doing well

mood.pngSometimes I am doing what I’m good at but not having any fun doing it. Now my father would tell me that sometimes it’s not any fun, any of it, but it still needs to get done. But what I’m good at should be fun. Right?

But maybe sometimes it’s just the case that nothing’s fun and that’s a brain problem not a fun problem.

I am fortunate, however, in that there are at least three things that I’m good at and when one is not fun it’s often the case that another is. My craving for novelty is so shallow that the other thing is novel enough.

I’m good at making games. At least, I’m good at making games that I like to play (and that’s good enough for me). And so when the other two falter I can often get in the groove and write and lay out that game. Since I now have several games in the pipeline I’m no longer in a situation where I am wondering what to do. There’s plenty to do.

When that’s dragging (like when I have a ton of tables to typeset and fuck that) I can still lean on work. At work I design software systems — multiple components that communicate together to solve a problem — to ensure the security of a safety-critical infrastructure. That’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of similarities with game design, actually, and not just because there’s a crapton of writing that needs to get done. It also involves problem analysis and breaking out solutions that work together to meet those needs. It involves finding components that work together without being so coupled to each other that changing one destroys the other. It involves finding a method to turn a complicated issue into a series of executable and explainable solutions. And it involves a lot of explaining. And math.

And when all that’s dragging I draw. I’m not a great artist (not fishing here — I know enough about illustration to know my limitations) but I love doing it. It requires little to no initial analysis. It needs no words. It’s just a matter of moving an image from inside my head to outside my head. And while it happens I get to enjoy the media I use. Drawing is simple, tactile, emotional fun.

Interestingly, when I fall back on drawing, when nothing else at all is fun, it breaks the barrier. Not always but often. When the drawing is done something plugged is unplugged. The other things seem fun again.

So thank you joyless paladin, unable to be excited by the heroic swing because of the burden, the loss of momentum, and the inadequate rewards. You summarized the mood and invalidated at the same time. That’s heroic.

What this means is that Sand Dogs layout is back on track.

Postscript: yesterday The King Machine was the deal of the day at DTRPG. We sold a lot (relatively I mean) of copies. It was marked up so hard that not a lot of money got made but far more importantly there are more eyeballs on the pages. If you got a copy, I hope you dig it. If you dig it I hope you shout out about it. I hope you play it. I hope it brings you joy. It was a joy and a relief to make.

 

super vigilantes

That I have trouble with superhero as a genre is no secret. And I do not think less of you if you like it. Really. If you like it and read the rest of this you’re going to get the feeling that I think less of you. I don’t. There is an escapist element and an element of hope that people need, perhaps, and that’s enough.

But not what I want to talk about.

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Soft Horizon was almost a super hero game at one point but I diverged.

Recently I was tangentially exposed to a discussion of The Punisher and gun control. That discussion felt to me like a specific discussion of a more general problem with supers, and one that is existential for the whole genre. That is, the question was about whether the Punisher should have a position on gun control and whether it should be anti- and all the good stuff that goes with that (like demonizing those who want gun control or making them seem effeminate or obtuse). But the big question here is, who gives a fuck what the Punisher thinks? He’s a murderous vigilante. He’s off the rails. He already has no ethical ground to stand on so why listen to him at all on topics like that? And why would you, a reader/viewer, imagine that the writing was ever going to be nuanced when at its core it must somehow support vigilantism and therefore profoundly unethical behaviour? The most nuanced it can get still can only be about peripheral issues. The elephant in the room is undisturbed. And even when you poke it (Civil War) you still have to do it in a useless fashion.

Supers are about vigilantism and that’s not okay.

There might be supers who are not vigilantes. I’m not aware of them and not talking about them. But even those that work against cosmic threats (Silver Surfer might be the purest) ultimately have to engage with the mundane for context (otherwise it’s not so much supers as science fantasy) and when they ignore or override existing organizations of security and defense, they too are vigilantes.

In order to support their vigilantism it is essential that writers paint the relevant organizations being superseded as inept. This is strictly an ethical dodge, framing the scenario as “vigilantism is fine if the organizations can’t or won’t do the work”. But in reality, however flawed they often are, these organizations do in fact do the work. And in a credibly (or at least charitably) story they would do whatever they need to do in order to keep up with the fast paced world of super-villains and galactic threats. They would hire the best skills. And those would be super-heroes. Even in administrative roles, they would certainly have supers with that (sadly underexamined) skill set.

They also have legitimacy of a sort. Certainly moreso than a superhero saying “trust me”. That’s harder to swallow today I know. But no matter how bad our institutions are, they are better than trusting a powerful stranger.

Let’s pause here and exempt the X-Men, at least in principle. Since the subtext there is about an oppressed group with special skills using those skills to protect themselves from a hostile world, it’s not necessarily about vigilantism. But it often is. And the institutions that would mostly reasonably respond to threats are painted with a black and white hostility and ineptitude. I don’t find these so much ethically vacant as simplistically defined. And then plenty of the stories are about them acting as vigilantes anyway, whether or not it’s because the rest of the world “just doesn’t understand”.

I cannot get onside with vigilantism just because however flawed the appropriate organizations are, they were at least designed with some semblance of checks and balances. Elected positions, oversight, public exposure. Of course they work against those checks and balances to protect themselves, especially when they act evilly. And of course the couch those efforts as necessary for efficiency and safety. They are imperfect and in many cases deeply imperfect. But they rely on a mutable and exposable institution to function. They aren’t a person. They are an organization, and the inner workings of an organization can be examined.

Not so for the vigilante. They operate according to their own motives, they select their targets based on their own calculations, and they are not beholden to anyone for their choices nor actions. There may be better ways to operate than existing institutions of security and defence, but trusting to a vigilante (no matter how super) is just a benevolent dictator in disguise and has the same problem: reproducibility. Even given a perfect vigilante, how do you guarantee that they are “good” in the future and how do you pick a new one when this one goes away? Vigilantes lack structure for reproduction. The very best are only good enough right now and in the past. Next week is up for grabs.

So supers are a no-go for me right out of the gate. They all operate unethically as an axiom of the existence of their stories and so within those stories their ethics are already undermined either within the text (they are vigilantes) or without the text (the writers must craft a universe in which vigilantism is somehow necessary because of implausible defects in the existing systems).

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A world without supers. You play a brain coral.

This is not okay for me. I would love a supers story that genuinely confronts this (Civil War was definitely not it — that was fundamentally about supers who wanted to retain their autonomy, firm in their belief that they knew best: paternalistic horse shit). Maybe a story about an organization, complete with checks and balances, that represents what we might actually build if there were citizens with these extraordinary skills. Organizations that didn’t raise plot-necessary doubts and skepticism in a universe that has already demonstrated plenty of zany problems to solve. Organizations that function as organizations with behaviours that allow both mutability and reproduction of function. But maybe that would suck because maybe it’s actually the vigilantism that’s desirable. Maybe that’s the bit people love and since I don’t get it, the genre is forever beyond me. The individual hero who operates without oversight, the saviour, the prophet. That’s the super and that’s who I cannot come to terms with at all.

So why must any interesting stories about this problem of vigilantism ultimately be useless, underexplored, and ethically trite? Because it’s an existential question for the genre: without vigilantism the genre does not exist.

Postscript: as I went out for a smoke to think about this I realized that there is a supers show I like. The 60s live action Batman series. So why does it work for me? Superficially it might just be that it’s comic and does not demand much scrutiny. It’s just goofy and hilarious and never tries too hard to be taken seriously. But more deeply, look at the relationship between Batman and the police department: sure, the police are (comically) inept but they know it. And when they are over their head the first thing they do is call Batman. And Batman’s efforts are always to put the villain (back) in jail. Batman, in this incarnation is weirdly only barely a vigilante (I say weirdly because he’s sort of the canonical super vigilante) — he actually works largely within the institution however informally. He’s invoked by them and he delivers to them. He’s the most lawful vigilante we’ve got!

 

mechanization

Not a game design thing, sorry. More about art.

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This one is hand coloured but there are a couple of uncoloured originals left if anyone wants to make an offer. They are quite small, perhaps the size of a copy of The King Machine.

A thing I love to do is to mechanize the un-mechanized.  In 2015, before my wife started her Troubles (which I have detailed elsewhere but aren’t the subject of this discussion but suffice to say it was Bad and it was Stressful),  I took a course on lithography. My chosen image was a sketch of a dragonfly which I mechanized and militarized.

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At this point I think you see the idea turning into a technique.

Insects are really good for this — they are almost machines anyway. And you can see in this some of the doo-dad doodling that would find its way into the light-hearted designs in Elysium Flare, both ships and robots. I developed something between a style and a technique for adding elaborate  mechanical bits to something.

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Wasp wasp wasp wasp.

My second image for the course was a mechanized wasp which, sadly, did not print well but the prepared stone was lovely. There’s a significant improvement in the detail and the execution. It felt like a major leap forward and so the failed printing was a real disappointment.

Last night I was flailing for work to do, with nothing really penetrating my mood and then I found a micrograph of a T4 microphage.

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The T4 Terminator ready to hunt down Sarah E. Coli before she goes into mitosis.

These things are pretty much literally mechanical — you’d be very hard-pressed to claim they are alive. It’s really a shell containing some RNA and some chemical-mechanical manipulators. These things drift around looking for suitable bacteria (in the case of the T4 I think it’s e.coli) which they latch onto and inject their partial DNA bits. These are designed to steal the bacterium’s DNA and assembly processes to turn it into a factory to make more T4s. That’s it. That’s all it does. There’s no metabolism, no sense it which it eats or breaths. Or senses. It just drifts until a chemical connection is made, a mechanical action is triggered, and some very specific acids and proteins hijack the vastly more complex machine of the bacterium to make more T4s.

So here’s a T4 Terminator fabricated in the future to hunt down an e.coli that will have a detrimental effect on Skynet if allowed to live.

quintet

In 1979 Robert Altman made a bomb of a film, Quintet, starring Paul Newman (that’s an edit — for some reason I originally wrote “Robert Redford”, probably because they both remind me of my father somehow) and a number of good (even great) European actors like Vittorio Gassman (The Nude Bomb not, maybe, his best) and Brigitte Fossey.

quintet essex
Is this guy ever not beautiful? He looks so much like my father did.

Like anything by Altman it’s at least interesting. The cinematography is weirdly voyeuristic with every frame vignetted with a blur like looking through a window rimed with ice. The sets were all highly refrigerated, so there’s a constant fog from the actors’ breath. This suits the setting — we’re in a post-apocalyptic world now deep in a nuclear winter and the ice and snow are constants. Technology is gone, we’re down to knives and spears and, well, explosives. Wood is expensive and don’t get the stuff that’s been pulled from the poisoned buildings — it’s been “treated” and creates a toxic fume.

The film has a strange Logan’s Run vibe, but more serious and more complex. But not more fun — it’s convoluted and medieval and cold and weird and slow. And gory (it got 18+ classifications all over the place for the violence and severed limbs). Lots of dogs eating people. It’s not clear why no one eats the dogs.

Anyway, the reason this film is especially interesting given the context of this blog — games — is that it centers around a board game called Quintet. And Altman and the crew developed the rules for this game and it works. If you were lucky enough (or unlucky given what a bomb the film was) to see an early screening, you got a pamphlet with the rules. Yup now you have a copy too.

Quintet is interesting because there’s a sort of referee — there are five players and the so-called “sixth man” who determines the allowed killing order of the players. You can only kill the person clockwise from you on the killing circle which the sixth player arranges. The objective of this “sixth man” is to arrange the killing order such that the weakest player is left to play in the endgame. Only then do their pieces come out.

quintet board
Beautiful wooden Quintet board with actual play going on courtesy of Smout Allen (@SmoutAllen on Twitter)

Play happens on a pentagonal board with a center space, a limbo space in each “sector” of the pentagon, and five “rooms” at the edge of each sector. In the initial move you throw two dice and move each piece to a room in your sector, six being limbo, as called for by the dice.

Thereafter you move a piece the sum of both your dice or use each die separately, moving clockwise or counter as you choose. Your objective is to share a room with your victim, killing that piece. If you kill both their pieces they are out of the game and the killing circle closes up: you have a new victim.

If you share a room with someone who isn’t your victim you are allied — no one can enter the room and kill either of you. But the killing order could change….

Now there are a couple of rules missing from the pamphlet. I’ll try to derive them from the film or make up a good guess.

If you roll a six you may enter the Limbo section of the sector you’re in. That’s in the rules. You have to leave on your next roll. But there are two ways this could work: you could use any die to enter any room in the sector and count starting there or you could enter the appropriately numbered room. The first makes a move out of limbo very powerful. The second presents the possibility that you could wind up back in limbo. Maybe in the next sector? Both are interesting.

EDIT: the film does indeed give a clue how to resolve this when Fernando Rey’s character says “it’s like spending the whole game in limbo, throwing an infinite series of sixes”. So it seems you enter the numbered room from limbo, staying there if you roll a six. Or maybe you enter anywhere and count off unless you roll a six. Clues but no real evidence.

The pamphlet doesn’t say how the sixth player enters the board in the endgame but there is a scene (when Essex plays Ambrosia for the first time) where this happens: the sixth player enters into the survivor’s home sector. We know this because Ambrosia calls Essex foolish for making his last kill in his home sector, giving Ambrosia a possible first-roll kill.

Are there other rules missing? I find this document poorly structured to teach the game but after multiple readings I think I have a handle on it. Has anyone out there played?

intentionality

I’ve been hanging around in a lot of game design spaces in the last year or so, mostly to see what the “state of the art” is. Most are not well-organized. Most lack any kind of vision or direction, so they are largely regular folks talking about what they are doing. This means that many if not all develop their own unwritten axioms of design that the loudest present espouse.

I don’t talk much in these spaces but I listen because this is interesting and, in varied spaces, somewhat…well, varied. And also not. When I do participate I try to frame my advice in such a way as to avoid disparaging the assumptions at work and so have been zooming in (or out, I guess) on general design principles.

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Gnolls are a little thick and in heat of battle may attack their own shadows.

For example, if someone is building a roll-to-hit-roll-for-damage combat simulator, that’s what they want to build. Me coming in and saying “well how about we find a way to also address the soul-shattering horror of being forced to be a murderous sociopath all day” is not actually all that helpful. And certainly unwelcome. So my first rule is: whatever they are trying to build, I’m only useful if I help them build that as well as possible. Helping them make something they don’t want is not helping. It’s paternalistic bullshit, really.

So in trying not to be an asshole but craving the contact of communication, I have to develop some ideas that at once are useful and also do not deny specific choices just because I dislike them. I need to separate what I like from what’s a good way to design.

Fortunately there is a way to talk about design that isn’t that loaded. I was worried that in generalizing it would become too simple but it isn’t. And it’s mostly familiar: this is restating stuff that’s been said before. Let’s say it again.

First, design intentionally. Every rule you write, stop and think “why is this here?” Make everything you make on purpose. This is how you avoid cargo-culting something together and instead genuinely make what you really want to make. And maybe discovering that the game you want to make already exists since you’re echoing all of it.

This of course forces you to wonder what you want to do. People often say this is the first step but honestly the question “what is your game about?” comes off as antagonistic sometimes, especially if the designer hasn’t thought about summarizing the game’s intentions. Often their intentions are not yet coherent — they never thought to even think about it. The question asked directly is, again, a little paternalistic: I know better than you what needs to happen next.

But if you agree you should design intentionally then the question “what is my intent” is going to come up internally, whether explicitly or as the aggregate of all the “why am I making this rule?” questions. I think people are far more open to wondering if their game is indeed “about” something if they ask themselves first.

The next derivation is worth guiding to. If you have a hundred rules and you have thought about why all each exists, it’s natural now to wonder if there are common purposes and, more interestingly, conflicting purposes. Do the rules all help each other do what you intend them to do? This is “coherence” to me. When the rules support each others’ intentions. When you lack coherence you have rules that either have unrelated reasons for existing (these might be subsystems — maybe you have coherent subsystems in a much more loosely organized framework) or work against each other (and this is unsatisfying and as soon as you see it you’ll want to either fix it or make it a feature but not likely just leave it alone).

Make things on purpose.

Try to understand your purpose.

Intend your level and structure of coherence.

Once you decide that these are good things to do when designing you can start thinking about ordering them into a workflow but honestly that’s yours. I hate people telling me what my workflow should be. You will figure out your workflow. When you start thinking along those lines you can ask for advice (not from me — my workflow is crazy) and when you ask you’re generally ready to receive.

So: first do things intentionally. Everything else follows.

completion vs. abandonment

Let’s see what the end of 2017 was like:

Canvas 1

Pretty bleak. Mostly I think I was looking at building a second edition of Diaspora. That didn’t pan out. And I had pretty much given up on Soft Horizon. Quite a lot happens in a year! And Elysium Flare was half done and halfway to the bin. So let’s look at 2018!

Canvas 2

Wow! Now Soft Horizon refers to the whole project or maybe the upcoming handbook and we see the new game, Sand Dogs running up centre field. Elysium Flare is out and I’m done with it. Diaspora is in the bin — it’s finished, it’s a good game on its own, end of property (as of now anyway). And The King Machine, a game I hadn’t even envisioned in 2017, is published.

No Contact and Navigator kind of switched places. Polyp is percolating again in my head, though it could rapidly head into the abandon pile. And nothing new is sitting ready to fire, which is fine because I have ideas about ideas that will go in there.

I thought this exercise was of dubious utility in 2017, but having 2018 to compare to is powerful. I attribute the change in pace and inspiration to Patreon and to my patrons.

alchemy

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.

curcible
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.

furnace
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?

cupel
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.

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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.