what is your game about?

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

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

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

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

comm 9
This is actually one of my own diagrams.

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

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

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

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.

now it’s personal

Okay brace yourself because this isn’t going to be about science or about gaming.

The sharp reader will note that I was 15 when this came out. It’s not an album from that summer but there were a couple of summers.

I fell in love for the first time forty years ago. It was summer and I was 14 and I met a girl a grade ahead of me (to be fair I already knew her, but I fell for her that year) and we spent the whole summer together. Shopping, talking, listening to music, and making out. It was a sexual awakening with no sex and it shaped my life forever. Kelly’s still out there and we still talk and she’s still on my mind. Chatting with her tonight I had a bit of a revelation about that and about exactly how it impacted me.

Ever after I lost partners (well one, anyway) because I wasn’t interested in sex. Well, that’s not quite right. I was interested but I also wanted my romance to be that same clunky romance I had at 14: I loved kissing and knowing it was not going (much) further. I wanted that to happen forever. And it doesn’t — I had an intuition that sex would change everything and I was right but I put it off for as long as possible. I wanted adolescent fumbling for as long as I could get away with it.

We would normally say “she broke my heart” but I think it’s unfair to put that on Kelly. She didn’t break my heart. We wanted different things and what I wanted was her and so I broke my heart and frankly it was a … great feeling? Not that. It was awful, it was agonizing, it was tear-my-hair out horrible but there is also a certain joy in that heartache. When you feel so much so hard and it’s all about you, all about your pain, about your loss, it’s kind of addictive. And, I think, extraordinarily selfish after a certain point. You’re allowed your pain but it’s a little weird to cling to it.

And I think for a long time afterwards that was my model for romance: infatuation and heartache. And kissing. Those were basically my romantic goals for what seems like decades but was in fact only one (at most). Why does the short time in our youth seem so expansive and the later years tick by like seconds? It feels like I spent almost all my life between 14 and 24, pursuing heartache.

Oh Elvis. You’re so broken but you spoke to my own broken.

My musical tastes tracked this (this was the thing I realized while chatting with Kelly this evening). Before that summer I listened to the Beatles and Queen and I can’t even remember what else. Afterwards I moved to early David Bowie and then Elvis Costello. Elvis was lyrically in the same space I was — clearly in love with his angst, with his heartache, with his bitterness. And he made it angry, which was kind of vindicating. It would be many years before I could see the degree of selfishness needed to make a heartache all about yourself. Enough to be angry rather than just sad. So it resonated — it was how I felt and the message was that I could keep that pain for as long as I liked. And I liked it.

Around the time I found the Cure I was spending my angst dancing. A lot. Not necessarily with anyone.

I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. Just in constant pursuit of heartache. I wanted that summer back, the strongest feelings in that summer, and one of those was the heartache. I still kind of love it. It’s not very different from falling in love. The ending and the start have the same clutch and pull. Being in love for me was a constant joyous terror that it was all going to end at any point. Is that a kind of masochism or does everyone feel that? Well if it’s unusual then clearly that summer was a defining moment for me, because that pain still brings a kind of joy. I like to feel hard. I cry at a well-crafted commercial. I’m cool with that.

Tom Waits was part of my recovery period. I wasn’t craving the heartache any more. I was enjoying a deeply flawed stability.

I won’t go through the relationships up until now. There was a pattern and then there wasn’t. I hurt some people and yet I loved every one of them dearly. I wanted each relationship to last forever unchanged and I wallowed in each ending. I fell in love with people who didn’t even like me, possibly so I could skip straight to the heartache. It was a strange decade. I behaved badly but, at least, earnestly. If I could find all those people I’d apologize but finding people who are now in their 50s is surprisingly difficult. And stalkery. So I’m sorry. You know who you are.

I put a paragraph in there about music because this period of my life has a soundtrack and it’s important: the music triggers the feelings. If I’d figured this out earlier I could have just replayed one heartache over and over with a song or an album or an artist instead of inventing impossible relationships to agonize over. And maybe I still do that to some extent. Maybe we all do.

There is no gaming content here and no rocketry. I contain multitudes, as they say. You get all of it. I can’t pick and choose what I write.

Well, I choose not to anyway.

ray tracing

When I was just a scamp in my 20s I used to ray trace high resolution (320×200) 24-bit colour depth images on my 286. Don’t panic, I had a 8087 math coprocessor in there so it went super fast. A day or two per image.

Now you might very reasonably wonder what renderer you could get in those dark days in the 80s. What sort of interface would you have available? Surely Blender wasn’t around yet, right? AutoCAD 3D maybe?

In those days we cranked out images with POVRay.

POVRay is what is known as a “constructive solid geometry modeller”. Whereas these days (and even a lot of those days) we render meshes of triangles and use a surface normal function to fake the reflection of light rays into curves (yes, a modern rendered sphere is actually a mult-faceted gem and the renderer lies to you about its smoothness), a constructive solid geometry (CSG from now on) modeller uses primitives like spheres, cones, cylinders, boxes, and toruses that are described by their analog functions. So no impure faceted surfaces (unless you want them). Your light ray returns are pure. You are not being lied to.

The difference to the eye of course is uninteresting. But there’s a lot of joy in purity for some nerds, like me. Hell when gaming I don’t even like the d10 because it’s not a Platonic solid.

But what can you do with such appropriately named “primitives”?

Just about anything, as it turns out (though partially because one of your primitives is a bicubic patch but that’s for another time). The reason you can do plenty is because of the “constructive” part. If you know set theory you probably know what’s coming. Because in addition to placing cubes all over the place, you can perform constructive operations on them.

So, for example, you can take the intersection of two objects — what’s left and therefore rendered is the volume that exists only in both shapes. Or the difference: take a sphere and cut chunks out of it with boxes and cylinders. Or the union of course, just gluing them together. With these functions you can do an enormous amount of work before you even get to the tricks of texturing and colouring and finishing. Here’s what I’m working on right now with what is really the same POVRay I used in 1988.

asymptote small
That Jupiter image is a JPL image enhanced by the amazing Sèan Doran. I licensed it from him for use in Diaspora Anabasis a while ago and it sits nicely here. The ship is from our current Diaspora game — that’s the Cinderella.

That’s still a work in progress, as I say, but largely complete. Just needs some work on lighting and colouring.

But what, you ask, does the interface look like? Is it at least better than Blender?

Well hell yes it is. While there are third party interfaces that glue on to POVRay (which is super easy as you’ll see in a sec), the input into POVRay is a descriptive language. Like my other love, PostScript, POVRay uses a scene description language: you just type your description of the scene into a text file and then drive the renderer over it. Your image falls out the bottom.

That “just” is a little flippant. Here’s the code for the crew module of that ship:

#declare cabin_xlate = -25;

	  merge {
	     difference {
	       sphere { <0, 0, 0>, 2 scale <2,1,1> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0> }
	       cylinder { <-28,1,1>, <-24,1,1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,-1,1>, <-24,-1,1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,1,-1>, <-24,1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,-1,-1>, <-24,-1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       box { <-23,10,10> <-23.1,-10,-10> }
	       box { <-25,10,10> <-25.2,-10,-10> }
	       box { <-28.5,10,10> <-28.6,-10,-10> }
		difference {
			sphere { <0, 0, 0>, 1.95 scale <2,1,1> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0> }
			cylinder { <-28,1,1>, <-21,1,1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,-1,1>, <-21,-1,1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,1,-1>, <-21,1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,-1,-1>, <-21,-1,-1>, 0.3 }
			texture {
				pigment { Black }
		object { plate translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
		object { plate rotate <90,0,0> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
		object { ring translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
	     cylinder { <-25,0,0>, <-24.8,0,0> 2 }
	     cylinder { <-24,0,0>, <-23.8,0,0> 2 }
	     #declare store_texture = texture {
	     			normal { ripples 1 scale 0.2 }
				pigment { color rgb <0.2,0.15,0.1> }
	     			finish {
	     				ambient 0
	     				diffuse 0.2
	     	#declare fasten_texture = texture {
	     		 pigment { color rgb <.2,.2,.2> } 
	     		 finish {
	     		 	specular 0.8 roughness 0.001
	     		 	reflection { 0.4 metallic }
	     	merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 0, 1>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,1> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,1> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture } }
				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 0, -1>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,-1> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,-1> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture } }

				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 1, 0>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,1,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,1,0> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture}}

				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, -1, 0>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,-1,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,-1,0> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     	merge {
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 90*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 180*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 270*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 0*x translate <-25,0,0> } 
	        texture {
	           pigment { color rgb 0 }
	           finish {
	              ambient 0
	              diffuse 0.2
	              specular 0.9  roughness 0.0001
	              reflection { 0.6 }
	     texture {
	        pigment { body_pigment }
	           ambient 0.0
	           diffuse 0.3
	           specular 0.9 roughness 0.001
	           reflection { metallic 0.4 fresnel 1 }
	    translate <-4,0,0>

Yeah okay that makes my “just” seem like a bit of an over-reach. But besides the nerdy joy I experience writing any kind of code, I adore the precision of this: things go exactly where you want them because you tell the machine exactly where it goes. No nudging of objects in the modeller’s mesh preview. No snapping to grids. Everything goes exactly where you say you want it. It gives me a rush every time.

Now I don’t expect anyone else to get off on this, but consider: this renderer I’m running is essentially the same today as it was 34 years ago. A few little features go in as processing improves (though it hasn’t been updated in some time now) but the renderer is basically complete. I can render a file (if I had a floppy disk drive) from 1989 without change. That’s like getting a WordPerfect file to load (and I was TODAY years old when I learned that WordPerfect actually still exists so bad analogy, Brad).

Anyway, I’m not trying to sell you on this dinosaur but rather explain the little joys I get from using it. The naked code, the purity of concept, the precision, and, of course, the nostalgia.

Here she is at 320×240 by the way. Some things do get better.


Warning. I am not a scholar on this topic. This is information I have learned or developed myself in the course of being a nerd on the topic since before puberty. I hope my thoughts align with actual scholars but it’s unlikely.

Transliteration is the process of writing a foreign language in a native alphabet. So, for example, writing Georgian or Inuktitut or Korean (using the Hangul normally) in the Latin alphabet. Its purpose is to allow the native reader to make sense of the sound of the foreign words. To be able, possibly, to repeat them vocally, whether or not they are understood. This purpose is important to the process.

However, when I first started transliterating at the tender age of 13 using a stolen book (yes I stole from the library — I was a voracious consumer of books and my allowance was a dime a week and I was in more ways than this ethically compromised) of Greek stuff I was doing the opposite: I was looking for codes, and using the Greek alphabet as a code. Therefore to compose my native language in a foreign alphabet, the opposite of the usual purpose of the process. I did, however, invent many rules that would seem to align with more correct use.

Later I would spend hours transcribing Tolkein’s wildly inconsistent use of the Tengwar everywhere it was found in my copies of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. In fact I was much more interested in this bit than the stories themselves. And in examining his usage I found many of the rules I invented for myself echoed as well as the discovery that while inconsistent, his methods were not purposeless. Pedantic nerd that I was, I also compiled errata so I could tell where Tolkein was playing and where he was just screwing up. And where he was playing was revelatory as well.

So when transliterating you have a translational choice that depends on your purpose: how much of the alphabet’s power do you bring to bear on your choices? This is necessary because different alphabets have different powers. The Latin alphabet has a lot of letters that perform multiple roles and that compose (ch, sh, &c.). So in translating, say, სახლი, to Latin, there’s a lovely glottal k sound in there. The word is typically transliterated as “sakhli” using the flexibility of English usage of the Latin alphabet as well as quasi-standards to imply with an “h” that we swallow the “k” a little as we speak it. We leverage the Latin alphabet to do something it doesn’t do but that English does apparently allow us to imagine it should. We similarly use “zh” here and there to soften a “z” even though in our own language (say, “azure”) we don’t need it because we aren’t teaching pronunciation with our own spelling of English words. We’re just echoing convention.

So as a kid I wanted to write English words in the Tengwar, the Elvish alphabet, because what could be cooler? It’s calligraphic rather than runic and so clearly much superior to the stonecutter’s alphabet of the Dwarves. Anyway, the question is, how to use it? Consider the word “that”.

Now as a strict substitution cipher, a code, I’d use the Tengwar t, h, a, and t. Simple! But how inelegant! Let us, though baby nerd Brad, think instead like an elf. Or even better, think like a human in Middle Earth: they aren’t transliterating. They are simply using the Tengwar because they have no alphabet of their own! So would a human invent the clumsy “th” structure if they had only the Tengwar to write with? Surely they would not! They’d use the existing Tengwar for “th” and get:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.37.39.png

That is, a “th” glyph, a “t” glyph, and a “a” diacritic. I’d use the power of the Tengwar to get my job done. And as a consequence an elf who knows no English can effectively sound out the word.

So this is a thing that bugs me about so many fantasy alphabets: they are built to work as substitution ciphers and not actual alphabets. That is, they are just new shapes for Latin letters as used by English speakers. This is…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.40.12.png

Or, better…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 13.29.39.png

Alphabets for other languages evolved to support them. Languages evolved to support the alphabets. They are intimately connected. So a credible fantasy alphabet can’t just be a substitution cipher. Too naïve. It has to have its own rules that are leveraged to create a useful transcription: one in which the native user of the alphabet could sound out the word.

A human in Middle Earth, therefore, would not spell “laugh” that way because they don’t have the history of Latin alphabet usage. They don’t live here. They would spell it “laf” or possibly “laff”. But in the Tengwar. Not this, which zanily uses the Tengwar “gh” glyph as well as an “a” and a bastardized “u”:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.43.38.png

But rather:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.44.59.png

“Laff”. Using the correct symbol to double the consonant even. You leverage the foreign alphabet and the foreignosity of it is what’s important. It’s what makes the transliteration interesting. It’s why we’re here playing around like this.

Substitution ciphers are fun but they are a million miles less interesting than actual transliteration. Accept no substitutes in your wacky sci-fi and fantasy constructed alphabets. Make a real alphabet, built to serve a different (perhaps literally) tongue, and wonder how you need to twist it to make it say English. Research how the Hangul works, the history of the Inuktitut which was invented only recently to support an entirely oral language. See what choices are made beyond the Latin alphabet.

Normally I’d just draw the Tengwar myself but I got lazy and used this Elvish engraving tool. Its output is Unicode (yes there’s a Unicode set for Tengwar) so I screen-capped it as it was rendered in my browser.

This post was brought to you by my patrons who rock.


early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.

blast from the past: saride

I love me some lizardfolk. Back before we built Diaspora we played some Burning Wheel in a setting we built with Universalis. Central to the story was the dominant species, the lizardfolk, or “Saride”. Humans were illiterate and could not forge steel Saride could but suffered cycles of civilization as their animal core eventually destroyed them. Recently some Saride had learned to eat fish, which at once satisfied their carnivorous needs and did not provoke their Bloodlust and this allowed these communities to interact safely with humans. Below is a revision of the Saride work we did, excising the Burning Wheel material. Enjoy!

“Saride” in their own script.

Lizardfolk (”Saride”, as they call themselves) have an affinity for all things objectively holy — that is, those things that relate to the side of Creation in the Fall. They are powerful carnivores and are fully literate. Since the war they have a racial hatred for all humans though there are individuals that reject this. They are exceptional weaponsmiths, holding the key to steel working, which only recently has been stolen by humans.


They are above all honourable, a trait that has been their downfall in war.

Lizardfolk spend a long time maturing — more so even than humans — during which period they are hatchlings. Some small percentage of hatchlings eat their sibling eggs if given the opportunity, which is usually a sign of serious mental deficiency. These eggeaters often revert to animal instincts, becoming outcasts and living wild and alone. These animal regressions may even revert to quadrapedal locomotion.

Technically lizardfolk are not reptiles as they are warm-blooded and are better described as ”saurian”. Their biological relationship is about midway between alligator-like large reptiles and the large birds. Their warm-bloodedness makes them well suited to most environments and they can spend as much time active as humans, though they prefer drier and warmer climates in general. They have powerfully muscled upper bodies, well suited to tool use including (maybe especially) weapons.

Lizardfolk suffer from the spiritual disease of Lust, and their entire culture is structured around ways to prevent it from triggering the next Great Migration. Individuals that are beginning to lose control are sometimes exiled where they may revert to animal nature or otherwise cope with their hungers. Sometimes, however, they are isolated within the military — used as the kernel of terrifying shock troops, spurred on to suicidal ferocity by the nearly insane among them.

In almost all lizardfolk cities, the core organisation is the Legion. The Legion is the only military organization and it has deep rules of etiquette and heraldry as it arose as an early solution to Lust: by placing strict constraints on behaviour, Lust can be somewhat ameliorated. This is the core of the Civilised trait (see below). Young lizardfolk are raised by no one in particular, though typically someone will take the role of Clutch-keeper and ensure that all the young are accounted for and taught cultural basics.

Lizardfolk in the city of Stonard have a unique stability insofar as they have the opportunity to take advantage of increased population density without increasing the density of lizardfolk as they live here side-by-side with humans. This co-existance of lizardfolk with humans may in fact be the solution to the Great Migration, contrary as it is to their instinctive hatred of (and desire to eat) humans.

Lizardfolk everywhere like games, but unlike their human counterparts, games of chance like dice or cards are not popular. Reptiles prefer games of strategy and there are several that have long cultural histories with rich strategic depth along the lines of both chess and go.

Lizardfolk always start in the Legion setting unless they are born in Stonard.

In the Legion a young saride will learn weapons and tactics and how to control their passions. If they fail at this control, they may still find a place in the military, though not as Legionnaires.

Saride that lose control or are born eggeaters may become outcasts. By most standards they are at least wild and often insane, but this is also a path to spirit binding: many great wizards are insane saride outcasts.

Some saride become scholars. This is a diverse category, including poets, navigators, cartographers, calligraphers, and astrologers. The scholar has high esteem in saride society: the are emblematic of a citizen overcoming Lust.

Saride born in Stonard are most often merchants and rhetoriticians.

Lizardfolk are natural carnivores and carry the natural weapons to prove it. They may use their needle-toothed jaws as a weapon when in inside arm’s reach fighting distance. The sharp bony claws protrude from their fingers and in the military these might be enhanced with steel gauntlets or finger rings.

Lizardfolk are honourable to a fault. This trait grants advantage on all tests that require honesty and fairness but a disadvantage on all tests that require falsehood, backstabbing, or deception.

Lizardfolk warriors are well versed in feeding themselves while on the battlefield, usually on the bodies of their fallen enemies. They see this as an honourable and even holy disposition of corpses though some species do not agree.

Animal reverts regain some of their ancestral sense of smell. Whenever their quarry is not actively attempting to disguise their scent, they gain advantage in tracking and observation. If they have been wild for long periods they often re-acquire quadrapedal locomotion, suffering some physical adaptation in the process. This makes them faster on all four legs than when bipdeal and Lizardfolk with this trait will often only stand on two legs in order to see further.

Lizardfolk at the heart of city culture are more resistant to their Lust. In this fashion both technology and art act against the great migration, and each civilisation lasts slightly longer. Indeed some saride have grown up with humans and only see them as prey in a suppressable way much in the same way as a human can see a cow not not immediately think of food.

The defining attribute of the lizardfolk is Lust. Their unquenchable Lust is the result of their designer’s intention: they shall be free in action but not in spirit. The presence of a fresh mammalian kill can drive a saride wild to eat. Or to kill. Nearby fighting may also provoke the response. For the particularly susceptible even a bad argument can turn into a frenzy of blood.

As lizardfolk are carnivores, food trade must revolve solely around meat. Farming animals is a dangerous pursuit for them and what animal farms exist have slaughtering duties carefully partitioned from other aspects of the industry. Hunters typically hunt alone and dress the kill well away from populations. They may even prepare the kill by smoking and/or salting well away from civilisation as well, making hunting a long term effort — the hunter must spend days or even weeks in the field carrying with them the equipment needed to preserve kills before returning. A necessary result of all this is that while lizardfolk vastly prefer a fresh kill, they will in populated areas have developed a taste for preserved or even partially rotten meat. Some of the most urban claim to have a preference for it.

When a saride goes wild, nearby saride may be compelled to do so as well. Consequently lizardfolk tend not to congregate in situations that may provoke a Lust response. They typically eat alone or in very small groups — no banquets or food festivals — and their spirit magics are also highly isolated. Similarly there will be no surviving lizardfolk populations that value combat as sport. Dueling will be strictly an honour matter to be settled out of reach of any others — even observers or seconds — and it would be considered the height of bad manners or even criminal behaviour to duel in a populated area.

This effect will also produce small unit strategies in order to reduce the risk of losing control of an entire army because of an exuberant few. The doctrine of fighting in rigid formation may act to reduce individual efforts outside the command as well.

Saride that have succumbed to their lust eventually affect those around them even when not overcome by it. Consequently saride that are becoming erratic or causing disturbances will eventually be isolated. Known dangerous backgrounds and occupations like spirit binders, combat veterans, and animal reverts will be ostracised. Scholarship and craftsmanship will be preferred in the urban setting for the purposes of congregation and consequently effective leadership of a lizardfolk society by the military alone is improbable and dangerous.

Lizardfolk take honour very seriously. Humans have cause to take their honour very seriously as well. When a saride discovers they have been lied to or that their reputation has been deliberately besmirched somehow, they will typically extract a most brutal and immediate revenge. Lust is not subtle. Society is therefore rigidly structured by etiquette and heraldry. Wherever lizardfolk must congregate in any numbers, heraldry identifies ranks of implied obedience as well as other more subtle cues to acceptable behaviour. Lizardfolk will be evasive rather than deceptive and will wield the truth bluntly as a weapon when needed. Lizardfolk do not haggle and may be offended by obvious incentives to do so — best to offer a fair price up front.

Lizardfolk do not have a family structure and consequently blood relationships are rarely known, let alone a resource of any use. Relationships worth mentioning are more typically debts of honour, long standing friendships or enmities, or professional relationships.

more apocalyptica

Last entry I wrote about the impact of living on the brink of apocalypse though, in keeping with the theme here, mostly about how it impacted my gaming. My gaming was atypical even in the apocalyptic crowd though, it seems.

metamorphosis alpha coverFrom a young age I cared inordinately about science. My first “mutants” game was Metamorphosis Alpha and it was silly. I recognized it as silly. I knew mutation didn’t work that way. But it was also encapsulated — the story was that this was a kind of radiation in a particular place (maybe a particular universe) where this kind of mutation happened. That was fine by me. Internally consistent. There’s a vast generation ship (based at least in part on the classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, but there were other similar novels and short stories) and it goes through some kind of radiation event and thousands of years later you are a possibly mutated person on this ship but with no idea that it’s a ship. It’s a whole game with one built-in wonder gag (WE LIVE ON A SPACE SHIP?!) that only pays off once, really. It’s a cool concept, a classic game, very familiar mechanisms mostly about how mutation affects combat, and an opportunity to draw space ship floor plans. Fun stuff. It’s also, at its heart, comedy.

mad maxBut my apocalypse was fucking serious. It was the real thing and I pretty much knew, if not what that would mean, at least what the plausible parameters were. And so my apocalypse in gaming never had mutants. I never even bought Gamma World — it held zero interest for me. In fact I was kind of offended by its frivolity (as 14 year old no less): I was facing extinction here. My apocalypse looked like something between Threads and Mad Max, using a sliding scale depending upon my mood (we called depression a “mood” back then).

And I think that this is why my apocalyptic gaming became community-oriented. I never once bought into it as an adventure playground, a fantasy of a future with irradiated others to dominate. If there was violence or even plunder, it was because of scarcity and because our heroes had to choose to favour their community. They were protecting and preserving something and in so doing also had to recognize that so was the other side. We could certainly invent villains, people that were making immoral choices in order to survive, but also that they were dealing with a very bad fucking day as well.

I just wasn’t going to get onside with anything that made my apocalypse a sweeter pill to swallow: part of the horror I wanted to confront (that I was confronting, in some ways, already with the perfect certainty of impending disaster) was that everyone was going to be desperate. This is probably the origin of my interest in the moral quandry of everyone in a conflict having some kind of moral position to defend. Evil was not interesting. Desperation was interesting and to be desperate you must be trying to preserve something. So in my apocalypse the predominant theme was trying to claw back enough society to feel safe again (because I felt profoundly unsafe). And that makes arch moustache-twirling villains unappealing. And it makes the reconstruction of other survivors as monsters (mutants) whose needs can be ignored especially disgusting. My reaction was very visceral. Gamma World was off the table.

So I think that’s the path I travelled in that period, the reason why we wound up doing little desperate violent community studies. And also why we had Asskickers — the only way I was interested in violent dispatch of monsters was as comedy. And my apocalypse wasn’t comedic, so I invented something for the comedy.

I’ll talk about my Traveller games another time because they are something else entirely.

terror of the scientific sun

I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20.
I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.

It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.

I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.

What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.

Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.

For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.

During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.

My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.

When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.

asskickBut the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?

These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.

The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and how it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.

The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.

ally zombieAnd finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.

So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.

It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.


The King Machine is available in print from Lulu, in PDF and print from DTRPG, and in PDF only (50% off until March 2019) at itch.io.

new school old school

Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.

A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?

Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.

I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.

The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.

Map.pngA critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.

Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.

biostorm.pngAnd then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.

So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.


I used to work as an alchemist.

No really. It was probably the coolest job I ever had, though technically it was called “fire assay” and not alchemy. But it has clearly alchemical origins since it apparently turns lead into gold. It doesn’t really, of course, but when it was discovered it sure must have seemed like it.

What it really does is extract platinum group metals (and silver, as it turns out) from a mixture. In our case the mixture was a “flux” of borax, lead oxide, silica, and flour; and a powdered rock sample. What happens is, the whole thing cooks down, the platinum group metals in the rock sample bond to the lead, and then you separate the lead from the other metals. Measure the recovered metal and compare with the mass of the original rock sample and you have the proportion of gold in the sample. It’s a great technique for surveying very large areas and looking for regional spikes of relatively low value, indicating a possible gold source underground.

The steps are great fun. Easily the most butch job I had.

Crucible. Or, as it is in the filename on my desktop, “curcible”. Apropos.

It doesn’t start that way. It starts more like cooking — take a pre-measured volume of flux in a ceramic crucible and add the powdered pre-measured sample. In my case this was just 10 grams since we were doing very broad survey stuff. Then test the sample with a drop of nitric acid. Does it smoke? Then it’s a carbonaceous rock and you want to add a little extra silica. No smoke? Silicaceous, maybe add a little borax. Then add a measure of flour. Flour is the critical reagent because it’s the source of carbon that will make the whole process work. Too much flour and you’ll draw out too much metallic lead. Too little and you get no lead. You want a very consistent amount of lead. So if you have carbonaceous rock, add a little less flour. If you have a soil sample (always a nightmare), no flour at all is probably best. Finally, plop in a very precise and tiny amount of silver nitrate.

Row upon row of very fucking hot.

Next you put your crucible in a 1500ºC furnace. In fact you put 24 in at once — this is a production line process! Let that cook for 40 minutes or so. While it’s cooking, the carbon will bond with oxygen in the lead oxide producing metallic lead. This lead will alloy with all platinum group metals (and the silver) in the mixture. So when it’s done you have a crucible full of molten glass and borax and a little slug of molten lead at the bottom.

pouring out
Mmmm, muffins.

Now you pour these out into an iron muffin tin. Seriously, it looks exactly like a muffin tin except the cavities are conical — pointed at the bottom. Let it cool and you have a bunch of glass muffins with lead tips. And then the fun begins.

When they are solid but still very hot, you put the muffin tin by your smashing station which has protective goggles, an anvil, and walls to keep everyone but you safe. You bang on one of the muffins with your cold ball peen hammer and it fractures from the temperature differential. Scoop out the lead divot with your giant tweezers and bang it into a cube on the anvil. This is mostly to get all the glass out of the sample. Now you have a lot of shattered glass and 24 little lead cubes that are allowed with valuable other metals.

A cube of lead! Now how do you turn it into gold?

Cute little poisonous cups.

You put each lead button on a porous ceramic cupel, a little cup with a very thick base. Then those go back in the furnace but — critically — with the vent open. As the lead melts it oxidizes away thanks to the air from the vent, disappearing up the reclamation system and hopefully not into the atmosphere. But the platinum group metals do not oxidize and the silver won’t oxidize much (and you’re not measuring it anyway). After a few hours your cupels are yellow-orange from absorbing all the lead oxide and each contains a little bead of silver — the silver from the silver nitrate you put in at the beginning. Also gold and platinum but mostly silver — you put the silver in in the first place so you get something practical to analyze since the volume of gold is usually very very tiny.

See that little bead? That’s not even the gold. That’s the drop of silver you put in at the beginning. Once I saw actual gold in there and the geologist was arrested shortly thereafter for spiking his samples.

Then you give these to a real chemist who dissolves them in acid and fires them through a spectrometer of some kind to get the final results.

What’s not to like? Furnaces, molten lead, broken glass, and cooking. Best job ever.