folk aesthetics

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

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

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

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

sunset sunrise sea horizon
Photo by Life Of Pix on

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

selective focus photography of a telescope
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on

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

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

black and white blank challenge connect
Photo by Pixabay on

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

Asymmetric composition by Juan Ochoa.

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

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

Yes there is a subtext.

These posts happen because of my patrons, who are each and all awesome.

certain death and perception checks

Consider this scenario. I’ve seen it more than once so I think it might be interesting.

As ref, you describe a place that will definitely kill the characters if they enter. You don’t intend the adventurers to go in there — it’s just an illustration of the capriciousness of the owner. The adventure is somewhere else. So, say: the open archway is completely clear of sand, unlike where you’re standing outside of it. And right inside are the skeletons of three people who are dressed just like the people you know were exploring here last night. It looks like they crossed the threshold and died instantly then decomposed over at most a few hours.

From my perspective as ref I have made it totally clear that this path is barred. What I am selling here is the death of the friends not a puzzle. However, players will usually see a puzzle. So:

“I want to go inside and see what happened.”

Hmm, okay. It’s certain death. That doesn’t sound like fun. How about we tie a roll to it?

“Hrm okay. Let’s have a KNOW check then.”

Now this requires elaboration. The player may well think that failure means you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Success means you KNOW what’s going on. But this doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. I dunno means they go ahead and die. I know means I reveal it’s insoluable and the move on. Neither are very fun sounding. And what RISK would I apply here? Fail and die and also trigger a risk? Seems weird. Succeed and you can’t go there but also trigger a risk? Mmmmmaybe, sure. Success with no risk? It’s a hard success to celebrate so, hmmm, no.

And it fails to address the misunderstanding between ref and player. It maybe reveals it. So instead: explain the misunderstanding (you are humans, you can do this) and consider what the player really wants: they don’t want to know whether they can enter. They want to enter.

This reframes the player’s position in the context of the roll as “Do I KNOW how to enter safely?” At this point as ref I would be confident saying:

Risk is REVELATION (because I have an idea — the revelation will be that on entering you get the eternal enmity of the owning god but we won’t say that out loud right away).

Don’t piss off the ibis god. You won’t like them when they’re angry.

Fail is death. You KNOW you can just enter. But you can’t. This is extreme but we’ve already established in the narrative that it’s lethal. Say it out loud. The player can still decide against acting. They want to enter but given the evidence maybe it’s wiser not to try. Not only will they die, but thanks to the risk their they die entering and the god (which in this actual case the players need to continue the path they’ve chosen) hates them.

Success with risk means that the revelation happens and the character knows away around the certain death. This is the divergence from the main narrative that risk tends to produce.

Success without risk means that the character knows a way around the certain death and the ref should narrate at will with this new direction. The god is apparently fine with this.

What I take away from this is that revelatory checks should do more than just reveal a fact. They should acknowledge the further intention of the player — what do they want to do with that knowledge — and play with that instead.

This post is brought to you by my patrons.


resolution as narrative

Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.

Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.

That’s a Juan Ochoa original. See previous post. Thanks Juan.

What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.

More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.

It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.

All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.

SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.

CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.

REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.

WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.

DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.

So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.

Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.

weapons technology in d&d

trusting the ref too much

Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.

IMG_0419 (1).pngThe characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”

The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”

“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”

“Go with them.”

“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”

“I wait.”

“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”

What the fuck happened here?!

A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.

First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.

Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!

Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.

Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.

Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?

How about we change the rules instead?

If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.

If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.

If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.

If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.

So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.

There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.

The ref never rolls.

“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.

Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.

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.


when the system engages invisibly

When playtesting it can be frustrating to get a session where there are no rolls. After all, you’re trying to test the system and where was the system? But the system is more than the dice you roll — there are other mechanisms, usually, and there is also the negative space: when the roll doesn’t happen because of what it would mean if it did. That is, when the system engages the story by being declined. Exactly because of what it will do.

Yes, this is a true story.

Our last playtest session had no rolls. So how did the system engage?

Negative space: there was one situation where an action led to an offer of a roll but was declined.

JB: So no passages leading off? Just a fuck-you huge pit? I’ll try to commune with a vegetable machine. Like grab a less mobile appendage and see if I can somehow mind-meld or something.

Brad: You see nothing that seems sentient. Just vegetable labour. So nothing talks. But that sounds like SOCIALIZE to me with risk HARM. Only because you want to get close to what’s essentially industrial machinery.

JB: Hmm. [examining character sheet which has DENY for SOCIALIZE] Ah, fuck it.

Brad: But your scar counts.

JB: So 2d6 or just 1?

Brad: They aren’t insects, so 1d6. Very probable injury.

JB: Seeing the OSHA-violating implications, Marc beats a hasty retreat.

A good conflict system means that sometimes you don’t go in guns blazing: it gives you measurable factors to weigh and decide. Sometimes you do, though.

So nothing happened but we have an interesting choice: Marc isn’t that confident in his new ability to communicate with alien vegetable monsters, and also reinforces his denial of SOCIALIZE as a method. It’s not what he’s good at, it makes him uncomfortable, and adding the significant risk of an industrial accident, he lets that opportunity go by. The system is doing what it’s intended to do: the player plays into the choices they made about their character (denying SOCIALIZE in this case) and the player is making risk calculations based on the risk and sometimes not taking an action. The possibility of information from the vegetable machines is abandoned and a different path must be taken through the narrative because of the system. Working as intended.

This is the same as a party in a D&D campaign deciding to rest for the night because they are wounded, branching the narrative from pressing on wounded through the wilderness to resting, telling campfire stories, and getting jumped by bugbears while asleep in their armour. Negative space is important: if every choice to engage the dice is answered with “yes please!” then there is a missed opportunity for the system to forge another path.

And then there’s instruction to the ref. In Sand Dogs there is a ref prep sheet, just a few lines, and one of the prompts is “introduce someone interesting”:

Brad: You hear a high pitched buzz of insect wings. A speck on the other side of the pit slowly resolves as a large flying insect person. What do you do?

Dune: Hail!

JB: I’ll wave at them.

Dune: Duarte waves his arms as well.

Brad: The bug thing flies over the pit to you. It is multi-segmented like a flying centipede and has dozens of arms and/or legs. As it comes close it strokes a beard of tiny eating legs thoughtfully. “I thought you were Tik but you are not!”

JB:  “Tik has asked us to help.”

Brad: “Help how? This vegetable machine thing makes no sense at all. What was she thinking?” It throws a dozen limbs upwards in exasperation. “Would it be rude for me to land?”

Dune: “Please land.” I make room.

Brad: It lands. “Kanikalakiwinazzztakila. You may call me Kan.” It waits expectantly.

Yes, sure, you can add an NPC any time you want without a rule. But I have a rule: when you’re in a lull, wondering how to push things forward, check your prep sheet. And one of the things there is to invent someone interesting to talk to. System engaged. Kan now exists and branches the narrative. Casual statements like “flying insect person” turn into story inflections — if the characters make friends can they fly with Kan? That’d be handy.

You might think of it on your own. But with this you have a recipe and you won’t flounder because you didn’t.

Another ref cue is “recall a missed hook”. Ages ago the characters met and befriended a tough sand dog named Rachael but they left her in the previous plane. She wasn’t that interesting. So I find this cue and think, “maybe she is”:

Brad: Tik says “Well don’t I look foolish. What a waste of land the vegetable machines are.”

JB: “Harrison told you it would be good?”

Brad: “Not-Harrison did. Harrison just demanded things. I thought perhaps you were all mentally ill.” [Tik was under the impression until very recently that humans were a hive mind, all the same, because they look so similar and she had named them all Harrison.]

JB: “Well, he was.”

Brad: Tik says, “Well the meet is moot. Will you do a last thing for me? I cannot bear the waste.”

JB: “Sure.”

Dune: “Of course.”

Brad: Tik says, “Find not-Harrison and bring her to here. It seemed so important. She went by Rachael.”

Hurray! I get Rachael back into play. I liked her then and now she’s way more important than previously. Now it’s implied that she’s a planewalker and maybe an enemy or rival of this Harrison villain. The story opens up wide.

The system is more than just the conflict mechanism and its side effects. It is also in how the conflict system inspires people to sometimes deny operating it. And it is in all of the bits and pieces that guide the referee. Don’t focus too hard on your conflict system — there’s a lot of other game to play.