Not a game design thing, sorry. More about art.

2015 - 1.jpg
This one is hand coloured but there are a couple of uncoloured originals left if anyone wants to make an offer. They are quite small, perhaps the size of a copy of The King Machine.

A thing I love to do is to mechanize the un-mechanized.  In 2015, before my wife started her Troubles (which I have detailed elsewhere but aren’t the subject of this discussion but suffice to say it was Bad and it was Stressful),  I took a course on lithography. My chosen image was a sketch of a dragonfly which I mechanized and militarized.

001 (6)
At this point I think you see the idea turning into a technique.

Insects are really good for this — they are almost machines anyway. And you can see in this some of the doo-dad doodling that would find its way into the light-hearted designs in Elysium Flare, both ships and robots. I developed something between a style and a technique for adding elaborate  mechanical bits to something.

Wasp wasp wasp wasp.

My second image for the course was a mechanized wasp which, sadly, did not print well but the prepared stone was lovely. There’s a significant improvement in the detail and the execution. It felt like a major leap forward and so the failed printing was a real disappointment.

Last night I was flailing for work to do, with nothing really penetrating my mood and then I found a micrograph of a T4 microphage.

The T4 Terminator ready to hunt down Sarah E. Coli before she goes into mitosis.

These things are pretty much literally mechanical — you’d be very hard-pressed to claim they are alive. It’s really a shell containing some RNA and some chemical-mechanical manipulators. These things drift around looking for suitable bacteria (in the case of the T4 I think it’s e.coli) which they latch onto and inject their partial DNA bits. These are designed to steal the bacterium’s DNA and assembly processes to turn it into a factory to make more T4s. That’s it. That’s all it does. There’s no metabolism, no sense it which it eats or breaths. Or senses. It just drifts until a chemical connection is made, a mechanical action is triggered, and some very specific acids and proteins hijack the vastly more complex machine of the bacterium to make more T4s.

So here’s a T4 Terminator fabricated in the future to hunt down an e.coli that will have a detrimental effect on Skynet if allowed to live.

a new menu for players

I really want play to proceed such that the players help establish the fiction before selecting a skill to use for resolution. In fact, I would rather that they never select a skill but rather narrate their actions and then we can negotiate what skill they use.

Why? Well, I find that players (certainly me) tend to use the skill list as a menu of options and that they logically tend to prefer the better options in order to succeed. Consequently two things happen and I feel that both are usually undesirable. First, action tends to resolve based on their best skills which narrows the scope of the story. This might be fine except that it tends to leave a bunch of skills untouched — why even have the lower tier of skills if they don’t get played?

Second, there’s a certain amount of artificial wedging of skills into scenarios. It’s generally in good faith, but if I’m good at Repairing things I will really try very hard indeed to frame every problem as a repair problem. Often credulity will be stretched.

In the past I’ve “solved” the second by having a rule like “if the table is buying it, fine, but if there’s pretty much any argument, drop it and try another”. Even with this there’s some unwanted meta-discussion about applicability and some unnecessary argument. I’d rather avoid that.

DESTROY IT is a fine answer to “What do you do?”

You can tinker with truncating skill lists so that only the best skills are even represented, and that certainly suits a certain kind of play and certain genres, but for my current projects failure (or even succeeding badly) drives the narrative forward. It creates new problems to solve and does it in a way that relieves the ref of the burden of fabricating all conflict from whole cloth. It lets the story take control of itself and I really really like that right now.

I think these issues are related and so I’m wondering if one solution might be to give players another list, since picking from a list is attractive and powerful. Just not a list of skills. So the path would be to pick a tactic from the list, a general methodology, use it to inspire the narration for the action, and then determine the skill that’s appropriate. What might that list look like? What are generalized methods for solving problems?

Here’s a stab:

Destroy it. Whatever the problem is, the player will remove it forcibly. Drive through it, smash it, shoot it, disassemble it, whatever. We will crush the problem.

Go around it. Try to find a path that bypasses the problem altogether. Drive off-road around the checkpoint, choose a less suspicious door, ignore the treasure chest in the empty room, dig a tunnel under the machine-guns.

Solve it. Defeat the problem exactly as it is presented. A checkpoint? Test your fake papers and your communication skills. A suspicious chest? Check for traps and pick the locks. Directly address the problem in the most direct fashion.

Research it. My players often miss this one so having it on a list might be especially useful. Sometimes the best next step is to investigate the problem and try to find more information about it. Maybe there are known ways around it. Maybe a weakness will be revealed.

Decompose it. The classic engineering solution is to break the problem down into sub-problems and solve them separately. Talk with each other and find the sub-problems and often each of these is simpler than the whole. This is the essence of the ever-elusive “plan” and when you do it it’s very satisfying. But because it’s not very immediate and it’s quite analytical it may not occur to you in the heat of the moment.

Synthesize it. Maybe a bunch of problems are really one problem. Do they link together in a way that is itself a weakness? Maybe disabling each of the security components is not necessary if we look at the security system as a whole and start thinking about how the whole operates. Kill the power? Remove the guard at the CCTV station?

Subvert it. Sometimes the problem can be made to solve itself. Bribe the guard, set off the minefield as a distraction, threaten the guard with the trapped chest. Use the problem against itself.

Embrace it. Let the problem happen and endure it. You’ve spent all that energy one making yourself resistant to poison so just stick your hand in the chest. Run through the minefield playing the odds. Surrender to the border patrol and find a way to continue from inside the compound even if it’s from inside the brig.

More succinctly, destroy, avoid, solve, research, decompose, synthesize, subvert, embrace. With this list could you more readily find a narrative that later implies the skill to use? Would you at least sometimes wind up using your worse skills because the plan at least is “better”? Would the story become a little more varied?

mechanical and fictitious injuries

Okay there are lots of different ways to play and one thing that keeps getting attention is “fiction first” which, as far as I can tell, is only very weakly defined. If it’s well defined, I can’t find it. I think it’s a play style — the style where you follow the narrative and announce your actions within the narrative and then try to figure out the mechanical representation of that rather than surfing your character sheet as a menu of options to determine the best mechanical option which you wedge into the narrative somehow. It works great when failing is fun but it doesn’t satisfy qualitatively like winning does. It’s a style.

But can it be a mechanism? I mean it can be advice, obviously. You could even get draconian and write it as a rule (“play in this style or you’re doing it wrong!”), but mechanize it?

Well, let’s look at injury.

In a hit point system injury is mechanically represented as hit points. In some cases it doesn’t have any impact beyond measuring how close you are to death. It might have an impact as well. But it has a number.

And it has a way to fix that number. You get x hit points back from a rest. You get some back from a healing potion. There are strictly mechanical ways to get those hit points back and consequently heal the injury. This is mechanically “fiction last”. You deploy the mechanism. It is clear. It is unambiguous. It doesn’t matter if it’s weird that a first level cleric can save you from certain death if you’re weak but can’t clear up your acne if you’re powerful. The fiction is completely irrelevant. You make some shit up later to make sense of the clear mechanism.

Consequence: knifed in the face.

That’s an extreme. Let’s see if there’s a fuzzy case. In Fate you have stress but everyone says they aren’t injury (fact is, they might be) so instead let’s look at Consequences. Those are injuries! You have a limited number of Consequences and when you’re out of Stress and Consequences (bad game show that) you are taken out. Maybe dead. Maybe something else. But you’re done. And there is a mechanical way to get stress back (end of the scene) and a way to get Consequences back (varies by variant but usually a fixed time or number of sessions or something else mechanical that fixes some time period for healing). The impact of the Consequence is manifold: first it eats up part of your limit of Consequences. Second it represents a negative aspect that someone can use against you — maybe at no cost! And third it’s true. That is, it has a direct impact on the narrative because it’s a fact. If you have the Consequence “broken legs” you cannot do things that people with broken legs can’t do. This is purely within the fiction: there’s no mechanism (-4 to do “things”) — you must weave it into the fiction and play it out.

This to me is a half measure. It’s almost there. The fiction is dominant and in some circumstances it’s first but, it’s also second (when called out for a compel, say, or when figuring out how to heal it).

In the Soft Horizon system injury is mostly narrative. It has a mechanical component, but let’s look at it.

You risk HARM and it goes bad and you get a WOUND. You describe the WOUND and put it on your sheet. For every WOUND you have, your physical abilities are reduced one step. You may be unable to function if you have enough of them. Well, unable to do VIOLENCE or RESCUE someone. You are no closer to death, but if you are sufficiently incapable you might want to narrate that as death. Your choice.

Like a Consequence, the text of your WOUND is true. You can only do things that are fictionally consistent with the text. The fiction is given primacy. It drives the effect.

But it’s in repair that we get closer to the fiction and further from mechanism: there is no mechanism to heal a WOUND. There is no amount of time to pass, no number of sessions, no particular potion. The mechanism give you nothing. You heal a WOUND by pursuing and executing action within the fiction that would reasonably heal your WOUND. You might go to the hospital and wave away six weeks; that would fix your broken leg. Or you might pursue a legendary artifact that replaces your leg with a god’s finger in steel and diamond. Or maybe you decide to trust the crazy surgeon and they just build a new join in at the break and now you have more joints in your leg.

Two things have to happen: you the player must pursue a narrative that would fix the WOUND and then you have to succeed in the process. Then your WOUND is gone. Pure fiction.

It feels to me like timed solutions to wounds (as with Consequences in some Fate variants) is groping at this solution but ultimately seduced by traditional methods: I mean, since it’s true and drives fiction by its truth, it’s only a small step further to repair it the same way. Find a fiction in which it’s not longer true. It’s so close. But we often fall back on familiar methods because they are familiar and they suffice because, well, they’ve always been good enough.

So while “fiction first” is mostly a style of play, there are ways we can weaponize the fiction to function first or instead of mechanism. Not in every case, perhaps, but sometimes. And I think we don’t largely because we didn’t think it all the way through, because we already have a familiar solution. But the fiction has always had the power to force play — it has always been the ultimate determinant between being able to use the car (it has no gas) or not. We don’t give everything some kind of point score to determine what it does when and how much (the car needn’t have zero fuel points for us to agree it will not run). We can leverage that power for other things since it certainly exists.

super powers

So the usual problem with supers games is, what if one character is many times more powerful than another? Worse, what if one is many thousands of times more powerful? How does the weak character bear on the game?

There are lots of ways games solve this, but I’m not really interested in specific solutions. Let’s tease this apart a little instead.

capn underpants.jpgSupers are super good at applying force. Super strength, laser eyes, frost breath, super speed, whatever it is, they are primarily about exerting force with it. So when we say one character is a lot more powerful than another, we are really saying that they are better at exerting force. Now if this bugs me, I really have to look a little closer at why: why does the ability to exert force better than someone else mean that there is an overall unbalance? That a weaker character has no impact on story?

So let’s look at superhero stories. They have a fairly basic pattern: there’s some situational stuff, some kind of conflict, a half hour of punching to develop the problem, some more situational stuff, some more conflict, and a really huge fight scene. The fight scene dominates the story.

Or does it? It dominates the time, but if our metric was some kind of “volume of story delivered” the fight scenes are actually incredibly sparse. They do little or nothing to develop the story they just take all the time. The meat of the story is elsewhere.

So why over-mechanize the bit that is basically fluff?

Let’s say Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. That’s a a half hour fight scene. Cap is using all kinds of tricks set up before hand. He takes a terrible beating. He eventually tricks the Hulk into Bannerizing or being thrown into orbit or something. Hulk is not dead. No one is ever dead. Even dead, next year they won’t be dead. Don’t worry about dead.

But this fight is not where the meat is. The meat is in why Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. And so that’s where the game should be too. Cap has constraints. Hulk has constraints. These are the things that define their characters far more than their super powers because they define when the character can use them…and when they can’t. Cap can’t get frustrated in a Senate hearing and solve the problem by decapitating the committee. He could do that. He has the power. He can apply that force. But he is constrained. And when you are constrained to not act you simply do not have that power in any real sense.

Cap has a set of ethics that strictly constrain him. And he is partially reliant on a technology (without that shield he is less).

Hulk is not always the Hulk and cannot apply force unless he is. And when he is he acts emotionally and not rationally. He is constrained to obey the id first and foremost. And maybe most importantly, Banner does not like being Hulk. He does not want to invoke his super power ever.

decision densityThose are the defining things about those characters. Those come into play everywhere the story is dense, everywhere there is not a fight, everywhere that culminates in that visually stunning but essentially empty fight scene.

And that’s why a weak character is as or more important than a strong character in a supers story. That character has two things going for them: outside the fight scene they are probably better at this than the supers (compare Tony Stark to Pepper Potts), and during the fight scene they invoke constraints: they need protecting, they calm the beast, they are what is being fought for. The weak character is the story. It’s what the supers react to. It’s the whole reason the super exists.

So the question to me is not how do we make sure these power imbalances work, but rather why are we privileging the largely empty fight scene over the story-dense material that necessarily precedes it, shapes it, constrains it, places it, and counts the score at the end of it? Why is the power scale problem even a discussion we have? It seems to miss the whole point of the source material.


In 1979 Robert Altman made a bomb of a film, Quintet, starring Paul Newman (that’s an edit — for some reason I originally wrote “Robert Redford”, probably because they both remind me of my father somehow) and a number of good (even great) European actors like Vittorio Gassman (The Nude Bomb not, maybe, his best) and Brigitte Fossey.

quintet essex
Is this guy ever not beautiful? He looks so much like my father did.

Like anything by Altman it’s at least interesting. The cinematography is weirdly voyeuristic with every frame vignetted with a blur like looking through a window rimed with ice. The sets were all highly refrigerated, so there’s a constant fog from the actors’ breath. This suits the setting — we’re in a post-apocalyptic world now deep in a nuclear winter and the ice and snow are constants. Technology is gone, we’re down to knives and spears and, well, explosives. Wood is expensive and don’t get the stuff that’s been pulled from the poisoned buildings — it’s been “treated” and creates a toxic fume.

The film has a strange Logan’s Run vibe, but more serious and more complex. But not more fun — it’s convoluted and medieval and cold and weird and slow. And gory (it got 18+ classifications all over the place for the violence and severed limbs). Lots of dogs eating people. It’s not clear why no one eats the dogs.

Anyway, the reason this film is especially interesting given the context of this blog — games — is that it centers around a board game called Quintet. And Altman and the crew developed the rules for this game and it works. If you were lucky enough (or unlucky given what a bomb the film was) to see an early screening, you got a pamphlet with the rules. Yup now you have a copy too.

Quintet is interesting because there’s a sort of referee — there are five players and the so-called “sixth man” who determines the allowed killing order of the players. You can only kill the person clockwise from you on the killing circle which the sixth player arranges. The objective of this “sixth man” is to arrange the killing order such that the weakest player is left to play in the endgame. Only then do their pieces come out.

quintet board
Beautiful wooden Quintet board with actual play going on courtesy of Smout Allen (@SmoutAllen on Twitter)

Play happens on a pentagonal board with a center space, a limbo space in each “sector” of the pentagon, and five “rooms” at the edge of each sector. In the initial move you throw two dice and move each piece to a room in your sector, six being limbo, as called for by the dice.

Thereafter you move a piece the sum of both your dice or use each die separately, moving clockwise or counter as you choose. Your objective is to share a room with your victim, killing that piece. If you kill both their pieces they are out of the game and the killing circle closes up: you have a new victim.

If you share a room with someone who isn’t your victim you are allied — no one can enter the room and kill either of you. But the killing order could change….

Now there are a couple of rules missing from the pamphlet. I’ll try to derive them from the film or make up a good guess.

If you roll a six you may enter the Limbo section of the sector you’re in. That’s in the rules. You have to leave on your next roll. But there are two ways this could work: you could use any die to enter any room in the sector and count starting there or you could enter the appropriately numbered room. The first makes a move out of limbo very powerful. The second presents the possibility that you could wind up back in limbo. Maybe in the next sector? Both are interesting.

EDIT: the film does indeed give a clue how to resolve this when Fernando Rey’s character says “it’s like spending the whole game in limbo, throwing an infinite series of sixes”. So it seems you enter the numbered room from limbo, staying there if you roll a six. Or maybe you enter anywhere and count off unless you roll a six. Clues but no real evidence.

The pamphlet doesn’t say how the sixth player enters the board in the endgame but there is a scene (when Essex plays Ambrosia for the first time) where this happens: the sixth player enters into the survivor’s home sector. We know this because Ambrosia calls Essex foolish for making his last kill in his home sector, giving Ambrosia a possible first-roll kill.

Are there other rules missing? I find this document poorly structured to teach the game but after multiple readings I think I have a handle on it. Has anyone out there played?


I’ve been hanging around in a lot of game design spaces in the last year or so, mostly to see what the “state of the art” is. Most are not well-organized. Most lack any kind of vision or direction, so they are largely regular folks talking about what they are doing. This means that many if not all develop their own unwritten axioms of design that the loudest present espouse.

I don’t talk much in these spaces but I listen because this is interesting and, in varied spaces, somewhat…well, varied. And also not. When I do participate I try to frame my advice in such a way as to avoid disparaging the assumptions at work and so have been zooming in (or out, I guess) on general design principles.

Gnolls are a little thick and in heat of battle may attack their own shadows.

For example, if someone is building a roll-to-hit-roll-for-damage combat simulator, that’s what they want to build. Me coming in and saying “well how about we find a way to also address the soul-shattering horror of being forced to be a murderous sociopath all day” is not actually all that helpful. And certainly unwelcome. So my first rule is: whatever they are trying to build, I’m only useful if I help them build that as well as possible. Helping them make something they don’t want is not helping. It’s paternalistic bullshit, really.

So in trying not to be an asshole but craving the contact of communication, I have to develop some ideas that at once are useful and also do not deny specific choices just because I dislike them. I need to separate what I like from what’s a good way to design.

Fortunately there is a way to talk about design that isn’t that loaded. I was worried that in generalizing it would become too simple but it isn’t. And it’s mostly familiar: this is restating stuff that’s been said before. Let’s say it again.

First, design intentionally. Every rule you write, stop and think “why is this here?” Make everything you make on purpose. This is how you avoid cargo-culting something together and instead genuinely make what you really want to make. And maybe discovering that the game you want to make already exists since you’re echoing all of it.

This of course forces you to wonder what you want to do. People often say this is the first step but honestly the question “what is your game about?” comes off as antagonistic sometimes, especially if the designer hasn’t thought about summarizing the game’s intentions. Often their intentions are not yet coherent — they never thought to even think about it. The question asked directly is, again, a little paternalistic: I know better than you what needs to happen next.

But if you agree you should design intentionally then the question “what is my intent” is going to come up internally, whether explicitly or as the aggregate of all the “why am I making this rule?” questions. I think people are far more open to wondering if their game is indeed “about” something if they ask themselves first.

The next derivation is worth guiding to. If you have a hundred rules and you have thought about why all each exists, it’s natural now to wonder if there are common purposes and, more interestingly, conflicting purposes. Do the rules all help each other do what you intend them to do? This is “coherence” to me. When the rules support each others’ intentions. When you lack coherence you have rules that either have unrelated reasons for existing (these might be subsystems — maybe you have coherent subsystems in a much more loosely organized framework) or work against each other (and this is unsatisfying and as soon as you see it you’ll want to either fix it or make it a feature but not likely just leave it alone).

Make things on purpose.

Try to understand your purpose.

Intend your level and structure of coherence.

Once you decide that these are good things to do when designing you can start thinking about ordering them into a workflow but honestly that’s yours. I hate people telling me what my workflow should be. You will figure out your workflow. When you start thinking along those lines you can ask for advice (not from me — my workflow is crazy) and when you ask you’re generally ready to receive.

So: first do things intentionally. Everything else follows.

auto-observational design

Playtesting is always full of opportunities. Let’s look at two different things and see how they come together because of play and offer a design method. Not the only one, not a whole methodology, but rather a tool for your toolbox.

In the current Sand Dogs playtest our intrepid heroes have left the world. So they are pretty much done with the Sand Dogs concept except as it impacted their character creation and development to date. New world! They are chasing the slaver Harrison who turns out to be a planewalker and since they freed his slaves and broke up his gang, he’s looking for greener pastures.

So I have to make a new world.

This is great because the next Soft Horizon book is to be the handbook which tells you how to make worlds. And I don’t know exactly how to do that yet. But I am an experienced referee of role-playing games and I’ve developed settings before. I have the intuitive talents to do this already.

The opportunity here is to design observationally. I have an artistic intuition about how to proceed but I need to formalize it so others can reproduce it. I could start by imagining a process but in this case there’s a more fertile possibility: I can just watch how I do what I do naturally and take notes.

I’ll work in cycles here — make a thing and then look back over what I did and turn it into a process. Now, I’m not done yet so I can’t tell you the whole process, but I can talk about the meta process — the process of developing the process.

The new world started with an image that I dropped on the table in a panic at the end of the last session as the characters arrived in a new world: it’s a jungle and there’s a huge ziggurat and it’s at the end of a long straight path of churned up earth: the ziggurat appears to have moved albeit very slowly.
Seriously that’s all I have to work with here.

But hang on let’s start there if that’s what we start with. We start with an image. How do you get an image? Imagine a place with at least two things that don’t fit together. When I think about how I got to that bit of loopy ad lib, I realize that’s what I did: invented a contradiction. A mobile building. A fixed structure that isn’t.

So now I have to wonder, what’s a good way to get to that? And how exactly did I do it? This is the meta-process: when you ad lib something cool, look back on your own process. How did you get there? Can you make that a procedure? Can you mechanize that, at least in part, so someone else can reproduce it? You did it. Tell other people how. That’s how writing game texts works.

Oracles of course.

My brain kicks out some random shit and I try to make sense of it. That’s the frame we build this house on: some random crap that you have to make sense of. That’s the heart of every great Traveller session: how the hell can there be a population of billions with stone age technology on a world with no air? Don’t start with “that’s stupid”. Start with “how do we explain that?” That’s where creativity thrives. Don’t block, as the improv folks say. Make it work.

So to start with I want to emulate the random crap generator that’s in my head. I talked before about using oracles and the random noun generator and that’s the model.

Start with a couple of random words. For the game text we’ll call them “elements” and we’ll have some mechanism to deliver them. Probably they’ll be printed in the margin of the book so you can flip to a random page and get an oracle. That’s pretty much an exact model for my brain anyway. But for now here’s the start of the process: get two random words. For my new world those are “wild” and “wander”. Everything about this world is going to be about either wildness or wandering or both. If there are fixed structures they wander. If there are civilizations, they are wild.

And there’s clue two: find the contradiction and develop that. If your element is “water” start thinking about things that can’t be water and make them water. Hunt the contradictions. That’s where the meat is.

A sartorial adventurer.

The next thing I did was draw. I want the players to immediately meet someone so that the world can be introduced through the eyes of someone who knows how it works. And whenever I do that I start drawing. So I drew this … person.

Obviously I’m not going to write a procedure that forces you to draw. That’s not practical. But at the heart of my instinct to draw were a couple of things: again I want an image. And I also want someone to meet, someone through whom the players can experience the world as a native. And so this is that person. But what can I tell you to do? And how did I get to this thing in the first place?

But maybe I’m missing the heart of this. Maybe the heart of this isn’t that I drew a cool insect guy. Maybe the heart is: create a non-player character to meet who illuminates the weirdness of this world. Yes, that’s what it is. That’s the next step. My personal process is to draw them first but that’s not the important part. Invent this character and then think about how they fit into this weird world. What does it imply about the culture? What does this character do from day to day? Is that typical (awesome, now we know a lot about the culture)? Is it weird? That’s awesome too because whatever it denies about the culture (making it weird) is just the complement of what the culture is. As long as the character is extreme one way or another, we can derive What People Here Do. At least some of them.

Obviously there will be more and more material but the important part is the meta part: if you do something intuitively then analyze it and figure out what a procedure might be for other people to replicate it. Maybe not your procedure exactly but one that gets close to it. Think hard about how you think hard and write it down.