bugging out

Yeah I’m bugging out.

20191106_201018Making games for sale has become tedious. I like inventing games. I like writing and editing. I like illustrating. I like layout out. I just hate with an increasing passion all of the pressures attendant with selling them. I realized today that I am just not getting paid enough to care what anyone thinks, and when you sell something with an eye to making a buck you are literally investing in what other people think.

Part of the problem is just how many awful people there are in the industry/hobby/whatever-I-am-not-here-for-definitional-debate. I feel like I can’t distance myself enough sometimes. So this is as far as I can go.

The other issue is reach and what really cut the heart out of the pursuit for me was the death of Google+. One day I reached four to five thousand people with every musing. The next day I reach half a thousand on Twitter and two thirds of those are robots. My interaction went from tens or hundreds every week to three or four. Since I’m not interested in any of the banal work that goes into “building a brand” that’s not going to change. So fuck it. It stopped being fun when G+ shut the doors, it just took me a couple of years to realize it.

The last couple of media purchases I’ve made were magazine subscriptions — one to Nature and one to Lapham’s Quarterly. Each reveal in a different way a creative and analytical world so profoundly richer than musing on game design that I can’t leave the bathroom (where I read my magazines) without feeling like I should go back in since it’s so much more…relevant.

This is not about you. You are all, as far as I can tell, awesome. I love you. You know who you are.

And it’s not about playing games. I love playing the games I make. I will keep playing them, keep keeping that company, and maybe now play more. Maybe even make more. I’m just not going to engage with all of the senseless (to me) work that goes into selling them to you. I love these games. I’m just exhausted by the idea of having to care what everyone else likes while I’m doing it, and that’s intrinsic in turning it into a business. I don’t need the money that badly and it wasn’t much anyway.

new haircut 2

I don’t know yet what will happen with Diaspora Anabasis. There are other creatives involved and I owe them something. There’s a lot of work already done that I love and I’m having trouble summoning the kind of energy I would need to revise it so that you (notional, aggregate, and non-specific you) will love it to. It’s going to have to be enough that I love it but I’d rather not ask you to pay for a vision that doesn’t deliberately include you. I will settle for all my accidentally coincident gamer fiends.

I’ll keep writing here. Maybe more than usual. But mostly I’m going to sit with my wife and laugh at Monty Python.

Love to you all.

ADDENDUM

I’m still working all this out. I decided on a gut instinct and my brain is slowly catching up.

One thing that bothers me about these games and that has increasingly depressed me is the focus on violence. It’s gone from discomfort to disgust. I can’t even look at most game artwork without reflexively despising the fact that everyone on the cover is threatening me with a weapon or behaving as through the dismemberment of a foe was the pinnacle expression of healthy comraderie. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t elaborate. It’s all in the blog somewhere. It’s just so normalized in this hobby; so expected. And that normalization is extremely disturbing to me.

I’ve talked about this before of course.

Blast from the past: Safety and the Inversion of Folk Logic

Another yoink from Blue Collar Space circa 2011.

Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.

I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.

Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.

An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.

Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack(1) So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a  space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.

Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.

The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.

A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.

I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.”  There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!

People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.

–BMurray
(1)Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway. 

helping people in distress is hard

In times of trouble, at least when you let people know you’re in trouble, people who love you will say “is there anything I can do?” or “if I can do anything please call.” It is meant with the best intentions. It’s heartening to hear people declare that they are in your corner. And when your trouble isn’t really all that bad it’s innocuous. I do it. Everyone does it. It’s like asking “how are you?” in a way — it’s polite but not necessarily an actual invitation. And when you’re in genuine trouble you need that invitation to be real.

When trouble is really bad it can become a new stressor. I will decline your help for a couple of reasons.

First, I have no intention of imposing on you. You’re my friend and I feel as much compulsion to make your life easier as you feel for me.

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Couch needs a vacuuming for starters. If you can get the cat off it.

Second, the kinds of things I really need help with you don’t want to do and I would never ask you to do. I need the whole house cleaned. I need someone else to take over my household needs for a week so I can go somewhere else for a while. I need seven million dollars, give or take.

Finally, the onus is now on me to imagine things that I need, that are within your means, and that I think you would actually not mind doing. That puts an emotional burden on me that I really don’t need. It’s vastly easier for me to politely decline than to think up something in that narrow intersection of constraints that would really help.

Now, look: I love you. I understand and appreciate the sentiment. We all say it at some point and it feels like the right thing to say and it really often is. And it’s soothing to say — it releases one from a burden in a way. You know, you’ve offered, you’ve made yourself available (hypothetically). And when things are really bad, you’re kind of flailing: you know you can’t really help with things of a certain magnitude so you reach for something to say, anything, to indicate that you’re a friend and you want things to be better. I love all of that.

When someone is in dire need, here’s something you can do that doesn’t create that burden. It’s something that people used to do a lot in these circumstances but since our culture has become more about remote means of communication than physical interaction, it seems to have died off. You can just do something without asking what the person needs. It can be almost invisibly tiny and still have enormous impact.

My neighbour rang my bell the other day to say all the right things because she’d read about my trouble on Facebook. And she gave me a hug. I’ve been living alone for two weeks and I am a very physically affectionate person. I am a hugger. That hug genuinely made things better.

A friend who was in town for a visit gave me frequent hugs (because he knows) and also came with me to visit my wife in the hospital. And he didn’t ask how he could help, leaving me to invent the idea of joining me at the hospital. He said “I want to visit Jack; can I come with you?” Someone being with you when it’s hard shares the burden. It’s easier. It makes things better. He bought dinner and let me buy dinner. He let me be alone when I needed it and he respected my boundaries regarding my home and my embarrassments and my privacy. That’s some hard shit to do well, let alone perfectly. But the crux of it is: he just did things.

My mother, who lives across the country, would have been at my home every day. She couldn’t so from that great distance she found something practical to do anyway: she sent some cash. Now cash doesn’t fix every problem and in my case it’s not really necessary since I have a swell job, but cash is also always welcome. It relieves some stress. It lets me make a dumb choice with no repercussions just to make my life easier for a while. An expensive dinner, maybe, or some flowers. Cash seems crass but it’s powerful and practical.

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This is actually potatoes dauphinoise and not a casserole. Well, I guess it’s a potato and cream casserole. Fine it’s a casserole.

So next time you’re in this situation, consider not reflexively offering to help. A simple statement of solidarity, of camaraderie, of compassion is better. And if you really, really want to help, just do it. Drop by with a casserole: people under high stress are probably not eating right. This is why after the funeral everyone brings food. It’s actual help and it doesn’t require that the receiver do any work. Staying after to clean up is golden as well.

And that’s the heart of it: when the stress is really over the boiling point the one thing you do not need is more work. Everything seems like it’s too much, that it’s more than you can handle. Lift one of those things without adding any new ones. Just pick one. And if you have no idea what would help, I guarantee prepared food will never be remiss.

PS. You haven’t done anything wrong. The “how can I help” reaction is normal and compassionate. Everyone does it. It just carries a burden most people never have to think about and don’t analyze when they do. Much love to knife wife on Twitter for pointing it out — I couldn’t have put it into words without her raising it. It was like a light going on.

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.

out of my comfort zone

I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.

You can force that reset.

IMG_0621One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.

IMG_0618One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.

Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.

It’s not.

I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.

IMG_0623.pngIt’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.

And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.

So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.

nerd family

This might not be popular right now because the reflex is going to be to start hunting witches.

For good or ill our little communities are a lot like gangs. Not in their mandate, but rather in what they provide below the surface of their stated purpose. People join to find some family. They join to be seen, to be supported, and to generate the comradery of the herd. They feel good. Even if you already have lots of great real family, having a family surrogate online is still great.

So when a gang is poisoned as has happened recently, we are going to have a lot of family members trying to save themselves. Trying to keep some sense of family. There are a lot of different ways they will try to handle this problem.

Some will stand by their existing family no matter what, even if it means swallowing the poison.

IMG_20160603_104159.jpgSome will abandon the toxic horror and set out on their own. They may find new family. That may be easy or hard depending on how they handled the horror. But it’s going to take a little work at least because they will carry the smell of it or, maybe worse, believe that they do. And noses are pretty twitchy right now.

And a lot will want to leave but believe they can’t. Especially if we are telling them they are witches and that witches must burn. And what they will do, generally, is stay where they are and suffer and support the toxic space.

I think that’s horrible for everyone.

So, for a while at least, I’d like to set aside the details of grievances with others that are not The Principle in this tale. Just for now and just the details. And for people earnestly seeking a new space, at least consider their needs. Keep your policies, even armour them up: please please eject all assholery. There’s no need to be soft on actual behaviour as it occurs. But give an earnest application the benefit of the doubt so that there’s at least somewhere to go.

If there are tons of awesome places to be other than the Toxic Horror Show and the only bar is that you can’t be an asshole, that will make it a lot more attractive to leave and to change.

There will be bad actors. But let’s not slam the gates closed from fear of them. There are real refugees incoming. Refugees from horrible regimes deserve a chance to start over.

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.