skill specificity; in which I come full circle

So how general should a character’s skills be? This is a battle I have fought on ever side of but I think I’m getting close to an answer I like.

Traveller (Tabletop Game) - TV Tropes

At first (say 1978, playing Traveller) I would have said “very specific” because that felt realistic to me. I suspect I felt something else I didn’t have words for yet as well, but I would. But skills were so specific in Traveller that there wasn’t even a general rule for determining success — pretty much every skill had its own paragraph describing how to use it. That’s mighty specific!

As I matured, or at least grew older, and started to think about game design I started to appreciate the verisimilitude of generalization — or at least categorization. How much difference was there really between a submachine gun and an automatic rifle? Did they really need different skill? Even if they were different, don’t you think you could pick up the skill pretty fast if you already knew something similar? So at this point I was digging the Traveller Mercenary (Book 4) abstraction (available only for military careers though, so in a sense this is just a bucket of skills with a new name) of “combat rifleman”.

As time and experience moved forward I came to really like generalization. In degrees. Eventually I’d be very happy with “Violence” as a skill that subsumed all of that combat shit. Sure, there are different skills involved in real life usage of fists, a knife, a rocket launcher, but verisimilitude was no longer my goal, at least not through strict simulation. I felt (and still feel, for these games) that if you the player want your character to be great at rocket launchers and shitty at barfights, then don’t get into barfights. Or don’t use Violence when you’re in one. Or use a rocket launcher. That is, you can fabricate this background detail of specificity yourself. The machine doesn’t need to know it in order to crank out resolution effects.

I still like this though it’s no longer an axiom of taste but rather just another kind of game I like to play. I’m long past claiming only one game or one kind of game will satisfy me. There are too many cool things out there to sit in a corner with that one you liked when you were 12 and deny all others.

So recently we’ve been playing some classic Traveller. Here’s my character:

Brad (Mickey “The Wrench” Doberman)

Mickey is distinctly below average in all respects, but remains the hero of his own story.

UPP: 465766

Cutlass-1 Brawling-1 Mechanical-2 Ship’s Boat-2 Vacc-1

TAS Membership, Pinnace to call my own (The Stephen Foster)


That’s not a lot of skills. You’d think it would benefit from a ton of generalization. But you have to look at all features of the character, especially skills, in ways other than just how they mechanically operate in play. They are also defining characteristics — they don’t just tell you how the character will engage mechanically but also who they are.

See, Mickey sucks. He’s below average in every stat but intelligence, where he’s perfectly average. He’s not gifted by birth at anything — he’s weak, he’s slow, he’s got a nasty cough that won’t go away, he dropped out of high school, and his parents were nobodies. But on the other hand, that’s a lot of information! How come he’s so weak and sickly? Maybe the fact that he’s a Belter has something to do with that. Maybe it’s the cigars he loves. How come he dropped out of school when he had the brains to pursue it at least a little further? What kind of nobodies were his parents? Why?

Mmm, derived detail. That’s my thing. I love random values and then trying to make sense of them. Lots of people prefer to throw up their hands and say “that’s ridiculous”, “that’s impossible”, “that’s unbelievable” but I always prefer to look at stats and say “I wonder so hard how that could be that I am now making up a plausible reason”. Weird stats are stories.

Since I started by talking about skills, look at Mickey and think about that.

But let’s look at something simpler. I recently rolled a character up with a random generator and got a character with Rifle-2, SMG-2, and … Hovercraft-2.

Look at that hovercraft.

Now here’s a skill problem I have confronted many times and usually my perspective is poisoned by a need for verisimilitude rather than a consideration of what else it delivers to the game. So anyway here it is. If you can drive a hovercraft, what else can you drive? What can’t you drive?

This is the essence in finding a category or generalization: looking at “hovercraft” and deciding what acceptable siblings it might have.

And then we have to wonder, if you don’t have Hovercraft as a skill, what would happen if you tried to drive one? Could you do it badly (a kind of gradated skill, like throwing a ball, where anyone can give it a shot and get some kind of result) or can you not even try (a qualified skill, like driving or surgery, where there’s a minimum knowledge you need to even figure out where to start)?

But that’s not what’s interesting about Hovercraft as a skill. It used to be but it matters less to me than the power of it: who is this person who only knows about hovercraft? Where do you come from where this is something you know to the exclusion of all other vehicles? Who is this Hovercraft Person?

And then in play, when I play Hovercraft Hero, look what happens. Whatever we are doing in the story, if I want to exercise my agency I need to make it about either gunfire or hovercrafts. Everything that happens in game, I am steering towards gunfire or hovercraft. Or both.

These two things are what makes a game go: who am I and what will I do? Specificity makes these a puzzle with some powerful clues. I am Hovercraft Hero. I am going to fucking hovercraft this problem.

death in rpgs

Recently there has been some (occasionally heated) discussion of death in tabletop RPGs. Should a game indicate a character’s death without the consent of the player? Should a game ever indicate death? Is the forced authorial stance required to make a choice about whether or not your character dies destructive to fun?

People took extreme positions and made hurtful comments to others. I mean, of course they did, this was Twitter. That’s what it’s designed to do.

I don’t have an extreme position so if you were hoping for me to take a side and maybe insult someone you conflicted with sideways, too bad for you. Here’s my position and if you know me you will find this entirely predictable: it depends.

What does it depend on? I am so glad you asked.

I always choose to read and play a game with the assumption that the designer intended it. That is, every rule in it is there because it is part of the crafted experience that the designer is trying to achieve. Frankly I am certain that this is often more charitable than is realistic, but to assume otherwise (that games are just a stone soup of creative ideas without any intention other than to vaguely emulate something the designer remembers from their childhood) makes games uninteresting to me. So let’s assume all the rules are intentional.

Given this, if a game allows for the death of a character based on the roll of a die, then what was the designer thinking? In what way is this fun?

There are several answers that make sense to me.

One would be that there is a meta-game at work here (though this denies some of the I-hate-authorial-stance positions in a way, since the enjoyment of engaging with the system is partly in dealing with this mechanism) and that part of the objective is to mow through characters in a “funnel” to eventually get an unlikely survivor. This is definitely its own kind of fun!

Another is the idea that bad decisions should be punished. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way — it’s hardly a novel idea that a game might punish bad decisions and reward good ones. This would ideally be a game you can get good at so that you are improving your skills in order to avoid the penalty of character death. I understand (though don’t share) the taste for this. Some will argue that this is essential for verisimilitude (the game doesn’t feel real unless there are plausible penalties up to and including death) and while that’s not my experience I’m sure it’s a real experience of others. This sometimes feels like an argument after the fact — that in fact the game is a stone-soup of concepts and not intentionally designed — but that’s fine. The experience of the game is what counts and I’m happy to assume the author did this on purpose.

These are maybe the most obvious. I have also experimented with death as a way to level up (Hollowpoint) where the only way to get better is to die so that you get a character of higher rank whose first job is to get the group back on track after clearly failing. And I’m currently tinkering with a project that may be too personal to share, which attempts to deal with grief by gradually building bonds with other characters. This won’t be very meaningful unless a character can die, triggering the mechanical meat of this idea. These two paths are certainly part of a deliberate design process though I can only claim certainty because they are my designs.

And if a game does not allow for the death of a character unless (or sometimes even if) the player assents, what was that designer thinking?

The designer may well be acknowledging that for a lot of players losing a character they have invested in (mechanically, emotionally) is not fun and that it’s not necessary for the game to operate — that in fact there are plenty of ways to fail that are punitive (either mechanically or narratively) and that therefore punish/reward choices without having character death on the table. One approach is to make death optional — they player may decide. And therefore if the narrative is well served by the death and the player is okay with it, then there is a death. But otherwise no.

Other games avoid death just because it’s not interesting in the context of the design: perhaps the purpose of the game is to explore revolutionary behaviour and to acknowledge that the “loss” of a character in such a situation is actually to lose them to The Man. To betray their revolution (Robert Bohl’s Misspent Youth, obviously). There are worse things than death.

A stone-soup game that kills characters arbitrarily seems just as defective to me as a stone-soup game that denies character death. I need to understand what it’s for. It’s a choice — why’d you make it? If you just copied what came before, then who cares.

What confuses me about these arguments is that they tend to devolve into “I prefer this choice and you are confused about what makes games fun if you disagree”. That last part is rarely said out loud and may not even be intended, but it’s always the message that’s delivered even if only by tone. It confuses me because there are so many great games and many — even most — make different choices. And they generally do so in order to further the deliberate, intentional arc of game play. It’s there for a reason. So this extreme position (I only like one of these things) admits to only one game, and that’s weird as hell. Who on earth would play only one game forever? And if they did, why on earth would they bother with an opinion about alternative ways to play games? They already have their thing. Many people seem to enjoy drawing a very tight boundary around “what they like”.

This makes no sense to me. It’s like only playing Monopoly or licensed variations on Monopoly which is fine but if that was your board game world you’d surely not be interested enough in other games to bother commenting on them.

But worse, it smells to me very similar to the ancient Mac vs PC wars which were never about what a machine actually does (they all do pretty much the same things) and entirely about defending ones investment: I put all this time and money into understanding and optimising this one choice I made and I absolutely do not want to hear about alternatives. Especially if it implies that I made an error in my investment choices.

Playing a lot of games defuses this investment defensiveness. Playing few games amplifies the investment. Stepping back from an emotional response and just thinking, honestly, about games and the very broad range of what they might also defuse. So if you feel fighty about this topic I’d like to ask you to ponder honestly why. And don’t tell me about it. It’s your business and I don’t really give a fuck.

crisis point

A dear friend asked about games where you play first responders and I thought that the overall structure (episodic, escalating, characters leaving play, competency) suited Hollowpoint nicely. So I hammered this together. If you use it and have a good time let me know. You need to know some Hollowpoint to make sense of it but not much really.

A Hollowpoint hack where you play compassionate first responders. You are never violent. We’ll follow the existing pattern of escalation. Is it fantastic or realistic? I don’t know. It can do either but do we want either?


Since Hollowpoint deals with extreme and unrealistic situations in a comic book style, while there is a need for safety the game already describes itself in a fashion that contrives a kind of consent just by agreeing to play it. Crisis Point, however, is not like that — you are going to play characters with only compassionate responses in stressful contexts and that means people need to be set up to handle it. We recommend drawing lines and veils before we even start: let’s not design a mission that is certainly going to upset someone. It might even be easier to say what kinds of missions are acceptable rather than trying to enumerate everything that’s not.

Then also put a scene stopper like X Card or Script Change in place. Personally I find X Card more natural and less intrusive on the illusion that we are acting rather than authoring but this is a matter of taste: both are effective at halting a scene before it causes harm.


The mission for Crisis Point should be some escalating scenario though not necessarily (or even ideally) one that is guided deliberately by a villain. Resolution of the mission happens when players address the root cause of the distressing scenes they are dealing with (which means the root cause must be resolvable — note that this departs for a strictly realistic narrative in that our EMTs will eventually act non-locally in order to get at roots). Example: EMTs dealing with worsening floods that are a result of mismanagement of city funds for river management.

Missions are broken up into scenarios (sometimes scenes) which advance the plot.

To write a mission the ref needs to invent the following:

  • A rough idea of what kind of intervention the player characters are “about”. This should come out of character creation.
  • An opening scene that introduces the problem.
  • An idea of what the root cause is.
  • Seriously, …, the thing will develop on its own from there.


Characters need six stats which are the ways in which they can approach a situation tactically. It’s up to you as ref to find scenarios where some stats are harder than others to bring to bear so that different characters can be spotlit. Some thoughts:

First aid, Forensics, De-escalation, Counselling, Rescue, Bureaucracy

I picked these as follows:

First aid is the logical parallel to Hollowpoint’s KILL skill — it’s the most direct and immediate response to your expectations of a scene.

Forensics is in the mix so that there is an opportunity to analyze each scene to find information that advances following scenes so that they are not strictly reactive. Note that in play the actual crisis will interfere with forensics which is awesome.

De-escalation — I want a way to have violence as opposition (such as an active shooter scenario) but not a way to respond with violence (that would be a way to fail the scenario). Also stands in for negotiation I think.

Counselling is a psychological counterbalance to first aid — maybe an obvious choice.

Rescue is the physical act of getting people out of danger. This would include putting yourself between harm and an innocent, entering a dangerous structure to extract someone, and so on.

Bureaucracy is there because I kind of think that root causes are going to generally lead you there if we are saying there is never a personal arch villain. Who is the villain? Probably some accounting process or algorithm or similar. All of that gets handled under this heading.

As always, pick one of these as your NEVER — a method you never use. You don’t know how, you’re philosophically opposed, whatever. You never do this. Then rank the others from 1 to 5. Example:

Wilson Griggs, ex-ambulance driver

First aid: 5 De-escalation: 2

Rescue: 4 Bureaucracy: 3

Forensics: 1 Counselling: NEVER

Next you need five traits. A trait can be burned (cross it out) in order to either add 2 dice to your pool or to make a declaration that’s true. That declaration can be anything that suits the narrative even if it breaks a rule: you decide you’re not dead when the dice say you’re dead, then you’re not dead. Cross out the trait. If it’s a physical object, it’s destroyed. If it’s a fact about you, then now the story’s been told and no one wants to hear it a second time. Cross it out. Answer these questions to get your five traits:

  1. You wear the uniform or at least meet the dress code, just like everyone else. Except for this.
  2. You saved a lot of lives in Utah that one time. What do you still have from that mission?
  3. You’re a professional and you know it because you always do this.
  4. You’re ready for whatever has to be done: others might hesitate (maybe wisely) but you will dive right in and do this.
  5. Someone you love loves what you do. They gave you this.

Tell as much story as needed to make sense but trim the trait down to a word or a phrase. Example:

Wilson Griggs, ex-ambulance driver

First aid: 5 De-escalation: 2

Rescue: 4 Bureaucracy: 3

Forensics: 1 Counselling: NEVER

Charles Schultz’s Lucy Vans

Charred fire axe

Head straight into trouble

Get people OUT

Father’s dog tags

Finally characters need a reason to be together. They can just agree on what they are or maybe we can make a limited version of the SH oracle for organizations. That risks becoming fantastic rather than realistic but maybe that’s okay. You want to be wary of simply making the characters part of an official body like the fire department since that places them in a rigid authority structure with clear boundaries for action, making it very difficult to act on initiative to get at root causes. Maybe this must be a kind of fantasy and the organization the characters belong to is always a hypothetical one allowing this to happen.


The opposition can’t throw things at you that are exactly symmetrical with your own skills since it is free to be violent. Wondering if they can be categorized and then broken down into six specific “attacks” that can be indexed by the dice (roll 10d6 get 3×4, what attack is a 4 in this context? That guides ref narration as we proceed).

(Never mind I think we can generalize)

For a scenario the ref should choose what exactly is the reason for the call and what the opposition is. It might be the environment, it might be people. Something else? What else is there?

1 – panic

2 – someone in personal distress

3 – harm to character from source of danger

4 – interference from well meaning bystanders

5 – interference from other agency (possibly one authorized for violence)

6 – delay from source of danger

So, for example, if opposition dice indicate 3×1 (a whole lot of panic), that is applied against a character as a hit and the ref narrates how the panic has inhibited their actions.

We track hits by category, so players should record a hit from harm (3) with that category, eg. (3) wrenched shoulder from falling beam. So an additional hit of (4) neighbours are all up in my face does not take you out, but another 4 and you are on your way.

This also guides a taken out result — what does it mean for a player character to be taken out by general panic? By a specific person in distress? By interference from bystanders? All of these are interesting and varied psychological tolls on someone that could end their career.

Panic: first distracted then overwhelmed

Distress: first re-focused then tunnel vision

Harm: first hurt then incapacitated

Innocent interference: first explaining then very fucking angry

Official interference: first frustration then helplessness

Delay: first too damned busy then not holding it together

Once a character takes that second hit they are out of play. Take their dice off the table for this scene. Once the scene is over they may choose to be Taken Out (see below) or stay on but keep 1 hit on the character sheet.

After a fight everyone not Taken Out can remove their hits.

I notice that this can get very fucking dark very fast. Make sure everyone is ready for that — when the dice indicate the police show up with rifles to control a situation you almost have in the bag, that’s going to be ugly in ways not everyone wants to deal with.


[TODO] no immediate ideas here but clearly has to be different from HP

Taken out/advancement

Obviously we don’t want the same rules for this as in Hollowpoint since it’s designed explicitly to let you be hilariously awful to your team.

So what happens to you when taken out? I think we keep the replacement concept but soften it: the character has left play to be replaced by someone who is either:

More experienced: some additional tools to bring to bear as a special ability. They are brought in to bring the situation under control. Their first scene is an explanation to the others of what the plan is now that the shit has hit the fan (similar to Hollowpoint but now berating — only constructive).

Less experienced: sorry all we have is a new person to fill the shoes. Give the replacement a special power for being new — maybe more up to date training has an effect? Maybe just a new perspective? But they get a power for being new so make them better than a baseline character somehow. They do not however arrive with a plan. Instead their intro scene should be the new mission lead introducing them.

Example mission

Fucking fires everwhere

Characters are first responders but volunteers — a local firefighting/rescue team with a reputation for success but not actually authorized to act (?)

Initial scene is a three storey walkup fire. It’s bad. Shit’s falling down all over. Cops might show up and try to control the scene. People are trying to help because they know the people in the building.

Root cause: someone’s taking money to pass fire inspections that could fail. Fire department is happy with the increased budgets they have. Some old buildings getting burned down, tenants out, rebuilt. Hmm.

When in doubt, start another fire.

game design by risk analysis

I don’t know if this is a real thing or just a stupid idea, but I was watching some folks talk about giant robot stories (in the context of giant robot games) while also working on a customer risk assessment and I suddenly wondered if we could use one in the context of another?

Currently I work making giant robots safe and secure, so I already know robots in the context of risk analysis works. But what about risk analysis as a tool for game design? So there are lots of methodologies for assessing the risk (and determining how to mitigate it) for systems but one I really like because of its collaborative and practical nature is the French government’s EBIOS 2010 system. We won’t dig into it in detail nor discuss my professional variations on it, but rather look at it from a very high altitude and see if it makes a game. More correctly, if it identifies the parts of a simulation that are fun to model in a game. Maybe we get some new giant robot direction!

So the first step is to identify the assets of the system. Now, this is often naïvely interpreted as the physical objects of value in the system but this is not how this works. The assets of the system are the elements of the system that are critical to its correct and safe operation. They might be things but they might also be functions.


So what kind of assets to giant robots have?

  • integrity of their armour — if the armour is busted, that’s bad
  • safety of the pilot
  • ability to destroy an opponent
  • ability to navigate difficult terrain
  • security from extreme environmental threats (radiation, engineered, disease, poison)
  • ability to function in a wide range of temperatures
  • ability to function in extremes of shock and vibration
  • ability to detect threats (enemies in this context)

I’m sure there are more, but this is a pretty good list to start with. So the next step is to determine just how bad your day gets if these assets are compromised. Since this is subjective we don’t want really fine granularity — let’s just say it’s zero if nothing bad happens, 1 if it’s a pain in the ass, 2 if the system becomes useless, and 3 if the pilot dies.

So integrity of the armour. Let’s call that a 1 because we have pilot safety and basic functions somewhere else. We don’t really care much if the armour is damaged if nothing else happens.

Pilot safety, that’s a 3 obviously. Note that in a real assessment here is where we would argue about the dollar value of a life — is it really more important to keep the pilot alive than anything else? And we might change the severity definitions based on this discussion. Anyway, and so on. Let’s summarize:

  • 1 — integrity of their armour
  • 3 — safety of the pilot
  • 2 — ability to destroy an opponent
  • 1 — ability to navigate difficult terrain
  • 2 — security from extreme environmental threats (radiation, engineered, disease, poison)
  • 2 — ability to function in a wide range of temperatures
  • 2 — ability to function in extremes of shock and vibration
  • 2 — ability to detect threats (enemies in this context)

Next we need to talk about what threatens these assets. What are the threats?


So normally we’d brainstorm these and get lots of ideas and then winnow them down to essential and unique threats. But let’s short circuit that since you can’t respond very quickly to this and I’ll just list a few.

  • enemy weapons damage our weapons
  • enemy weapons damage out mobility subsystems
  • enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit
  • environmental temperature is very high or very low
  • weapons use creates too much heat
  • weapons malfunction
  • mobility system generates too much heat
  • subsystem breaks down from lack of maintenance
  • enemy weapons damage sensors

I think already we can see a game system come together though I’m not blind to the fact that I am thinking about game systems as I generate this list. It’s a bit of a cheat so I’m not sure it proves much. Maybe if I started with a topic I don’t know well?

Anyway the next step is to decide how likely each threat is. Let’s say 0 is amazingly unlikely. 1 is unlikely, 2 is common, and 3 will happen pretty much every time you get into a fight. Let’s quickly go through that:

  • 2 — enemy weapons damage our weapons
  • 2 — enemy weapons damage out mobility subsystems
  • 1 — enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit (because it’s small compare to everything else!)
  • 1 — environmental temperature is very high or very low
  • 3 — weapons use creates too much heat
  • 1 — weapons malfunction
  • 2 — mobility system generates too much heat
  • 2 — subsystem breaks down from lack of maintenance
  • 2 — enemy weapons damage sensors

risk matrix

Now we just multiply these to find out how much we care about each scenario. If a threat doesn’t impact any asset we don’t care. So for example, let’s look at “enemy weapons damage our weapons”. That seems to affect only our ability to damage opponents, which has an asset value of 2. So the risk for this threat is 2 x 2 = 4. We’d normally make a risk appetite grid to say just how bad a 4 is. Something like:

Severity ->
0who careswho careswho caresmaybe bad
1who caresmaybe badworryingbad
2who caresworryingbadvery upsetting
3maybe badbadvery upsettingunacceptable

So a 2 x 2 is BAD.

Let’s look at something with multiple asset impact. Enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit. Now clearly this affects our pilot safety, our mobility, frankly almost all of our assets. So we pick the most severe one: pilot safety. So that’s a 1 x 3 — BAD.

As we go through this we start thinking about mitigations. For each scenario that’s, let’s say, worrying or worse are there mitigations we can put in place that reduce either the severity or the likelihood of the event? So, for example, we could add armour to the cockpit and maybe reduce severity by one step. That’d be nice. But we need to also consider the ramification (cost) of the mitigations.

Because I want to talk about it in the next step let’s also look at weapons use creates too much heat (3). We will now have to invent the impact of heat on the robot and now we’re also designing a game — we’re imagining features of this robot and its world context. So let’s say we think that a hot robot is an unhappy robot. That most subsystems degrade. Certainly the weapon but also mobility and maybe pilot safety ultimately. So that happens with a likelihood of 3 and pilot safety is the biggest deal of all the impacts. 3 x 3 is unacceptable.


So a mitigation is a recommended change to the system that reduces the risk level of a given threat scenario. And this is where we start getting a game I think because when assessing a mitigation we have to consider its cost and that’s where we start to get at least robot construction rules.

We have an unacceptable scenario up there — weapons overheating can kill the pilot. That would be bad. It can also do lots of other things, so even if we solve the pilot problem we still could wind up with a 3 x 2 that’s very upsetting. So we’d really like to bring down the likelihood of a weapon overheating. We could:

  • prefer weapons that do not generate much heat (like rockets, say)
  • add heat dissipation equipment to weapons (sinks, heat pipes)
  • add heat dissipation equipment to the whole system
  • … and so on

Now from a game design perspective what’s interesting here is not how we make a giant war robot safer, but the detail that we are adding to the system. Now we know we want to track heat, maybe by component. We know that some weapons generate more or less heat. We have a new subsystem (heat sinks) that could also be damaged and create cascading trouble.


What this seems to do is to give us a big pool of credible detail — elements of a fictional universe that have some justification for existing. Ultimately a good (or more often bad) risk analysis is what drives pretty much everything in the real world: nothing is perfect and so we need to decide how much imperfection we can tolerate. A lot if not all complexity comes out of this thought process, and trade-offs like that are also a Good Trick in game design: they create diversity in approaches to playing the game well.


I had the urge to do several things.

  • Buy some tiny tanks and paint them.
  • Play a tabletop wargame with tiny tanks.
  • Use a new font.

So obviously I wrote a tiny game for myself. This hasn’t been tested yet but please feel free. It’s essentially a very pared down version of Striker. I intend to play some of this tonight so expect more revisions. When it’s golden brown and a skewer comes out clean I’ll post it on itch. In the meantime, help yourself and see if it goes boom.


Player A


  • If you have a stopped marker, remove it and go to Fire.
  • If you have a ready marker, remove it.
  • If you have a suppression marker, you may move full speed directly away from the enemy and remove it. Otherwise move up to your maximum movement rate and change facing to your direction of travel.
  • If you move zero, place a ready marker.
  • If you move half or less, place your direction marker perpendicular to your new facing.
  • If you move half or more place your direction marker in the direction of your facing.


  • You can shoot at anything in line of sight. If a recon unit has spotted an enemy out of LoS but in direct fire (no hills between you, just trees or other concealment) you may shoot at it.
  • If you have a suppression marker, you may fire at the nearest enemy revealing yourself to all opponents and remove the suppression marker.
  • You may fire once for each weapon system on your unit.

Player B

Same thing, clearly.



Infantry and their jeep.

Standard infantry

  • Move: 10cm (5mph)
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 3 hit, 0 pen, 15cm short range

Heavy weapons team

  • Move: 8cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

AT team

  • Move: 8cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 0 hit, 6 pen, 20cm 

Degraded infantry

  • Move: 10cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 0 hit, 0 pen, 10cm


Utility vehicle

  • Move: 80cm, 20cm rough terrain or mud
  • Armour: 1
  • Special: anything they spot everyone spots
  • Special: can carry 1 infantry team
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

Light armour

Fast Cannon carrier

A tank.
  • Move: 60cm
  • Armour: 3
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm

ATGM carrier

  • Move: 60cm
  • Special: can only fire on a turn that has AND starts with a stop marker
  • Armour: 3
  • 0 hit, 12 pen, 30cm

Fighting Infantry Vehicle

  • Move: 60cm
  • Special: can carry 2 teams of infantry
  • Armour: 3
  • 3 hit, 3 pen, 30cm

Medium armour

Standard AFV

  • Move: 40cm
  • Armour 6
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

Tank destroyer

  • Move: 40cm
  • Armour 3
  • 0 hit, 12 pen, 50cm

Heavy armour

  • Move: 20cm, 10cm on soft terrain
  • Armour: 9
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm


You may move your movement rate each turn. After moving, place a direction marker to indicate your direction of travel. If you did not move, place a READY marker instead. You may choose to move evasively — if so, move ½ your full rate but place you direction marker perpendicular to your actual path of movement (you zig-zagged).


Roll 2d6 + hit for each weapon. Each weapon may engage a single target. Hit on 8+, 11+, 14+, 17+, &c.

Is there line of sight? No? Forget it then.

Did you move and you’re not infantry? -2

Did they move laterally (>45 degrees from straight towards you)? -3 if they are light or recon, -2 if they are medium, -1 if they are heavy or infantry.

Are they infantry in cover? -2

Are they in your short range? +0

Are they in your long range? -2 (5x short)

Are they in your distant range? -4 (10xshort)

For each hit, subtract pen from armour and roll 2d6

2d6 Result human Result vehicle

2: nothing nothing

3-5: stopped (no move next) superficial

6-8: suppressed external component destroyed (lights, antenna)

9-11: degraded, suppressed degraded move ½ or shoot -2

12-14: destroyed stopped or no weapon

15+ destroyed destroyed

Stopped infantry get a STOPPED marker.

Suppressed infantry get a SUPPRESSED marker

Degraded infantry get a SUPPRESSED marker and act as the DEGRADED INFANTRY unit type.


I’m running an experimental game right now inspired by some historical work I’m reading about early RPGs and their evolution from wargames. Of particular interest to me in this time period was an explosion of play-by-mail games with a strategic but role-playing focus. Every few years I try to get that flavour working and the closest I got was Callisto, a letter writing game that is great fun but sometimes limps where it should run. So this time I decided to eat my own dog food and start with scaffold.

So with seneschal what I’ve done is found 16 people who are willing to answer some simple questions and play their “people” in a maximally fog-of-warred world. One in which only the ref really has a view of the reality and all “moves” go through the ref. And what I want to do is to add and modify rules to the scaffold only as they become necessary (or at least desirable) for play. So obviously I need a few to even start! So this is the seneschal addendum version 1.0 to scaffold:


Our game will take place in the world of Seneschal, a place populated by sentients of many descriptions, all at a level of technology such that the world (its shape, its size, its very nature) is a mystery. Right now all peoples know only themselves and their immediate surroundings. They haven’t the means to travel far and fast and there are not yet pressures demanding expansion…but that is on the visible horizon.

Once a week the ref will publish a statement and ask what you do about it. You will invent your response and email it to the ref. It can be as long or as short as you like. It can contain any amount of detail you like but should culminate in an order: a clear indication of what you want your people to get done in the coming turn.

If the ref determines that we need some new rules (or if you do, then tell the ref) then a symposium will be declared. The symposium is a scheduled chat in Discord about the rule additions. Afterwards a new rulebook will be published.


To start, send the ref, bjmurray.halfjack@gmail, your people information: your people’s name, an answer to the question “what are your people you good at?” and an answer to the question “what do your people want?” Send more detail if you like, of course!

senechal rules

As our rules evolve, the changes will go here and forward.

Yeah that’s it — just the rules for what to send in for a first move. This 1.0 version of the doc went out to the players so they know what they’re playing. Now of course as soon as the first moves came in I needed more rules. And suddenly a lot more rules. Several things drive this:

First, as I communicate with people and write rules I realize that there is some meta content that needs to be made clear. So things like safety and the role of the ref/moderator in keeping the places we communicate safe are addressed. The fact that since this takes place digitally we have no constraints on dice — if a table calls for 17 options then we will roll a d17. We have no interest in the shapes of pedestrian real-world dice.

Next there are rules to cope with things people have sent in their initial moves. Some are meta material — if a player’s order exceeds the remit, for example, what do we do? Then there are people who have said things like “we live next to a mountain” — should that be formalized? Do I need to talk about maps already (I do, as it turns out — maps may be fundamental just as a bookkeeping technique)?

And then there are anticipatory rules. I already have an idea of what I want to do for the next moves — I want to provide something motivational. A disaster to respond to. So I write a table of disasters and as I do so I see something magical: the disasters come with instructions about geography. All peoples experiencing a drought are adjacent to each other. All experiencing a volcanic eruption are adjacent to the same volcano. I still have no east and west and no distances, but I have adjacency.

And so the rules evolve by need, whether that need is immediate (something happens that needs a rule) or anticipatory (I plan to do something in the response to orders and need to codify it). So now, I think complete for the move, seneschal has nine pages of rules from the initial one and a half. I hope this is not the regular expansion rate.

In addition to (or maybe adjacent to) the rules is the bookkeeping. I have a spreadsheet with what I think are the key information points about each player’s people so far but I don’t know how much of this document is rules and how much is just my personal expedient way to handle the data. Do the rules need to say “use a spreadsheet”? Or even “keep track of this bit”? It feels like something that I shouldn’t command in others. Do what thou wilt and all that.

I’ll keep you up to date as we progress.

The Scaffold System

In ancient days I wrote about scaffolding, a technique by which one uses the bare minimum system to allow testing of a more detailed subsystem you’re interested in. Here is a perfectly workable scaffold, a game that can be played entirely on its own but that can better serve as the connective tissue for your components under test. Of course it must grow and modify (hopefully until it is unrecognizable) to meet the needs of the bits you want to test, but it serves to get to the table.

And that’s the rule for scaffolding: don’t yammer on about your idea. Don’t trawl for acceptance. Don’t wonder aloud and publicly if you have the probabilities right. Get it to a table tonight.


A bare minimum on which to hang subsystems for testing.


A character has two stats: the answers to “what are you good at?” and “why are you here?” Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. Whoever wants to play a character should invent one.

Core System

When an external resolution is required (that is, there is no consensus on what happens next) the player invested in the outcome rolls 1d6. If their character is good at this, then they succeed on a 2 or better. Otherwise they succeed on a 3 or better. Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. If they have no character then wonder why they are so invested in this scene. Why are they even here at the table. Perhaps they are observing and should be invited to play.

Scenario and motivation

Everyone should pay attention to everyone elses “why are you here” and narrate stuff that leans into those answers. If there’s a ref, they should pay special attention. Challenge it — make why they are there a problem. Make it difficult. Make it a moral dilemma. Make it require resources. Kick it in the nads.

Now of course you could do this differently, but I want to remove every single obstacle in your path to getting to the table that I can. You need to find the people, you need to work up the nerve, and you need something you care to test, but I have taken care of the other excuse. There’s your scaffold. Like any scaffold it should be entirely absent once you are done, or at least invisible. We might see traces of it — bolt holes unfilled in the sidewalk perhaps — but your objective is to use it only until it is replaced.

And grow the scaffold itself if you need to. Paint it. Cover it. Raise it. Whatever it takes.

scaffold is available in PDF form from itch if you need a PDF version.

gruyere and pecan shortbread

Om nom nom.

[revised this recipe after much delicious experimentation]

I had these from a little cheese shop in Vancouver about 15 years ago and I have just perfected the recipe for them. Enjoy.

  • 1 3/4 cups salted butter (EDIT: fuck it, put in all 2 cups of butter)
  • 180g gruyere cheese grated finely
  • couple teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary
  • 50g crushed pecans
  • 3 cups flour
  • bit of salt (not much; butter has salt and so does cheese)
  • several squonks of black pepper

Leave the butter out to soften.

Sift together the salt and flour and pepper and rosemary in a bowl and then toss in the grated cheese. Toss the cheese in the flour until it’s all well mixed. This step keeps the cheese from clumping up and makes sure it’s evenly distributed in the dough.

Add the butter and knead it in with your freshly washed hands. When well mixed, knead in the flour. Seriously, get your fingers in it. You want to make sure there are no big globs of butter as that will leave craters in your cookies. Knead in the crushed pecans. Mix ’em in good. Form the dough into a loaf and plop it on a generous sheet of cling film. Wrap it up and roll it out while wrapped and soft into a cylinder. Square the edges if you like. Chill until firm (a couple hours in the fridge is good).

Preheat your oven to 375 F. Slice your loaf into 1/4 inch slices, give or take. More give than take — somewhere between a quarter inch and a centimeter. I don’t know — if they fall apart they are too thin. Bake for 20 minutes in my oven. They will brown nicely because of the cheese. Holy shit are they good.

Serve naked or with a slice of pear. Have some beer on hand as they are a little dry to scarf down at the rate you will want to.

revolver (last part)

(You might be late! Here are parts one, two, three, four, and five.)

My father is missing part of one of his thumbs. Instead of a thumbnail, it ends in a rounded stump at the knuckle. He told me that he lost it when he was about sixteen, being careless while chopping wood. The story is never told in detail and when it is told it always changes a little. It’s a long time before I realize there’s a lie in there or at least an omission: I am very sure now that he did not lose the thumb because he was careless while he and his brother were chopping wood. I suspect that the truth is they were fucking around, maybe throwing the axe near each other, daring each other to be tough guys, and that went wrong.

I don’t really know why he would lie about that since the truth of it is probably the better lesson. So for the first time I think I see my father simply embarrassed by the truth. Ashamed.

He did tell me with some significant detail about the aftermath, though. They sewed the tip back on but it didn’t work. It turned black and smelled horrible within a few days and they had to go back to the surgeon and have it removed, debrided, sewed closed, and packed and bandaged. At sixteen he had to to re-learn how to tie his shoelaces. I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to tie my shoelaces without using my thumbs in case I too were to lose one of mine in an axe accident. To this day I tie my shoelaces without my thumbs, even though they both work fine. I have not had a lot of experiences with axes, mind you, so the risk has been very low.

The next time I see the revolver we are both somewhat older. He has it out on the bench again, the same bench, the same towels, but a new TV. He has reading glasses on. I’m not certain now that I lived there still — I may have been visiting shortly after moving out with my girlfriend and if so then I have brought over my new pellet gun, a .177 calibre revolver that takes six pellets at a time. I am disappointed with my purchase but it’s fine. It’s not what I really want and it’s mostly plastic and feels cheap, but dad grins his perfect false teeth grin when he sees it and gets some cheap sodas out of the fridge. He also gets me a beer, one of the ones I’ve brought over. He’s very generous with this — it would be a while before I realize that all he really wanted was a Miller or, to celebrate, a Heineken. My twee choices of stouts and cream ales could not possibly have impressed him but he says nothing about it, just drinks it with me, and thanks me for it. There’s a hint, though, that I’ve embarrassed myself a little: he calls me “young man”.

We set up the soda cans on a patio table in a makeshift range and shake them up. Then shoot them with the little pellet gun. They rupture hilariously, jets of cheap soday sprawling all over. My mother will be unimpressed with the waste, but neither of us see this as waste. This is just the price of fun, maybe 35 cents a shot, and it’s cheap. Neither of us, I realize, are having a lot of fun these days and this bright spot is worth a few dollars.

We don’t shoot that long, not like the old days when we would shoot for hours. We just kill a few cans and then laugh and put the air pistol away. I am so disappointed with it that I’m not sure I even bring it home with me (and if I did I never got it out again; it became one of those things that moves from home to home at the bottom of a box until one day you throw the box out). He gets out a couple more beers and brings the little .32 down from the cupboard.

“God, you still have that.”

“Mhm”. He unwraps the towel and starts taking the pistol apart. He puts the barrel in the bench vise and bends it over with a hammer.

I raise an eyebrow and drink my beer as he carefully does the exact opposite of what he’s programmed to do with a machine: he wrecks every single piece so it can never go back together. It’s not violent, he’s not in a rage. It’s quiet, efficient, deliberate, and calm. It’s purposeful. Each piece of the trigger group gets bent over. The hammer spring is bent backwards. The pin that holds the cylinder in place is bent over.

He can’t figure out how to wreck the cylinder. It’s too short to get any leverage on — it won’t bend. He wraps all the pieces in the towel and tapes it up with black electrician’s tape and throws that on the top of the trash.

“Why now?”

He looks at me and drags on his Player’s Filtered. “Just time.”

I look at him for a while. “Okay.”

We never talk about the revolver again. Within the year they have sold the place I grew up, the place where we shot cans and yucca plants, the place my uncles exposed themselves, the place with the cherry tree and the shitty tree fort, the place I buried a treasure trove of comic books and army men, the place we boiled stolen crabs in oil drums, the place I burned my heel stepping on a live coal, the place the bamboo spread its roots across the lawn, poking up spear-like shoots where we played. The place I got stung trying to kill a bee with a football. The place I found the thumbnail-sized green frog. The place with the pear tree. The place my father partially built, covered in blood from saw bites. The place with the French doors.

The place the revolver last sat intact, potent, exactly where I knew it was.

Their new place is strangely dead, holding no memories. The fireplace is electric. There’s no space in the back to shoot. My mother hires a gardener. My father owns only one car, and it’s not cheap.

The fridge in the “work shop” is enormous and the television is much, much better. I hardly visit at all any more.

revolver (part 5)

(Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 for the tardy)

The revolver makes only two more appearances in my memory.

The first is at some indeterminate time later. I’m visiting my father in his work shed which has our old orange black & white television in it. My father has his work light on and is working on something at the bench. There are those strange work space towels, almost cloth but actually paper, that were only ever in these kinds of places. I have no idea where you get these because I am not a handy man but they seem super useful. They are always a pale green or a pale blue for some reason. They are one of the Secrets that real men keep, part of a club I was never really invited to and never tried to sneak in. It smells of cigarettes and oil and my father is smiling as he works.

“Hey,” I say. Even at this young age I am a brilliant conversationalist.

“Hey old man.” says my father. Sometimes he calls me “old man” and sometimes he calls me “young man”. I once asked him why he did that, why he switched between the two. “Sometimes you seem like an old man,” he said. “Sometimes you seem like a young man.”

I’m bored and thinking about building rockets or shooting my pellet gun or something. Anything. Our bicycles hang from the ceiling on my left. Maybe I’ll ride my bike.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask.

He pats the stool beside him. “Come have a look.”

I do. Arrayed on the Real Man work space towels are all of the parts of the little silver revolver pulled from my grandmother’s wall. It’s small, almost a toy, but there is something densely real about it. It would not be mistaken for a toy. It was a little .32 rimfire revolver I’d guess now and that would make it pretty illegal even at the time — a prohibited weapon. My father had no license for owning even restricted weapons (like a more typical handgun) and pretty much no one gets a license for a prohibited weapon. At this time, though, I don’t know how illegal this tiny gun is but I do know it’s illegal. I know we don’t have the paperwork to own it. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t exist at all really.

“Is that the gun from grandma’s?” I ask.

He nods. “Yup.”

“Cleaning it up?”


This is what he does with anything mechanical. I realize that this is built into his brain like wiring: he has a machine, he takes it apart, cleans everything, polishes what needs polishing, fixes what’s broken, and puts it all back together. Put any machine in his hands and this is what he will do with it. At this age I’m starting to wish I was like that too — I like machines, mechanical ones, and some of them fascinate me but anything I take apart is ruined forever. I don’t have the gift he does. But I recognize how autonomic this behaviour is because my next question, the rational next question, is not “why?”

The pistol is in suprisingly few shiny pieces on the table. It has a strange potential for danger. A kind of energy is stored in it. It could change from an array of parts to something lethal, genuinely lethal, not like a pellet gun. I sense the philosophical weight of it. I have no desire to touch it. My father begins to reassemble it.

“What’ll you do with it?”

He takes his cigarette from the old gold glass ashtray, and draws on it. It’s a Player’s Filtered like it always is.

“Put it away,” he says around his cigarette. He indicates the big cupboard that stores all of the fasteners and things over the work space. “Up there.”

“Will we shoot it one day?”


I’m fine with that and he seems to know that. There are so many more questions, we both know, but I don’t ask any of them.

“Want a beer old man?”

I’m fourteen. This might be my first beer but I doubt it. “Yeah.”

“What’s your brand?”

“Miller’s”. At this time in our lives that’s usually all that’s in the fridge I know, the gold cans of Miller’s. So that’s kind of a joke. But there are also special occasion beers and he pulls out a couple of Heinekens, pops the caps off with the bottle opener nailed to the work bench, and hands me one.

I drink the special occasion beer, enjoying the exotic skunkiness of it that the usual beers don’t have. The green glass and tall neck at a time when beer comes either in cans or brown stubbies.

We drink our beer and watch TV and dad puts the revolver together, wraps it in clean Real Man towels and puts it in the cupboard. At no time does he ever hold it like one holds a gun. It goes on the top shelf, a little out of sight. This is clearly so my little sister doesn’t get at it because I can reach it there and he knows it and he makes no attempt to hide it from me. He trusts me today.

The next day I go back to check that the revolver is still there. It is. I am a little embarrassed that I tested my father’s trust, that there was any doubt in my mind that it would be there. I feel like I stained something otherwise perfect.

I don’t touch it. I get my bike down from the ceiling hooks.