Technically a blast from the past, this is resurrected from the old skunkworks wiki — a constructed script for our lizardfolk overlords from a Burning Wheel game in the ancient past.
Literacy in humans originates from the lizardfolk and has recently spread to humans since cultural contact with the lizardfolk has progressed beyond territorial warfare. The alphabet of the lizardfolk, the ”anatake”, is not particularly well suited to the human tongue and it remains to be seen how the language and the alphabet will evolve under their use. As there is no formal method for transcribing the ”anatake” to human languages, spelling will vary widely from place to place and time to time.
The ”anatake” is a composed syllabary. It is not ideographic and while it is essentially alphabetic, pure separation of consonant and vowel does not exist in the lizardfolk tongue and is consequently poorly represented in the alphabet. The ”anatake” is written from right to left. Each syllable is composed of a main stem or ”pane” (meaning exit) and a decoration or ”faru” (meaning entrance). The exit stroke is the vowel that terminates the syllable and the decoration is the consonant that begins the syllable. When preceding vowels are necessary (as in ”anatake”) they are free-floating characters.
The ”anatake” is best suited to a brush or oblique cut quill, but can be cut in stone with simple tools with only some minor stylistic changes to reduce curvature.
In the ”pane”, pronunciation is roughly standard for Latin alphabet transliteration of Japanese. That is, ”u” is pronounced like ”oo” in ”boot”, ”o” is a long ”o” as in ”boat”, ”ai” is a long ”i” as in ”bite”, ”i” is pronounced as ”ea” in ”beak”, ”a” is a simple ”ah”, and ”e” is pronounced as ”eh”. Vowels have no special modifying characteristics as they would in English. Adjacent pronounced vowels are mysterious to lizardfolk and consequently letters like ”w” have no obvious translation. It remains to be seen how humans will adapt to this.
When transliterating it is common to use the ”u pane” for terminal consonants as in the terminal position a ”u pane” is barely pronounced in the lizardfolk tongue. Sometimes other ”pane” will be used however.
These entrances are all inscribed against the ”a” exit.
The origin of the ”faru” is not known, though presumably they are stylised from a previous ideographic character set. As the lizardfolk have been literate for a profoundly long time (while they appear to periodically lose technology they never seem to lose the art of writing and reading), the ”anatake” has undergone substantial normalisation since its origins.
The free-floating vowels are used to precede the initial syllable when used in the lizardfolk tongue:
In human literacy these characters might be present before an internal syllable to indicate a dieresis or even stacked to indicate multiple vowel sounds as in, for example, the traditional transcription for Three Ways:
In some of the advanced cities of the lizardfolk a more cursive form is frequently seen. This is used more often in copies of books intended for rich patrons and are typically also illuminated.
Typographic details can vary quite dramatically in the e, a, and in some ways the u ”pane” without creating any ambiguity. The following variations on the a ”pane” are all feasible:
Obviously a stylistically consistent font can be made by inverting and reversing these for the e ”pane”.
The ”faru” are rather less amenable to variation and can rapidly lose their distinction if pushed too far.
In designing the ”anatake” I assume that the instinctive solution to creating a text from oral language is to map words onto symbols rather than phonemes as the phonemic structure appears to be the result of a deeper analysis — a greater level of generalisation than might initially be available to civilisations. The structure of the ”anatake” suggests, however, some of this deeper analysis in its construction and it might therefore even be the result of a later wave of lizardfolk to make sense of an earlier wave’s technology. That is, the reptiles may once have achieved the higher level of abstraction but when the technology was lost so was the context in which it existed. The ”anatake” would then be the result of a culture without sufficient context trying to make sense of an alphabetic system, ending up with the hybrid of a composed syllabary. The irony of this is evident in the Korean system of composed syllabary which is of explicitly modern design, though as a compromise between the power of an alphabetic system and the tradition of the existing Asian syllabaries rather than as the result of any lack of analysis.
It strikes me as interesting also that the inevitable battle between pronunciation derived purely from the written forms and pronunciation derived from the context plays itself out largely in the effort to abuse the ”anatake” by trying to get it to represent the human tongue, which is highly analogous to our own context-sensitive use of the Latin alphabet to transcribe English. The ”anatake” has a limited set of vowel sounds, for example, that are insufficient for English and has a pure syllabic structure that is also insufficient and therefore correct English pronunciation has to come from contextual interpretation of the letter forms that would not be necessary to the originators of the syllabary. In real languages forced to operate under the inadequately generalised Latin alphabet we solve this with contextually relevant groupings (”th” does not sound like a ”t” followed by an ”h”), contextual back references (vowels are elongated if they are followed several characters later by an ”e” as in ”rote” or ”lathe”), and diacritical marks. In Spiritus Mundi we have a world that is only now stumbling over these obstacles and will have widely varying unstandardised solutions.
There’s also an interesting translation problem that relates to the transliteration problem — when we talk about the human language of Spiritus Mundi, are we talking about English? The names suggest both yes and no. Does it make sense to transliterate English words into the ”anatake” if they are essentially translations of an unelaborated tongue? Further muddying this is the fact that we have used some certainly English words for names and some obviously Latin words as well, yet one of the tenets clearly indicates there is only one tongue amongst humans (and it’s certainly not believable that a society with only one language would have English as that language). This probably only bugs me and there can be no solution except to not transliterate English into the ”anatake” and that would suck so I choose to ignore the problem hereafter.
This first appeared on the now defunct skunkworks wiki for VSCA. It’s a love letter to the way I used to run Traveller and a response to canon fanatics on the Traveller Mailing List.
The Imperium According to Brad
There are many ways to interpret the setting details for Traveller — between multiple revisions of the game, board games with implied (and explicit) historical information , the ramifications of the technology, and the myriad actual games being played, the divergence is (pardon me) astronomical. So this here is just mine. When I run Traveller, this is the context.
The Imperium is an effort at maintenance — a philanthropic project that confronts the limitations of technology head on and makes hard decisions about how to minimize human suffering within that reality. It has no loftier (nor lesser) goal than the minimum suffering of Humaniti. The mechanism by which this is accomplished, however, is a vast disorder — a loosely connected and barely controlled balkanization of trillions. The secret to the success of the Emperor is an almost total release of command.
The Speed of Civilization
The core limitation of the Traveller universe is the speed of information. The only superluminal mechanism for transmission of information is the Jump drive which has a maximum range (approximately six parsecs) and a minimum time (a week). Nothing travels faster than that. We’ll take for granted that Special Relativity is wrong or incomplete so we can ignore causality issues. Anyway, this limitation means that you can’t maintain central control over any interesting distance — the minimum time between an event and your response is two weeks. The practical response time is vastly larger and the response must physically travel along one of a small number of calculable paths, making interception or blockade quite feasible. Empires that tried to maintain central control have fallen.
So this means that an existing high technology society cannot sustain neighbouring technologies — if a given society is suffering a major setback (war, future shock, catastrophic ennui) there is no certainty that it is possible, let alone economically viable, to sustain it externally. A critical tenet of the Imperium’s ruling philosophy, then, is that you can’t save everyone. The practical goal that follows is that there is a minimum level of technology that can be sustained on average given the limitations of travel speed and economics. That tech level, it turns out, is around 10.
The Imperium’s concrete efforts are to ensure that jump technology gets to societies that have lost it and to help create and sustain sufficient infrastructure to do so. They do not make any effort to control the leadership of these systems except where that leadership inhibits the primary goal of sufficient technology. The net result is a kind of feudalism and certainly the trappings of ancient feudal societies have been cheerfully adopted.
Fealty: The Exchange of Servitude for Jump Drives
The transaction that all systems in the Imperium undergo is an oath of fealty: the system agrees to have its economy and industry influenced (sometimes outright controlled but not necessarily) by an Imperial agent of noble blood. Their duty to the Emperor is to see to it that their charge attains and sustains at least tech level 10 — establishing a space port and the technology to make and keep making jump drives and therefore participate actively in interstellar trade. Their authority relies in large measure on the fact that he’s a conduit for improvement of the local way of life, but also on the military guarantee of the Empire — if things go badly the marines will show up. Not necessarily in any great hurry, but the Empire will assert itself.
These governor/observers usually carry some traditional feudal title like Duke or Count depending on the region, the social standing of the individual, the value of the holding, and the culture of the location. This Imperial delegate lasts as long as they are needed — sometimes that is decided by them, sometimes by the Imperium, and, in some unfortunate cases, it’s decided by the populace with the tacit approval of the Imperium. The actual mechanism of the observation and its connection to local authority is entirely at the discretion of this noble, but usually pursues an established ((Imperial Advancement Strategies|advancement schedule)). As long as they are demonstrating results their methods are rarely questioned.
The Reality of Technological Limits
Maintenance of a culture past tech level 15 appears to be impossible — no post-15 cultures have demonstrated any lasting stability and those currently at that state are all on the cusp of failure. The Imperium has tried to maintain these in the past but it is now considered an unarguable fact that these civilizations will fall. 15 appears to be a relatively stable level of technology and consequently this is the target technology level for all systems. It is not, however, commercially viable to try to do this outside of the immediate core of the Imperium, so the Empire stops pushing once a system can communicate and compete in interstellar affairs on its own.
A side effect of this is that the Imperial core worlds are all a little paranoid about technology — there is an effort (sometimes deliberate and sometimes unconscious) to fail to progress. Typically this expresses itself in an accretion of mysticism and in socio-political rituals around technology, limiting its efficiency and therefore its capacity to accelerate itself. Imperial core worlds are high tech places with low tech appearances. Swords are favoured over lasers, costume is highly decorative and hand crafted, the nobility ride horses to court, but everyone carries their hand computers and communications gear and is hooked into the world network. Technology has produced a great deal of leisure and luxury and the Imperials are determined to choke technological advancement with it. This as much as their goal of maintenance may explain the durability of the Imperium.
The systems that fall inside the Imperial borders that have shucked off the Imperial guidance are free to pursue their own interests as long as they do not disrupt Imperial interests. The obedience thus demanded from the Emperor is simple:
* You don’t interrupt the mail. The X-boat routes and the people and ships that ply them are absolutely sacrosanct. Problems with regular X-boat deliveries will result in the eventual arrival of the Imperial Navy and its Marines. Resolution will be swift and under the local discretion of the arriving military commanders (you can’t wait for clarification on orders with a six month turn around in the sticks).
* You obey interdiction zones. If the Imperium says you can’t visit a system, you can’t visit the system. An Imperial response here is usually restricted to systemic exploitation — systems are interdicted because it would be dangerous if colonised or exploited on a large scale. Sometimes, however, red zones can be very strict indeed with Imperial attention even to individuals crossing the line. Again, the threatened response is autonomous naval units with marine support.
* You don’t mess with the elevation exercises. Systems without jump technology are not interdicted, but any effort to keep the Imperium from achieving its goal of elevating the local technology to an interstellar one will be frowned upon. With ships and guns.
Other than that you are free to wreck your own and other civilizations through devastating local or interstellar warfare. Be careful of unplanned side effects that might attract Imperial attention though — when the Imperium chooses to end a war it takes the simplest possible route.
The Imperial Marines
Few things command faster compliance with Imperial dicta than the arrival of a squad of black and red battle dress uniforms — featureless visors, the whir of electro-mechanically enhance strength and mobility, and the blunt snouts of man portable fusion guns all contribute to the staggering awe inspired by these troops. Rumour of their dispatch is often enough to compel even the most stubborn rebel.
These troops are the expensive elite of a much broader organization, of course, but they are also the face of Imperial force, so while they are deployed as part of a more complex order of battle, they are nearly always present in every order of battle. The Imperium only sends troops when it intends to fight — there are no idle Imperial threats — so it never holds back to cut costs. The unit types available to any given deployment include:
Elite Imperial Guard
These are what you think of when you hear “Imperial marines”. They wear full battledress armour and wield FGMP-15s for all duties except boarding or the interdiction of high value structures, in which case they will carry a mix of Gauss rifles and laser rifles, retaining the FGMP as a squad support weapon instead of the standard longarm. These units are deployed to swiftly crush all resistance through sheer shock — they land without warning dropped from orbit individually and their missions are simple.
Imperial Interdiction Forces: Infantry
The IIF units are a little less imposing than the EIG but what they lack in enormity they gain back in number: the IIF deploys unpowered combat armour with FGMP-15 sidearms. The armour is lighter and cheaper but can’t be used for individual re-entry, so the IIF is deployed by carrier landing groups en masse. These units are used to occupy and defend ground taken by the EIG shock troops and will also provide the bulk of any counter-attacking forces.
IIF units will also maintain artillery components and nuclear damping units.
Imperial Interdiction Forces: Armour
The IIF infantry is supported by fast fire and maneuver grav tank platoons capable of delivering direct and indirect heavy weapons fire on distant targets. As they are extremely expensive to move (mass is cost when you’re shipping a hundred parsecs) these armour units are often built to specification at the nearest TL-15 industrial base and as a result will vary in specific loadout depending on local resources and, perhaps more relevantly, local terrain and opposition.
Armament will vary most widely ranging from rocket-assisted low velocity CPR artillery to VRF gauss anti-personnel only to Z-category fusion weapons. Closer to the Imperial core meson guns may also be present in some numbers.
Armour is always the most bonded superdense that can be manufactured and deployed on the frame and power supply: the marines like their armour invulnerable.
Supporting gear will include laser detection and counter-measures, a full range of target detection and acquisition electronics, and nuclear damping gear.
The Imperial marines are further supported by a broad base of logistic and command personnel wearing uniform cut black and red combat environment suits. The standard sidearm for support troops is the ((IMS-66 TL15 Snub Pistol)), an autoloading variant of the snub pistol loaded with self-guiding subsonic ammunition with a dual purpose explosive warhead and a sophisticated ranging and target marking system.
The Solomani are a loose confederacy of interstellar governments that achieves by accident what the Imperial devotes effort to. No central authority exists and efforts to make one happen are stillborn. The difference in actual effort results in a similar result but with a different statistical profile — Solomani systems have the same mean technology level but the distribution is closer to even. In the Imperium there is a big bump in the curve around tech 11-12 because of Imperial management policies. In the Solomani space there is no such bump — any efforts to elevate pre-interstellar cultures are purely local efforts.
Similarly there is no resistance to technological advance. Practically speaking this means that there are more TL15+ worlds than in Imperial space because there are no brakes on progress, but there are also many more recently fallen cultures that have reached there socio-technological barriers and been crushed back to pre-atomic industrial capacity. Or worse — there are plenty of scarred and empty wastelands in Solomani space too.
The nature of this near anarchy is such that further describing the Solomani as though they were a single entity is fruitless. Where they war with the Imperium their war is local in both effect and context for the Solomani even where it is of Imperial interest.
The Solomani do have an X-boat system and it is the reason they continue to exist as an interstellar entity, but it is not centralised as it is with the Vilani. Instead meddling with the Express is something of a cultural taboo — it’s simply not done. This means, of course, that it is indeed occasionally done, but it’s generally reacted to violently by all affected systems. It most often happens in times of war though its impact on systems nearby that are not involved in the fray makes it an undesirable tactic for the aggressors, almost to the point of being considered a war crime.
The Express is a system of private companies that manage the routes between themselves. In high density subsectors the competition is fierce and a valuable system may have as many as a dozen competing Express companies, some inter-sector and many inter-system. This system is less efficient than the Imperial X-boat network but is also completely unmanaged, making support of the system the problem of the interested parties rather than all citizens. In practice the differences are negligable. Basically in the Imperium your delivery is a near certainty with a very predictable schedule whereas in Solomani space your delivery is marginally less certain and you have a wide variety of choice for delivery speed, insurance, route, and of course, cost.
While not truly alien in any strict sense, the Vargr represent a problem in perspective as well as practical politics for the Imperium. They are loosely organised, much like the Solomani, but have much less of a pre-disposition towards order. Their internal communications are again similar to the Solomani but, due to their cultural tendency towards piracy, not nearly as reliable. This means that there really is no one in Vargr space for the Imperium to talk to — at least with the Solomani they can negotiate with the various Express companies and big traders, but with the Vargr the largest clans represent only a few thousand individuals at best.
The most obvious consequence of this is that, where the Imperium borders on Vargr space, a military presence is provided to deter Vargr piracy but no actual effort towards political contact is made. This seems to suit the Vargr just fine.
The Incursion Zones
The Incursion Zones are a series of systems in the ((Arbalest)) sector that have no clear relationship but that are the source of significant attention from an otherwise unaggressive alien species — the Khelkevarians. Each of the systems were colonised many years ago by designated Imperial colony forces but have been in a constant state of warfare since their inception. Whether they were previously occupied or have since been invaded is not clearly understood though the Imperium, in choosing the terminology of “Incursion Zones” has declared their position on the matter.
The first contact in the Incursion Zones occurred in the colony of ((Typhoon: Khelkevaria|Khelkevaria)), a habitable moon of a gas giant in the bio zone of a yellow star in the region. Early technology imports established an industry there in the lush jungles that proved a rich source of organics ranging in utility from tailored bacteria to anagathics. Valuable both for its stratgeic location on a single jump path through the Corridor and for these natural resource, it soon became hotly contested by a species that has come to be knowne as the Khelkevarians even though they do not originate from that system.
The Khelkevarian moon is a deep jungle with a dense canopy that reaches dozens of kilomters above ground. The base of the forest is an organic soup in a high pressure atmosphere while the upper zones are dominated by predatory avian species and flimsy light gathering foliage. Only in the middle zone is there a suitable region for habitation and this is where the colonies themselves lie — using the trunk and branch systems of the huge World Trees for both foundation and transportation in the mid-zone where the atmospheric pressure is roughly normal for human habitation.
It is in this forested world that the Khelkevarians, a pseudo-reptilian high technology race battle Imperial forces for control. No real attempt at communication has ever been made between the two forces and the war has raged for many years. The electromagnetic interference from the gas giant makes ship detection extremely difficult and so both sides regularly attempt rapid deployment of ground troops while larger scale naval battles occasionally break out in deeper space. Both are essentially attempting to blockade access to the surface and both are largely unsuccessful.
The Khelkevarians appear to excel in gravitics technology — in these areas they are closer to TL15.
Khelkevarian Assault Forces
The Khelkevarian invaders have substantial technological and industrial resources somewhere on the moon — something that is very easy to hide in the dense forest that covers the entire planetoid — and produce effective fighting forces well suited to the environment. They do not appear to be able to breath the atmosphere in the mid-world (nudge nudge) but may be more suited to the higher pressures below. Their technology level is approximately TL13 but they exhibit both higher and lower variations, leading to speculation that they have a widely spanning empire not unlike the Imperium in which some variation of technological capacity exists.
The basic unit of the Khelkevarian forces is the Incursor — a Khelkevarian in TL13 hardsuit combat armour with a “gravcan” on the lower half that can be detached instantly if needed. The gravcan provides rapid propulsion and lift allowing for speedy traversal of the World Tree branch networks. Incursors are typically armed with some Gauss rifle system, often the ((KM-119 Khelkevarian Close Quarters Gauss System|KM-119 system)) designed for very close quarters combat. These troops obviously specialise in very rapid deployment and ambush and will typically establish an ambush with two or more wings of reinforcements ready to exploit or extract the ambush once sprung. The Khelkevarians invented the gravitically polarised charge, TDX, that is now prevalent in Imperial forces and the Incursors always carry a great deal of it as demolitions charges or grenades.
The logistic and command arm of the Khelkevarians have not bee sighted and certainly not captured. They may not exist or they may not be distinct from the Incursors. Certainly when heavy weapons installations are established (such as the usual VRF Gauss brackets often installed on Khelkevarian owned branches) they are installed and manned by Incursor troops. There appear to be no distinct engineers or other supporting units.
Somewhere along the way marketing an independent game got way harder for me.
With Diaspora we had a lot of community contact during development through RPG.net and many of the readers and posters there bought the game, wrote about their experiences, and voted in the ENnies. We won a gold for Best Rules. We sold (and still sell) a lot of Diaspora.
Three years later we released Hollowpoint. There was some engagement at RPG.net but a lot of the contact was through the blue collar space blog (now defunct): existing VSCA customers looking forward to the next game. Hollowpoint sold well (not as well as Diaspora) and still sells. It’s a great game. We didn’t win an ENnie but we were nominated for best game. Given the sales (and therefore the voting body for the game) that’s not surprising. And I am very proud of that nomination.
Then there was a long break. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, lost my gaming group. my wife got very sick, and generally I was unable to create. During this period Kickstarter emerged as a way to get enough pre-sales money to do big production books. Lots of colour, pretty product, and most importantly connection to a lot of people who seem very eager to put money down on product that won’t show up for a year or two. Also during that period RPG.net started banishing any post that smelled like shilling your game to a subforum that no one reads. A new community emerged that made no sense to me and a valuable community for an independent community designer got shut down.
I tried a few little things in the interim, not trying very hard. Elysium Flare was baking in the back of my head. Soft Horizon was just being troublesome.
Well perhaps I waited too long. The original audience, the VSCA fans, had become dispersed. Some of them just grew out of role-playing games (not sure how that happens). They forgot who we are. The locations of the communities changed. There are more and they are stranger, full of young people (get off my lawn). There’s a lot of video and audio (which I really can’t use in my home). Kickstarter became sort of the only way to sell games.
So for me, mostly interested in making a book about a game, selling it to you, and then moving on to the next game, my market disappeared. Or went into hiding. My old home, RPG.net, makes the pretense of being non-commercial by ghettoizing independent game announcements (though strangely there’s a whole thread just for Kickstarters pinned to the front page of tabletop-open — I am not sure I understand what privileges Kickstarter). And Kickstarter dominates — it’s kind of the only game in town. And I just don’t like it (for me, in my opinion, your mileage may vary, and all that good shit).
Worse for me, I think I pissed off some people with the power to generate buzz and thanks to the way the Internet works, when someone pisses you off you can kind of shut them off forever, meaning any miscommunication can become banishment with no chance of reconciliation — there’s no accidental meeting at a dinner party where you get drunk and in a maudlin fit explain each other to each other and bury the hatchet. Now you just get disappeared. Or maybe everyone grew up but me. I know at least one grew up and I miss him a lot.
That doesn’t mean there’s no way to do this any more. It just means that the ways changed (and in ways that are mostly social, not technological) and the audience got harder to find. And my tastes have changed as well and since I sell what I love to play, when my tastes change I have to actively try to find the audience that changed with me. That turns out to be very hard. Exhausting, even.
So I am at peak creativity — two releases this year and maybe a third (though more likely Sand Dogs will be coming out in 2019). More planned for next year. But at a low point in my reach, which is very demoralizing.
Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?
The 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
This 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.
This 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
Finally 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 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.
Around 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
Well 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).
And 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
And 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.
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
Well, 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.
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.
Now 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
Yeah 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.
The 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.