structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

mystery flesh pits

No it’s not a sex thing.

I want to talk about this creation of graphic artist Trevor Roberts because it’s wildly diverse in content, it’s off-the-scales for weird, it’s brilliantly executed, and it’s under-appreciated. And, if that’s not enough for you, it’s gameable. In fact it kind of demands a presence in your game somewhere.

First things first: Trevor has a Patreon and you should toss him a few dollars to keep creating. It’s worth it.

fleshpit1The mystery flesh pit is an anomalous geological region that is organic. In fact it’s a giant vein of meat and organs. And it seems to be alive. If the first thing you thought of was the “Pit of Sarlacc” you’re not alone, but also you have the scale wrong. You are thinking way way too small.

And of course with the discovery of such a strange and horrifying and dangerous place comes commercial opportunity! The Mystery Flesh Pits are also a tourist attraction! And so Trevor has not just created the concept and a few pretty images, but also the commercial material related to the concept. In fact he has fake government reports (read the one about the regurgitation disaster and wonder about the redacted bits, because man is there some gaming in there somewhere). He also speculates about the equipment of the park rangers there (which is of course highly specialized). And the things that live in the guts of the pit. And the things it does to local wildlife (and sometimes people), which is extra weird.

fleshpit2We’re not really talking about a riff on Star Wars here. In fact if anything, this has a closer relationship to the Strugatsky brothersRoadside Picnic than it does to Star Wars. There’s something so weird here that while we can find superficial utility, we cannot come close to really understanding it. And our superficial utility is, of course, commercial. In fact the parallel is rich enough that you might want to try wedging it in to the RPG Stalker. Or (my personal favourite of course) Soft Horizon.

Roberts’ genius lies in contextualizing images. While his Patreon (and yes I linked it again because, I must repeat, you should throw a few bucks his way to keep this mythology alive and growing) has concept art that is delicious, it’s all in a wild context of articles, reports, snapshots of newscasts, corporate content, brochures, safety standards, academic articles, and on and on. And this wealth of context is what makes me say its rife for gaming: this is really world building happening here, and it’s a strange and dangerous world thankfully contained in a well-defined pocket of weird.

You might have run into one of these images before and laughed and moved on. I encourage you to dig deeper and see the opportunities here for more and more fiction. Deeply fucked up fiction, mind you, but that’s one of my favourite places.

depression creeps up sometimes

So a week or two ago I realized I was getting very, perhaps dangerously depressed. I don’t have a clinical diagnosis but I have had enough experience with this (through others; my wife certainly) to know what’s going on. But it still creeps up because even though you know what it is, you would really prefer it wasn’t. So it kind of creeps up in plain sight.

One of the big signs, which I should watch closer, but then I was watching it and I knew it was going on, so wtf, was playing World of Warcraft fairly obsessively. Interrupting work, interrupting my household duties, and so on. Another was stealing hours to myself by staying up way too late after chores and WoW were done.

What WoW was giving me was twofold. First of course it gave me a fairly inert way to spend time that didn’t seem inert. It’s not like watching cartoon since you have to make decisions, but at the endgame you are mostly doing the same thing over and over (trying to make gold in time-tested ways) so that you can afford to buy the consumables necessary to do another same thing over and over (raid giant dungeons, but basically the same three dungeons you’ve seen a hundred times already).

The other hole it was filling was social: I was playing with a lot of awesome people, new friends, and was having a wonderful time with them socially. So much fun that I did what I usually do in that situation and find a leadership role with lots of responsibilities and new pressures. This initially helps my depression (purpose, respect) but in short order become another one of the feedback loops that keeps me doing something I don’t really want to do.

This is all, however reinforcing, still symptomatic. I was depressed. I was not enjoying my life but rather desperately trying to find ways to fill a hole that can’t really be filled. I was skipping tabletop game sessions because my chores were backing up and the thought of being creative (which WoW is certainly not) with people I love and respect was just too much pressure, too much expectation, too much work. I couldn’t handle it.

At some point someone announced they were withdrawing from the guild in our WoW game and that gave me permission to do the same. So I did a few things:

  • I quit the officer role in our guild (dumping responsibility)
  • I quit playing WoW (dumping the pressure to use time on something essentially useless)
  • I bought an air pistol (because I like them)
  • I set up a gun range upstairs and shot the shit out of some targets

So the first two are obvious. The second two maybe less so.

Retail therapy works. And I had my eye on something I could afford and had always wanted for a long time. Buying it let me congratulate myself with something concrete. I felt some measure of relief just making the purchase. I can afford it. It’s probably stupid. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The gun range is a little more complex.

lugerI am not a gun person in one sense: I don’t own real firearms, I don’t want to own real firearms, I don’t want to ever shoot at anyone even in self defense. I am, however, fascinated by the mechanical engineering of handguns. Just handguns — I don’t really care about long arms. This has long been the case with me — as a kid I owned models of real handguns with working action and realistic disassembly procedures. And I’ve always been amazed at how many auto-loading firearms are basically just held together with spring tension. They enclose and utilize an explosive force to engage a mechanical action that reloads and re-cocks the weapon and yet they are held together by almost nothing. Push a bit here, flip a lever, and they come apart.

Maybe you need to hang with engineers to find that fascinating.

So what I bought was an airgun that is a replica of a Walther P-08 Luger that uses the CO2 gas pressure for both firing the BB and working the action just like the real firearm to reload and recock. And that was the model I had as a kid. So now I had it in metal, with weight, and it did in fact disassemble just like I remember. 40 years later I can trivially break it down and put it back together. But this one shoots and so I get to enjoy the feel of that action jumping up while shooting.

Shooting is tremendous fun, even if it’s just a gas BB gun. And I presume this fun is chemically represented somehow since I genuinely feel it. Endorphins, whatever, I’m no chemist, but it made me feel great. And while initially it felt weird to shoot down the hall into the bath/shower stall through the old shower curtain (which I bought a replacement for a few weeks ago), it was safe (shower curtain provides a great capture for a plastic BB and no danger to the tile) and it was long enough to be fun (5 or 6 meters) and god damn I had a good time.

Now I feel much better. I am still coping with reduced social contact thanks to the Virus, but I am coping better. I don’t know whether changing my behaviour broke the depression or a natural subsidence of the depression allowed me to shuck the (rather destructive) immersion in a game. But it doesn’t matter. I was worried that since WoW ate up all my time I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. This was bullshit of course since there are a million things around the house that need doing because I was tending to WoW instead of the house. So after destroying the shower curtains I started cleaning the kitchen, clipping the cats’ claws, hurling garbage (an old shower curtain amongst it)…you know, the stuff you’re supposed to do in life. That is, not farming Dreamfoil and Arcane Crystals.

First thing I’ll do once things get a little more normal is seek out a club where I can shoot with other nerds. Outside. With people.

Did I break my depression or did I respond to its natural departure? I dunno. I’m going to go shoot up the bathtub.

what is your game about?

When I first seriously considered designing and publishing a game it was in the mid-2000s and the Forge was ascendant for independent designers. It was churning out strange and wonderful games from strange and wonderful people — Vincent Baker had produced Dogs in the Vineyard, Paul Czege had made My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls. I and the authors knew what these games were about since they were built with great deliberation and starting with that knowledge. I didn’t really understand what these games were for, though. Not at the time.

(I hold no malice towards any of these people. What I will describe is not about a person but rather about a culture. Many of these folks made great games and would go on to make even greater games. I respect most if not all of them. I have learned a great deal from them. I still like you.)

Still, I very much wanted to be a part of this group, to have my work taken seriously. When I tried to engage, however, I encountered several obstacles.

First, a lot of discussion was around the Forge’s sacred texts, the essays of Ron Edwards. The relevance of these has since been minimized by most parties but at the time they were important enough to both be adhered to and yet also be debated. I read them and found them interesting where they were penetrable. At the core they implied you should be deliberate: understand what you want to do and then set all design effort towards doing that. This is pretty good advice. Be deliberate. In the details it got more contentious.

comm 9
This is actually one of my own diagrams.

Second, the group was entrenched. There was a core group who did the bulk of the interpretation and many wrote elliptically (echoing the style of the texts) rather than plainly, alluding and planting metaphors. They used diagrams that buried meaning under a layer of more coded language, obfuscating rather than clarifying. The core group, the ones that had been there forever and helped established the culture, nodded and winked in understanding. From the outside it was less explicable but not nonsense — you just found that lacking a few years of immersion in that culture that you didn’t know the language. You were a foreign visitor with limited language skills and the locals weren’t really interested in teaching it to you. As with any local, they may not have been aware that their dialect was unusual.

Finally, the group had a gate that was well kept.

When approached to consider a new game idea, they would (almost in unison) ask: what is your game about?

img_0259
Because laser.

On the surface this sounds like a deep question. And it is! But it’s also a way to guard the gate. The question, see, determines whether or not you embrace a top-down design methodology. And it does so unquestioningly, disregarding any other methodologies. If you couldn’t answer this then you couldn’t make a “coherent” game, which was the holy grail of the sacred texts. I’m not actually against this: I think coherence (as in tight focus, like a laser, not as in comprehensibility — people get hung up on this word unnecessarily) is a very desirable trait in a game, though perhaps I came to understand it in a more general sense than it was intended at the Forge.

I would use this question afterwards as well but that was a mistake. If I “helped” you with this phrase and you found it demoralizing, I apologize. It would be a while before I would realize what it does.

Knowing what your game is about before you design is part of a top-down design process: you decide and define what you want to accomplish (your requirements) and then you start designing mechanisms that all further that goal. You start with your intention and you develop your realization, drilling down into greater detail as you go. You develop mechanisms that serve your purpose.

This is a really good way to design things (especially very large and complex things). It’s not a bad thing to teach this methodology and expand on it.

But when I was asked that question and couldn’t answer, I felt rejected. Like I couldn’t answer what my favourite colour was at the rope bridge of doom. The gate was shut (and it doesn’t matter if this was the intent — this was what happened regardless of the intent). And so I bounced off the Forge and while I made some effort to understand it, I was never welcome and I never performed the necessary genuflection to be accepted. I could mouth the words but I didn’t believe.

That’s because there are other ways to design. There really are. You can start with a cool setting idea and start planting mechanisms in it that you dig and slowly assemble a game. And then refine it. Along the way you may well discover what the game is “about” and at that point you can continue to refine it, gradually focusing it on the target. Coherence does not only emerge from one design methodology. I often wonder if that metaphor can be pushed further — it seems like the top-down Forge methodology produced great accuracy: the games hit the nail on the head when they work (I had so many play well one night and fall flat the next). They did what they were supposed to do, usually. By contrast, other methodologies may be better at precision: whatever they do, they do it reliably again and again.

Anyway, I always felt rejected by the Forge. In point of fact I bounced off the gate so hard that it would be wrong to say they rejected me — you have to have some kind of deliberation, some assessment in order to reject. I was never given enough attention to reject. I just ricocheted.

guilds

This is a bit of a deviation because it’s not about tabletop games, but rather about video games. Specifically big multiplayer “role-playing” games and a specific element of them: the guild. And honestly there’s a little political science in here because I think some people misunderstand the politics in them because they are not remotely like real world politics at their core. The drama is of course the same.

izh_classicWe want to look at power and at legitimacy. Legitimacy is the part that works similarly to the real world (in that there are no game mechanics to create legitimacy) except that it is so easy and so cheap to change your guild, that abandoning a failed leadership is not remotely the same as in real life. The end result of that is that there is no real need for democracy to establish legitimacy because the consequence of a failed leadership is not actually all that interesting. In part this is because there is very limited power.

A guild leadership cannot imprison you. It can’t take your stuff. It can’t injure, torture, or kill you. And if it does anything you dislike outside those bounds (like demand your stuff, ghost you out of events, or be cruel to you verbally) you can leave. So even the game mechanical power that is held over you (like inviting you to raids, determining what loot you can get, removing your ability to invite/kick members) is transient. You can always go somewhere else. This is something that a lot of guild leadership has not embraced: the incredible weakness of their position.

Things that increase the power of a guild leadership are social and organizational and not game mechanical then.

So if you have a guild that is regularly running large raids (which are a substantial organizational challenge) then being allowed in that raid is a desirable thing that can be withdrawn. So that’s a real power over a subset of the membership. Finding another guild that is achieving the same things is not as easy as just finding another guild. But it’s not all that hard either, and so this power is not as strong as we sometimes imagine. The mechanical power here is in the distribution of loot and is restricted to raid behaviour. And you can get what you want elsewhere.

If you have a guild that creates a comfortable, welcoming, and safe social environment in some ways you have even more power since that is somewhat more rare than a solid raiding behaviour. This develops some genuine loyalty (rather than the material loyalty that raiding offers — if someone offers you more, absent any social element, you of course take it) that has some durability. You come to like the people you are playing with and you want to continue associating with them. And the mechanical power a guild has here is the threat of ostracization: you can be kicked from the guild and therefore its social space (chat window, discord server, and so on). But again, you can get what you want elsewhere. But it can be much harder to find a safe friendly and active social environment than a raiding environment that delivers loot.

So a guild controls weakly access to loot. It controls strongly the social environment.

fact 1A successful guild then has to be competitive in raid management (if that’s your schtick) but there are potentially more gains to be had by excelling at social management. Of course there are people who don’t care about the social environment, but because of the very limited power a guild has through loot control alone, these players will move between guilds at will anyway. There is nothing you can do to keep them that someone else can’t do as well or better. The people who are likely to stick, are going to stick because of other reasons. And those are the people you want to stick anyway.

This also means that the work of the guild members to expand a guild is social work. Not just the leadership, but the whole guild. People have to prefer being in your guild even if it’s less attractive for loot generation than another guild (because that is certainly the case) and the only attraction there is social. That also means that the membership that does not raid (and therefore does not impact loot availability) is at least as important as the membership that does. A guild that leverages their social power necessarily attends to its whole membership.

It is easy to forget the social element when you are concentrating on raiding. But that is where your core is and if you reflect on your time in game (what you find fun, who you interact with, what you say and do that’s not raiding) you’ll see that that is true.

Any competent player can get into a raid. Not everyone can find a home.

law and chaos

One of the things people like about Good and Evil is that it provides a space for a supernatural (maybe meta-natural) conflict between deities that personify these extremes and the world in which we play our games is a battleground for these forces. In general this is a potentially fun conceit to work with, giving you people with varying dedication to these divine forces and fulfilling their roles as champions of their divinity. All potentially awesome.

But, in addition to the problems alluded to earlier, there is practical trouble with this particular dichotomy: while many say that there needs to be a balance (and there does, practically, need to be a balance in order for this battle to work since otherwise there might be a winner), it’s perfectly clear that there is absolutely no need nor desire for a balance between Good and Evil. Any rational being would want a world of Good, full stop. So where would allies of Evil even come from? Who would want that shit?

Weird_of_the_white_wolf_daw_1977Originally this was not the driving dichotomy in D&D. It was originally Moorcockian, an hilarious word I have just invented. In Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (of which the Elric stories are just one facet) the divine dichotomy is between Law and Chaos. Now this is where it’s at: if you want a divine dichotomy, this is one you can work with.

First, there is no moral bias here. You can have good people on both sides. You can have awful people on both sides. In order to exploit the dichotomy for story purposes you don’t have to simplify anyone’s position and you don’t have to suppose that free-thinking individuals would credibly desire a world in which it was ordinary to get murdered.

More usefully, we can imagine people who would desire the extremes of course — perfect Law were everything is ordered and predictable and safe or perfect Chaos where individual desires reign and things are constantly new and unsafe but exciting. But we can also see that the middle ground, a balance, is in fact genuinely desirable. You don’t have to cart out the obviously specious claim that “good can’t exist without evil” and therefore that evil is somehow necessary. Even if Good has no interesting definition without the contrast of evil, that’s just fine! It’s still Good!

But Law and Chaos genuinely stress against each other in a fun fashion. Pushing more towards one has amusing possibilities for story without forcing a particular morality on anyone. And the gods themselves can be interesting now! Gods of Evil are inexplicable elemental things that make no intrinsic sense since they have no believable agenda. But Law and Chaos do! These are gods you definitely want to have a chat with. An audience with an Evil god is not going to go well. An audience with a Good god is going to be dull since their position is obviously good (it’s even called that). But an audience with a god of Law or Chaos, well that’s going to be interesting. It has no obvious arc. And their agenda is credible and either could be persuasive. But ultimately most people are going to want a little from column A and a little from column B.

I think the underlying concept of alignment is a compelling setting choice. That doesn’t mean every setting should have it, but it’s a choice that makes some sense. It makes a particular kind of world that’s fun to play games in. It’s the moral alignment that makes no sense and creates a dull (and, ultimately, racist and stupid) world. One agenda is obvious and the other is not credible. You can’t help but fight cardboard cut-out enemies since if you argued with the Evil ones you would have to conclude that they were either automata or insane.

If you imagine a plane of each extreme, a plane of Good and a plane of Evil, you find that the Good place is paralyzingly boring and the Evil place is perfectly undesirable (and unsustainable — the Evil places imagined in D&D have absolutely necessary non-Evil behaviour in order to persist: they cannot be “perfect” representations of Evil because Evil doesn’t function). But if you imagine a perfect plane of Law and a perfect place of Chaos you can imagine interesting (however undesirable) places where interaction still makes sense. You’re not murdered as soon as you show up and you still have something fun to do, beating down both Good and Evil planes for playability.

So it’s not alignment that a rail against (though I have little use for it, it’s because it’s just not a setting conceit in my games — don’t need a divine presence of this kind) but the insistence on using it for a moral dichotomy. A moral dichotomy is not a choice because one side is obviously, perfectly, inarguably, better. How’s that a fun way to run a universe?

look, mythology is crap

(A warning — my knowledge is mostly of “western” mythology, so Roman and Greek, and so one should read this with that in mind. But if you are an expert on other mythologies, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, because the basis of the problem lies in technological facts of early human history and I would be excited to hear about exceptions.)

Okay it’s not. There is poetry, there are ancient ideas that are embedded in cultures. There are even cross-cultural motifs that echo something deeper within us (perhaps) than just the pre-Christian near-Eastern fantasies. But it’s also crap. So is history. The past is crap.

These stories are entrenched in a world where:

  • women cannot practically and safely avoid pregnancy, a reduced physical state without modern medicine, hygiene, and technology
  • rapid reproduction is essential to a population’s growth because of the high mortality rate in both children and mothers and consequently women become a resource rather than a human
  • slavery is the petroleum that fuels productivity — until we can burn oil, this is the technological accelerant of the day and the pure utility of it eclipses the inhumanity of it
  • warfare centers on the destruction or enslavement of whole civilian populations, sometimes just as revenge
  • warfare is entirely thinkable (something nuclear weapons, for a while, half solved for us but is now back on the table)

And so these stories embody these horrors. At their best they present exceptions to these horrors as wild fantasies. Imagine a society where women had power! Weird! Strange! What magic and puissance would be needed to make this a reality?

Our gaming should be fantasy (even when it’s cyberpunk or whatever) — it should be about us wondering what could be (for good or ill) in the context of some imagined alternate world. It’s a creative process that I find very exciting. It’s where the fun is.

But mythology is not that. Mythology is the fantasizing of people who were stuck in the world I previously described. Co-opting those mythologies uncritically is placing yourself back inside those assumed horrors in order to imagine wonders that, frankly, either could or do actually exist now. This doesn’t strike me as interesting nor valuable. And so the worst possible defense of a game or its setting would be, to me, “but this is how the myth goes” or, more obviously indefensible, “this is how history says it was”. Even when it embodies deep truths about ourselves it warrants critical examination, because it really embodies deep truths about who we were 2500 years ago, and some of those truths might not be true any more. The assumption that these revelations are both universal and transcend time is lazy.

I would much prefer a fantasy that extends from now. It doesn’t have to be set in the modern age nor in the future; that misses the point. Thematically, it must be a fantasy of how things could be better than they are now. It can also be worse (maybe much worse) but ideally in ways that spawn from the new fantastical context and not just rowing backwards into some BCE backwater.

File_002Most mythological presentation of women, especially as avatars for concepts, is pretty dismal. Women are idealized based on the ways they are of use to others. Or are amazing exceptions when they are not mothers and caregivers. This should not be amazing now, and I very much want to be amazed. We have maidens and mothers and literally wombs. We have muses, which are basically the uncredited authors of men’s art. We have goddesses that dote on boy heroes and tolerate husbands who don’t just cheat on them but casually rape. I want the rare show of autonomy and strength to be common. It is no longer amazing.

Of course mythology contains things worth mining. The stories are ones you can bet almost anyone has heard and that kind of commonality, those touchstones, make story telling much easier. We can speak few words and be sure that the audience knows all the missing ones. They contain images that are similarly entrenched. They contain powerful concepts such as the concrete realizations of abstractions like The Furies and that kind of realized metaphor is awesome. There’s a reason I always dug the D&D monsters, The Inevitables, the forces of elemental Law. That is an amazing opportunity for fantasy.

But that commonality is also a drawback. I’ve heard the story before. It’s the fantasy of people stuck in a world that doesn’t need to exist any more. I want fantasies for my world. What if something other than capitalism drove the motives of societies? What if there was no more oil? If magic worked, what would we really do with it beside solve ancient problems we’ve already solved? What if we encountered beings who were not like as at all — not palimpsests of known beings, but something entirely new?

Our stunted fantasies often revolve around the realization of deities — they are certainly concretely real. You can talk with them and they answer. What if there was a world with the similarly practical and perfect knowledge that there were no deities, that mortal consciousness is the ultimate consciousness?

What if power was free?

What if we were free?

So please, feel free to cloak your work in the imagery of mythology, but let’s not mire ourselves in ancient fantasies about escaping a world we already escaped. Let’s write (and perform) some genuinely new myths. Let’s take for granted the things we know we can do (even if we haven’t yet) and wonder harder about what else could change. Let’s make new things.

(Saw this morning that KatieQuixotic is talking about similar things on Twitter today. So thanks for sharing my brain a bit!)

orcs and evil

I recently was involved in a twitter discussion in which I concluded that a rational and natural evil was nonsensical. The path to there is a little convoluted, but it hinges on motivation: what is the objective of evil? Most rational objectives I can think of are pretty bad but not really what we think of as Evil. Maybe evil but not Evil if you follow.

Say, for example, orcs really hate humans. They kill all humans and destroy all human things. But if they are natural and rational, then they have an end-game, a perfect world. They have an agenda that is not just external to them (kill everything) but internal: something they want and strive for. Clearly this is just a world without humans but otherwise kind of nice — everyone rational wants things to be kind of nice, at least for them. This is extreme and aggressive but, depending on the backstory for their hatred, not necessarily evil and not innate so certainly not Evil. Maybe their human-free world is awesome. Too bad for us but more power to them.

But if evil is rational and supernatural we can kind of get our teeth into something meaty. Perhaps our Evil is a deity that despises this reality and wants to destroy it to replace it with their own (whatever that looks like doesn’t matter since it doesn’t have us in it). A kind of failed god like Morgoth in The Silmarillion — they hate the existing reality and are jealous of the power of creation. Their dedication to the destruction of everything is rational but supernatural: they want their own vision realised. That’s their rational end game.

img_0592
There we go, a hate elemental maybe. Or a failed god.

Or perhaps it’s supernatural but irrational — it’s just a kind of hate elemental, a realization of pure nihilism that only destroys. Maybe that’s not even Evil but it’s a neighbour. It is interesting however simple its agenda is. It will be content in its end-game to rule over ashes. But it has to be irrational: there is no constructive agenda, no genuine plan for the future. Just wreckage and horror.

But where do orcs go? It seems to me there are few places for orcs and evil. One is that they are an autonomous species with their own culture and a complex agenda (not Evil intrinsically) but they are unwillingly or unwittingly under the command of our hate elemental or jealous near-deity. They will ultimately be consumed as well. These orcs have a complex relationship with the world and are, to my mind, very interesting now. They can be saved or, much better, save themselves. They don’t really need a variation in shape, though — they could as easily be humans. Again, their evil is situational and not innate. They can and would likely prefer to find a different path.

Another way to read them would be as beings that do not have a culture, that do not exist as normal biological organisms do. That is, they bear no children and have no relationships but are fabricated by our Evil entity with only enough autonomy to serve as soldiers. Not even that, but really as just appendages of this Evil entity. These orcs cannot be saved because they are just semi-detached tentacles of the Evil. They are not “like” people beyond the fact that they sort of look like people. They are the best our hateful and destructive demigod of the ashes can do as far as creation goes and they will be expended in the end. Since they are basically automatons they can’t really be Evil themselves — they are an expression of our hate monster’s evil.

But I don’t see a way that rational, natural beings can be intrinsically evil (or Evil really) because there’s no end game to a philosophy of pure hate and destruction. They have no agenda that makes any sense. Anything you try to make them want requires either supernatural power (re-create the world as something functional for them), lack of rationality (a pure hate for everything), or not being actually evil (a complex and destructive relationship with the status quo).

Thanks Levi, I didn’t need to sleep anyway.

now it’s personal

Okay brace yourself because this isn’t going to be about science or about gaming.

Queen_The_Game
The sharp reader will note that I was 15 when this came out. It’s not an album from that summer but there were a couple of summers.

I fell in love for the first time forty years ago. It was summer and I was 14 and I met a girl a grade ahead of me (to be fair I already knew her, but I fell for her that year) and we spent the whole summer together. Shopping, talking, listening to music, and making out. It was a sexual awakening with no sex and it shaped my life forever. Kelly’s still out there and we still talk and she’s still on my mind. Chatting with her tonight I had a bit of a revelation about that and about exactly how it impacted me.

Ever after I lost partners (well one, anyway) because I wasn’t interested in sex. Well, that’s not quite right. I was interested but I also wanted my romance to be that same clunky romance I had at 14: I loved kissing and knowing it was not going (much) further. I wanted that to happen forever. And it doesn’t — I had an intuition that sex would change everything and I was right but I put it off for as long as possible. I wanted adolescent fumbling for as long as I could get away with it.

We would normally say “she broke my heart” but I think it’s unfair to put that on Kelly. She didn’t break my heart. We wanted different things and what I wanted was her and so I broke my heart and frankly it was a … great feeling? Not that. It was awful, it was agonizing, it was tear-my-hair out horrible but there is also a certain joy in that heartache. When you feel so much so hard and it’s all about you, all about your pain, about your loss, it’s kind of addictive. And, I think, extraordinarily selfish after a certain point. You’re allowed your pain but it’s a little weird to cling to it.

And I think for a long time afterwards that was my model for romance: infatuation and heartache. And kissing. Those were basically my romantic goals for what seems like decades but was in fact only one (at most). Why does the short time in our youth seem so expansive and the later years tick by like seconds? It feels like I spent almost all my life between 14 and 24, pursuing heartache.

elvis_costello_the_attractions_-_this_year_s_model_base
Oh Elvis. You’re so broken but you spoke to my own broken.

My musical tastes tracked this (this was the thing I realized while chatting with Kelly this evening). Before that summer I listened to the Beatles and Queen and I can’t even remember what else. Afterwards I moved to early David Bowie and then Elvis Costello. Elvis was lyrically in the same space I was — clearly in love with his angst, with his heartache, with his bitterness. And he made it angry, which was kind of vindicating. It would be many years before I could see the degree of selfishness needed to make a heartache all about yourself. Enough to be angry rather than just sad. So it resonated — it was how I felt and the message was that I could keep that pain for as long as I liked. And I liked it.

The_Cure_-_The_Top
Around the time I found the Cure I was spending my angst dancing. A lot. Not necessarily with anyone.

I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. Just in constant pursuit of heartache. I wanted that summer back, the strongest feelings in that summer, and one of those was the heartache. I still kind of love it. It’s not very different from falling in love. The ending and the start have the same clutch and pull. Being in love for me was a constant joyous terror that it was all going to end at any point. Is that a kind of masochism or does everyone feel that? Well if it’s unusual then clearly that summer was a defining moment for me, because that pain still brings a kind of joy. I like to feel hard. I cry at a well-crafted commercial. I’m cool with that.

Tom_Waits-Heartattack_and_Vine
Tom Waits was part of my recovery period. I wasn’t craving the heartache any more. I was enjoying a deeply flawed stability.

I won’t go through the relationships up until now. There was a pattern and then there wasn’t. I hurt some people and yet I loved every one of them dearly. I wanted each relationship to last forever unchanged and I wallowed in each ending. I fell in love with people who didn’t even like me, possibly so I could skip straight to the heartache. It was a strange decade. I behaved badly but, at least, earnestly. If I could find all those people I’d apologize but finding people who are now in their 50s is surprisingly difficult. And stalkery. So I’m sorry. You know who you are.

I put a paragraph in there about music because this period of my life has a soundtrack and it’s important: the music triggers the feelings. If I’d figured this out earlier I could have just replayed one heartache over and over with a song or an album or an artist instead of inventing impossible relationships to agonize over. And maybe I still do that to some extent. Maybe we all do.

There is no gaming content here and no rocketry. I contain multitudes, as they say. You get all of it. I can’t pick and choose what I write.

Well, I choose not to anyway.

…in space!

Usagi_02I remember my wife bought me a copy of Space Usagi in the distant past and I was very excited — after all, I love science fiction and I love Usagi Yojimbo! And I read it and I was bitterly disappointed.

You see, what they did was just paint the science fiction on. They had ray guns and fought aliens on alien planets, but the tropes were largely the same as the non-sf version and the imagery was the same but with space-bits glued on. Japanese fortresses hovered in space. Space armour looks remarkably like samurai armour. They have laser katanas.

This felt like, well I want to say “betrayal” but that’s pretty harsh, but I did feel betrayed. We have a masterful storyteller and artist and it feels like they just didn’t put the work in to really adopt an alternate genre. They just painted the old one a new colour. There is no attention to how technology changes things. There’s no effort to understand the differences between Edo era Japan and some distant future. And so the stories are completely transplantable: there is nothing new or exciting here other than amusing new space art.

This lack of intentionality happened a lot in early popularized science fiction as well — surely we all recall mentions of technologies like “space pills” and “space wrenches”. This just lacks effort and it’s kind of insulting.

So anyway, what I never ever want is for my science fiction gaming to be that. When I choose science fiction for play I am not choosing it because I want space ships and lasers. I am choosing it because I want to explore a world impacted by the fact of space ships and lasers. It’s not enough to say you can easily change your physical body, growing a penis or a vagina at will. You have to address how this makes the place different from where we are now. And, at least as importantly, how it’s the same. Or at least how it’s relatable, how it’s an extension of where we are now. An important question I want to ask is “how did we get from here to there?”. And what were the costs?

This is why the cluster generation system of Diaspora (and the upcoming Diaspora Anabasis) is what it is: we create random solar systems with various technologies, resources, and environments and we ask at least these questions of you: what does this society look like given its attributes? How did it come to this? How does this affect its relationship with its neighbours?

My thinking was that if you start with making sense of these things — and likely making sense of apparent impossibilities like very low technology and very low environments — then your stories would necessarily start in a place that is not just a paint job over a place you know already. It might wind up caricatured that way (we all get a little lazy) but it doesn’t start that way and you are not invited to imagine it this way. You have all the cues you need to wonder about how technology affects a world (and not our world) and how it creates power imbalances and how those gradients affect every other system.

And I think this is the heart of the paint job problem: when the setting begins as something totally familiar but with lasers, there is nothing to grab on to and wonder about. If you’re even slightly lazy then you are stuck at the bottom of a false minimum, a place that’s easy to get to but not nearly the best you can do.

Thermodynamic_stability_EN.svgAnd since — oh! shiny! — we’re on to false minima…. A false minimum is a low spot on a curve that is not the lowest spot but is surrounded by increasing values, so if you are using a simplistic algorithm to try and find the minimum point on the graph, you can get stuck there. Sometimes they are stable (there is no easy way out) and sometimes they are unstable (a minimal effort would need to be put in to find a lower minimum. So you have points that are “metastable” (in thermodynamics, anyway) which are false minima — you need a lot of energy applied in a direction you don’t want in order to get free. You have points that are unstable (curvature around them slopes flat or down) and require only a small amount of energy to go one way or another. And you have stable points where there is no lower to go no matter how much energy you spend.

We think of low as bad but low here is good.

The reason this gave me an oh shiny moment is because it might be the case that our universe is in a metastable vacuum state — that is, the vacuum of space might be at a very low energy state but not at the lowest possible energy state. We call this a false vacuum because the real one is at the lowest energy state. If this is the case, that we are in a metastable universe, then it is possible for changes in local energy to push us out of that trough to plummet down to a lower energy state — possibly a stable one but also possibly just another false minimum. If this happens then we get “bubble nucleation” and the laws of physics may change (a little or a lot) in a bubble that expands from that point at the speed of light. And at the speed of light means there’s nothing you can do about it — you will literally only know about it when it happens to you.

The effects of a shift from a low vacuum energy to an even lower vacuum energy are speculated to vary between unnoticeable (which may have happened before) to survivable (which also may have happened before) to catastrophic. A bubble nucleation could end not only life, but the very form matter takes.

Now that’s exciting!