resolution as narrative

Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.

Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.

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That’s a Juan Ochoa original. See previous post. Thanks Juan.

What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.

More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.

It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.

All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.

SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.

CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.

REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.

WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.

DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.

So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.

Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.

artist highlight: juan ochoa

I am a pretty bad art director. I don’t really know what I want. It’s in my head but, you know, there are a lot of layers of translation between my brain and someone elses. My instinct, though, is to trust that part of being an artist — like a real artist, a pro — is not just translating my idea but also bringing all that creative talent to make my idea theirs. To have them develop the concept into something much better than what was in my head anyway.

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Juan and his cat Art Supplies. I believe he has another name, but also is clearly an art supply.

Juan Ochoa helps me get over that hurdle and preserve my desire to see another artist get creative: he works interactively at the concept level to get things not just right, not just as good as I wanted, but the multiple of what he wants and what I want. His method makes us both better.

I first asked Juan to collaborate with me on a project that didn’t wind up developing into anything, although we did still have some cool concept art come out of it. This was Swallowmere, a fantasy sequel to the VSCA’s Hollowpoint. It has a ghastly web page. I apologize. Here are some bandages for your eyes.

So the premise was, the world of That RPG We All Played When We Were Kids, a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and humans and dwarves and whatnot, but a thousand years later. A modern, technological fantasy. Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings, say.

demureIt didn’t finish but it created a lot of fun text and art and that was when I first got into Juan’s process. Pictures, text chat, live video, whatever he can get his hands on to bring you into the process. Now if you don’t want that, that’s cool, he can churn out to spec and not bug you about it. But if you do want it, if you want to collaborate rather than just direct, he’s all in.

After Swallowmere I asked him to do a cover and some character art for my space opera project Elysium Flare (which did complete!) In the end I got so into making the art myself — and this was his fault, since working interactively with him let me steal some essential techniques for digital illustration — that the book wound up largely in my own style. Nonetheless, critical landmarks in the book are perfectly his.

Shamayan FINAL.pngJuan lives in Bogota, Colombia, where it is notoriously hard to get him paid, get him mail, and other things we take for granted elsewhere. But it’s also a place where he can afford to live on his art (provided we hire him a-plenty), eat great food, drink amazing coffee, and keep an adorable cat. He occasionally ships me some coffee along with a cake of panela, a kind of cake of unrefined cane sugar which you chip off into your coffee. If you chip off too big a chip you just eat it because it’s still rich with molasses and other good pre-refinement stuff.

Juan has worked for plenty of folks in the industry already — you’ll see his work everywhere once you notice his distinctive style. And yet he remains humble (to a fault), affordable, and approachable. He has portfolios all over the place but this is the only one I think is current.

I love working with Juan. I feel like I get smarter every time we interact. I have recently asked Juan to work on a mini-project with me that I’ll expose at a later date. It’s not a game, just a…thing. Promotional thing, for sure, to bring attention to Sand Dogs (which is releasing within the next week), but also just a thing. A little delight. An amuse yeux perhaps.

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weapons technology in d&d

expensive toys

My business, the VSCA, is in a very privileged space. It’s not for me to talk about whether someone elses pricing scheme is good or bad, just or unjust. It is certainly all those things. So let’s just look at some things that are certainly true and wonder how much we care. You get to decide how much you care for yourself.

Monte Cook Games pays a decent wage to their writers and artists. Far above the indie norm.

A hundred bucks in one outlay is too much money for some people to pay. They cannot afford to buy this game (Invisible Sun) even in digital only form.

A hundred bucks does not seem to me to be out of line with my personal rule for pricing: generate the same profit in print as in digital. It just tells me that MCG is making about eighty bucks per unit on the print version too.

Big price-tag games are not new. Hell I would love to own that monster box Ogre release but there’s no way I could justify the price. I still have to pay off the stair elevator chair thing my wife uses to get to the bathroom since she can’t walk. But there are lots of things I can’t afford. I usually talk myself into believing I don’t want them. Same as everyone. Pfft, Lambourghini, where would you even drive one in this city and expect to use its performance?

There are thousands of games with lower production values but better play values one could own. It is hard to find out about all of them. Even most of them. Because…

…it is very hard for a producer of low priced excellent games to get eyes on their game. They can’t afford the sort of marketing available to better capitalized endeavours, they don’t have the industry heft and consequently the social media reach that these folks have. And manufacturing that reach is very difficult (and as we have seen elsewhere in the so-called “industry”, sometimes poisonous: it might not be wise to trust people who have spent a lot of energy developing social capital like that).

Kickstarter enables almost anyone to either effectively capitalize whatever project they want (including one of the scale of Invisible Sun) or fail trying. The nice thing about this is they don’t need to eat the risk unless they succeed at the Kickstarter. That’s when the risk kicks in and sometimes eats you alive. The problem here is probably that “great game designer” and “great project planner” and “fiscal genius” don’t necessarily overlap in any given enthusiastic person starting a Kickstarter. But if you do Kickstart and you do your fiscal homework, you can pay artists and writers top dollar too. And if you can’t (Kickstarter fails) then you don’t play out that risk. This is what Kickstarter is good for.

This might not be a fact but I believe it firmly: more people buy a digital product than read it and more people read it than play it. If you want to sell a lot of copies your game can be crap as long as it’s pretty and entertaining to read.

The front page of DriveThruRPG is driven by revenue not units sold. If you sell two copies a day at a hundred bucks each you will stay on the front page for a long time. Smaller entities will last hours at best, and then fall under the radar. So even if a consumer checks the site once a day, they will never see many new titles. Never ever.

Poor people deserve a good time too. In fact I’ll say they deserve it more. A lot more. You wouldn’t believe how much the oppression of living day to day with Not Enough is lifted, however briefly, by a fun time with cool people.

To my mind then there is nothing “to do” about this hefty pricing of a PDF. It’s easy to justify. It’s easy to deride. Ultimately, a business has set a price and you can afford it or not. They don’t owe you access and you don’t owe them your money.

At the same time there is a boom in insanely cheap, deliberately low-fidelity gaming zines produced by people who are only paying themselves and barely managing that. Should we also be examining that? Is that “ethical”? There are and have always been a ton of pay-what-you-want or even just free games out there that are largely invisible because the heuristics of DTRPG guarantee it and the authors are not facile at getting visibility. Should we be concerned that they pressure indie developers to keep their prices low? They do. Should we be concerned?

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I have never paid Juan Ochoa enough.

No, not particularly. What we should care about is that people who do work get paid for it and paid adequately. That’s pretty much it. Whether a product sells enough to stay afloat is not our problem. Pricing is not our problem. Consumer goods being out of reach is old news (and is a feature of capitalism, so changing it is a substantial project). Cheap and occasionally excellent goods being available is awesome and unusual.

There are at least two ethical actions then (and I like to talk about things in terms of what to do next — criticism without some logical next steps is cathartic but less useful): supporting lines that pay their artists and supporting lines that are single-author (since these are largely the same thing). If you tell me the rates you are paying artists and writers on your Kickstarter, I’m more likely to think about backing (depending on what you actually say). If you’re a single-author publisher and especially if you’re not using Kickstarter, I will happily highlight your project here and tweet the hell out of it, lending you my (sorry but) limited reach.

If you want everyone to be able to afford games, you can’t drive down the price of Elite Games and also support adequate pay to artists. There are a lot of talented people getting paid to make that sort of thing. You can help make already affordable games more visible, though, and by side effect put more money in the hands of artists. So they can make more (affordable) games.

That is, the solution isn’t deriding luxury games. The solution is celebrating the rest of them. Inasmuch as a solution is needed.

Oh and for heaven’s sake play your games. If you read it, yell about it, good bad or mediocre. If you play it, yell with more authority.

Yell about games.

trusting the ref too much

Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.

IMG_0419 (1).pngThe characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”

The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”

“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”

“Go with them.”

“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”

“I wait.”

“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”

What the fuck happened here?!

A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.

First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.

Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!

Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.

Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.

Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?

How about we change the rules instead?

If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.

If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.

If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.

If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.

So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.

There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.

The ref never rolls.

“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.

Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.

sebastien mixed density region

If you build a map you pretty much have to do something with it. I was looking at maps the other day — nautical maps showing depths as contours — and thought I’d like to try a new technique or two and make a similar map for a science fiction game.

starmap labelled

So what would the contour lines be on a star map? I decided they are hydrogen densities.

When you make choices like that and you are like me and want to create, this only raises more questions. Why would you chart hydrogen densities? What does it mean when a star is in a high density region? What about a low density one? Whole games are born this way.

So I built a toy. It’s kind of part of a game that doesn’t exist. It’s a thing you could use to run whole campaigns with your favourite system. A framework for exploration. Here’s the schtick:

You are c-luggers, traders in ramscoop starships that can get very close to the speed of light but of course not past it. You trade. The secret purpose of your organization is actually to keep civilization going — to prevent the inevitable falls you’ve seen a hundred times and to uplift the fallen so they can be functioning trade partners. And to keep your ships flying. Yes, I’m absolutely calling on Vernor Vinge‘s character Pham Nguyen from A Deepness in the Sky. I am unashamed.

You can move faster through higher hydrogen densities (though not the top end — that’s fast, sure, but risky as hell). Your subjective time that passes in travel isn’t much, relativity is your friend, but lots of time passes where you stop. Your old pals on Pig’s Eye are long dead, that’s a certainty, but what else has changed? You remember they were headed for a serious panopticon problem but can you get there in time to bring the social tech you found at the Younger Sister? Maybe you could take the fast route, through the high density zone and make it in time, but what if you’re both wrong and damaged by the fast path?

Oh well, find out when you get there I guess.

So I built a little on page toy — this map and some rules for how to move in it and how to determine what you find. If it’s a new place to visit, what is it like (in the narrow terms the toy cares about — you can use your system to provide the rest of the detail)? If you’ve been there before, how has it changed? And can you get your software updated? Surely there’s a certified software archaeologist around here somewhere.

You can get this at the Patreon page. It’s free now if you’re a patron (and if you are you are free to do with it as you please, including give it to others, talk about it, or just print it and keep it under your pillow). If you’re not, it’ll be available to everyone else on March 15, 2019.