crisis point

A dear friend asked about games where you play first responders and I thought that the overall structure (episodic, escalating, characters leaving play, competency) suited Hollowpoint nicely. So I hammered this together. If you use it and have a good time let me know. You need to know some Hollowpoint to make sense of it but not much really.

A Hollowpoint hack where you play compassionate first responders. You are never violent. We’ll follow the existing pattern of escalation. Is it fantastic or realistic? I don’t know. It can do either but do we want either?

Safety

Since Hollowpoint deals with extreme and unrealistic situations in a comic book style, while there is a need for safety the game already describes itself in a fashion that contrives a kind of consent just by agreeing to play it. Crisis Point, however, is not like that — you are going to play characters with only compassionate responses in stressful contexts and that means people need to be set up to handle it. We recommend drawing lines and veils before we even start: let’s not design a mission that is certainly going to upset someone. It might even be easier to say what kinds of missions are acceptable rather than trying to enumerate everything that’s not.

Then also put a scene stopper like X Card or Script Change in place. Personally I find X Card more natural and less intrusive on the illusion that we are acting rather than authoring but this is a matter of taste: both are effective at halting a scene before it causes harm.

Mission

The mission for Crisis Point should be some escalating scenario though not necessarily (or even ideally) one that is guided deliberately by a villain. Resolution of the mission happens when players address the root cause of the distressing scenes they are dealing with (which means the root cause must be resolvable — note that this departs for a strictly realistic narrative in that our EMTs will eventually act non-locally in order to get at roots). Example: EMTs dealing with worsening floods that are a result of mismanagement of city funds for river management.

Missions are broken up into scenarios (sometimes scenes) which advance the plot.

To write a mission the ref needs to invent the following:

  • A rough idea of what kind of intervention the player characters are “about”. This should come out of character creation.
  • An opening scene that introduces the problem.
  • An idea of what the root cause is.
  • Seriously, …, the thing will develop on its own from there.

Characters

Characters need six stats which are the ways in which they can approach a situation tactically. It’s up to you as ref to find scenarios where some stats are harder than others to bring to bear so that different characters can be spotlit. Some thoughts:

First aid, Forensics, De-escalation, Counselling, Rescue, Bureaucracy

I picked these as follows:

First aid is the logical parallel to Hollowpoint’s KILL skill — it’s the most direct and immediate response to your expectations of a scene.

Forensics is in the mix so that there is an opportunity to analyze each scene to find information that advances following scenes so that they are not strictly reactive. Note that in play the actual crisis will interfere with forensics which is awesome.

De-escalation — I want a way to have violence as opposition (such as an active shooter scenario) but not a way to respond with violence (that would be a way to fail the scenario). Also stands in for negotiation I think.

Counselling is a psychological counterbalance to first aid — maybe an obvious choice.

Rescue is the physical act of getting people out of danger. This would include putting yourself between harm and an innocent, entering a dangerous structure to extract someone, and so on.

Bureaucracy is there because I kind of think that root causes are going to generally lead you there if we are saying there is never a personal arch villain. Who is the villain? Probably some accounting process or algorithm or similar. All of that gets handled under this heading.

As always, pick one of these as your NEVER — a method you never use. You don’t know how, you’re philosophically opposed, whatever. You never do this. Then rank the others from 1 to 5. Example:

Wilson Griggs, ex-ambulance driver

First aid: 5 De-escalation: 2

Rescue: 4 Bureaucracy: 3

Forensics: 1 Counselling: NEVER

Next you need five traits. A trait can be burned (cross it out) in order to either add 2 dice to your pool or to make a declaration that’s true. That declaration can be anything that suits the narrative even if it breaks a rule: you decide you’re not dead when the dice say you’re dead, then you’re not dead. Cross out the trait. If it’s a physical object, it’s destroyed. If it’s a fact about you, then now the story’s been told and no one wants to hear it a second time. Cross it out. Answer these questions to get your five traits:

  1. You wear the uniform or at least meet the dress code, just like everyone else. Except for this.
  2. You saved a lot of lives in Utah that one time. What do you still have from that mission?
  3. You’re a professional and you know it because you always do this.
  4. You’re ready for whatever has to be done: others might hesitate (maybe wisely) but you will dive right in and do this.
  5. Someone you love loves what you do. They gave you this.

Tell as much story as needed to make sense but trim the trait down to a word or a phrase. Example:

Wilson Griggs, ex-ambulance driver

First aid: 5 De-escalation: 2

Rescue: 4 Bureaucracy: 3

Forensics: 1 Counselling: NEVER

Charles Schultz’s Lucy Vans

Charred fire axe

Head straight into trouble

Get people OUT

Father’s dog tags

Finally characters need a reason to be together. They can just agree on what they are or maybe we can make a limited version of the SH oracle for organizations. That risks becoming fantastic rather than realistic but maybe that’s okay. You want to be wary of simply making the characters part of an official body like the fire department since that places them in a rigid authority structure with clear boundaries for action, making it very difficult to act on initiative to get at root causes. Maybe this must be a kind of fantasy and the organization the characters belong to is always a hypothetical one allowing this to happen.

Opposition

The opposition can’t throw things at you that are exactly symmetrical with your own skills since it is free to be violent. Wondering if they can be categorized and then broken down into six specific “attacks” that can be indexed by the dice (roll 10d6 get 3×4, what attack is a 4 in this context? That guides ref narration as we proceed).

(Never mind I think we can generalize)

For a scenario the ref should choose what exactly is the reason for the call and what the opposition is. It might be the environment, it might be people. Something else? What else is there?

1 – panic

2 – someone in personal distress

3 – harm to character from source of danger

4 – interference from well meaning bystanders

5 – interference from other agency (possibly one authorized for violence)

6 – delay from source of danger

So, for example, if opposition dice indicate 3×1 (a whole lot of panic), that is applied against a character as a hit and the ref narrates how the panic has inhibited their actions.

We track hits by category, so players should record a hit from harm (3) with that category, eg. (3) wrenched shoulder from falling beam. So an additional hit of (4) neighbours are all up in my face does not take you out, but another 4 and you are on your way.

This also guides a taken out result — what does it mean for a player character to be taken out by general panic? By a specific person in distress? By interference from bystanders? All of these are interesting and varied psychological tolls on someone that could end their career.

Panic: first distracted then overwhelmed

Distress: first re-focused then tunnel vision

Harm: first hurt then incapacitated

Innocent interference: first explaining then very fucking angry

Official interference: first frustration then helplessness

Delay: first too damned busy then not holding it together

Once a character takes that second hit they are out of play. Take their dice off the table for this scene. Once the scene is over they may choose to be Taken Out (see below) or stay on but keep 1 hit on the character sheet.

After a fight everyone not Taken Out can remove their hits.

I notice that this can get very fucking dark very fast. Make sure everyone is ready for that — when the dice indicate the police show up with rifles to control a situation you almost have in the bag, that’s going to be ugly in ways not everyone wants to deal with.

Teamwork

[TODO] no immediate ideas here but clearly has to be different from HP

Taken out/advancement

Obviously we don’t want the same rules for this as in Hollowpoint since it’s designed explicitly to let you be hilariously awful to your team.

So what happens to you when taken out? I think we keep the replacement concept but soften it: the character has left play to be replaced by someone who is either:

More experienced: some additional tools to bring to bear as a special ability. They are brought in to bring the situation under control. Their first scene is an explanation to the others of what the plan is now that the shit has hit the fan (similar to Hollowpoint but now berating — only constructive).

Less experienced: sorry all we have is a new person to fill the shoes. Give the replacement a special power for being new — maybe more up to date training has an effect? Maybe just a new perspective? But they get a power for being new so make them better than a baseline character somehow. They do not however arrive with a plan. Instead their intro scene should be the new mission lead introducing them.

Example mission

Fucking fires everwhere

Characters are first responders but volunteers — a local firefighting/rescue team with a reputation for success but not actually authorized to act (?)

Initial scene is a three storey walkup fire. It’s bad. Shit’s falling down all over. Cops might show up and try to control the scene. People are trying to help because they know the people in the building.

Root cause: someone’s taking money to pass fire inspections that could fail. Fire department is happy with the increased budgets they have. Some old buildings getting burned down, tenants out, rebuilt. Hmm.

When in doubt, start another fire.

game design by risk analysis

I don’t know if this is a real thing or just a stupid idea, but I was watching some folks talk about giant robot stories (in the context of giant robot games) while also working on a customer risk assessment and I suddenly wondered if we could use one in the context of another?

Currently I work making giant robots safe and secure, so I already know robots in the context of risk analysis works. But what about risk analysis as a tool for game design? So there are lots of methodologies for assessing the risk (and determining how to mitigate it) for systems but one I really like because of its collaborative and practical nature is the French government’s EBIOS 2010 system. We won’t dig into it in detail nor discuss my professional variations on it, but rather look at it from a very high altitude and see if it makes a game. More correctly, if it identifies the parts of a simulation that are fun to model in a game. Maybe we get some new giant robot direction!

So the first step is to identify the assets of the system. Now, this is often naïvely interpreted as the physical objects of value in the system but this is not how this works. The assets of the system are the elements of the system that are critical to its correct and safe operation. They might be things but they might also be functions.

assets

So what kind of assets to giant robots have?

  • integrity of their armour — if the armour is busted, that’s bad
  • safety of the pilot
  • ability to destroy an opponent
  • ability to navigate difficult terrain
  • security from extreme environmental threats (radiation, engineered, disease, poison)
  • ability to function in a wide range of temperatures
  • ability to function in extremes of shock and vibration
  • ability to detect threats (enemies in this context)

I’m sure there are more, but this is a pretty good list to start with. So the next step is to determine just how bad your day gets if these assets are compromised. Since this is subjective we don’t want really fine granularity — let’s just say it’s zero if nothing bad happens, 1 if it’s a pain in the ass, 2 if the system becomes useless, and 3 if the pilot dies.

So integrity of the armour. Let’s call that a 1 because we have pilot safety and basic functions somewhere else. We don’t really care much if the armour is damaged if nothing else happens.

Pilot safety, that’s a 3 obviously. Note that in a real assessment here is where we would argue about the dollar value of a life — is it really more important to keep the pilot alive than anything else? And we might change the severity definitions based on this discussion. Anyway, and so on. Let’s summarize:

  • 1 — integrity of their armour
  • 3 — safety of the pilot
  • 2 — ability to destroy an opponent
  • 1 — ability to navigate difficult terrain
  • 2 — security from extreme environmental threats (radiation, engineered, disease, poison)
  • 2 — ability to function in a wide range of temperatures
  • 2 — ability to function in extremes of shock and vibration
  • 2 — ability to detect threats (enemies in this context)

Next we need to talk about what threatens these assets. What are the threats?

threats

So normally we’d brainstorm these and get lots of ideas and then winnow them down to essential and unique threats. But let’s short circuit that since you can’t respond very quickly to this and I’ll just list a few.

  • enemy weapons damage our weapons
  • enemy weapons damage out mobility subsystems
  • enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit
  • environmental temperature is very high or very low
  • weapons use creates too much heat
  • weapons malfunction
  • mobility system generates too much heat
  • subsystem breaks down from lack of maintenance
  • enemy weapons damage sensors

I think already we can see a game system come together though I’m not blind to the fact that I am thinking about game systems as I generate this list. It’s a bit of a cheat so I’m not sure it proves much. Maybe if I started with a topic I don’t know well?

Anyway the next step is to decide how likely each threat is. Let’s say 0 is amazingly unlikely. 1 is unlikely, 2 is common, and 3 will happen pretty much every time you get into a fight. Let’s quickly go through that:

  • 2 — enemy weapons damage our weapons
  • 2 — enemy weapons damage out mobility subsystems
  • 1 — enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit (because it’s small compare to everything else!)
  • 1 — environmental temperature is very high or very low
  • 3 — weapons use creates too much heat
  • 1 — weapons malfunction
  • 2 — mobility system generates too much heat
  • 2 — subsystem breaks down from lack of maintenance
  • 2 — enemy weapons damage sensors

risk matrix

Now we just multiply these to find out how much we care about each scenario. If a threat doesn’t impact any asset we don’t care. So for example, let’s look at “enemy weapons damage our weapons”. That seems to affect only our ability to damage opponents, which has an asset value of 2. So the risk for this threat is 2 x 2 = 4. We’d normally make a risk appetite grid to say just how bad a 4 is. Something like:

Severity ->
Likelihood0123
0who careswho careswho caresmaybe bad
1who caresmaybe badworryingbad
2who caresworryingbadvery upsetting
3maybe badbadvery upsettingunacceptable

So a 2 x 2 is BAD.

Let’s look at something with multiple asset impact. Enemy weapons damage our pilot cockpit. Now clearly this affects our pilot safety, our mobility, frankly almost all of our assets. So we pick the most severe one: pilot safety. So that’s a 1 x 3 — BAD.

As we go through this we start thinking about mitigations. For each scenario that’s, let’s say, worrying or worse are there mitigations we can put in place that reduce either the severity or the likelihood of the event? So, for example, we could add armour to the cockpit and maybe reduce severity by one step. That’d be nice. But we need to also consider the ramification (cost) of the mitigations.

Because I want to talk about it in the next step let’s also look at weapons use creates too much heat (3). We will now have to invent the impact of heat on the robot and now we’re also designing a game — we’re imagining features of this robot and its world context. So let’s say we think that a hot robot is an unhappy robot. That most subsystems degrade. Certainly the weapon but also mobility and maybe pilot safety ultimately. So that happens with a likelihood of 3 and pilot safety is the biggest deal of all the impacts. 3 x 3 is unacceptable.

mitigations

So a mitigation is a recommended change to the system that reduces the risk level of a given threat scenario. And this is where we start getting a game I think because when assessing a mitigation we have to consider its cost and that’s where we start to get at least robot construction rules.

We have an unacceptable scenario up there — weapons overheating can kill the pilot. That would be bad. It can also do lots of other things, so even if we solve the pilot problem we still could wind up with a 3 x 2 that’s very upsetting. So we’d really like to bring down the likelihood of a weapon overheating. We could:

  • prefer weapons that do not generate much heat (like rockets, say)
  • add heat dissipation equipment to weapons (sinks, heat pipes)
  • add heat dissipation equipment to the whole system
  • … and so on

Now from a game design perspective what’s interesting here is not how we make a giant war robot safer, but the detail that we are adding to the system. Now we know we want to track heat, maybe by component. We know that some weapons generate more or less heat. We have a new subsystem (heat sinks) that could also be damaged and create cascading trouble.

discussion

What this seems to do is to give us a big pool of credible detail — elements of a fictional universe that have some justification for existing. Ultimately a good (or more often bad) risk analysis is what drives pretty much everything in the real world: nothing is perfect and so we need to decide how much imperfection we can tolerate. A lot if not all complexity comes out of this thought process, and trade-offs like that are also a Good Trick in game design: they create diversity in approaches to playing the game well.

afv

I had the urge to do several things.

  • Buy some tiny tanks and paint them.
  • Play a tabletop wargame with tiny tanks.
  • Use a new font.

So obviously I wrote a tiny game for myself. This hasn’t been tested yet but please feel free. It’s essentially a very pared down version of Striker. I intend to play some of this tonight so expect more revisions. When it’s golden brown and a skewer comes out clean I’ll post it on itch. In the meantime, help yourself and see if it goes boom.

Sequence

Player A

Movement

  • If you have a stopped marker, remove it and go to Fire.
  • If you have a ready marker, remove it.
  • If you have a suppression marker, you may move full speed directly away from the enemy and remove it. Otherwise move up to your maximum movement rate and change facing to your direction of travel.
  • If you move zero, place a ready marker.
  • If you move half or less, place your direction marker perpendicular to your new facing.
  • If you move half or more place your direction marker in the direction of your facing.

Fire

  • You can shoot at anything in line of sight. If a recon unit has spotted an enemy out of LoS but in direct fire (no hills between you, just trees or other concealment) you may shoot at it.
  • If you have a suppression marker, you may fire at the nearest enemy revealing yourself to all opponents and remove the suppression marker.
  • You may fire once for each weapon system on your unit.

Player B

Same thing, clearly.

Units

Infantry

Infantry and their jeep.

Standard infantry

  • Move: 10cm (5mph)
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 3 hit, 0 pen, 15cm short range

Heavy weapons team

  • Move: 8cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

AT team

  • Move: 8cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 0 hit, 6 pen, 20cm 

Degraded infantry

  • Move: 10cm
  • Special: Only affected by anti-personnel attacks
  • Special: When in line of sight only spotted 50% of the time (1-3 on d6)
  • 0 hit, 0 pen, 10cm

Recon

Utility vehicle

  • Move: 80cm, 20cm rough terrain or mud
  • Armour: 1
  • Special: anything they spot everyone spots
  • Special: can carry 1 infantry team
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

Light armour

Fast Cannon carrier

A tank.
  • Move: 60cm
  • Armour: 3
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm

ATGM carrier

  • Move: 60cm
  • Special: can only fire on a turn that has AND starts with a stop marker
  • Armour: 3
  • 0 hit, 12 pen, 30cm

Fighting Infantry Vehicle

  • Move: 60cm
  • Special: can carry 2 teams of infantry
  • Armour: 3
  • 3 hit, 3 pen, 30cm

Medium armour

Standard AFV

  • Move: 40cm
  • Armour 6
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

Tank destroyer

  • Move: 40cm
  • Armour 3
  • 0 hit, 12 pen, 50cm

Heavy armour

  • Move: 20cm, 10cm on soft terrain
  • Armour: 9
  • 0 hit, 9 pen, 40cm
  • 3 hit, 1 pen, 20cm

Move

You may move your movement rate each turn. After moving, place a direction marker to indicate your direction of travel. If you did not move, place a READY marker instead. You may choose to move evasively — if so, move ½ your full rate but place you direction marker perpendicular to your actual path of movement (you zig-zagged).

Shoot

Roll 2d6 + hit for each weapon. Each weapon may engage a single target. Hit on 8+, 11+, 14+, 17+, &c.

Is there line of sight? No? Forget it then.

Did you move and you’re not infantry? -2

Did they move laterally (>45 degrees from straight towards you)? -3 if they are light or recon, -2 if they are medium, -1 if they are heavy or infantry.

Are they infantry in cover? -2

Are they in your short range? +0

Are they in your long range? -2 (5x short)

Are they in your distant range? -4 (10xshort)

For each hit, subtract pen from armour and roll 2d6

2d6 Result human Result vehicle

2: nothing nothing

3-5: stopped (no move next) superficial

6-8: suppressed external component destroyed (lights, antenna)

9-11: degraded, suppressed degraded move ½ or shoot -2

12-14: destroyed stopped or no weapon

15+ destroyed destroyed

Stopped infantry get a STOPPED marker.

Suppressed infantry get a SUPPRESSED marker

Degraded infantry get a SUPPRESSED marker and act as the DEGRADED INFANTRY unit type.

seneschal

I’m running an experimental game right now inspired by some historical work I’m reading about early RPGs and their evolution from wargames. Of particular interest to me in this time period was an explosion of play-by-mail games with a strategic but role-playing focus. Every few years I try to get that flavour working and the closest I got was Callisto, a letter writing game that is great fun but sometimes limps where it should run. So this time I decided to eat my own dog food and start with scaffold.

So with seneschal what I’ve done is found 16 people who are willing to answer some simple questions and play their “people” in a maximally fog-of-warred world. One in which only the ref really has a view of the reality and all “moves” go through the ref. And what I want to do is to add and modify rules to the scaffold only as they become necessary (or at least desirable) for play. So obviously I need a few to even start! So this is the seneschal addendum version 1.0 to scaffold:


seneschal

Our game will take place in the world of Seneschal, a place populated by sentients of many descriptions, all at a level of technology such that the world (its shape, its size, its very nature) is a mystery. Right now all peoples know only themselves and their immediate surroundings. They haven’t the means to travel far and fast and there are not yet pressures demanding expansion…but that is on the visible horizon.

Once a week the ref will publish a statement and ask what you do about it. You will invent your response and email it to the ref. It can be as long or as short as you like. It can contain any amount of detail you like but should culminate in an order: a clear indication of what you want your people to get done in the coming turn.

If the ref determines that we need some new rules (or if you do, then tell the ref) then a symposium will be declared. The symposium is a scheduled chat in Discord about the rule additions. Afterwards a new rulebook will be published.

begin

To start, send the ref, bjmurray.halfjack@gmail, your people information: your people’s name, an answer to the question “what are your people you good at?” and an answer to the question “what do your people want?” Send more detail if you like, of course!

senechal rules

As our rules evolve, the changes will go here and forward.


Yeah that’s it — just the rules for what to send in for a first move. This 1.0 version of the doc went out to the players so they know what they’re playing. Now of course as soon as the first moves came in I needed more rules. And suddenly a lot more rules. Several things drive this:

First, as I communicate with people and write rules I realize that there is some meta content that needs to be made clear. So things like safety and the role of the ref/moderator in keeping the places we communicate safe are addressed. The fact that since this takes place digitally we have no constraints on dice — if a table calls for 17 options then we will roll a d17. We have no interest in the shapes of pedestrian real-world dice.

Next there are rules to cope with things people have sent in their initial moves. Some are meta material — if a player’s order exceeds the remit, for example, what do we do? Then there are people who have said things like “we live next to a mountain” — should that be formalized? Do I need to talk about maps already (I do, as it turns out — maps may be fundamental just as a bookkeeping technique)?

And then there are anticipatory rules. I already have an idea of what I want to do for the next moves — I want to provide something motivational. A disaster to respond to. So I write a table of disasters and as I do so I see something magical: the disasters come with instructions about geography. All peoples experiencing a drought are adjacent to each other. All experiencing a volcanic eruption are adjacent to the same volcano. I still have no east and west and no distances, but I have adjacency.

And so the rules evolve by need, whether that need is immediate (something happens that needs a rule) or anticipatory (I plan to do something in the response to orders and need to codify it). So now, I think complete for the move, seneschal has nine pages of rules from the initial one and a half. I hope this is not the regular expansion rate.

In addition to (or maybe adjacent to) the rules is the bookkeeping. I have a spreadsheet with what I think are the key information points about each player’s people so far but I don’t know how much of this document is rules and how much is just my personal expedient way to handle the data. Do the rules need to say “use a spreadsheet”? Or even “keep track of this bit”? It feels like something that I shouldn’t command in others. Do what thou wilt and all that.

I’ll keep you up to date as we progress.

The Scaffold System

In ancient days I wrote about scaffolding, a technique by which one uses the bare minimum system to allow testing of a more detailed subsystem you’re interested in. Here is a perfectly workable scaffold, a game that can be played entirely on its own but that can better serve as the connective tissue for your components under test. Of course it must grow and modify (hopefully until it is unrecognizable) to meet the needs of the bits you want to test, but it serves to get to the table.

And that’s the rule for scaffolding: don’t yammer on about your idea. Don’t trawl for acceptance. Don’t wonder aloud and publicly if you have the probabilities right. Get it to a table tonight.


Scaffold

A bare minimum on which to hang subsystems for testing.

Character

A character has two stats: the answers to “what are you good at?” and “why are you here?” Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. Whoever wants to play a character should invent one.

Core System

When an external resolution is required (that is, there is no consensus on what happens next) the player invested in the outcome rolls 1d6. If their character is good at this, then they succeed on a 2 or better. Otherwise they succeed on a 3 or better. Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. If they have no character then wonder why they are so invested in this scene. Why are they even here at the table. Perhaps they are observing and should be invited to play.

Scenario and motivation

Everyone should pay attention to everyone elses “why are you here” and narrate stuff that leans into those answers. If there’s a ref, they should pay special attention. Challenge it — make why they are there a problem. Make it difficult. Make it a moral dilemma. Make it require resources. Kick it in the nads.


Now of course you could do this differently, but I want to remove every single obstacle in your path to getting to the table that I can. You need to find the people, you need to work up the nerve, and you need something you care to test, but I have taken care of the other excuse. There’s your scaffold. Like any scaffold it should be entirely absent once you are done, or at least invisible. We might see traces of it — bolt holes unfilled in the sidewalk perhaps — but your objective is to use it only until it is replaced.

And grow the scaffold itself if you need to. Paint it. Cover it. Raise it. Whatever it takes.

scaffold is available in PDF form from itch if you need a PDF version.

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.

what is your game about?

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

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

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

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

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This is actually one of my own diagrams.

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

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

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

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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.

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!)

orcs and evil

I recently was involved in a twitter discussion in which I concluded that a rational and natural evil was nonsensical. The path to there is a little convoluted, but it hinges on motivation: what is the objective of evil? Most rational objectives I can think of are pretty bad but not really what we think of as Evil. Maybe evil but not Evil if you follow.

Say, for example, orcs really hate humans. They kill all humans and destroy all human things. But if they are natural and rational, then they have an end-game, a perfect world. They have an agenda that is not just external to them (kill everything) but internal: something they want and strive for. Clearly this is just a world without humans but otherwise kind of nice — everyone rational wants things to be kind of nice, at least for them. This is extreme and aggressive but, depending on the backstory for their hatred, not necessarily evil and not innate so certainly not Evil. Maybe their human-free world is awesome. Too bad for us but more power to them.

But if evil is rational and supernatural we can kind of get our teeth into something meaty. Perhaps our Evil is a deity that despises this reality and wants to destroy it to replace it with their own (whatever that looks like doesn’t matter since it doesn’t have us in it). A kind of failed god like Morgoth in The Silmarillion — they hate the existing reality and are jealous of the power of creation. Their dedication to the destruction of everything is rational but supernatural: they want their own vision realised. That’s their rational end game.

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There we go, a hate elemental maybe. Or a failed god.

Or perhaps it’s supernatural but irrational — it’s just a kind of hate elemental, a realization of pure nihilism that only destroys. Maybe that’s not even Evil but it’s a neighbour. It is interesting however simple its agenda is. It will be content in its end-game to rule over ashes. But it has to be irrational: there is no constructive agenda, no genuine plan for the future. Just wreckage and horror.

But where do orcs go? It seems to me there are few places for orcs and evil. One is that they are an autonomous species with their own culture and a complex agenda (not Evil intrinsically) but they are unwillingly or unwittingly under the command of our hate elemental or jealous near-deity. They will ultimately be consumed as well. These orcs have a complex relationship with the world and are, to my mind, very interesting now. They can be saved or, much better, save themselves. They don’t really need a variation in shape, though — they could as easily be humans. Again, their evil is situational and not innate. They can and would likely prefer to find a different path.

Another way to read them would be as beings that do not have a culture, that do not exist as normal biological organisms do. That is, they bear no children and have no relationships but are fabricated by our Evil entity with only enough autonomy to serve as soldiers. Not even that, but really as just appendages of this Evil entity. These orcs cannot be saved because they are just semi-detached tentacles of the Evil. They are not “like” people beyond the fact that they sort of look like people. They are the best our hateful and destructive demigod of the ashes can do as far as creation goes and they will be expended in the end. Since they are basically automatons they can’t really be Evil themselves — they are an expression of our hate monster’s evil.

But I don’t see a way that rational, natural beings can be intrinsically evil (or Evil really) because there’s no end game to a philosophy of pure hate and destruction. They have no agenda that makes any sense. Anything you try to make them want requires either supernatural power (re-create the world as something functional for them), lack of rationality (a pure hate for everything), or not being actually evil (a complex and destructive relationship with the status quo).

Thanks Levi, I didn’t need to sleep anyway.