folk aesthetics

In the philosophy of science we sometimes talk about “folk science”. Or even “folk logic”. This is content that is superficially true but unexamined — an excellent first guess and probably a sufficient first guess to survive for 40,000 years or so. It’s often wrong, but it works at an animal level and it works as a survival instinct.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is kind of the perfect folk logic. Event A happened before B therefore A caused B. You can already smell a lot of magic here — I shook my fist at the sky and then it rained. I can make it rain! But less magic things too — they were there right before the murder! They must be the murderer! And probably right enough of the time that it gets a little easier to catch murderers. And a lot of the time it’s even right — if I plant these seed things then later corn will grow. Sure enough, that sympathetic magic works. If you bury a little piece of corn in the earth, later there will be more corn.

Folk science is an extension of this. The sun goes around the earth, for example. Obviously it does. Humans are too puny to have an effect on global climate. People of different colours are fundamentally different beings. But also more nearly true things — when you drop something it falls straight down, for example. When you accelerate you will keep going faster and faster for as long as you accelerate. There’s such a thing as simultaneity.

So this morning in the shower I was thinking about folk aesthetics: things that we find pleasing but that we find are imperfect, naïve. That produce results that are pleasing but not as pleasing as they could be. And in some cases we find these so pleasing we are almost addicted to them.

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Symmetry is an easy one. We love symmetry. But a perfectly symmetrical natural image (a tree in center frame, for example) feels both pleasing and naïve. It isn’t as good as it could be. But there’s an appeal, especially in an idealized form like a logo. It’s more than simple, it’s simplistic. But something in our brain loves it and something else in our brain does not.

selective focus photography of a telescope
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Complementary colours is another one. Why do we love blue and gold so much? Because they are opposites on the colour wheel. It triggers something we like, a simple and natural opposition. You shoot a whole movie in blue and gold and it’s visually energizing. But clearly there is a lot of colour-based mood you are missing out on. It’s a cheap trick.

Sorting like things together. We really dig this. We build addictive games around it. Get things of the same colour into a line. Hell as a kid I would spend time sorting a deck of cards because a properly sorted deck felt wonderful. We adore the purity of segregation.

black and white blank challenge connect
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Fitting things together. Another addictive game seed. In fact I think that “sorting like together” and “fitting things together” are the core elements of all successful “shit keeps falling” (thanks Joshua Schacter) games. When each successful move is accompanied by a sharp satisfying POP you have a winner. Worth millions. Because it pleases the animal.

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Asymmetric composition by Juan Ochoa.

It’s valuable for any artist (not just visual art, but also game design, hence this discussion in this blog) to identify folk aesthetics in order to break them. It pays to find richer, deeper aesthetics in, around, and in defiance of folk aesthetics. Black and white together is a killer aesthetic. Add a single colour and it explodes. Draw the eye in a deliberate direction with placement rather than simply up and down the middle of the page. Leave like things apart, in tension. Clash a colour. Jumble things that refuse to fit together. Better, show things that should fit together that will never fit together. These things occupy our brains. We try to make them right. This makes us pay attention. When we do this we please more than just the animal. Sometimes we even succeed by defying the animal.

But simply defying these things does not work. You need to deliberate. But this is how you get from folk wisdom to wisdom.

Yes there is a subtext.

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early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.

certain death and perception checks

Consider this scenario. I’ve seen it more than once so I think it might be interesting.

As ref, you describe a place that will definitely kill the characters if they enter. You don’t intend the adventurers to go in there — it’s just an illustration of the capriciousness of the owner. The adventure is somewhere else. So, say: the open archway is completely clear of sand, unlike where you’re standing outside of it. And right inside are the skeletons of three people who are dressed just like the people you know were exploring here last night. It looks like they crossed the threshold and died instantly then decomposed over at most a few hours.

From my perspective as ref I have made it totally clear that this path is barred. What I am selling here is the death of the friends not a puzzle. However, players will usually see a puzzle. So:

“I want to go inside and see what happened.”

Hmm, okay. It’s certain death. That doesn’t sound like fun. How about we tie a roll to it?

“Hrm okay. Let’s have a KNOW check then.”

Now this requires elaboration. The player may well think that failure means you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Success means you KNOW what’s going on. But this doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. I dunno means they go ahead and die. I know means I reveal it’s insoluable and the move on. Neither are very fun sounding. And what RISK would I apply here? Fail and die and also trigger a risk? Seems weird. Succeed and you can’t go there but also trigger a risk? Mmmmmaybe, sure. Success with no risk? It’s a hard success to celebrate so, hmmm, no.

And it fails to address the misunderstanding between ref and player. It maybe reveals it. So instead: explain the misunderstanding (you are humans, you can do this) and consider what the player really wants: they don’t want to know whether they can enter. They want to enter.

This reframes the player’s position in the context of the roll as “Do I KNOW how to enter safely?” At this point as ref I would be confident saying:

Risk is REVELATION (because I have an idea — the revelation will be that on entering you get the eternal enmity of the owning god but we won’t say that out loud right away).

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Don’t piss off the ibis god. You won’t like them when they’re angry.

Fail is death. You KNOW you can just enter. But you can’t. This is extreme but we’ve already established in the narrative that it’s lethal. Say it out loud. The player can still decide against acting. They want to enter but given the evidence maybe it’s wiser not to try. Not only will they die, but thanks to the risk their they die entering and the god (which in this actual case the players need to continue the path they’ve chosen) hates them.

Success with risk means that the revelation happens and the character knows away around the certain death. This is the divergence from the main narrative that risk tends to produce.

Success without risk means that the character knows a way around the certain death and the ref should narrate at will with this new direction. The god is apparently fine with this.

What I take away from this is that revelatory checks should do more than just reveal a fact. They should acknowledge the further intention of the player — what do they want to do with that knowledge — and play with that instead.

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resolution as narrative

Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.

Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.

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That’s a Juan Ochoa original. See previous post. Thanks Juan.

What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.

More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.

It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.

All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.

SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.

CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.

REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.

WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.

DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.

So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.

Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.

artist highlight: juan ochoa

I am a pretty bad art director. I don’t really know what I want. It’s in my head but, you know, there are a lot of layers of translation between my brain and someone elses. My instinct, though, is to trust that part of being an artist — like a real artist, a pro — is not just translating my idea but also bringing all that creative talent to make my idea theirs. To have them develop the concept into something much better than what was in my head anyway.

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Juan and his cat Art Supplies. I believe he has another name, but also is clearly an art supply.

Juan Ochoa helps me get over that hurdle and preserve my desire to see another artist get creative: he works interactively at the concept level to get things not just right, not just as good as I wanted, but the multiple of what he wants and what I want. His method makes us both better.

I first asked Juan to collaborate with me on a project that didn’t wind up developing into anything, although we did still have some cool concept art come out of it. This was Swallowmere, a fantasy sequel to the VSCA’s Hollowpoint. It has a ghastly web page. I apologize. Here are some bandages for your eyes.

So the premise was, the world of That RPG We All Played When We Were Kids, a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and humans and dwarves and whatnot, but a thousand years later. A modern, technological fantasy. Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings, say.

demureIt didn’t finish but it created a lot of fun text and art and that was when I first got into Juan’s process. Pictures, text chat, live video, whatever he can get his hands on to bring you into the process. Now if you don’t want that, that’s cool, he can churn out to spec and not bug you about it. But if you do want it, if you want to collaborate rather than just direct, he’s all in.

After Swallowmere I asked him to do a cover and some character art for my space opera project Elysium Flare (which did complete!) In the end I got so into making the art myself — and this was his fault, since working interactively with him let me steal some essential techniques for digital illustration — that the book wound up largely in my own style. Nonetheless, critical landmarks in the book are perfectly his.

Shamayan FINAL.pngJuan lives in Bogota, Colombia, where it is notoriously hard to get him paid, get him mail, and other things we take for granted elsewhere. But it’s also a place where he can afford to live on his art (provided we hire him a-plenty), eat great food, drink amazing coffee, and keep an adorable cat. He occasionally ships me some coffee along with a cake of panela, a kind of cake of unrefined cane sugar which you chip off into your coffee. If you chip off too big a chip you just eat it because it’s still rich with molasses and other good pre-refinement stuff.

Juan has worked for plenty of folks in the industry already — you’ll see his work everywhere once you notice his distinctive style. And yet he remains humble (to a fault), affordable, and approachable. He has portfolios all over the place but this is the only one I think is current.

I love working with Juan. I feel like I get smarter every time we interact. I have recently asked Juan to work on a mini-project with me that I’ll expose at a later date. It’s not a game, just a…thing. Promotional thing, for sure, to bring attention to Sand Dogs (which is releasing within the next week), but also just a thing. A little delight. An amuse yeux perhaps.

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weapons technology in d&d