movie influences

Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?

rollerball

film-1The first game I ever designed was a Rollerball simulator. Based on a single and heavily edited viewing on television I decoded the rules to the sport and built an oval track game complete with the starting gun, motorcycles, the magnetic goal, and punching.

I was 11 or 12. The game worked. So right out of the gate I knew I could make games. It would be a long time before I decided I could (and that would come mostly by being handed a way — POD) make games for other people to play.

Did my game manage to capture the theme of corporate management and violence as entertainment? No.

But it was a functional simulation of a fictional sport and it was fun to play. It is gone without a trace.

the road warrior

film-2This film fed into our love of all things apocalyptic (since we knew we were going to die in atomic fire). It added wild cars, which we hadn’t considered, and consequently drove the purchase and near-constant playing of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars.

Weirdly (though we were older now) we did get the underlying themes and did start playing games about rebuilding community and about the difference between survival and thriving. Of course the games were still combat-heavy and centered on our gear, whether vehicles or weapons, but we were also exploring how we would cope should we survive the coming nuclear disaster. In fact I spent a day with my social studies teacher driving around Vancouver taking pictures of buildings. When I got them developed (you had to do that in the Old Days) I marked them up with a technical pen, adding the necessary destruction: our games were about surviving the thermonuclear holocaust in our home town. And my idea of post-apocalypse would always center about my home town.

This wasn’t fantasy for us. This was planning. We really thought this could happen. And yet it still didn’t influence me enough to make me learn how to drive: in an emergency I could perhaps be the gyrocopter pilot but not Mad Max.

reservoir dogs

filme-3This film is primarily about being cool above all else. Above intelligence, above compassion, above common sense. Everyone in this film is obsessed with how cool they are and, most importantly, that they are cooler than everyone else. The big surrender at the end is a surrender of cool, the agony of compassion betrayed, an actual uncool warm masculine feeling undermined and soaked in blood.

Of course this was part of what would be Hollowpoint — a game in which you can only be violent. There is no mechanism for anything else and so any compassion you bring to the game is all you. It is constantly undermined by the mechanism. Eventually your character is taken out, and while that is prosaically death, most players have their characters leave in disgust at who they’ve become–and then roll up a character who is worse and start play by giving the rest of the group shit for screwing up and losing a partner. That is, the scene starts by establishing your cool dominance.

2001: a space odyssey

film-4Finally a space ship that might actually work. A space station with spin gravity. Weightlessness on the transit from Earth to the Moon. And the quiet coldness of hard science fiction.

I was a big reader of classic science fiction as a kid and when I read science fiction now it is more often older classics than newer material. Sure, I dig The Expanse of course, but it’s an outlier. Now 2001 didn’t really influence in a sense — it more epitomizes what I wanted out of science fiction gaming and consequently what I wanted from an sf game. It didn’t make me play Traveller, but it acted as visual and thematic touchstones for it. We spent a lot of time seeking ancient incomprehensible artifacts. We constantly made ourselves feel that the immediate drama of being human was in fact tiny and pointless compared to what the universe was really about. And it wasn’t about us.

Of course this aesthetic would carry on to Diaspora.

the duellists

film-5The Duellists is a Napoleonic period piece about obsession. One character (Harvey Keitel) is obsessed with his honour and duelling the other character (Keith Carradine) to the death. Feraud (Harvey) is single-minded and uncomplicated but not above fear. d’Hubert (Keith) has a full rich story for his life and is continuously nagged, tormented by Harvey’s pursuit and their periodic inconclusive duels.

The two characters are opposing views of (in an extreme way) what it means to be male. The senseless pursuit of honour as an excuse for violence destroys every other aspect of Feraud’s life and he doesn’t care. He has defined himself by this pursuit of violence. And on the other side is a man who tries to live a full, thoughtful, and compassionate life but is constantly forced to address the obsession of another man.

I’m pleased that I can see this stress in most of my games. That there is always an acknowledgement of the compassion that humans (and men, from my own perspective) must fight to preserve in the face of a world that sometimes only offers us violence and stupidity as an option. If the game is going to have violence in it, it’s going to be an interruption and not the focus. My hope is that we will pick up the game and play d’Hubert and not Feraud.

Except in Hollowpoint. In Hollowpoint you more likely play Feraud through to his logical end. See the film. It’s not what you think.

Also, check out the design on that poster. You can’t really think I wasn’t influenced by that.

more influences

universalis

influences 5Around the time we were playing with Burning Wheel we also got into Universalis, a GM-less universal system for developing a story with interesting people using a simple currency to trade narrative control. It has a nice rhythm, and with a little attention can be diverted from the gonzo towards something more serious. We used this to develop a setting for Burning Wheel play and frankly the developed setting was more interesting than the game itself was.

If there is a spectrum of games on some linear scale of I-don’t-know-what, there is a scale where D&D is on one end and Universalis is the other. In that sense the game provided a kind of map — if there’s a known quantity over there and another known quantity waaaaaay over there, then that implies a space between. A huge space in between. So that was a map with a lot of blank space and such things invite exploration. I know that’s vague but that’s the way I felt: I was seeing a huge gulf of apparently unexplored space between this game and what I was used to.

And Universalis was another independent title, again whispering in my ear that I can make these things if I want.

spirit of the century

influences 6Well obviously, right? We played this and dug it because it was an engine. You fire it up, play by the rules, and get some pretty wonderful results. We rotated the GM role and got great results. This implied a framework for games that I knew I could work with.

I also really wanted to decompose it. It clearly had a lot of subsystems entangled in it that could be teased out, defined, made to do other things. It begged to be refactored.

It’s very broad, heroic stuff and so perversely it made me think about subverting that. And that’s when Spirit of the Far Future was born, which would soon be Diaspora. But this wasn’t a case where we looked at the game and thought, you know, this would be the perfect system for Traveller. Rather this was a case where we looked at the game and thought that rebuilding Traveller with it would be somewhere between perverse and pathological. It was a Bad Idea.

But that was a rationale, and all I needed, to start deconstructing the system in the ways I thought I saw were possible. And I was right. We didn’t go far enough, but we went in a direction that would certainly influence others.

We never played much SotC. A few sessions maybe, just enough to get a feel for the system so we could re-write it into a game we actually wanted to play. But it spawned Diaspora very directly and that game has seen a lot of play. Tons of play. Even when I started to grow tired of Fate, I still got a kick out of a Diaspora game.

And Fred and the gang were great to us. Encouraging, enlightening, supportive — just great. And so even if all the game influence was devalued, the influence that would stick would be the realization that the designers were just folks, and folks talk to folks. It humanized an “industry” for me (it’s not an industry).

reign

influences 7And then we started playing Reign. This game is built on the “One Roll Engine” and it packs a wollop: one roll is decoded in rounds, dice moved around, subtracted, compared, to get initiative, attack, defense, hit, damage, and hit location all in one throw each.

That’s really cool. It spawned Hollowpoint (again because I thought there was a way to pervert it).

But the key influence in Reign was the organization rules: rules for treating an organization to which the characters belonged as a character itself. With its own actions in the session and crossed influence: changes in the character play changed the organization play. Changes in the organization play changed the character play. And this drives a game — an organization to which characters belong (essential) that has its own motivation (also essential) is a super powerful motor to keep a game running.

It binds characters together without meeting in an inn.

It supplies common motivations. Characters might have their own little personal things they want to do, but the organization’s needs are something all can agree on.

It supplies resources. There’s money, people have heard of you, there are friends and there are enemies. Things that were hard to introduce were now just handed to us.

And then there was the way Greg Stolze, the author, was handling expansion. He was experimenting with different models for getting paid and that made us think about those things as well. The business side was being revealed to be as broad and poorly understood as the games themselves. So many things were possible.

shock: social science fiction

influences 8And then things got serious. This was the first game I played that was clearly and concisely about something. The mechanism was deliberate, doing exactly what it was supposed to do. That was something I wanted to emulate: I want to be intentional. Shock is intentional.

Shock is also spare. It doesn’t do anything but its intention. And Joshua A. C. Newman thinks really hard about how to do what it needs to do: he wants to have play emulate a certain kind of science fiction and then drills into the heart of that fiction to figure out what makes it go. Then mechanizes it. It’s game design as engineering.

My games aren’t that intentional. I can only hope they at least get mistaken for it.

previous influences…

next influences…

 

influential games

All the cool kids are doing a list of ten influential games. Let’s try this instead: I’ll talk about each of the games that influenced me. I dunno if we’ll get to ten. I may or may not do them all in one post. Let’s find out.

dungeons & dragons

influential 1Well, since this was the first role-playing game I played it would be pretty hard to say it wasn’t influential. But it was first only by accident — a game that happened to be around because someone got it for a gift and it had a compelling cover. So, influential because it was first. Influential because it hinted at other possibilities. But that’s about it — it only influences current design insofar as it influenced my influences. The whole model of roll to hit, roll for damage, the centricity of combat, the level and class architecture, and the presence of an advancement mechanism as a motivator are all things I’ve left behind. Even quasi-medieval fantasy is a lot more in my past than my present. It likely influences in ways I don’t recognize, but at the top level, the cognizant level, the level of my brain where I serialize ideas in language, it has no impact except sometimes as a list of things to avoid. It was first and that’s it.

Let’s look:

Lists of monsters. Nope.

Lists of equipment. Nope.

Experience points? Nope.

Character classes? Levels? Maybe…nope.

Spell lists! Nope.

Alignment? Surely alignment! Nope.

Rolling for initiative at least?! Nope.

Stats and modifiers? Nuh uh.

Random encounters? Nope.

Races? Hmm, sort of. Sometimes. But warily.

The game is mostly a list of things I would gradually shed.

traveller

influential 2Now this game was influential. I’m very glad I discovered it so early because it immediately called into question all the things D&D was trying to entrench. No advancement (I know there are sort of advancement rules but seriously, not in the same ballpark at all). No magic. I was never a reader of fantasy anyway — I was a Clarke and Asimov nerd as a kid. We played OLD PEOPLE — sometimes as ancient as 40! Doddering! I found that weirdly exciting. I was going to play an adult and so presumably doing adult things.

That’s a big deal as an influence: doing grown up things in a world that feels real. Sometimes mundane things. Paying the bills. But adult. That’s a major sea change from D&D.

Replacing classes with life paths was also a big deal: it taught me early that not only were there a lot of ways to make a character but I only knew two and they were totally different! This implied that there were even more and even more divergent possibilities.

It also had complex construction rules for spacecraft and that suggested all kinds of things you could construct using this basic model: here’s some space, fill it with doo-dads that have different cost metrics (mass, credits, program space) and calculate stats from this list. Mind blown!

And then of course the rich random setting generation was obviously influential — we’d use it in our first game, Diaspora, and most afterwards.

It was still strangely combat centric and that combat was still roll-to-hit-then-roll-for-damage so I wasn’t yet exposed to alternatives there, but the rest of the game was so very different that it seemed like everything was questionable.

Traveller was revelatory.

There were lots of games played after Traveller but precious few I would consider influential. And then…

dungeons & dragons 3e

influential 3Yeah I don’t think there was anything really influential between Traveller in, what, 1979 or so and then this. Lots of games, but nothing I’d point to and say that shaped my tastes today and certainly not my design ideas.

But at some point in the late 80s I stopped playing role-playing games altogether and that lasted at least ten years. And then 3e came along.

When I saw it, it was the perfect time. I had some friends who were likely players. I was feeling a wave of nostalgia. I had a big table.

I prepped and ran long campaigns with new friends and old friends. I connected with my would-be co-authors. We had great times.

But as with D&D Basic, I don’t think it had an influence other than reinforcing the seminal: this was role-playing and I wanted to keep playing. And now maybe start writing. So an influence because it influenced me to get back into this stupid hobby.

burning wheel

influence 4The place where I bought my D&D stuff had some indie titles and one that I saw early on was this Burning Wheel thing. It hybridized fantasy with life path character generation. It had some compelling technology for rewarding certain kinds of behaviour. And it installed the idea that the traditional GM might be something you want some mechanical defense against — the idea that the role could be abused and that rules could help.

Sure, dice pools, and so on, yeah those were novel to me but not influential.

The influential thing here was first that this was put together by someone that wanted to, on personal budget. Printed in relatively small numbers. This represented something I could do. It wasn’t something that came from the glossy world of Publishing. It came from the world of gamers.

So the critical influence of Burning Wheel was the invitation to start designing my own games. The idea that my creativity might productively extend beyond just playing the game. And it made me think about the social roles of the people playing and about games as influencers of behaviour. Games as mind control, if you will.

Okay more next time. That’s good for today.

next influences…

regression

In software development a regression happens when you add a new function and in doing so accidentally break an old function. You protect against this with regression testing: you test all your old functions to make sure they still work as intended. One of the ways this can happen is when you import legacy code into a new project, code that was never designed to work in the new environment, and it has side effects that violate your modern requirements.

When we choose to look back to old games for inspiration for new games, we want to be wary of this too. One of the things we want to do is improve those games (otherwise why bother), to bring newer technology to bear where possible and desirable to make these old game concepts better. This typically focuses on the functional: what did these old games do, how did they do it, and then of course, do we still want to do exactly that and is there a better technology now that preserves the feel but improves the play?

However.

I’ve been told not to use “however” but “however” is a pacing element a pause and an opportunity for you to anticipate where the text is going. So, however. Big pause.

20180115_132518
George C. Scott, doodled instead of listening to a lessons learned review. My bad.

When we look back to art made forty years ago for inspiration we aren’t just looking back forty years in the history of the technology. We’re also looking back through forty years  of context, of culture. And we are necessarily looking back down forty years worth of change in sexism, racism, homophobia, and a host of other social changes. When we mine ancient artifacts we are also necessarily going to be dredging up side effects of that older culture, that context.

There is a lot of resistance to addressing this because cultural problems are messy and even today not everyone is going to agree what was “worse” and what was “better”. Even “genocide is bad” seems to be up for debate in some circles. Nor even which mechanical elements in that game ore are reflective of what’s worse. But also because some of the nostalgia for that earlier time, the reason for mining that old material, might just be a desire for a whiter, maler, more heterosexual context. And the idea that that might be true is rightly uncomfortable as hell. And one thing we nerds know about discomfort: we do not want to talk about it.

But when we make a game that incorporates or emulates material from that past we risk racist, sexist, homophobic regressions. And we don’t have a good way to test for it, especially if we want to ignore it even as a possibility: if you want to ignore an error your first step is certainly to avoid testing for it. Or rather, we do have good ways to test but we do not deploy them. So let’s look up from the dungeon map and take a step and acknowledge that this is a risk. That material with a forty year old context may have side effects (and possibly direct effects) that reflect that context. And that in some if not many cases that would be a bad thing. That would be regressive.

20181122_103733.jpg
I am old and white and male. I wish I could get glasses for my brain that correct for this.

And if it’s a risk and if it’s undesirable (you decide for yourself but your decision will be telling) then we really ought to be testing for it. In fact it should probably be a priority in testing since it’s an awful thing to wind up shipping, it’s probably hard to spot, and it’s a genuine risk. The impact of a mechanically bad rule is usually that refs have to house rule around it, which they love doing. The impact of a socially, culturally bad rule is the propagation of bullshit that we as a culture have been trying to work past and through. Something we’ve made forty years of progress on, however small the actual progress may or may not be, and so something we should no more ignore than the changes in technology over that period.

Technology and society and culture are all equally “things we’ve learned”. They deserve at least equal weight as problems other, smarter people have confronted and solved or at least tried to solve. All this material needs some attention in order to make a great game out of old material.

The only way to make looking back progressive is to adapt it to lessons learned since then. Ignoring the progress is regressive. It’s just looking back and re-implementing old mistakes. As I write that I realise that people read both regressive and progressive as different kinds of criticism. Let’s also reclaim “progressive” then. Looking forward. Making things better. Building on technology to make even better technology. Let’s not be ashamed of being progressive. Progressive nostalgia sounds like a great goal.

Regressive nostalgia, even if it’s just because we’re not looking at our work hard enough, sucks. Forty years is a lot of learning to throw away. A lot of mistakes to ignore and re-make.

So, in the interest of offering solutions, here’s a way to find a sensitivity reader for your project.

being inside the machine

There was a time when what interested me about games was the detail of the simulation. This was mostly a time before inexpensive computers, and so we played games where we, the players, basically pushed the bits and found solutions. Now of course there were layers of abstraction to make this practical, but in some cases this abstraction was pretty thin. Take, for example, Avalon Hill’s (thanks, Ian) SPI’s Air War.air war

Hurray, a jet fight wargame, right? Okay, in this game you track your total energy. You track your wing loading, I think I recall. You basically have a dashboard of sliders and dials covered in chit that you manipulate to determine the new vector of your aircraft based on your control inputs and the environment. Including air pressure.

Heaven forbid you launch a missile, because now you need to track that in almost the same detail! I recall trying to fly straight with this game. Then after a few weeks I felt comfortable making a turn. I think we may have played a dogfight once but not finished it because everyone was too afraid to fire a missile and deal with that whole set of rules and there was no way in the world we were going to navigate these planes into gun range.

But we had a gas!

So clearly the top level game, the part that’s about dogfighting and winning or losing, that was a complete bust. We never ever actually played that game to completion. But the game of being inside the simulation machine and being exposed to all the cogs and springs and seeing exactly how our inputs changed the machine state, well that was enormous fun. And it was a great lesson in game design, in how interacting components work. And in how to abstract complexity: I mean, we didn’t have to solve any differential equations but the abstraction, the dials and sliders, were actually doing that albeit in a simplified form. I learned a lot from this and similar games.

Then there was a computer revolution and I could get a flight simulator where I could concentrate on the top level game and not worry so much about what happened inside the machine. This was astounding. I don’t want to paint the inside-the-machine days as being utopic. It was its own kind of fun but it wasn’t this. And so I took up computer programming.

One thing I learned from computer programming and actually building simulations (though not games) was that in many ways the computer version is less authentic than the games were. When you make the mechanism invisible to the user you can get away with outrageous shortcuts. Shortcuts that are fine within the limitations of the scope of the simulation: your user can never tell the difference. In fact a scientist would be hard put to tell the difference in many cases. Because you can take some mind-blowing shortcuts that leave your simulation perfectly intact as long as the bits you cut off are not part of the scope of your output. Anyway, I was disillusioned. I saw through my flight simulators. They were a shame!

So I got back into the machine.

Ad Astra Games makes boardgames for space combat that are hyper-realistic. And you are unabashedly placed within the machine. You have a reticle that represents everything around you in 3D-space so you can figure out what direction missiles are coming from. You have ships that orient on all three axes. You have accurate representation of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Railguns. Energy weapons. Heat loading. And man are you inside that machine with thousands of things to poke.

And there are elegant abstractions to guide you, clever dials and templates and rules of thumb to simplify what is genuine math. The number of shortcuts are very limited indeed.

Ao I bought Attack Vector: Tactical and gave it a spin. It was everything I remembered

attack vector
That’s not me playing — you can tell because someone has launched a missile I think — but check out how ship orientation is indicated! That ship is on angles!!

about Air War. It took me ages to figure out how to move. I fired a railgun and spent three hours learning how much I missed by. I launched a missile but we had to break for dinner before it could leave the ship.

We never played the game. But we did get inside the machine for a while. I’ve had my fill now. This is not something that engages me fore more than a couple of sessions. I’ll gleefully read the rules. I’ll buy more of this kind of game and read those rules too! But I don’t think it will ever hit the table again. I just don’t have it in me to sit inside that machine any more.

on a lighter note…

Let’s talk about Traveller: 2300.

traveller2300boxsetlaterprt
All this good stuff was in one box.

This was GDW’s attempt to grittify and modernize Traveller, to turn it into something more along the lines of Twilight: 2000 (note the title construction) but in space. This was a pretty nifty idea — plenty of Traveller players were going through exactly the same transitions that we were, feeling like we had graduated from “kid stuff” games about dwarfs and dragons and were really more interested in humans and, frankly, detailed military stories. That felt real. That felt like they took place now but only slightly different.

This was almost that game. I certainly wanted to play a lot of it, and I for sure played with it a ton, making space ships and characters and reading and re-reading the weapons lists. But for some reason I didn’t. I don’t have a good reason for that. I should have played it a lot.

This was the first game I ever read that didn’t have hit points. Injuries were abstracted into categories. No longer could I be slain by a thousand scratches.

The game came with a list of all the stars within some distance of Earth. 50 light years maybe? I forget. But all of them. With X,Y, and Z coordinates. So one of the ways we played with this game was build a 3D rotatable star map. On a 286. I sometimes wish I still had that floppy disk, but then I wonder what I would even do with it. Can you still get drives like that? Doesn’t matter — the disk is gone.

Another way I played with it was making space ships. The ship design system was the usual naval architect model: pick a volume and fill it with stuff, then calculate the stats from mass:thrust ratios and so on. This is a no brainer for any game: add this subsystem and I will play your game (alone, mind you) for years. I may never so much as tell someone else I’m doing it, but I’ll do it. And space combat was along the “submarine” model, hiding from detection, finding range, exposing yourself (lol) and fighting. I seem to recall it used black globe generators straight out of Niven & Pournelle and that thrust was based on “stutterwarp”, a reactionless system of micro-jumps using the FTL technology.

And the weapons lists! The gauss rifles looked cool. The plasma guns, a nascent technology in the games timeline, looked like a cross between a Lewis gun and a WW2 anti-tank rifle. The aesthetic blew me away. So much gun porn. Binary propellents. Integral grenade launchers. The terms! The pictures! I was really into that kind of thing at the time and it still gives me a guilty thrill. I can’t find a decent pic. I wish I had my books still.

So how come we didn’t play the hell out of this?

Well, it came out in ’86. Around that time I was close to done with gaming. My friends were graduating university and moving around the globe, I had moved in with my girlfriend, and the spark just wasn’t there. I’d break it out every now and then and try to get a game going, but really all that would happen is I’d wistfully rotate the star map, leaf through my old notes, and then do something else. Around this time I’d eventually drop games altogether for about ten years straight. Maybe more — I wouldn’t come back to gaming at all until D&D 3e was released.

But I also get the sense that it wasn’t a great game. The lack of hit points set my game design brain on fire (and would eventually become a pretty basic choice for me) but the implementation didn’t seem to work all that well. Abstracted damage but detailed hit locations? It wasn’t working. And it wasn’t clear what you did in this game as a character. With the awesome weapon lists I pretty much just wanted to play military scenarios, but I already had Twilight:2000 and it absolutely did work, firing on all cylinders, and dropping us in the post-apocalyptic meat grinder to boot. And there were plenty of things to do in there.

So this game occupies a weird space in my head. It certainly and heavily influenced how I would eventually design games. It did some novel things I hadn’t seen before. And parts of my imagination were absolutely on fire for it.

But it kind of actually sucked at the table. And that’s where games live or die. And only there.