more diagrams so sue me

Data Flow Diagrams are fun for highlighting all kinds of design problems and then fixing them. It’s intuitive: when there are tons of overlapping arrows you have a problem. When you have an arrow entering or exiting a resource but never the reverse, you missed something. When you have two process bubbles talking to each other directly you are implying synchronous behaviour. This lets you untangle, rethink sources and sinks, and wonder if there’s value in asynchronicity since you can see how to implement it.

As a cheap example let’s look at a simple synchronous conversation between four people.

comm 1

Instantly we see that synchronous communication between people gets complicated fast. Now fortunately at a game table most of that conversation is casual — it’s not part of the rules, per se. For example, while all the players can and do communicate with each other, the rules might specify a stricter relationship.

comm 2

Back in the Old Days we recognized that even this was messy and that, since it happened anyway, we’d formalize the idea of a Caller — a player who was authorized to do the mechanical communication with the ref, neatly gating the interplayer communication off. Again taking the inter-player communication as non-mechanical and not part of the diagram:

comm 3

One might feel that this an artifact of old school game design and one would be right. This is partly because many of the moves (which were not yet recognized as codifiable as Moves) were group moves: we go south, we go down the stairs. But since someone was gating group moves anyway, and since it cut down the confusion of crosstalk (the person being confused being the ref mostly), whoever was coordinating group moves was also summarizing individual moves:

ABLE: We should listen at this door before we go in.

BAKER: I want to just kick it in and charge.

CHARLIE: We will pause at the door and ABLE will listen.

DOG: [dice] you don’t hear anything.

CHARLIE: BAKER kicks it in.

Partly this is because there’s a lot of other things competing for the attention of the ref and this simplification is valuable when you’re running a secret dungeon map with wandering monster tables and trying to remember what’s even on anyone’s character sheet let alone where you put the stat blocks for those aboleths. Simplifications in this environment are going to happen anyway — might as well codify them.

When we really want to break things down and listen to everyone specifically, we went to a turn based system: the ref asks “What do you do, ABLE?” and then “What do you do, BAKER?” and we of course didn’t interrupt each others’ turns. A classic multi-tasking solution — we time slice the incoming events and give every pending interrupt its own little slice of the ref’s attention. The turn.

In deciding to treat role-playing as a conversation we don’t really solve this problem, we just agree that it’s more fun as a human problem than a mechanical one and it’s fine to just broadcast “What do you do?” to the whole table and handle interrupts as they arise. It’s a little weird to me that this is the modern development, when way back in the turn days we were trying to solve the problem of spotlight sharing and had a pretty good solution (time-slicing) and lo and behold, now we have the problem of spotlight sharing again. This seems backwards — it seems like in the bad old days we should have been shouting over each other with the loudest attended to and in the newfangled design-aware world we should have a mechanism to guarantee equal access to the ref. But whatever.

Anyway that’s sort of a digression. What I wanted to get to was asynchronicity. What if we did this instead?

comm 4

This is an asynchronous model of play, where everyone talks into some store of messages and pulls out the latest one. Rather than talking to each other we talk into the data store. You might recognize this as the play by mail or play by forum model. It’s even, really, the play by chat model, it’s just that we tend to use chat (like Hangouts or Discord or whatever) as an immediate communication technology, but there’s a back end store and you could come and go as you please and still pick up the thread from the store.

An interesting thing about this model is that it invites us to consider adding additional processing. What if we had another node that wasn’t a person at all, but that changed the content of the store or that listened and added its own content?

comm 5

Now we have text formatting, dice bots, directed communication (tagging something such that it also notifies a recipient), and potentially other assistance! And really nothing restricts us to one store — one might have another store that’s private:

comm 6

Yup, direct messages. These data stores are powerful!

So let’s look at another data store that we all use: character sheets. Ignoring the rules reference, our traditional play actually looks like this (at least):

comm 7

Everyone is maintaining a store containing their character information and the ref needs to see it. In fact it’s worse than that if you want to huddle together over tactics: everyone needs to see everyone elses sheet as well as talk to each other and that’s a lot of arrows. One of the things that happens in the real world when a social model like a game has a lot of arrows, is people stop using some of them. If they are necessary to the game then necessary parts of the game start getting stripped away. People stop doing stressful things eventually and this is how rules get pruned.

But what if we just put all our characters in a shared document?

comm 8

Our diagram now has way fewer arrows and still has the same capabilities (though I had to move things around to make the arrows not overlap, the topology is the same). It has more even. Practically speaking this means that the ref is probably going to pay more attention to what’s on your character sheet. And if the system is designed such that there are important things there (plot hooks and mechanical advantages) that’s a really good thing to preserve. In the previous spaghetti of communication, those are things that will get dropped to cut the stress down.

You can already see other parts of your game that can be diagrammed like this and then adjusted to reduce complexity. If everyone needs their own copy of the rules, that’s pretty terrible for example. If everyone shares a book that’s still cumbersome.

comm 9

But put essential rules on the character sheet and things simplify. You already knew THAT would happen but are there other things you’ve missed?

comm 10


Diagrammatical languages are revelatory and they do some work.

Blame my patrons.

diagramming play as conversation

Recently a friend (whom I respect and who is not Wrong — that’s not what this is: it’s a divergence not a rebuttal) posted a revelation inspired by a symbology for interactions in an RPG. They posted this:


…and noted that since each node is apparently equal (and certainly equal as humans ought to be) then the nodes were in fact interchangeable, allowing this:

reflexive conversation

EDIT: turns out I misinterpreted my friend’s diagram and conclusions. Not all that uncommon for me! Anyway, the following is still fun and relevant, it’s just that the above is hypothetical and not necessarily something anyone anywhere has actually concluded.

I think that while this is true, it’s trivially true because of the simplicity of the symbology. That is, it implies a truth that is in fact only revelatory because the symbology ignores so much that is interesting in the ref-player relationship of a traditional game. It’s revelatory but it doesn’t do any work for you. Let’s revise this diagram a little in order to understand the true design cost of implementing the egalitarian structure implied above.

My first cut would be to recognize that while this is a conversation, it’s a conversation with privileged roles. Rather than a simple two-way discussion, what’s really going on is this:

asymmetric conversation

That is, the player offers narration until an action triggers the ref’s response, and their response is to inform the player of an update to the shared world’s state. This might be as simple as:

PLAYER: “What colour are the walls?”

REF: “Orange.”

Until this exchange, every player and the ref have a different colour or no colour in mind. It’s not until the ref updates the formal state by declaring it that the walls resolve to a particular colour. So this implies that the ref is storing some state:

stateful conversation

We obviously need to do a bunch more work to make it as symmetrical as we want! Migrating the ref role is going to need some design work, even if it’s just a declaration that we are not going to care about this stored state beyond agreeing that everyone’s internal idea of what has gone on before is considered equal. When inconsistencies arise, perhaps the current declarator of the state is always considered correct. Or perhaps there’s a physical annotation of state that’s literally handed over. Whatever we agree, it’s necessarily part of the design and this richer symbology reveals that that work is necessary.

For example, if we wanted to imply that everyone’s internal idea of the world state is equal until revealed, we might diagram like so:

everyone has state

This choice of diagramming scheme, this symbology, encodes the fact that each player has a different state stored. That’s something you need to deal with (however easily — I’m not saying it’s hard or easy, just that it’s a design decision) and the symbology has made it absolutely clear: those are not the same state storage boxes.

And then, it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is. Let’s say everyone has an idea of what colour the walls are and it has not been declared. Now it may be the case that a current ref not only has an image of the walls as orange, but also has a reason for this. One that implies some future conflict or interesting reveal. If the ref role is handed over before that can be brought into play, and the wall colour is revealed to be green, then that future state (plans) would be obviated. So what we really have in trad ref structure is this:

stateful conversation with future state

Again, this is not an argument against ref migration but only that too simple a symbology will fail to reveal the work you need to do. The minimum work here would be to say that everyone’s plans are irrelevant until reveal: there are many possible future universes but only the current ref role (even if this is as simple as whoever declares a fact) gets to pick which one resolves as real and current. It also, happily, reveals alternate design possibilities: is it possible to somehow communicate future state ideas between people and therefore preserve some of the planning that naturally takes place as people converse about this fiction? Let’s say you note an exciting future state idea and put it on an index card in the center of the table and when someone takes a declarative (ref) role, they draw a card and decide whether or not to incorporate it. This implies further mechanism that might be fun — do you destroy the card or return it to the pile? Is there a reward for using it and how gets the reward? Is there a penalty for refusing it? Or even for using it? Again, a choice of meaningful symbology reveals the design space. Gives you clues.

While a simple symbology can be creatively stimulating, revealing (or more realistically suggesting, since it works because the symbology is incomplete and therefore possibly incorrect in practice) unexpected space on the map of all game design, it doesn’t really capture the work that needs to happen to open up and explore that space. You can do it by trial and error — just try sharing the ref hat around and see what happens — and that’s actually pretty good methodology for an RPG since testing is play and play is fun. But you can also extend the symbology and find out beforehand what the design work is going to be. Existing process diagramming tools are good for this (what I’m using here is a bastardized form of Data Flow Diagram or DFD ( but any logical system for diagramming can be put to use to map for game design. I think the DFD is at once simple enough for anyone and also rich enough to be revelatory.

My patrons make these happen.

phased downtime

Elseplace we got talking about the nifty technology of phased downtime — that is, of downtime as a separate mode of play, enforced by rules. This is not all that new (see Pendragon, for example) but it is interesting. It’s a heartbeat for the game: you do mission stuff, you do downtime stuff, rinse and repeat. You also see it in Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches where you have night moves and day moves, creating two separate but related storylines with slightly different technologies.

Now this didn’t feel all that new to me, but let’s look at other examples and how they are different.

First, though, these examples are of mechanical separation — the rules, not the narrative, define when the phases change and what the rules are during the new phase. But there are other ways to separate phases.

Consider, for example, the Dungeons & Dragons I played when I was 11. You entered the dungeon and robbed the locals until your bags were full, then you left and went back to town to train (you had to train to level up back then), sell your stuff, shop, heal, and look for rumours about where to go next. Maybe you built a keep. On the surface this is not very different from the first examples, but it is. It is diegetic: the rules don’t change (though honestly if the rules only apply in certain circumstances then those rules are really subsystems for those circumstances) but rather the narrative drives the change in context.

NEW CONTENT: I can’t believe I forgot to mention Reign which is kind of a hybrid. Play is in two phases: character and company. But the character phase creates bonuses for the company game and the company game implies missions for the character game.

Similarly in Traveller every time you jump to a new system you have a week’s downtime. There’s nothing in-story to do so you do something else. Most of the time you just tick a week off the calendar and move on — at least there’s a space to pretend everyone got a nap, went to the bathroom, and so on — but you had options to train up skills or use your skills to do something that needed doing. Again, it’s a diegetic phase: it happens in the context of the narrative and isn’t forced by the rules. But it kind of is too: that week in jump space is forced by the rules.

Yeah that’s why I’m thinking about this. I know I said I wouldn’t. My patrons and my stupid brain convinced me I might have been wrong.

And then there’s the case of session zero games — if you have one session devoted to setting and character creation, that’s surely a mechanical phase even if it only happens once. It has it’s own rules, it’s forced by the rules, and it’s not about the current mission at all. Diaspora is my favourite example so go buy a copy to understand why. And this leads us to the refresh mechanism in fate: every session you have a refresh in which you can update character aspects and skills, get your consequences tended to and so on. That’s not even pretending to be part of the narrative; it’s strictly arithmetic and textual manipulation of your character sheet. Doing your regular accounting. But still a “phase” and very mechanical.

So what’s special about the cyclic heartbeat of non-diegetic phasing as in Blades in the Dark is, I think, that it gives you space for long term projects. You are always guaranteed that space. It doesn’t derive from the narrative, so there is a sense it which it feels mechanistic but because the whole structure of the game is the episodic future of mission after mission, this is fine. It’s easy to wedge the downtime into the not-mission space. The downtime and the mission work together to reinforce their boundaries. Mission is not-downtime. Downtime is not-mission.

Pendragon ties this to the calendar — your phases are seasonal because in a medieval society the seasons matter a lot. There are things you just can’t do in winter (like stage an invasion or harvest wheat). You do things in their time and the seasons become the heartbeat of the game.

This idea of a heartbeat is very appealing. In addition to ensuring you always know at least roughly what’s happening next (during downtime you’re thinking about the mission and during missions you’re thinking about downtime) you also don’t notice so much that you are being constrained to do the things the system does. The game can focus because it deliberately focuses you. And though the phases don’t emerge organically from the narrative, they function diegetically: you tell story inside them.

Would D&D in 1978 have been better if that heartbeat had been formalized? I don’t think it would have been — the thing we pretty rapidly did and that made the game something I’d play for 40 years or so was to break out of the heartbeat. To adventure in the city, to sail abroad, to explore the wilderness. The phases, thankfully not formalized, were easily ejected and the game was bigger for it. As big as we could make it.

These are just observations, not value judgements. These are all good games.

Thanks to my patrons for giving me the space to do this.


Something I’m noodling with that I thought I’d share. I haven’t played so there’s zero testing so far. And you might have to extrapolate my intent from my text a little. But still, here you go, enjoy this pre-alpha nomic apocalypse.



Each “turn” is a meeting of the council — a session — in which community issues will be discussed and actions planned. After the meeting, actions are resolved and noted.

The council card has space for CONTEXT, PEOPLE, and RESOLUTIONS. For every ISSUE currently in play there is an ISSUE card.


Create a name for your character. Choose an occupation that you used to hold. Make space on your character card for PERSONAL STRESS.


Chair: the person facilitating the session.

Secretary: the person managing the paperwork.

Members: everyone else

Session zero

One person must volunteer to be secretary. Do not proceed until someone has volunteered. Once identified, the secretary will start  a COUNCIL CARD and note their name under PEOPLE: SECRETARY.

One person must volunteer to be chair. Do not proceed until someone has volunteered. Once identified, the secretary will add the name of the chair to the COUNCIL CARD under PEOPLE: CHAIR.

Choose how you will choose the chair in future and note it in the RESOLUTIONS.

With the chair facilitating, discuss as PLAYERS where you are — your community is an isolated downtown apartment building and your committee is its strata council. But where? What city? What’s near? What’s far? Summarize in a single sentence under CONTEXT.

With the chair facilitating, discuss as PLAYERS what has happened to isolate your community. Help is not coming. Why not? Summarize in a single sentence under CONTEXT.

Note the community resources on the council card. A community starts with 5 food, 5 water, 5 space, 5 trade, and 5 health.

Now that you have a CONTEXT, each player should discuss their role in the community. What is their responsibility? Why are they on the council? Add a single sentence under PERSONAL STRESS summarizing why you are here. Draw a box next to it.

Council card


CHAIR: Emily Fassbinder (player name)

SECRETARY: Leslie Hill (player name)


Rising ocean levels have flooded our coastal city and our condominium is isolated, accessible only by boat. The salt water fills the first three floors of the building.


5 food

5 water

5 space

5 trade

5 health


  1. The first order of business in a session is OLD BUSINESS. The secretary will recap the status of all outstanding issues.
  2. The chair will assign each outstanding ACTION from OLD BUSINESS to a committee member.
  3. The secretary keeps track of community resources.
  4. For NEW BUSINESS the chair will assign the new ISSUE to any committee member.
  5. During NEW BUSINESS any member can propose a RESOLUTION.
  6. A RESOLUTION can modify any rule in this list or add a new rule.
  7. A RESOLUTION is adopted on a 50% or better majority vote.
  8. Community resources allocated to an ISSUE are determined by consensus.
  9. Chair is determined by majority vote from council members at the beginning of every session.

Character card

NAME: Nathan Green

PLAYER: Brad Murray



[ ] I am a doctor and am here under duress because the community has no other doctors

Every other session

If your method for selecting a chair requires it, run your procedure for selecting a new chair. If a resolution requires it, run your procedure for selecting a new secretary.

Old business

The secretary will recap the status of each outstanding issue from the ISSUE cards. For each unresolved ISSUE, examine the outstanding ACTIONS. The chair will assign the ACTION to any other council member in any way they see fit. That member will attempt to execute the action IN FOCUS. If an investigation is CONCLUDED, note the conclusion. If a MITIGATION is CONCLUDED, note the conclusion.

New business

First, if any RESOURCE is at zero, there is a CRISIS. It starts as a fresh issue with dice N+3 where N is the last ISSUE. Treat it otherwise as a new ISSUE (see below).

For each INVESTIGATION concluded in OLD BUSINESS, discuss a relevant MITIGATION. Note the proposed MITIGATION under the ISSUE ACTIONS.

For each MITIGATION concluded in OLD BUSINESS, congratulate yourselves on a job well done. The secretary will update the community’s resources. Put the ISSUE card in the RESOLVED stack.

The chair will roll a new STRESSOR and create a new ISSUE card. They will hand this ISSUE card to anyone they please, except themself. The secretary will note the ISSUE on the COUNCIL CARD and give it a number of dice equal to the highest ISSUE + 1. The secretary will note on the ISSUE card the maximum community RESOURCES available to those resolving the issue. A STRESSOR may have one or more associated resources. Note these resources.

Whoever has the ISSUE card will, in character, describe the new issue the community faces. At this time the issue does not necessarily have an obvious cause. Describe the impact. Whoever has the ISSUE card will add a new PERSONAL STRESS to their character card: this issue has impacted them somehow. A personal stress can be anything — perhaps the issue has affected you directly. Perhaps a family member. Or maybe just witnessing the effects of the ISSUE preys on your mind. Or maybe it’s your fault.

Discuss how to investigate the ISSUE and resolve an ACTION:INVESTIGATE to take. Note the pending ACTION on the ISSUE card. During this discussion agree on the resources that the community will risk on this issue. Note the maximum resource risk on the card.

In addition to these ISSUES any member can propose a RESOLUTION regarding the way the council operates, such as the selection of the chair or secretary or any existing RESOLUTION. Or they can propose a new RESOLUTION (perhaps a new special role and what their responsibilities are — perhaps someone is elected to select who conducts an ACTION). State the RESOLUTION, vote, and if passed by 50% (unless a RESOLUTION exists that changes this) add the RESOLUTION to the COUNCIL CARD. Any diegetic rule can be created or modified by a resolution. Non-diegetic rules cannot be modified in this fashion.

A RESOLUTION can be pretty much anything diegetic. It could for example be “It is now the community policy that all refugees are turned away” and this will impact the narration of any subsequent issues relating to refugees — why weren’t they turned away? Who’s responsible.


When an ISSUE has FOCUS one person is leading (they are the LEAD) the role play of either an INVESTIGATION or a MITIGATION. They will narrate what they are doing to address the ISSUE mediated by the CHAIR. They can bring anyone along that they want (except the chair), presuming those people agree to join the FOCUS. The chair is the ref but only to guide the narrative and play any other characters in the scene.

The chair’s initial objective is to steer the conversation into a conflict relating to the ISSUE. A conflict is a place in the narrative where:

  • The outcome is uncertain
  • All possible outcomes, however horrible, are interesting

Once the conflict has been located, the chair will frame it: they will

  • Describe the scene
  • Make clear what’s at stake

The members pursuing the ISSUE will resolve it

  • Resolve it based on RESOURCES and STRESSES
  • Actor’s pool:
    • +1d10 for each council member addressing the issue
    • -1d10 for each of the lead’s stresses
    • +1d10 for community resources risked, as defined by the LEAD but not to exceed the limits placed on the ISSUE card by the secretary. Use a different colour die for the resource dice. For each resource type risked, the LEAD needs to provide a story for how that resource is helping and at risk.
  • Threat pool N (the number on the issue card) + number of open issues
  • Compare highest dice to highest dice ; player dice that beat threat dice are victories
    • If a resource die is beat by an issue die, decrement one of the risked resources by 1.
    • If a council member die is beat by an issue die, add a STRESS to one of the council members. The LEAD can choose who gets the STRESS. The recipient chooses the exact STRESS.
    • If there are remaining threat dice, they count as consequences
    • More victories than consequences? Issue resolved & chair narrates
      • Each participant resolves one of their personal stresses BUT NOT ONE RECEIVED IN THIS CONFLICT. Participants narrate.
      • If the ISSUE is related to a resource and the FOCUS is MITIGATION, reset the resource to 5.
    • Otherwise the issue remains open. Chair narrates.
    • For each consequence reduce a community RESOURCE by one. This is irrespective of those risked. Something else happened. If the ISSUE has a clear resource impacted, that’s the resource that’s hit. Any character involved in the FOCUS can choose to take the resource hit as a STRESS instead. Narrate.
  • Determine the cost to the community (resources bet and lost); chair narrates
  • Determine personal costs (new stresses for participants); participants narrate


A community starts with 5 food, 5 water, 5 space, 5 trade, and 5 health.

Stressors (cards maybe?

Food is low (food -1)

  • Many new people
  • Crops are failing
  • Some went bad
  • Hoarding
  • Theft
  • Water is low (water -1)

Many new people

  • Source dried up
  • Hoarding
  • Theft
  • Looks undrinkable
  • Storage or distribution broken

Travel is limited (trade -1)

  • Flood
  • Bandits
  • Weather

Space is reduced (space -1)

  • Flood
  • Vandalism
  • Splitters
  • Refugees

People are sick (health -1)

  • Food is bad
  • Water is bad
  • Air is bad
  • Radiation
  • Bad sanitation
  • Lack of medicine
  • Resistant bacteria
  • Pests

There is an outbreak of violence (trade -1, health -1)

  • Why?
  • Food
    • Low
    • Spoiled
    • Poisoned
  • Drinking water
    •  Low
      •  Drought
      •  Stolen
      •  Defective storage
    •   Poisoned
    •   Deliberate
    •   Stagnant, bacteria
    •  Tainted with refuse
  • Air
  • Flood
  • Radiation
  • Refugees
  • Vandalization
  • Disease
  • Predators

This post is here because my patrons are awesome.


Warning. I am not a scholar on this topic. This is information I have learned or developed myself in the course of being a nerd on the topic since before puberty. I hope my thoughts align with actual scholars but it’s unlikely.

Transliteration is the process of writing a foreign language in a native alphabet. So, for example, writing Georgian or Inuktitut or Korean (using the Hangul normally) in the Latin alphabet. Its purpose is to allow the native reader to make sense of the sound of the foreign words. To be able, possibly, to repeat them vocally, whether or not they are understood. This purpose is important to the process.

However, when I first started transliterating at the tender age of 13 using a stolen book (yes I stole from the library — I was a voracious consumer of books and my allowance was a dime a week and I was in more ways than this ethically compromised) of Greek stuff I was doing the opposite: I was looking for codes, and using the Greek alphabet as a code. Therefore to compose my native language in a foreign alphabet, the opposite of the usual purpose of the process. I did, however, invent many rules that would seem to align with more correct use.

Later I would spend hours transcribing Tolkein’s wildly inconsistent use of the Tengwar everywhere it was found in my copies of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. In fact I was much more interested in this bit than the stories themselves. And in examining his usage I found many of the rules I invented for myself echoed as well as the discovery that while inconsistent, his methods were not purposeless. Pedantic nerd that I was, I also compiled errata so I could tell where Tolkein was playing and where he was just screwing up. And where he was playing was revelatory as well.

So when transliterating you have a translational choice that depends on your purpose: how much of the alphabet’s power do you bring to bear on your choices? This is necessary because different alphabets have different powers. The Latin alphabet has a lot of letters that perform multiple roles and that compose (ch, sh, &c.). So in translating, say, სახლი, to Latin, there’s a lovely glottal k sound in there. The word is typically transliterated as “sakhli” using the flexibility of English usage of the Latin alphabet as well as quasi-standards to imply with an “h” that we swallow the “k” a little as we speak it. We leverage the Latin alphabet to do something it doesn’t do but that English does apparently allow us to imagine it should. We similarly use “zh” here and there to soften a “z” even though in our own language (say, “azure”) we don’t need it because we aren’t teaching pronunciation with our own spelling of English words. We’re just echoing convention.

So as a kid I wanted to write English words in the Tengwar, the Elvish alphabet, because what could be cooler? It’s calligraphic rather than runic and so clearly much superior to the stonecutter’s alphabet of the Dwarves. Anyway, the question is, how to use it? Consider the word “that”.

Now as a strict substitution cipher, a code, I’d use the Tengwar t, h, a, and t. Simple! But how inelegant! Let us, though baby nerd Brad, think instead like an elf. Or even better, think like a human in Middle Earth: they aren’t transliterating. They are simply using the Tengwar because they have no alphabet of their own! So would a human invent the clumsy “th” structure if they had only the Tengwar to write with? Surely they would not! They’d use the existing Tengwar for “th” and get:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.37.39.png

That is, a “th” glyph, a “t” glyph, and a “a” diacritic. I’d use the power of the Tengwar to get my job done. And as a consequence an elf who knows no English can effectively sound out the word.

So this is a thing that bugs me about so many fantasy alphabets: they are built to work as substitution ciphers and not actual alphabets. That is, they are just new shapes for Latin letters as used by English speakers. This is…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.40.12.png

Or, better…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 13.29.39.png

Alphabets for other languages evolved to support them. Languages evolved to support the alphabets. They are intimately connected. So a credible fantasy alphabet can’t just be a substitution cipher. Too naïve. It has to have its own rules that are leveraged to create a useful transcription: one in which the native user of the alphabet could sound out the word.

A human in Middle Earth, therefore, would not spell “laugh” that way because they don’t have the history of Latin alphabet usage. They don’t live here. They would spell it “laf” or possibly “laff”. But in the Tengwar. Not this, which zanily uses the Tengwar “gh” glyph as well as an “a” and a bastardized “u”:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.43.38.png

But rather:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.44.59.png

“Laff”. Using the correct symbol to double the consonant even. You leverage the foreign alphabet and the foreignosity of it is what’s important. It’s what makes the transliteration interesting. It’s why we’re here playing around like this.

Substitution ciphers are fun but they are a million miles less interesting than actual transliteration. Accept no substitutes in your wacky sci-fi and fantasy constructed alphabets. Make a real alphabet, built to serve a different (perhaps literally) tongue, and wonder how you need to twist it to make it say English. Research how the Hangul works, the history of the Inuktitut which was invented only recently to support an entirely oral language. See what choices are made beyond the Latin alphabet.

Normally I’d just draw the Tengwar myself but I got lazy and used this Elvish engraving tool. Its output is Unicode (yes there’s a Unicode set for Tengwar) so I screen-capped it as it was rendered in my browser.

This post was brought to you by my patrons who rock.


folk aesthetics

In the philosophy of science we sometimes talk about “folk science”. Or even “folk logic”. This is content that is superficially true but unexamined — an excellent first guess and probably a sufficient first guess to survive for 40,000 years or so. It’s often wrong, but it works at an animal level and it works as a survival instinct.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is kind of the perfect folk logic. Event A happened before B therefore A caused B. You can already smell a lot of magic here — I shook my fist at the sky and then it rained. I can make it rain! But less magic things too — they were there right before the murder! They must be the murderer! And probably right enough of the time that it gets a little easier to catch murderers. And a lot of the time it’s even right — if I plant these seed things then later corn will grow. Sure enough, that sympathetic magic works. If you bury a little piece of corn in the earth, later there will be more corn.

Folk science is an extension of this. The sun goes around the earth, for example. Obviously it does. Humans are too puny to have an effect on global climate. People of different colours are fundamentally different beings. But also more nearly true things — when you drop something it falls straight down, for example. When you accelerate you will keep going faster and faster for as long as you accelerate. There’s such a thing as simultaneity.

So this morning in the shower I was thinking about folk aesthetics: things that we find pleasing but that we find are imperfect, naïve. That produce results that are pleasing but not as pleasing as they could be. And in some cases we find these so pleasing we are almost addicted to them.

sunset sunrise sea horizon
Photo by Life Of Pix on

Symmetry is an easy one. We love symmetry. But a perfectly symmetrical natural image (a tree in center frame, for example) feels both pleasing and naïve. It isn’t as good as it could be. But there’s an appeal, especially in an idealized form like a logo. It’s more than simple, it’s simplistic. But something in our brain loves it and something else in our brain does not.

selective focus photography of a telescope
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on

Complementary colours is another one. Why do we love blue and gold so much? Because they are opposites on the colour wheel. It triggers something we like, a simple and natural opposition. You shoot a whole movie in blue and gold and it’s visually energizing. But clearly there is a lot of colour-based mood you are missing out on. It’s a cheap trick.

Sorting like things together. We really dig this. We build addictive games around it. Get things of the same colour into a line. Hell as a kid I would spend time sorting a deck of cards because a properly sorted deck felt wonderful. We adore the purity of segregation.

black and white blank challenge connect
Photo by Pixabay on

Fitting things together. Another addictive game seed. In fact I think that “sorting like together” and “fitting things together” are the core elements of all successful “shit keeps falling” (thanks Joshua Schacter) games. When each successful move is accompanied by a sharp satisfying POP you have a winner. Worth millions. Because it pleases the animal.

Asymmetric composition by Juan Ochoa.

It’s valuable for any artist (not just visual art, but also game design, hence this discussion in this blog) to identify folk aesthetics in order to break them. It pays to find richer, deeper aesthetics in, around, and in defiance of folk aesthetics. Black and white together is a killer aesthetic. Add a single colour and it explodes. Draw the eye in a deliberate direction with placement rather than simply up and down the middle of the page. Leave like things apart, in tension. Clash a colour. Jumble things that refuse to fit together. Better, show things that should fit together that will never fit together. These things occupy our brains. We try to make them right. This makes us pay attention. When we do this we please more than just the animal. Sometimes we even succeed by defying the animal.

But simply defying these things does not work. You need to deliberate. But this is how you get from folk wisdom to wisdom.

Yes there is a subtext.

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early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.