transliteration

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.

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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 Pexels.com

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 Pexels.com

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 Pexels.com

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.

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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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artist highlight: juan ochoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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expensive toys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I have never paid Juan Ochoa enough.

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

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

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

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

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

Yell about games.

sebastien mixed density region

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

starmap labelled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

out of my comfort zone

I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.

You can force that reset.

IMG_0621One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.

IMG_0618One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.

Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.

It’s not.

I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.

IMG_0623.pngIt’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.

And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.

So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.