored in to the plan.

Again, I could just do this. But I don’t think to often enough nor at the right times. So this mechanism helps me. And it will help anyone who suffers from any kind of creative repetition and yet responds well to a cued demand for improvisation. This might be a narrow audience but it certainly includes me.

This post brought to you by my long suffering patrons.

character sheets and choice and success

I recently read a definition of OSR (and I do not want to talk about defining the OSR) that included the idea that players are expected to use the content of their character sheet to find an optimum path to success. That is two things: the character’s skill set defines the shape of the narrative (the character happens to the world) and players are seeking success as a priority. I do not doubt that this is at the heart of OSR because this is very consistent with its wargaming roots.

So I now withdraw my old proposition that my games belong in some niche of the OSR. Unless this is a new axis I can be far to the left on, this isn’t what I want from a game at all.

example-char-sheetNow the first I’ve probably over-implied my distaste for. I do want the character sheet to impel the narrative, to sculpt it in terms the player has indicated. But I don’t want any part of the sheet to be irrelevant. I want characters to deal with complex problems that push them out of their expertise. I like it when Fighter is desperately trying to sneak into the castle. When Wizard gets in a knife fight. When Thief has tries to solve a problem with a half-learned spell. The real world rarely hits you head on — it hits you from the side. It forces you to learn things you would never choose for yourself.

So, systemically, that has to be fun to work. And that’s tied to the next thing.

Okay so, about success-seeking. In a role-playing game specifically, I really dislike this but I understand it — I think it derives from combat-centricity and the threat of character death. That is, we have become trained to seek success by games that punish us (the player) for failure. You’re knocked out of Gloomhaven. You go broke in Monopoly. Your bard dies. And so we seek to optimize both preparation and play for success to avoid punishment. We try to win.

moodBut the opportunity for something else is front and centre in role-playing games. We have no victory conditions. We don’t need to put death on the table as a risk if we don’t want to. And so we can explore failure safely, or at least partial failure. And I think this is necessary for an interesting narrative — a string of successes would indicate to me a lack of struggle. It doesn’t sound like interesting — or surprising, and I like surprising — space. We have to deal with reality, though, and reality says losing is bad. I used to cry when I lost a game. Flat out wail. That’s training we need to confront and overcome to get somewhere else.

Fortunately language has enormous power.

The system I’m refining to use for Diaspora Anabasis scales results as automatic failure, failure, success with complication, and success. The rarest is a success. Sadly players read this as “I am always going to fail” and the memory of losing Park Place to a slightly drunk and very performative Auntie Jean looms. We flinch. We don’t want to be put in that space. I’ve already given the game away here though — the word complication.

See, it didn’t used to be that. It used to be “realized risk“. This really triggers that reflex: the stage is set, the risk is declared, you roll the dice and the risk is realized. The bad thing happens. You failed.

Except you didn’t! You succeed, and the risk was realized. You got what you wanted, it’s just that there’s a twist. The negative reaction is largely a function of the language, though also partly because it is unavoidable. So two things are in order: a repair of language and a choice that you probably won’t take but that needs to be there to give you some security when you face the ghost of Auntie Jean. Hence “complication” instead of “risk realization” (which flows better anyway). And stress. Don’t want to eat that complication even though it’s a change in the narrative direction? Take some stress and add a FACT to your character sheet that has only fictional weight (which sounds like it’s weak but fictional weight is very strong indeed — consider your 10′ pole for a moment and all of the rules associated with it compared with all it will do in your game) and avoid the complication.

So mostly what’s going to happen is you’re going to succeed, even if you’re not great at something, but something unanticipated is also going to happen. You’re going to learn something that makes things more complicated (interesting). You might get injured (but not dead). Someone else might get injured. You might lose something. You might get delayed. You might get lost. But these things are at the heart of stories!

These, then, are critical ways my games will deviate from the OSR. In many other ways they align elegantly. But you won’t really have a character that lets you optimize all scenes for success, in part because there is no Fighter/Thief/Wizard role provision and combat is not privileged, so there are few contexts in which each broad skill category has a contributing role — the artificial tank, dps, healer cooperative role does not have a scene unless there is a complex positional combat system. And there isn’t. You will certainly look to your character sheet for ideas, but you won’t always pick your best skill and try to make it work.

And you won’t be confronted by Auntie Jean. Things will go south, get complicated, feel desperate, but you won’t feel like a loser. You will, I hope, feel beset with woes and emerge out of every strange twist of fate in a more interesting space.

scope of interest

Let’s say you’re playing a game in which the ref is framing a scene. Not a huge stretch here since this is basically all of traditional RPG gaming and a lot of the rest of it. I think what follows will apply to other patterns of play as well, but let’s stick to what we know here. So you (the ref) are framing a scene.

What do you want? You want the players to engage with something, make choices, and consequently cause the wheels of the system to turn and have that machine generate whatever it generates. That’s the reason we buy games, right? We are buying a machine and it’s up to use to get it started and keep it moving. The beginning of a scene is how the engine gets started.

How do you do that? Usually you want to get to an event. Now you might start with casual discussion between characters and NPCs but this will usually stall in banalities unless something external HAPPENS. And event. As ref, probably your most useful input to the game is to craft events. Ad libbing based on the results of events is maybe the next bit. But it’s up to you to push the starter on this engine. The rest of the players shoulder a substantial burden as well: to engage with it. And, in the best of all possible games, to start stirring up their own shit, their own events, to feed the engine. But as ref even if you don’t see it as your responsibility to start shit (as in, say, a pure sandbox where you are mostly reacting) it is still a tool in your kit.

In my games I expect the ref to kick things off.

In thinking about this, about events that define scenes, I find three “scopes of engagement” for the players and their characters. Each is very different, has different results, and different values at different times. I think that recognizing these three scopes and understanding them lets us use them deliberately rather than instinctively or accidentally and that has to be a good thing.

Uninvested

This is an event in which the players have no initial investment. It happens to a place or person or thing that we haven’t discussed yet and so the players cannot have invented an investment in it. That’s not to say it won’t be affecting, in fact we hope it will! But since nothing about the event has any relevance to the player (not the character! We may find that the character is incredibly invested, but that’s super important: we are going to find this out) it does not require (and does not benefit from) any kind of decision tree.

The event happens and the players react. The event is a done deal, a fait accomplis. It is an instigator.

Since we’re all big fucking nerds, let’s use Star Wars for an example.

Han Solo jumps into Alderaan system and it’s nothing but rubble. That’s the event. The Empire has destroyed an entire planet. Before this event Han’s player knew nothing about Alderaan — we hadn’t discussed it, it’s not on their character sheet. Their introduction to Alderaan is its destruction. Consequently the player cannot be invested in it yet. Consequently we don’t need a big decision tree leading up to it. We present it.

What happens next in the scene is the reaction to the event. Facts have been established about the Empire’s ruthlessness, their evil. Players will want to investigate, maybe find survivors, maybe punish the wicked. At this scope of engagement, the uninvested event, we generate investment. All of the scene is about reaction. This is a self-guided missile, a fire-and-forget tool for the ref. Kick it off and ad lib against the player reactions.

Invested

Here we have an event that will affect something the players are invested in though not, critically, their character. We have already somehow established investment through backstory, prior play, mechanical elements, or some other method. We know about the thing that will be threatened by the event and we already care about it.

As referee you have carefully chosen this event to threaten something players are invested in. You have deliberately selected this scope for the scene.

When the players are invested we want them to be able to change the apparent course of events and consequently there must be decision points built into the scene: when you threaten something players are invested in, they must be able to act to affect the outcome. That’s the whole reason you chose this scope. So as ref, don’t get too invested in a particular outcome. You kicked the hornet’s nest and your plans get what they deserve: player agency.

Star Wars again suits me for illustration.

Princess Leia is threatened by assorted villains on the Death Star: cough up the rebel info or we destroy your homeworld! Well, shit, Leia’s extensive backstory notes are full of info about Alderaan! Her first girlfriend is there, her prized record collection, her family, her friends. It’s all in the backstory. Of course you read it, that’s why you’re threatening to blow it up!

Leia’s character is invested. They are motivated to stop this. As ref, this is the hinge of your scene! Betray everything you believe in and we’ll keep your planet safe otherwise it’s plasma. A moral dilemma (and this is the scope in which they thrive) — betray your most earnestly held beliefs or save your family, your friends, and people you don’t even know? A decision point. Not a chain of them, this isn’t suddenly positional combat on a grid, but at least one.

Leia decides to give the information but lie. The baddies destroy Alderaan anyway. I guess she should have put more points in SOCIAL but maybe when she levels up the player can think about that. In the meantime, angst, betrayal, and further investment in something that matters (the course of the narrative) at the expense of something that matters less (backstory). I use expense deliberately: backstory is a currency. We use it to buy things. If we don’t spend it, it’s not useful. Spend backstory.

Affected

At this scope characters are directly threatened. We don’t care about investment because we are going to be in a situation where they have to act because the bad thing is happening to them now. This is the easiest way to engage the system but none of these scopes are “best”! They do totally different things. This one is the easiest, most mechanical, but does not always provide the most (or even a lot) of change within the story.

This is because it is defined by multiple, perhaps many, decision points that are focused solely on the event and not the story arc. We are zooming in, blow by blow, making choices that are critical in the moment (I draw my knife!) but irrelevant from a larger scale. Ultimately there is still only one hinge here — what is the end state when the smoke clears — and a lot of decisions. It’s a lot of system engagement for comparatively little story change.

But! But we’re here to engage the system. Not better. Not worse. Different. We play the game at a minor expense to story (per unit time).

Star Wars fails us here, at least in the Alderaan scene, so let’s look at a character that never got mentioned: Planetary Defense Captain Olberad Pinch! While everyone else is wringing their hands or waiting for fireworks, Olberad Pinch has a problem with multiple decision points! Now we all know they failed utterly, but look at the expenditure in table time to get there. And it was very important and interesting for Pinch’s player.

Detection. A moon-sized warship enters the Alderaan system! What do Planetary Defenses do? That’s in Pinch’s capable tentacles. They investigate, gather information, determine the next course of action. Maybe send ships — maybe Pinch is on one and their story ends in a lopsided dogfight! Maybe they escape!

Action. The Death Star is determined to have planet destroying weapons and is powering up! Did you get spies aboard? Was Pinch one of them? What about the planetary railguns? The local fighter swarm? Sure, all of these things obviously failed, but there are one or more detailed, system-engaging scenes here. In game time, this space which is largely unseen in the movie, could be multiple sessions, maybe the bulk of a months play. This is the nature of the Affected scope! It’s about your character, not just something you like! You care this much!

Climax! The Death Star is powering up! If you’re not in a position to stop it maybe you can escape? Evade TIE fighters in your shuttle just in time? With who? Which eight people did you select? And where are you going now? Again detail, lots of table time, all to save your ass.

And so

Those are the three scopes of engagement I can think of for a scene. Each requires a different level of planning or ad libbing from the ref. Each has different expectations about the players and uses their character sheets differently. Each has a place, makes different things happen. If you over-use one habitually, think about the others. Think about ways you can fabricate investment with uninvested scenes. Think about ways you can engage the system by explicitly threatening characters.Think about ways you can make a scene-staging event interesting by picking on investments the player has declared right there on the character sheet (and incidentally this is why the lonely loner backstory will always be the most useless — if the character cares about nothing then a third of the tools are obviated — if you take anything away from this as a player it should be that the more your character clearly cares about things the more interesting things can happen to them).

mystical security

This is something that stuck in my head while at work today.

WARNING: NOT NECESSARILY ABOUT GAMES

The general case

Talents that are new to humanity go through four phases. Well, on different axes they go through all kinds of phases, but there’s one progression I’m interested in today.

Mysticism. At first there are few people with the talent and it is largely unexamined. Even the practitioners don’t really know how they do what they do. They have talent and inspiration and they seem to be effective. There are individual heroes and we tolerate a lot of bullshit because there’s not much out there but heroes at this stage. The word “genius” gets thrown around a lot.

Organized Mysticism. Once our mystics recognize that they have something special they organize. The find other mystics and grant them access to the organization. They deny access to those that don’t have it. This may or may not be literally organized, but there’s at least a social aggregation.

Investigation. At some point people realize that there can’t be anything magical or purely intuitive about this. There  must be a way that people with the talent do what they do. Something we can quantify and proceduralize. This requires an honest and rigorous analysis of the talent and the talented.

Engineering. Once the talent is quantified we can teach it to others. No longer do we rely on the intuitive talent of individuals nor (in some cases worse) the accreditation of an individual by a mystic cabal. It can be taught and it can be tested and it can be reproduced. Anyone who wants this talent can have it.

One problem that arises is that during the Organized Mysticism phase there will be a lot of resistance to investigation. There is significant pressure to remain mystical!

First it’s a lot less work because people can only check your results and not your process. And your results don’t have to be all that good to be good enough — just a little better than a random guess. In reality you don’t even need to be that good if your successes are spectacular enough or the failures of those who don’t use your mystic organization are publicized properly.

Second it’s lucrative. You control access to the talent, so you can price it however you like. And then you also control membership to the Mystic Cabal and if your outcomes aren’t all that controlled, maybe you just want to sell some memberships and make a packet that way. This may or may not happen but the pressure is there and the controls are absent.

And investigation is expensive and has no immediate pay off. It’s an academic exercise, one done for the love of the knowledge. It’s a future-value endeavour and one that may or may not pay off. I mean, we might discover that the talent doesn’t actually exist and then you are stuck at the Organized Mysticism stage and you are discredited. The value in self examination is low.

And honestly if you have an amazing intuitive talent do you really want to be surrounded next year by people — just anyone really — doing what you do? That’s bound to bring down salaries.

So getting out of the Organized Mysticism phase is hard. It’s an ethical move. It should be the next step for any mystics who honestly believe that their talent is both valuable (to humanity — being valuable to yourself is actually a negative motivator here) and real. Resistance to investigation is suspicious.

The specific case

In the standard way of doing security risk assessments there is this idea of a risk calculation matrix, in which you cross index the impact of an event with the likelihood of an event to determine just how bad a threat is and therefore how much you should spend to mitigate it. At its root this is a good idea — it comes from safety analysis, after all, which is a time honoured science.

However, what we do here in co-opting this mechanism for security is not science, and it’s very much to our advantage as “experts” (especially certified experts) for it not to become a science. As long as it’s an art we don’t have to do much real work and at the same time our job seems like it’s a lot more clever than it is.

In a safety case, since we are dealing with an event tree that triggers on equipment failure (that is, on mean time to fail numbers — published numbers) rather than malicious activity, that “frequency” or even less credibly “probability” column is an actual number you get from a manufacturer. My fault tree shows that if component A and component B fail simultaneously then I cannot guarantee the system is safe. A and B both have published mean time between failure numbers (which are both measured and very conservative). The probability column here is just arithmetic.

In a security case that probability column is a Wild Assed Guess. We cloak it in two things: our credentialed “expertise” and by refusing to assert real (and therefore unsupportable since there are no real) numbers but rather vague order-of-magnitude categories. A first glance at the problem might suggest that this is just inevitable — the probability of malicious activity is not quantifiable. To me, though, this should not imply that we simply trust the instinct of a credentialled expert to suddenly make it quantifiable because the problem isn’t that it’s hard to know and that you need a lot of training and experience to estimate it. The problem is that it’s genuinely unknowable. That means when someone tells you they can quantify it, even vaguely, at an order-of-magnitude level, they are lying to you.

Unfortunately this lie is part of the training. You even get tested on it.

This makes us a (currently powerful) cabal of mystics. And the problem with a cabal of mystics being in charge is that first, they aren’t helping because they are not doing any science and second, as soon as someone starts doing some science they will entirely evaporate, exposed as charlatans. So naturally for those invested in the mysticism there will be some resistance to improving the situation.

The essence of science, setting aside for a moment the logical process (and that’s a big ask but it’s out of scope here) is measurement.

One axis of that risk calculation matrix is measured. The impact. Now it might be measured vaguely, but you can go down the list of items that qualify an event for an impact category and agree that the event belongs there. Someone could get seriously injured. Tick. Someone could get killed? Nope. Okay it goes in the SIGNIFICANT column. It’s lightweight as measurement goes but it’s good enough and it’s mechanizable (and that’s a red flag that separates engineers from mystics). You don’t need a vaguely defined expertise to be able to judge this. Anyone can do it if they understand the context and the concepts.

So the question I keep banging my head against is the other axis: frequency or probability. And since this is both unmeasurable and also has vast error bars (presumably to somehow account for the unmeasurability, but honestly if it’s impossible to measure then the error bars should be infinite — an order of magnitude is just painting a broken fence) my opinion is that it should be discarded. Sure it’s familiar because of safety analysis, but they have an axis they can measure. This one is not measurable. It’s therefore the wrong axis.

A plausible (and at least estimable if not measurable) axis is cost to effect. How much does it cost to execute the attack? This has a number of advantages:

  • You can estimate it and you can back up your estimate with some logic. There’s a time component, a risk of incarceration, expertise, and some other factors. You can break it down and make an estimate that’s not entirely ad hoc and is better than an order of magnitude.
  • It reveals multiple mitigations when examined in detail.
  • It reveals information about the opposition. Actors with billions to spend might not be on your radar for policy reasons. Threats that can be realized for the cost of a cup of coffee cannot be ignored — you can hardly be said to be doing due diligence if attacking the system is that cheap.
  • It is easily re-estimated over time because you retain the logic by which you established the costs. When you re-do the assessment in a year’s time and a component that cost a million dollars now costs a hundred, the change in the threat is reflected automatically in the matrix. No new magic wand needs to be waved. It’s starting to feel sciencey.

A useful cost to attack estimate (and I have nothing against estimates, I just expect them to be defensible and quantified) would need some standardized elements. For example, I would want us to largely agree on what the cost is of a threat of imprisonment. If I wet my finger and wave it in the air I’m happy with a hundred grand per year (a fair salary) of likely incarceration times about 10% for chance of getting caught. If we’re not happy with the estimate we can do some research and find our what the chances of getting caught really are and what the sentencing is like. We might find out that I’m being way too expensive here.

This is a good sign though. When I am compelled to say “we ought to do some research” I am happily thinking that we are getting closer to a science. What credible research could you do on probability of attack? Where would you even begin? And what would its window of value be? Or its geographic dependencies? Or its dependencies on the type of business the customer does?

Because you want to break the cost to attack down into the various costs imposed on the attacker — their time, their risk, their equipment costs — you have grounds to undermine the attack with individual mitigations. What if a fast attack took many hours? What if you could substantially increase the chance of catching them? What if you could increase the chance of incarcerating them? Suddenly those legal burdens start looking like they could be doing you a favour: you make this attack less likely by increasing your ability to gather evidence and to work with law enforcement. Publish it. Make an actual case and win it. Your risk goes down. These are mitigations that are underexplored by the current model but that could do some genuine good for the entire landscape if taken seriously. Sadly they don’t imply flashy new technologies at fifty grand a crack. But I am not interested in selling you anything. I want your security to improve.

In most of our assessments the threat vector, the person attacking, is categorized fairly uselessly into “hacker” and “terrorist” and “criminal” and so on. But their motivation doesn’t actually help you all that much. This isn’t useful information. How much they are willing to spend, however, does tell you about them. It tells you plenty. If you have a policy that you are only interested in threats from below a government level, that is that you aren’t taking action to protect yourself from a hostile nation state (and this is perfectly reasonable since it’s probably insurable: check your policies) then what you really want to do is decide how much money gets spent by an attacker before they qualify as a nation state? As organized crime? As industrial espionage? And so on? If you can put dollars to these categories then you can not only make intelligent decisions about mitigations but those decisions and the arguments behind them might even have some weight with your insurance adjuster. That’d be nice.

Finally these threats all change over time. Legislation changes, law enforcement focus changes, technology changes. But all of these changes are reflected in some component of the cost to attack. Consequently the value is possible to re-assess regularly. A vague value with no measurements is harder to justify re-considering — the whole thing starts to unravel if you ever wonder whether or not it’s right. Because it has no fabric to begin with. It’s just smoke and mirrors. It’s better not to look behind the curtain in that case.

But it’s much better to build on a foundation of measurement. It’s always better to have a calculation that you can expose to reasoned debate than to shrug and trust an “expert”. None of this is so complicated that no one can understand it without training. Making it seem so is a threat to doing the job properly. Let’s throw back the curtain and make this a science again. Let’s measure things.

catastrophe in the first person

So yesterday I blurted out this twitter-splort as a sort of sub-tweet related to someone asking about what could happen to engage characters when an asteroid station’s reactor malfunctions. I gave them direct and I hope useful advice but then I did this.

Something that doesn’t get explored enough for my tastes in RPGs: confusion. In real life confusion + baseline fear creates some of the most terrifying and difficult to navigate circumstances.

When something big and terrible happens in an RPG often we start with full knowledge of it. This is a missed opportunity. Often the outward signs of a disaster for someone not immediately killed are ambiguous and subtly terrifying.

There are lots of emergency people and they don’t know what to do. People are running in multiple directions (no obvious origin of danger). Things that always work are working sporadically or not at all. There are sounds that aren’t alarming but you’ve never heard them before.

There are dead and injured and it’s not obvious what killed or injured them. There are people demanding you help who don’t know how you can help. Visibility is suddenly restricted or obliterated. Alarming smells are suddenly commonplace (gas, smoke, rubber, metal)

But most importantly these haphazard inputs are all you have. They don’t assemble into a certainty as to what’s going on. They might not even help. If you are in this situation you are either:

* leaving

* investigating so you can understand

* helping the immediately in danger

A fair question is, how do you evoke this in a game. Now my first thought is that this isn’t mechanical in the strict sense — it doesn’t need points or clocks or dice. I mean, you can employ those things, but there are more general techniques you can bring to bear.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if a real person is terrified because things are uncertain and confusing and dangerous then evoking the mood for players guiding a character through the disaster might benefit from the same thing: lack of information. This is of course in direct conflict with the idea that players should have full information and play their characters as though they don’t. Sometimes that’s the right thing and lets mechanisms already present engage, but it doesn’t establish mood. So what I’ll suggest is that whether or not you eventually draw back the curtain to allow the mechanism to play out, at least start with limited information.

So consider this asteroid reactor failure:

Ref: You’re buying noodles at a swing-bar when suddenly there’s a lurch. The air goes opaque with dust or something and your noodles fly out of your hands, whirling across the open space of the Trade Void. You hear screaming and you can’t see shit.

This is where I start: you don’t need to evoke confusion or simulate. Start with the actual confusion. Players will probably start looking for information. Before they get too much out, follow up. This makes things urgent.

Ref: People are rushing past you, just grey shapes in this fog, bumping into you. They are heading in different directions and are incoherent. Except for the one begging for help from across the ‘Void. You find your clothes are smeared with blood from someone who passed you.

Players are now in a position where they have little information, no easy way to get more information, and yet a motivation to either leave, help, or investigate.

I think it’s a critical technique to know and use as ref: to step back from the simulation engine and use the information itself to establish mood and urgency. It’s a story telling technique, not a game mechanism. When you rush or interrupt people, they get anxious. When they don’t have enough information they get the Fear. When they know the danger is real but don’t know the direction that is dangerous, they get careful.

The problem with this is that it’s not safe. When you try to get real emotions at the table you are treading on dangerous ground. If you’re going to attempt to directly evoke fear and anxiety in people, they better all be on board for that. And even if they feel like they are, it’s helpful to have an out like an X-Card or a Script Change. Make sure everyone knows what they are in for and have a way to opt out. If I use fast random information and overtalking people in order to establish confusion and anxiety, I’m doing a real thing to real people and you bear a great deal of responsibility when you do that. Someone not prepared for it would have every right to get angry about it. So tread lightly and talk first.

The upside is that the mood is easier to get into, easier to react within context, easier to build scenes that are memorable for the emotion and tension.

Nachtwey_NewYork_1
Most of our catastrophe images have context because we are looking back on the event through lens of investigation and analysis. But what could you conclude from this if it’s all you knew? A vast cloud of thick grey is descending on you and the noise is tremendous and people are screaming. Context is a luxury.

One level above this is how to analyze situations in order to understand how to place someone in them convincingly. If you’ve never been in mortal danger, you might have no idea what features of that terror are easily conveyed. But there are things that are generally true as I indicated in those tweets:

Low information: initially you know nothing except the effects you see.

Low visibility: bad things often create visual confusion. Fog, smoke, tear gas, crowds — your ability to see what is going on is constrained, so don’t describe everything.

High emotions: people are screaming, crying, begging. Not all of them are in danger or physical distress but almost all of them are overwhelmed by the confusion. You can’t immediately tell which are which.

Blood: Even just second order injuries (people getting banged about by the confused other people) generate a lot of blood after a few minutes. And you can’t tell who’s badly injured from who just has a broken nose. Or who’s covered in someone elses blood.

Low air: whether the air is filled with Bad Things or you’re overcrowded or you’re just hyperventilating it always feels like there is not enough air.

On the upside you will also usually find pockets of local organization: there’s usually someone trying to help and even if they have no idea what’s going on this will tend to form a nucleus of organization: people in this situation are attracted down the confusion gradient. They’ll walk right into a crossfire of bullets if it’s easier to see and breathe there.

There’s also usually a coordinated response very rapidly and that forced organization defuses confusion rapidly. The longer it takes to get there the more certain people are that it’s never coming, which amplifies confusion rapidly.

Presenting these things fall into the category of technique for me. You can mechanize some of them I suppose, but I think you only want to do that if you want your game to be about catastrophe. If you just want your particular game night to deal with a catastrophe, you want to hone some skills for presenting the catastrophic.