mystery flesh pits

No it’s not a sex thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

depression creeps up sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gun range is a little more complex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is your game about?

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

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

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

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

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This is actually one of my own diagrams.

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

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

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

img_0259
Because laser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

guilds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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