elephants and rooms

Okay it’s time to talk about D&D.

Yesterday I wrote about what I want. In that essay I took a stab at a few mechanizable points by identifying who or what is best positioned in a (fairly trad) game to provide the sauce. The purpose of this, obviously perhaps, is to both start thinking about mechanism (here are starting points) and start thinking about alternatives (here are things we could subvert). I use this method a lot, where I identify norms in order to find things to question and subvert. I am certain that it’s pretty annoying in a lot of circumstances but I find it fruitful for myself.

So in terms of market share, if you round off at, say, three significant figures, there’s really only one role-playing game. D&D. Its dominance in the market is so thorough that it needs to be examined. However, most attempts to understand this take the obvious approach of wondering why this is the case. I think this has yielded little actionable result and is also pretty old hat — you’ve seen it before. You might have done it before.

So instead of wondering why D&D is so huge, let’s ignore that. It’s not actually interesting any more (partially because it’s old ground but partially because it’s not something you can reproduce even if you figure it out). Instead let’s look at the fact of it. D&D is huge. That’s just true. So given that fact, what opportunities does it present? What is true about it that you can subvert to make your own work at least distinctive, given that you can’t reliably produce a genuine competitor without becoming equally dull (a thesis I’ll explore another time but let’s just pretend you agree with that)? You can’t compete, so what else can you be?

The obvious thing to subvert, the thing you can change that D&D can’t, a simple axis of rotation that D&D is fixed on, is the genre. The Euro-fantasy melting pot that has become self-defining. Wizards and dragons, good and evil, fabricating motivation that is best solved by beating things dead and taking their possessions. Yes I know you can do different things with the game (of course you can — the act of play is so very close to the act of game design hinging mostly on what you choose to write down after a session) but there are selling points to the game that are fixed by the text and those are magic, moral disambiguation, and combat scenes. Those are knobs you can twirl that D&D can’t. Again, you can in your D&D game; please don’t come at me with “D&D can do everything” — that’s really just an assertion of your own free will and that’s a different discussion (hint: I largely disagree that we have any).

Knobs so far:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery

The social design of D&D is also very rigid: it cannot easily deviate from a strict ref/player boundary where the ref holds many secrets (sometimes even keeping the rules secret which is super weird the more you think about it). The “players” (that is, not the ref) are largely homogenous socially though the usual leader/support/asleep sub-categories inevitably arise. But the ref is saddled with the job of establishing the atmosphere, establishing (somehow; this is never clear but it’s usually just based on hope and not mechanism) character motivations, and preparing all of the supporting material to allow play. Maps, stat blocks, and so on. This is of course marketing genius since the ref’s job is so onerous that you can sell them support tools like adventure books. Lots and lots of them!

You can subvert these too. So far then:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space

Lots of great games subvert many or even all of these. That last in particular tends to generate a lot of pats on the back when it’s upended well because it’s really a frustrating thing to get stuck with: collaborative world building is one way to do it. Creating the map as part of the main phase of play is another. This knob is particularly fun to fiddle with. If D&D is missing a major gimmick that could vastly improve it, I think this is it.

Mechanically D&D has some basics that often go unquestioned. “Stats” that define innate ability. Some mechanism of defining trained ability (D&D is weirdly incoherent here having and connecting “skills” and “levels”). A measure of how dead you’re not (so death is on the table as a failure result: we can tinker with that too). Some moderately rich simulation tools to resolve combat (how fast you are, how hard you are to hit, how easy it is for you to hit others, a list of super powers). It also insists on a fairly finely granular simulation of money (counting actual coins) and it treats equipment as part of the way you improve your character (especially their ability to murder efficiently). An awful lot of games adopt these unquestioningly and I think they merit much more serious attention. Plenty of games do without or radically change some or all to great effect.

And of course we have the progression system which is maybe the most often unexamined component when people start to design new games. The idea of progression is very infrequently examined and toyed with. Progression is a very weird one for me because it very unsatisfying: when you peek through the curtain you notice that the environment is constantly scaling with your progression meaning the numbers all get higher but little fundamentally changes. The only disparity that stays constant is that your character constantly becomes more powerful with respect to commoners. I find that disparity as a goal somewhere between weird and deeply disturbing. That is, the biggest reward to levelling up is becoming even more powerful than the vast majority of the people in the world.

So let’s summarize again. Now we have:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space
  • separation of innate and trained capability
  • hit points
  • combat simulation tools (armor, speed, &c.)
  • lists of super powers
  • lists of equipment
  • shopping as a scene
  • literal money simulation system (you count your money and buy things with it)
  • equipment as progression
  • power progression
  • antagonists keep pace with power progression
  • common folk do not keep pace with power progression

These are all ways you can deviate (sometimes dramatically) from D&D. There are many more, but I’ve tried to find categories where I can rather than deep dive on details (I also think that encourages people to think that they have turned a knob from 4 to 11 by renaming “hit points” — we need categories to understand the possible scope of change). I will emphasize again that I think you should because competing meaningfully with D&D is a bullshit goal. I don’t think you can achieve it by aiming at it. The next big thing, if there ever is one, will be a big thing because of two things: a boatload of accidents no one controls and a significant deviation from the status quo. Focus on the thing you control. You might even accidentally create some art along the way.

what do i want?

So I was trying today to distill what I want from a role-playing game in the hopes that by digging down to really basic principles I could get a better understanding for what the rules need to do to suit my needs. This is a little thought-on-the-fly and a little planned, so bear with me as I both derive and discover this.

awe

One of the things I most want to experience while playing (and deliver if I’m running a game) is awe. I want there to be something that makes you gasp even if it’s just in your head. Now this seems to be something that is in principle in the hands of the ref or the setting material. Let’s note that:

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by the setting material

But what is it that delivers awe? My gut instinct is that it has to do with outrageous magnitude. The impossibly huge inspires awe. Niven’s Ringworld inspires awe, for example. In this novel Niven posits a place where at the orbital radius of a world like earth is not a planet but rather a ring surrounds the sun at that distance. It contains millions of worlds of space. It’s terrifyingly huge and the size of it is apparent from inside it, where the world forms an arch over your head. Even Iain Banks’ comparatively small orbitals, space stations that contain only a few planets worth of surface area, are big enough to make you draw a breath. Things that are too big to contain in your head give you inexpensive awe.

Age gives you awe. Things that are immensely old, like the sleeping hegemonic swarm in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep or even Pham Nuwen himself in Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky (and fractionally in ‘Deep too) inspire awe. The fact that Pham is a “normal” human who has spent a lot of time at relativistic speeds means he’s physically not all that old but he’s seen tens or even hundreds of thousands of years pass on the worlds he’s visited.

I have in my notes that improbability gives you awe but now I don’t think that’s right. Or maybe it’s another layer deeper — the really huge is partially awe-creating because it’s improbable. Same with the really old. It doesn’t have to actually be improbable, it just have to seem like it. So since I can’t think of any independent examples of this let’s throw it away. Maybe you have some insight.

Power also gives you awe but power is a tricky one, especially in games. First it’s kind of cheap and leads to escalating power struggles that swiftly become ridiculous. I used to use this a lot but it’s a dangerous game. D&D nicely codifies it with levels, handing out the toys in a regulated manner and escalating the opposition in order to create awe. But your power is mostly what’s awesome since everything else is scaling to your needs — it’s weirdly awesome to you the player, though for your character it might be commonplace. I guess my real issue with power as an awe-source is the way the whole story has to cope with it by trivializing things that are too far below the power scale — which frequently leaves things behind that I don’t want to lose. What I mean is, if you’re a 20th level wizard fighting giant astral demon fetuses (a real monster in D&D 3e, the last revision I really played out) then the every day conflicts of city life become eroded in importance. Zero level barkeeps pretty much to whatever you tell them to do. Power as a knob to turn is transformative: it changes the whole game. It’s useful for awe but it’s a spice you want to be very careful with. It changes the whole dish.

hardship

I want things to be difficult in my game. One of the songs that used to really inspire me to craft situations in games when I was a kid was Yes’ song South Side of the Sky from Fragile. Look at these lyrics:

Move forward was my friend's only cry
In deeper to somewhere we could lie
And rest for the the day with cold in the way
Were we ever colder on that day
A million miles away
It seemed from all eternity

Winter winds, desperately moving forwards hoping for safety, enduring the impossible. This is something that games generally do really badly. I would love to find a game that made you feel this kind of desperation without simply ticking off hit points. I want a narrative solution that I feel in my guts. This is a bit of a grail for me; I don’t have a solution. I think I caught a piece of it with the RESCUE method in The King Machine just because it makes the scenario happen where people need to be saved, and makes it immediate and risky. I think that’s a space I want to explore more. I think RESCUE is a flash of genius even if I say so myself and I regret removing it from the current Diaspora work.

It’s funny that this one has been so boiled away in gaming, abstracting it to, say, how many hit points you have left. Or whether you make a saving throw. It’s essential if not the whole point of most fiction. It’s usually replaced with endless fights. That doesn’t interest me as a solution though I get why it is: it’s an easy replacement. But it’s far too specific for my taste. Almost nothing in real life is a fist fight. And only slightly more is even credibly analogous to one. A fight is a very small and unusual case of the superset of hardship.

Hardship has to be delivered by the ref and by the mechanism I think.

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by mechanism

purpose

We need a purpose. As the actor famously demands, “What’s my motivation?!” As a player I am not content to be handed missions; this is too mechanical now and I always imagine a giant yellow exclamation point over and NPC’s head. It can be a mission, but not in a sprawling sandbox game. A game that’s about missions, that uses the mission as an episodic structure to tell tales, well I am onboard for that. That’s Hollowpoint. And it’s an elegant but somewhat specific solution.

But where else can purpose come from? The mechanism can supply it as we’ve seen. The ref can supply it via NPCs. But real motivation, real purpose, is not actually in the ref’s hands. It’s in the players’ because they need to buy in. I think the first time I realized this was when I first read a copy of Burning Wheel. In this game character creation demands that each character have a few BELIEFS — statements about the things that will motivate the character to act (and mechanically will pay the player for doing so). If you have a belief like “Arthur is the true and righteous king of the land” then you are motivated to act on anything that threatens that. It sells itself.

The problem with doing it from any other angle is that the player needs to buy in, and that’s why it generally only works when it’s the core premise (you are secret agents on a mission and here’s your mission) or when everyone’s happy with a more contrived quest-giving landscape of NPCs. It’s got to come from the player, supported by mechanism (a way to declare your motivations) and an observant ref (pressing the buttons the player laid out clearly on the character sheet).

  • delivered by the player
  • supported by the mechanism
  • supported by the ref

compassion

This is something I only recently realized how badly I want in a game. I want to feel for everyone. I want to care what happens in the world around me and not just to my character or my compatriots. Again, swinging back to The King Machine, this is why the SPILLOVER risk is important: it pushes the ref to threaten the well-being of innocents when player characters act, and therefore make a conscious decision about how much they care. It creates an active, mechanical opportunity to find compassion in play.

I think compassion is really important because it can be absent in games without anyone deliberately removing it. Back to our poor barkeep being pushed around by the 20th level wizard, we generally don’t care that she has a family to feed. These things are either beneath us or so far outside the scope of our motivations that we don’t address them since we have bigger fish (giant demon babies) to fry. But I want to care when I play. I want all of the people to have a potential story — not necessarily to tell it, but to be impacted in a way I am forced to feel.

I think compassion is very much a shared burden. The ref has to deliver it. The mechanism should support it in same way, giving it focus, making it an issue. And the players have to buy in — they have to care what happens to the barkeep.

  • delivered by the ref
  • supported by mechanism
  • supported by the player

testing the new editor

Caption test. I am captioning now.

Hmm, well here we go. I only ever type and then add an image, so let’s see if that does what I want.

Hmm. Seems okay. More steps to do what I want and more noise in front of me as I type, but okay.

It does ignore my style’s captioning option so that sucks.

As usual, an upgrade that seems to be aimed at fulfilling the need to apparently improve by changing things and adding options that are not especially valuable, while removing functionality in the original. Unimpressive, WordPress. But that’s the software development pattern: appear to be improving. Change as often as possible in order to sell assistance.

structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

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.

comm 9
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?

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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.

law and chaos

One of the things people like about Good and Evil is that it provides a space for a supernatural (maybe meta-natural) conflict between deities that personify these extremes and the world in which we play our games is a battleground for these forces. In general this is a potentially fun conceit to work with, giving you people with varying dedication to these divine forces and fulfilling their roles as champions of their divinity. All potentially awesome.

But, in addition to the problems alluded to earlier, there is practical trouble with this particular dichotomy: while many say that there needs to be a balance (and there does, practically, need to be a balance in order for this battle to work since otherwise there might be a winner), it’s perfectly clear that there is absolutely no need nor desire for a balance between Good and Evil. Any rational being would want a world of Good, full stop. So where would allies of Evil even come from? Who would want that shit?

Weird_of_the_white_wolf_daw_1977Originally this was not the driving dichotomy in D&D. It was originally Moorcockian, an hilarious word I have just invented. In Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (of which the Elric stories are just one facet) the divine dichotomy is between Law and Chaos. Now this is where it’s at: if you want a divine dichotomy, this is one you can work with.

First, there is no moral bias here. You can have good people on both sides. You can have awful people on both sides. In order to exploit the dichotomy for story purposes you don’t have to simplify anyone’s position and you don’t have to suppose that free-thinking individuals would credibly desire a world in which it was ordinary to get murdered.

More usefully, we can imagine people who would desire the extremes of course — perfect Law were everything is ordered and predictable and safe or perfect Chaos where individual desires reign and things are constantly new and unsafe but exciting. But we can also see that the middle ground, a balance, is in fact genuinely desirable. You don’t have to cart out the obviously specious claim that “good can’t exist without evil” and therefore that evil is somehow necessary. Even if Good has no interesting definition without the contrast of evil, that’s just fine! It’s still Good!

But Law and Chaos genuinely stress against each other in a fun fashion. Pushing more towards one has amusing possibilities for story without forcing a particular morality on anyone. And the gods themselves can be interesting now! Gods of Evil are inexplicable elemental things that make no intrinsic sense since they have no believable agenda. But Law and Chaos do! These are gods you definitely want to have a chat with. An audience with an Evil god is not going to go well. An audience with a Good god is going to be dull since their position is obviously good (it’s even called that). But an audience with a god of Law or Chaos, well that’s going to be interesting. It has no obvious arc. And their agenda is credible and either could be persuasive. But ultimately most people are going to want a little from column A and a little from column B.

I think the underlying concept of alignment is a compelling setting choice. That doesn’t mean every setting should have it, but it’s a choice that makes some sense. It makes a particular kind of world that’s fun to play games in. It’s the moral alignment that makes no sense and creates a dull (and, ultimately, racist and stupid) world. One agenda is obvious and the other is not credible. You can’t help but fight cardboard cut-out enemies since if you argued with the Evil ones you would have to conclude that they were either automata or insane.

If you imagine a plane of each extreme, a plane of Good and a plane of Evil, you find that the Good place is paralyzingly boring and the Evil place is perfectly undesirable (and unsustainable — the Evil places imagined in D&D have absolutely necessary non-Evil behaviour in order to persist: they cannot be “perfect” representations of Evil because Evil doesn’t function). But if you imagine a perfect plane of Law and a perfect place of Chaos you can imagine interesting (however undesirable) places where interaction still makes sense. You’re not murdered as soon as you show up and you still have something fun to do, beating down both Good and Evil planes for playability.

So it’s not alignment that a rail against (though I have little use for it, it’s because it’s just not a setting conceit in my games — don’t need a divine presence of this kind) but the insistence on using it for a moral dichotomy. A moral dichotomy is not a choice because one side is obviously, perfectly, inarguably, better. How’s that a fun way to run a universe?

look, mythology is crap

(A warning — my knowledge is mostly of “western” mythology, so Roman and Greek, and so one should read this with that in mind. But if you are an expert on other mythologies, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, because the basis of the problem lies in technological facts of early human history and I would be excited to hear about exceptions.)

Okay it’s not. There is poetry, there are ancient ideas that are embedded in cultures. There are even cross-cultural motifs that echo something deeper within us (perhaps) than just the pre-Christian near-Eastern fantasies. But it’s also crap. So is history. The past is crap.

These stories are entrenched in a world where:

  • women cannot practically and safely avoid pregnancy, a reduced physical state without modern medicine, hygiene, and technology
  • rapid reproduction is essential to a population’s growth because of the high mortality rate in both children and mothers and consequently women become a resource rather than a human
  • slavery is the petroleum that fuels productivity — until we can burn oil, this is the technological accelerant of the day and the pure utility of it eclipses the inhumanity of it
  • warfare centers on the destruction or enslavement of whole civilian populations, sometimes just as revenge
  • warfare is entirely thinkable (something nuclear weapons, for a while, half solved for us but is now back on the table)

And so these stories embody these horrors. At their best they present exceptions to these horrors as wild fantasies. Imagine a society where women had power! Weird! Strange! What magic and puissance would be needed to make this a reality?

Our gaming should be fantasy (even when it’s cyberpunk or whatever) — it should be about us wondering what could be (for good or ill) in the context of some imagined alternate world. It’s a creative process that I find very exciting. It’s where the fun is.

But mythology is not that. Mythology is the fantasizing of people who were stuck in the world I previously described. Co-opting those mythologies uncritically is placing yourself back inside those assumed horrors in order to imagine wonders that, frankly, either could or do actually exist now. This doesn’t strike me as interesting nor valuable. And so the worst possible defense of a game or its setting would be, to me, “but this is how the myth goes” or, more obviously indefensible, “this is how history says it was”. Even when it embodies deep truths about ourselves it warrants critical examination, because it really embodies deep truths about who we were 2500 years ago, and some of those truths might not be true any more. The assumption that these revelations are both universal and transcend time is lazy.

I would much prefer a fantasy that extends from now. It doesn’t have to be set in the modern age nor in the future; that misses the point. Thematically, it must be a fantasy of how things could be better than they are now. It can also be worse (maybe much worse) but ideally in ways that spawn from the new fantastical context and not just rowing backwards into some BCE backwater.

File_002Most mythological presentation of women, especially as avatars for concepts, is pretty dismal. Women are idealized based on the ways they are of use to others. Or are amazing exceptions when they are not mothers and caregivers. This should not be amazing now, and I very much want to be amazed. We have maidens and mothers and literally wombs. We have muses, which are basically the uncredited authors of men’s art. We have goddesses that dote on boy heroes and tolerate husbands who don’t just cheat on them but casually rape. I want the rare show of autonomy and strength to be common. It is no longer amazing.

Of course mythology contains things worth mining. The stories are ones you can bet almost anyone has heard and that kind of commonality, those touchstones, make story telling much easier. We can speak few words and be sure that the audience knows all the missing ones. They contain images that are similarly entrenched. They contain powerful concepts such as the concrete realizations of abstractions like The Furies and that kind of realized metaphor is awesome. There’s a reason I always dug the D&D monsters, The Inevitables, the forces of elemental Law. That is an amazing opportunity for fantasy.

But that commonality is also a drawback. I’ve heard the story before. It’s the fantasy of people stuck in a world that doesn’t need to exist any more. I want fantasies for my world. What if something other than capitalism drove the motives of societies? What if there was no more oil? If magic worked, what would we really do with it beside solve ancient problems we’ve already solved? What if we encountered beings who were not like as at all — not palimpsests of known beings, but something entirely new?

Our stunted fantasies often revolve around the realization of deities — they are certainly concretely real. You can talk with them and they answer. What if there was a world with the similarly practical and perfect knowledge that there were no deities, that mortal consciousness is the ultimate consciousness?

What if power was free?

What if we were free?

So please, feel free to cloak your work in the imagery of mythology, but let’s not mire ourselves in ancient fantasies about escaping a world we already escaped. Let’s write (and perform) some genuinely new myths. Let’s take for granted the things we know we can do (even if we haven’t yet) and wonder harder about what else could change. Let’s make new things.

(Saw this morning that KatieQuixotic is talking about similar things on Twitter today. So thanks for sharing my brain a bit!)