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

2015 - 1.jpg
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.

001 (6)
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.

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.

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.


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?


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.

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.


I used to work as an alchemist.

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

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

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

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

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

Row upon row of very fucking hot.

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

pouring out
Mmmm, muffins.

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

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

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

Cute little poisonous cups.

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

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

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

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

2018 in review

2018, despite being a shit year for pretty much the entire planet, was a good year for the VSCA. For me.

On the home front, though Jackie’s mobility and other functions continue to decline thanks to Multiple Sclerosis (you want to help cure something horrible? Send your Christmas money to the MS Society of Canada) other issues are largely under control. My place is still a mess, my time soaked by pretty much everything and Jackie unable to assist, but that’s really a minor issue. There were no major hospitalization incidents and mania and psychosis are under control. That’s pretty good. That lightens my load a little and is a big factor in the rest of this review.

This project also got me drawing again. That’s a Really Big Deal.

Elysium Flare got released! And it’s my first full-colour project. We even managed to bring in some art from Colombian art-genius, Juan Ochoa. It’s a really lovely book and a tidy little Fate-based science fiction game. It features a lot of loose setting material out of my own head and represents my best effort at grabbing some enthusiasm for space opera as a genre. Now look, I had fun making it and I think it’s a great little game. And it’s beautiful, especially in hardcopy. But I’m not likely to do space opera again unless it’s pretty psychedelic and I’m not likely to do another Fate game.

This project also got me to figure out the Drive Thru RPG POD system. It’s convoluted and frustrating but it works. As a publisher experience, Lulu is much nicer but you can’t beat the integration and the storefront of DTRPG. Both make nice books.

We started and then abandoned a Diaspora second edition. That’s probably not ever going to happen.

I started the Patreon to keep this new effort running and it’s been very powerful for me: feeling like I owe people regular product makes me make it. I can’t emphasize enough how well this works for me. Thank you to all my patrons: you have made this a great year.

lazer-owl smallI almost secretly released a little zine-sized product called anomaly digest. It’s for sale in hardcopy only and it’s at cost — there’s no profit in it. Add it to your cart when you buy everything else! It contains a number of little adventure hooks and mini-dungeons created as part of the RPG Talk (that’s a Discord invite link) regular content contests. I don’t participate in these any more since it kicked me into making games and that’s where the energy goes now. This went our as a physical reward to some patrons.

bonobo anthropologistAnd finally the Soft Horizon gelled and I got out the first issue, The King Machine. A game I’m really proud of, but I’ve talked about it elsewhere.

And now the second issue is out for playtest (really a textual playtest — the game itself is already heavily tested but now I need to see if the text works). So Sand Dogs could be out in January.

And then there was the impending for real death of G+ which forced me to make some plans about where to communicate and get communicated at. That bore this blog, a remake of my old one (and I’ll repost some stuff from there occasionally), and some exploration of other spaces. So far I can be found at:


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 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 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.

Zero Dark Thirty was a casualty. I think I’m just still pissed that they stole my title for a movie.

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 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,, 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.

The games, however, are still going out since the zero-risk model is still in effect. This mess is not stopping me, just disappointing me.