revolver (part 2)

Here late? Here’s part 1.

I’m not sure how best to present this part as there are chickens and eggs, but let’s start by saying my father was a profoundly gentle man. He didn’t want us doing anything dangerous and certainly nothing violent. He didn’t watch boxing or wrestling and he didn’t want us doing it. He wouldn’t stop us if we were keen but he definitely disapproved. Maybe gentle isn’t quite right: he was a peaceful man. I never heard about him fighting anyone ever. I suspect there was a pathology here — that he was so peaceful, so gentle, that it was almost a neurosis. He seemed, in retrospect, terrified that any harm would come to anyone he loved.

But under his bed was a .22 bolt action rifle and it fascinated me.

And in his clothes drawer was ammunition and that fascinated me as well.

And he had a .22 calibre CO2 air pistol and we sometimes shot targets with that. And that fascinated me too.

The rifle was taboo — we talked about it exactly once and he never shot it in my presence. I doubt he shot it at all after I was born. It was a burden, something that he just didn’t really know how to get rid of properly. So it stayed under the bed. It was not discussed. It just…existed there.

Except when I took it out.

You can’t really do that to a kid — you can’t declare something fascinating is just off limits and we will never talk about it again and certainly never look at it or handle it or use it. This pretty much guarantees that a kid (well, me, anyway) is going to get that rifle out while you’re not in the house. I’m pretty sure that if we regularly used the rifle that’s not what would have happened. It would have been de-mystified.

So I used to take out the rifle and work the action on it. I would try to understand how all the parts worked together to load and fire the bullets. I would point it (in a safe direction — I wasn’t a stupid child; fact is I probably handled it more safely than father ever did) and pull the bolt back. Tip it up and push it forward. Dry fire it. That didn’t stay satisfying though, so eventually I took some of the ammunition out.

This is probably not going where you imagine. First of all, there’s only so much ammunition you can steal from a not quite full box before you can’t really steal any more without being found out. So this was not going to happen a lot. Second, as I said before, I was not a stupid child. I was not going to fire a live .22 cartridge. But I really wanted to see the whole action at work. I wanted to load it and have the bolt allow a cartridge to pop up and slide into the chamber. I wanted the bolt to extract the cartridge and eject it. I want to operate the machine. I would love to have shot it but honestly that wasn’t the compulsion. The compulsion was to operate it.

So I stole a handful of cartridges and took them out to the shed. There I put them in my father’s bench vise and pulled off the bullets with pliers and emptied the gunpowder out (and I kept that because gunpowder wasn’t what I thought it was — it wasn’t powder, for starters) and then tapped the bullet back in to the cartridge. Now I knew there was still a primer there (I had done some research) but I was pretty sure it didn’t have the power to pop the bullet off a cartridge that had no gunpowder in it. So I took my empty cartridges (and my gunpowder) and I loaded the rifle and worked the action. It was unsatisfying — the cartridges never slipped out of the magazine properly, never chambered properly, never ejected properly. Something was wrong with the machine or the operator. I was done with the rifle.

I set the gunpowder on fire in the back yard. That was the most satisfying part of the crime.

As far as I know my father never found out and I don’t know what happened to the rifle. I never sought it out again.

It was a long time before I thought about this rifle in terms of failings of my father because he’s always been heroic in my mind, but he had a rifle he didn’t want and yet he never did the work to get rid of it. It wasn’t illegal — a .22 bolt action rifle was and is an unrestricted firearm in Canada and at most he’d have to register it. I suspect he fell into the same trap I fall into sometimes — a deadline came and went and I didn’t do the thing and it became easier to just lock the evidence away somewhere you can’t see it and forget about it. But this meant that there was a functioning unlocked firearm (stored near accessible ammunition) in a house with kids. And we all knew it was there. It’s a strange thing for my heroic vision of my father to do. In fact it’s far worse than strange. It’s completely inconsistent. But it happened and so that’s when that image first started to tarnish. Not too badly though — I recognize his failing as one of my own. How can I not forgive it?

So that’s the rifle and the ammunition. It never became dramatic, it just quietly went away one day. The air pistol, though, that we shot together. It took CO2 cartridges and big fat lead .22 pellets and did wonderful damage to tin cans and paper targets and 1:72 scale airplanes and tanks. It put neat holes in yucca plants that we would claim never happened. When pressed we would agree that the other did it. I doubt my mother was satisfied but boys will be boys.

I never took this gun out without permission. It was interesting to operate but being a single-shot pistol it was not very complicated. It was interesting but not fascinating. It felt great in the hand though.

Eventually he would buy me my own air rifle, a break-barrel piston job in .177 calibre. Not powerful, no CO2 cartridges, not fascinating. But fun. We shot a lot of stuff we shouldn’t have and laughed a lot.

But there was a rule and one I never questioned: we never shot anything that looked like a person. No silhouettes, no pictures, nothing like that. Ever. And that’s stuck with me; I have a powerful aversion to shooting anything but bulls-eye targets and soda cans. I despise that guns have ever become about “self-defense” because this is a lie. We all know this is not why we like guns. We like them because they are fun. My father had made this peace: it’s fun, now how can we keep it fun (that is, safe) and his solution was to stick with air guns and treat even those with tremendous respect. But still have a great time shooting mom’s yucca plant. I wish we could hate guns as weapons and still have a great time with them because they are fun. But the lie has cast a shadow over the fun, made us think about guns in terms of murder instead of fun. So we both hated them. And loved them.

And so that was our relationship with guns. After a while I would develop a fascination for auto-loading handguns. I would buy accurate models of them, and tinker with them, disassemble them, assemble them, operate them. But he never went there with me. He was not fascinated. I think now that he was instead terrified but I have no idea why. There was a lot of fear in my father and I don’t think it was for himself.

revolver (part 1)

Part 1 of some number of parts.

When I was in my late teens my father drove the family to my grandmother’s house because there was some maintenance work that needed doing and this was how my father’s side of the family operated. Some significant subset of the brothers and sisters (there were five brothers and two sisters in all) would heed the call, gather their favourite tools, and rush to the location that needed work. Then they would proceed to get moderately drunk and get the job done. Roofing, plumbing, drywall, hell even erecting a whole new addition to a home. If there was a reason for tools, they would congregate and use them. This and crab theft were the biggest reasons to gather that I can recall now. Oh and holidays. But mostly tools and crab theft.

At least this is the way I remember it now. In reality perhaps things were more pedestrian than that, more usual, but that’s not what stands out and it’s not how I choose to remember my father. So it’s not how I’m going to remember him to you. So for now we’ll stick to family handyman gatherings and work-related crab theft. And his oh-so-gentle drunkenness.

I didn’t know my father was a drunk until after he died. It was only then that my mother would talk really freely about it, about how the time he spent tinkering in the shed or the car port was not really tinkering. It was just getting slowly shitfaced in front of a tiny black and white television. There were lots of tools in those spaces and many projects, most of which got done. But they didn’t need all that time. Getting properly tanked up on beer took the time. As I say, though, I never knew. Never even suspected. He was such a quiet, gentle drunk. He never hit me, never abused anyone that I know of, never so much as raised a slurred voice. In fact I can’t even recall a slurred voice or a stagger. His drunkenness was, I suppose, a private one.

And his projects were real. He usually had a car brand he loved for a while and he’d buy several of them. Cheap, shitty cars that amused him in some way. Cars he could afford to have several of so he could take at least one apart to clean every single piece. Polish it, replace or repair what was broken, paint it, and put it all back together. I bet you never drove around in an Austin Mini with the engine painted bright yellow, but I did. Well, I never drove it. This is perhaps the way I disappointed my father, never learning to drive, but maybe not. He seemed to respect the choices I made that made me distinct from him. I’m sure I’m inventing it, but I will choose to believe this was a thing he loved about me.

And I imagine that at first the projects were indeed what the time in the shed was all about. That the objective was to go and finish that model airplane or re-assemble the neighbour’s lawnmower engine, or restore that blowtorch he found in his mother’s tool shed, and the fridge full of beer was just there in the work shed as well as the project. It strikes me as an easy priority shift to have happen to you, to eventually head out to the shed for a dozen beers while telling yourself that you need to finish that model boat your son gave you. In your thirties it was about the boat but somewhere before fifty it was about the beer.

Certainly he never did finish that boat, but let’s use that particular project (since it was later in his life) to understand what kind of a drunk my father was. This was an all wood sailboat model, about three feet long (and we’ll use imperial measures here only because this is part of setting this mood about my father — when you eulogize my drunkenness you should use metric). It was so detailed the to make the hull you had individual wooden planks that you had to steam and bend and then nail into place with tiny brass nails. This is a lot of detailed work and anyone would be excused for leaving it incomplete.

But the last time I saw that model boat, after years of “work” in the shed, all that had been complete was the hull. No work on the deck, the superstructure, the mast, the sail, the rigging. Just the hull. But he had bent all of these individual tiny planks and nailed in every single tiny brass nail. Imagine the look of all that magnificent detail, none of it cheated, all of it real.

But you have to imagine it (as I have to imagine it) because he then sealed and sanded and painted the hull. It was perfectly smooth, a shining black surface without a single blemish. It represented hundreds of hours of sanding and painting and sanding and repainting and buffing. Hundreds of hours of laborious, tedious, perfectionist work that would all undo the evidence of the other hundreds of hours of labour. My father, as you might guess, did not care what you thought of him much. He didn’t need to leave evidence of that labour. He only left incomplete perfections and never complete imperfections. I suppose he was more interested in the journey than the destination.

When my father bought a pick-up truck in the 70s, an old powder blue monstrosity, the first thing he did with it was drive to my elementary school and take me and my sister out of class. He piled us in the bed of the truck where there were blankets and not much else. My mother waved through the glass from the passenger seat. And we drove for hours (with several breaks) up towards Whistler mountain. At that time Whistler was not a big deal and the route was twisty and only a single shared lane in places. We would pass many “watch for falling rocks” signs and a couple of fallen rocks. We stopped short of Whistler, at Alice Falls, and had a picnic. We played in the stream (clear, green, pebbled bottom, when I remember it I want to drink it). We gathered our trash and drove home.

The journey, you see. An hour at the destination and maybe four on the road. Because he had a new toy. In this way he and I are very similar. The toys took (take) us places and so the need for the toys wasn’t (isn’t) just acquisitiveness. They are launching points. They don’t all launch. That’s fine. They don’t always start journeys that you would recognize as valuable. But we do. Trust us. We know what we’re doing here.

I haven’t entirely lost the thread here. We’re coming back to that trip to my grandmother’s place. The handyman journey. But first there’s another facet of both my father and I that we need to establish.

We both love(d) and hate(d) guns.

[end of part 1]

picks and locks

I am always looking for a new skill to learn. It’s usually something technical, something work related, but the levels of anxiety in today’s world demand something more meditative. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube finding strange solace in my mechanics restoration videos. But I’m not building a machine shop any time soon.

Then I stumbled on LockPickingLawyer. He picks locks. Easy locks, hard locks, ancient locks, techno locks. And he blows through them with amazing ease. And then, most of the time, he guts them and shows off their innards. Now, mechanical bits like this have always interested me — how does the interplay between tiny components make a lock lock? Or more interestingly, unlock? So I decided to try my hand at picking locks.

There’s a great Canadian company called Sparrows that has a bunch of material for locksmiths and amateur pickers alike. And it’s not very pricey, really. That’s a pretty good criterion for a new passtime that may or may not last. So I got some stuff.

I got a couple of cutaway practice locks. Part of what’s difficult (and fun) about picking a lock is that you can’t see what’s going on. You can only hear and feel it. When you’re starting out that’s a hell of a hurdle to get over but a cutaway lock lets you see the pin positions and correlate that with what you’re feeling. I got two — one with normal pins and one with serrated pins. Serrated pins are a kind of “security pin” — the serration will generate what’s called a “false set”. That is, it will feel like the pin is clicked into position to unlock the lock when actually it’s just been trapped by one of the serrations. It feels subtly different than a real set but you need to experience it. A couple hundred times.

So those are fun. Heavy, small, brassy. Industrial feeling. It’s ticking my boxes. Then I got a pick set, just an assortment of basic picks and levers. Now I have enough to try picking.

Well I opened the practice locks pretty fast. Being able to see in the window is a pretty big advantage but the early victory is a great moral booster. So I grabbed a real padlock I had handy, a little 4-pin Master brand padlock. No window to look in, you just gotta feel and listen. But only 4 pins so it’s not a long reach or a weird angle. Should be easy, right?

Turns out it kind of is. Ten minutes for the first pick and I literally shouted out loud for joy. Giant rush from that. Was it a fluke? Five minutes on a second pick. Under two minutes now. The lock went from a giant looking obstacle to far too easy in an evening. I should note that these are the locks I used on my airgun cases until just now.

Yeah an evening. You don’t need to see what you’re doing, so this is something you can fidget with while watching TV, listening to an audio book, whatever. It’s almost meditative as a puzzle but the buzz you get at the solution is huge. Part of it’s puzzle and part of it is the physical feedback: the pop, the sudden release of the lock tension, the shift as the shackle opens. These are all rewards.

Take those where you can get them folks.

elephants and rooms

Okay it’s time to talk about D&D.

Yesterday I wrote about what I want. In that essay I took a stab at a few mechanizable points by identifying who or what is best positioned in a (fairly trad) game to provide the sauce. The purpose of this, obviously perhaps, is to both start thinking about mechanism (here are starting points) and start thinking about alternatives (here are things we could subvert). I use this method a lot, where I identify norms in order to find things to question and subvert. I am certain that it’s pretty annoying in a lot of circumstances but I find it fruitful for myself.

So in terms of market share, if you round off at, say, three significant figures, there’s really only one role-playing game. D&D. Its dominance in the market is so thorough that it needs to be examined. However, most attempts to understand this take the obvious approach of wondering why this is the case. I think this has yielded little actionable result and is also pretty old hat — you’ve seen it before. You might have done it before.

So instead of wondering why D&D is so huge, let’s ignore that. It’s not actually interesting any more (partially because it’s old ground but partially because it’s not something you can reproduce even if you figure it out). Instead let’s look at the fact of it. D&D is huge. That’s just true. So given that fact, what opportunities does it present? What is true about it that you can subvert to make your own work at least distinctive, given that you can’t reliably produce a genuine competitor without becoming equally dull (a thesis I’ll explore another time but let’s just pretend you agree with that)? You can’t compete, so what else can you be?

The obvious thing to subvert, the thing you can change that D&D can’t, a simple axis of rotation that D&D is fixed on, is the genre. The Euro-fantasy melting pot that has become self-defining. Wizards and dragons, good and evil, fabricating motivation that is best solved by beating things dead and taking their possessions. Yes I know you can do different things with the game (of course you can — the act of play is so very close to the act of game design hinging mostly on what you choose to write down after a session) but there are selling points to the game that are fixed by the text and those are magic, moral disambiguation, and combat scenes. Those are knobs you can twirl that D&D can’t. Again, you can in your D&D game; please don’t come at me with “D&D can do everything” — that’s really just an assertion of your own free will and that’s a different discussion (hint: I largely disagree that we have any).

Knobs so far:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery

The social design of D&D is also very rigid: it cannot easily deviate from a strict ref/player boundary where the ref holds many secrets (sometimes even keeping the rules secret which is super weird the more you think about it). The “players” (that is, not the ref) are largely homogenous socially though the usual leader/support/asleep sub-categories inevitably arise. But the ref is saddled with the job of establishing the atmosphere, establishing (somehow; this is never clear but it’s usually just based on hope and not mechanism) character motivations, and preparing all of the supporting material to allow play. Maps, stat blocks, and so on. This is of course marketing genius since the ref’s job is so onerous that you can sell them support tools like adventure books. Lots and lots of them!

You can subvert these too. So far then:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space

Lots of great games subvert many or even all of these. That last in particular tends to generate a lot of pats on the back when it’s upended well because it’s really a frustrating thing to get stuck with: collaborative world building is one way to do it. Creating the map as part of the main phase of play is another. This knob is particularly fun to fiddle with. If D&D is missing a major gimmick that could vastly improve it, I think this is it.

Mechanically D&D has some basics that often go unquestioned. “Stats” that define innate ability. Some mechanism of defining trained ability (D&D is weirdly incoherent here having and connecting “skills” and “levels”). A measure of how dead you’re not (so death is on the table as a failure result: we can tinker with that too). Some moderately rich simulation tools to resolve combat (how fast you are, how hard you are to hit, how easy it is for you to hit others, a list of super powers). It also insists on a fairly finely granular simulation of money (counting actual coins) and it treats equipment as part of the way you improve your character (especially their ability to murder efficiently). An awful lot of games adopt these unquestioningly and I think they merit much more serious attention. Plenty of games do without or radically change some or all to great effect.

And of course we have the progression system which is maybe the most often unexamined component when people start to design new games. The idea of progression is very infrequently examined and toyed with. Progression is a very weird one for me because it very unsatisfying: when you peek through the curtain you notice that the environment is constantly scaling with your progression meaning the numbers all get higher but little fundamentally changes. The only disparity that stays constant is that your character constantly becomes more powerful with respect to commoners. I find that disparity as a goal somewhere between weird and deeply disturbing. That is, the biggest reward to levelling up is becoming even more powerful than the vast majority of the people in the world.

So let’s summarize again. Now we have:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space
  • separation of innate and trained capability
  • hit points
  • combat simulation tools (armor, speed, &c.)
  • lists of super powers
  • lists of equipment
  • shopping as a scene
  • literal money simulation system (you count your money and buy things with it)
  • equipment as progression
  • power progression
  • antagonists keep pace with power progression
  • common folk do not keep pace with power progression

These are all ways you can deviate (sometimes dramatically) from D&D. There are many more, but I’ve tried to find categories where I can rather than deep dive on details (I also think that encourages people to think that they have turned a knob from 4 to 11 by renaming “hit points” — we need categories to understand the possible scope of change). I will emphasize again that I think you should because competing meaningfully with D&D is a bullshit goal. I don’t think you can achieve it by aiming at it. The next big thing, if there ever is one, will be a big thing because of two things: a boatload of accidents no one controls and a significant deviation from the status quo. Focus on the thing you control. You might even accidentally create some art along the way.

what do i want?

So I was trying today to distill what I want from a role-playing game in the hopes that by digging down to really basic principles I could get a better understanding for what the rules need to do to suit my needs. This is a little thought-on-the-fly and a little planned, so bear with me as I both derive and discover this.

awe

One of the things I most want to experience while playing (and deliver if I’m running a game) is awe. I want there to be something that makes you gasp even if it’s just in your head. Now this seems to be something that is in principle in the hands of the ref or the setting material. Let’s note that:

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by the setting material

But what is it that delivers awe? My gut instinct is that it has to do with outrageous magnitude. The impossibly huge inspires awe. Niven’s Ringworld inspires awe, for example. In this novel Niven posits a place where at the orbital radius of a world like earth is not a planet but rather a ring surrounds the sun at that distance. It contains millions of worlds of space. It’s terrifyingly huge and the size of it is apparent from inside it, where the world forms an arch over your head. Even Iain Banks’ comparatively small orbitals, space stations that contain only a few planets worth of surface area, are big enough to make you draw a breath. Things that are too big to contain in your head give you inexpensive awe.

Age gives you awe. Things that are immensely old, like the sleeping hegemonic swarm in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep or even Pham Nuwen himself in Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky (and fractionally in ‘Deep too) inspire awe. The fact that Pham is a “normal” human who has spent a lot of time at relativistic speeds means he’s physically not all that old but he’s seen tens or even hundreds of thousands of years pass on the worlds he’s visited.

I have in my notes that improbability gives you awe but now I don’t think that’s right. Or maybe it’s another layer deeper — the really huge is partially awe-creating because it’s improbable. Same with the really old. It doesn’t have to actually be improbable, it just have to seem like it. So since I can’t think of any independent examples of this let’s throw it away. Maybe you have some insight.

Power also gives you awe but power is a tricky one, especially in games. First it’s kind of cheap and leads to escalating power struggles that swiftly become ridiculous. I used to use this a lot but it’s a dangerous game. D&D nicely codifies it with levels, handing out the toys in a regulated manner and escalating the opposition in order to create awe. But your power is mostly what’s awesome since everything else is scaling to your needs — it’s weirdly awesome to you the player, though for your character it might be commonplace. I guess my real issue with power as an awe-source is the way the whole story has to cope with it by trivializing things that are too far below the power scale — which frequently leaves things behind that I don’t want to lose. What I mean is, if you’re a 20th level wizard fighting giant astral demon fetuses (a real monster in D&D 3e, the last revision I really played out) then the every day conflicts of city life become eroded in importance. Zero level barkeeps pretty much to whatever you tell them to do. Power as a knob to turn is transformative: it changes the whole game. It’s useful for awe but it’s a spice you want to be very careful with. It changes the whole dish.

hardship

I want things to be difficult in my game. One of the songs that used to really inspire me to craft situations in games when I was a kid was Yes’ song South Side of the Sky from Fragile. Look at these lyrics:

Move forward was my friend's only cry
In deeper to somewhere we could lie
And rest for the the day with cold in the way
Were we ever colder on that day
A million miles away
It seemed from all eternity

Winter winds, desperately moving forwards hoping for safety, enduring the impossible. This is something that games generally do really badly. I would love to find a game that made you feel this kind of desperation without simply ticking off hit points. I want a narrative solution that I feel in my guts. This is a bit of a grail for me; I don’t have a solution. I think I caught a piece of it with the RESCUE method in The King Machine just because it makes the scenario happen where people need to be saved, and makes it immediate and risky. I think that’s a space I want to explore more. I think RESCUE is a flash of genius even if I say so myself and I regret removing it from the current Diaspora work.

It’s funny that this one has been so boiled away in gaming, abstracting it to, say, how many hit points you have left. Or whether you make a saving throw. It’s essential if not the whole point of most fiction. It’s usually replaced with endless fights. That doesn’t interest me as a solution though I get why it is: it’s an easy replacement. But it’s far too specific for my taste. Almost nothing in real life is a fist fight. And only slightly more is even credibly analogous to one. A fight is a very small and unusual case of the superset of hardship.

Hardship has to be delivered by the ref and by the mechanism I think.

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by mechanism

purpose

We need a purpose. As the actor famously demands, “What’s my motivation?!” As a player I am not content to be handed missions; this is too mechanical now and I always imagine a giant yellow exclamation point over and NPC’s head. It can be a mission, but not in a sprawling sandbox game. A game that’s about missions, that uses the mission as an episodic structure to tell tales, well I am onboard for that. That’s Hollowpoint. And it’s an elegant but somewhat specific solution.

But where else can purpose come from? The mechanism can supply it as we’ve seen. The ref can supply it via NPCs. But real motivation, real purpose, is not actually in the ref’s hands. It’s in the players’ because they need to buy in. I think the first time I realized this was when I first read a copy of Burning Wheel. In this game character creation demands that each character have a few BELIEFS — statements about the things that will motivate the character to act (and mechanically will pay the player for doing so). If you have a belief like “Arthur is the true and righteous king of the land” then you are motivated to act on anything that threatens that. It sells itself.

The problem with doing it from any other angle is that the player needs to buy in, and that’s why it generally only works when it’s the core premise (you are secret agents on a mission and here’s your mission) or when everyone’s happy with a more contrived quest-giving landscape of NPCs. It’s got to come from the player, supported by mechanism (a way to declare your motivations) and an observant ref (pressing the buttons the player laid out clearly on the character sheet).

  • delivered by the player
  • supported by the mechanism
  • supported by the ref

compassion

This is something I only recently realized how badly I want in a game. I want to feel for everyone. I want to care what happens in the world around me and not just to my character or my compatriots. Again, swinging back to The King Machine, this is why the SPILLOVER risk is important: it pushes the ref to threaten the well-being of innocents when player characters act, and therefore make a conscious decision about how much they care. It creates an active, mechanical opportunity to find compassion in play.

I think compassion is really important because it can be absent in games without anyone deliberately removing it. Back to our poor barkeep being pushed around by the 20th level wizard, we generally don’t care that she has a family to feed. These things are either beneath us or so far outside the scope of our motivations that we don’t address them since we have bigger fish (giant demon babies) to fry. But I want to care when I play. I want all of the people to have a potential story — not necessarily to tell it, but to be impacted in a way I am forced to feel.

I think compassion is very much a shared burden. The ref has to deliver it. The mechanism should support it in same way, giving it focus, making it an issue. And the players have to buy in — they have to care what happens to the barkeep.

  • delivered by the ref
  • supported by mechanism
  • supported by the player

testing the new editor

Caption test. I am captioning now.

Hmm, well here we go. I only ever type and then add an image, so let’s see if that does what I want.

Hmm. Seems okay. More steps to do what I want and more noise in front of me as I type, but okay.

It does ignore my style’s captioning option so that sucks.

As usual, an upgrade that seems to be aimed at fulfilling the need to apparently improve by changing things and adding options that are not especially valuable, while removing functionality in the original. Unimpressive, WordPress. But that’s the software development pattern: appear to be improving. Change as often as possible in order to sell assistance.

structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

mystery flesh pits

No it’s not a sex thing.

I want to talk about this creation of graphic artist Trevor Roberts because it’s wildly diverse in content, it’s off-the-scales for weird, it’s brilliantly executed, and it’s under-appreciated. And, if that’s not enough for you, it’s gameable. In fact it kind of demands a presence in your game somewhere.

First things first: Trevor has a Patreon and you should toss him a few dollars to keep creating. It’s worth it.

fleshpit1The mystery flesh pit is an anomalous geological region that is organic. In fact it’s a giant vein of meat and organs. And it seems to be alive. If the first thing you thought of was the “Pit of Sarlacc” you’re not alone, but also you have the scale wrong. You are thinking way way too small.

And of course with the discovery of such a strange and horrifying and dangerous place comes commercial opportunity! The Mystery Flesh Pits are also a tourist attraction! And so Trevor has not just created the concept and a few pretty images, but also the commercial material related to the concept. In fact he has fake government reports (read the one about the regurgitation disaster and wonder about the redacted bits, because man is there some gaming in there somewhere). He also speculates about the equipment of the park rangers there (which is of course highly specialized). And the things that live in the guts of the pit. And the things it does to local wildlife (and sometimes people), which is extra weird.

fleshpit2We’re not really talking about a riff on Star Wars here. In fact if anything, this has a closer relationship to the Strugatsky brothersRoadside Picnic than it does to Star Wars. There’s something so weird here that while we can find superficial utility, we cannot come close to really understanding it. And our superficial utility is, of course, commercial. In fact the parallel is rich enough that you might want to try wedging it in to the RPG Stalker. Or (my personal favourite of course) Soft Horizon.

Roberts’ genius lies in contextualizing images. While his Patreon (and yes I linked it again because, I must repeat, you should throw a few bucks his way to keep this mythology alive and growing) has concept art that is delicious, it’s all in a wild context of articles, reports, snapshots of newscasts, corporate content, brochures, safety standards, academic articles, and on and on. And this wealth of context is what makes me say its rife for gaming: this is really world building happening here, and it’s a strange and dangerous world thankfully contained in a well-defined pocket of weird.

You might have run into one of these images before and laughed and moved on. I encourage you to dig deeper and see the opportunities here for more and more fiction. Deeply fucked up fiction, mind you, but that’s one of my favourite places.

depression creeps up sometimes

So a week or two ago I realized I was getting very, perhaps dangerously depressed. I don’t have a clinical diagnosis but I have had enough experience with this (through others; my wife certainly) to know what’s going on. But it still creeps up because even though you know what it is, you would really prefer it wasn’t. So it kind of creeps up in plain sight.

One of the big signs, which I should watch closer, but then I was watching it and I knew it was going on, so wtf, was playing World of Warcraft fairly obsessively. Interrupting work, interrupting my household duties, and so on. Another was stealing hours to myself by staying up way too late after chores and WoW were done.

What WoW was giving me was twofold. First of course it gave me a fairly inert way to spend time that didn’t seem inert. It’s not like watching cartoon since you have to make decisions, but at the endgame you are mostly doing the same thing over and over (trying to make gold in time-tested ways) so that you can afford to buy the consumables necessary to do another same thing over and over (raid giant dungeons, but basically the same three dungeons you’ve seen a hundred times already).

The other hole it was filling was social: I was playing with a lot of awesome people, new friends, and was having a wonderful time with them socially. So much fun that I did what I usually do in that situation and find a leadership role with lots of responsibilities and new pressures. This initially helps my depression (purpose, respect) but in short order become another one of the feedback loops that keeps me doing something I don’t really want to do.

This is all, however reinforcing, still symptomatic. I was depressed. I was not enjoying my life but rather desperately trying to find ways to fill a hole that can’t really be filled. I was skipping tabletop game sessions because my chores were backing up and the thought of being creative (which WoW is certainly not) with people I love and respect was just too much pressure, too much expectation, too much work. I couldn’t handle it.

At some point someone announced they were withdrawing from the guild in our WoW game and that gave me permission to do the same. So I did a few things:

  • I quit the officer role in our guild (dumping responsibility)
  • I quit playing WoW (dumping the pressure to use time on something essentially useless)
  • I bought an air pistol (because I like them)
  • I set up a gun range upstairs and shot the shit out of some targets

So the first two are obvious. The second two maybe less so.

Retail therapy works. And I had my eye on something I could afford and had always wanted for a long time. Buying it let me congratulate myself with something concrete. I felt some measure of relief just making the purchase. I can afford it. It’s probably stupid. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The gun range is a little more complex.

lugerI am not a gun person in one sense: I don’t own real firearms, I don’t want to own real firearms, I don’t want to ever shoot at anyone even in self defense. I am, however, fascinated by the mechanical engineering of handguns. Just handguns — I don’t really care about long arms. This has long been the case with me — as a kid I owned models of real handguns with working action and realistic disassembly procedures. And I’ve always been amazed at how many auto-loading firearms are basically just held together with spring tension. They enclose and utilize an explosive force to engage a mechanical action that reloads and re-cocks the weapon and yet they are held together by almost nothing. Push a bit here, flip a lever, and they come apart.

Maybe you need to hang with engineers to find that fascinating.

So what I bought was an airgun that is a replica of a Walther P-08 Luger that uses the CO2 gas pressure for both firing the BB and working the action just like the real firearm to reload and recock. And that was the model I had as a kid. So now I had it in metal, with weight, and it did in fact disassemble just like I remember. 40 years later I can trivially break it down and put it back together. But this one shoots and so I get to enjoy the feel of that action jumping up while shooting.

Shooting is tremendous fun, even if it’s just a gas BB gun. And I presume this fun is chemically represented somehow since I genuinely feel it. Endorphins, whatever, I’m no chemist, but it made me feel great. And while initially it felt weird to shoot down the hall into the bath/shower stall through the old shower curtain (which I bought a replacement for a few weeks ago), it was safe (shower curtain provides a great capture for a plastic BB and no danger to the tile) and it was long enough to be fun (5 or 6 meters) and god damn I had a good time.

Now I feel much better. I am still coping with reduced social contact thanks to the Virus, but I am coping better. I don’t know whether changing my behaviour broke the depression or a natural subsidence of the depression allowed me to shuck the (rather destructive) immersion in a game. But it doesn’t matter. I was worried that since WoW ate up all my time I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. This was bullshit of course since there are a million things around the house that need doing because I was tending to WoW instead of the house. So after destroying the shower curtains I started cleaning the kitchen, clipping the cats’ claws, hurling garbage (an old shower curtain amongst it)…you know, the stuff you’re supposed to do in life. That is, not farming Dreamfoil and Arcane Crystals.

First thing I’ll do once things get a little more normal is seek out a club where I can shoot with other nerds. Outside. With people.

Did I break my depression or did I respond to its natural departure? I dunno. I’m going to go shoot up the bathtub.

what is your game about?

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

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

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

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

comm 9
This is actually one of my own diagrams.

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

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

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

img_0259
Because laser.

On the surface this sounds like a deep question. And it is! But it’s also a way to guard the gate. The question, see, determines whether or not you embrace a top-down design methodology. And it does so unquestioningly, disregarding any other methodologies. If you couldn’t answer this then you couldn’t make a “coherent” game, which was the holy grail of the sacred texts. I’m not actually against this: I think coherence (as in tight focus, like a laser, not as in comprehensibility — people get hung up on this word unnecessarily) is a very desirable trait in a game, though perhaps I came to understand it in a more general sense than it was intended at the Forge.

I would use this question afterwards as well but that was a mistake. If I “helped” you with this phrase and you found it demoralizing, I apologize. It would be a while before I would realize what it does.

Knowing what your game is about before you design is part of a top-down design process: you decide and define what you want to accomplish (your requirements) and then you start designing mechanisms that all further that goal. You start with your intention and you develop your realization, drilling down into greater detail as you go. You develop mechanisms that serve your purpose.

This is a really good way to design things (especially very large and complex things). It’s not a bad thing to teach this methodology and expand on it.

But when I was asked that question and couldn’t answer, I felt rejected. Like I couldn’t answer what my favourite colour was at the rope bridge of doom. The gate was shut (and it doesn’t matter if this was the intent — this was what happened regardless of the intent). And so I bounced off the Forge and while I made some effort to understand it, I was never welcome and I never performed the necessary genuflection to be accepted. I could mouth the words but I didn’t believe.

That’s because there are other ways to design. There really are. You can start with a cool setting idea and start planting mechanisms in it that you dig and slowly assemble a game. And then refine it. Along the way you may well discover what the game is “about” and at that point you can continue to refine it, gradually focusing it on the target. Coherence does not only emerge from one design methodology. I often wonder if that metaphor can be pushed further — it seems like the top-down Forge methodology produced great accuracy: the games hit the nail on the head when they work (I had so many play well one night and fall flat the next). They did what they were supposed to do, usually. By contrast, other methodologies may be better at precision: whatever they do, they do it reliably again and again.

Anyway, I always felt rejected by the Forge. In point of fact I bounced off the gate so hard that it would be wrong to say they rejected me — you have to have some kind of deliberation, some assessment in order to reject. I was never given enough attention to reject. I just ricocheted.