doing well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


super vigilantes

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

But not what I want to talk about.

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

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

Supers are about vigilantism and that’s not okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A world without supers. You play a brain coral.

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

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

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



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.

a new menu for players

I really want play to proceed such that the players help establish the fiction before selecting a skill to use for resolution. In fact, I would rather that they never select a skill but rather narrate their actions and then we can negotiate what skill they use.

Why? Well, I find that players (certainly me) tend to use the skill list as a menu of options and that they logically tend to prefer the better options in order to succeed. Consequently two things happen and I feel that both are usually undesirable. First, action tends to resolve based on their best skills which narrows the scope of the story. This might be fine except that it tends to leave a bunch of skills untouched — why even have the lower tier of skills if they don’t get played?

Second, there’s a certain amount of artificial wedging of skills into scenarios. It’s generally in good faith, but if I’m good at Repairing things I will really try very hard indeed to frame every problem as a repair problem. Often credulity will be stretched.

In the past I’ve “solved” the second by having a rule like “if the table is buying it, fine, but if there’s pretty much any argument, drop it and try another”. Even with this there’s some unwanted meta-discussion about applicability and some unnecessary argument. I’d rather avoid that.

DESTROY IT is a fine answer to “What do you do?”

You can tinker with truncating skill lists so that only the best skills are even represented, and that certainly suits a certain kind of play and certain genres, but for my current projects failure (or even succeeding badly) drives the narrative forward. It creates new problems to solve and does it in a way that relieves the ref of the burden of fabricating all conflict from whole cloth. It lets the story take control of itself and I really really like that right now.

I think these issues are related and so I’m wondering if one solution might be to give players another list, since picking from a list is attractive and powerful. Just not a list of skills. So the path would be to pick a tactic from the list, a general methodology, use it to inspire the narration for the action, and then determine the skill that’s appropriate. What might that list look like? What are generalized methods for solving problems?

Here’s a stab:

Destroy it. Whatever the problem is, the player will remove it forcibly. Drive through it, smash it, shoot it, disassemble it, whatever. We will crush the problem.

Go around it. Try to find a path that bypasses the problem altogether. Drive off-road around the checkpoint, choose a less suspicious door, ignore the treasure chest in the empty room, dig a tunnel under the machine-guns.

Solve it. Defeat the problem exactly as it is presented. A checkpoint? Test your fake papers and your communication skills. A suspicious chest? Check for traps and pick the locks. Directly address the problem in the most direct fashion.

Research it. My players often miss this one so having it on a list might be especially useful. Sometimes the best next step is to investigate the problem and try to find more information about it. Maybe there are known ways around it. Maybe a weakness will be revealed.

Decompose it. The classic engineering solution is to break the problem down into sub-problems and solve them separately. Talk with each other and find the sub-problems and often each of these is simpler than the whole. This is the essence of the ever-elusive “plan” and when you do it it’s very satisfying. But because it’s not very immediate and it’s quite analytical it may not occur to you in the heat of the moment.

Synthesize it. Maybe a bunch of problems are really one problem. Do they link together in a way that is itself a weakness? Maybe disabling each of the security components is not necessary if we look at the security system as a whole and start thinking about how the whole operates. Kill the power? Remove the guard at the CCTV station?

Subvert it. Sometimes the problem can be made to solve itself. Bribe the guard, set off the minefield as a distraction, threaten the guard with the trapped chest. Use the problem against itself.

Embrace it. Let the problem happen and endure it. You’ve spent all that energy one making yourself resistant to poison so just stick your hand in the chest. Run through the minefield playing the odds. Surrender to the border patrol and find a way to continue from inside the compound even if it’s from inside the brig.

More succinctly, destroy, avoid, solve, research, decompose, synthesize, subvert, embrace. With this list could you more readily find a narrative that later implies the skill to use? Would you at least sometimes wind up using your worse skills because the plan at least is “better”? Would the story become a little more varied?

mechanical and fictitious injuries

Okay there are lots of different ways to play and one thing that keeps getting attention is “fiction first” which, as far as I can tell, is only very weakly defined. If it’s well defined, I can’t find it. I think it’s a play style — the style where you follow the narrative and announce your actions within the narrative and then try to figure out the mechanical representation of that rather than surfing your character sheet as a menu of options to determine the best mechanical option which you wedge into the narrative somehow. It works great when failing is fun but it doesn’t satisfy qualitatively like winning does. It’s a style.

But can it be a mechanism? I mean it can be advice, obviously. You could even get draconian and write it as a rule (“play in this style or you’re doing it wrong!”), but mechanize it?

Well, let’s look at injury.

In a hit point system injury is mechanically represented as hit points. In some cases it doesn’t have any impact beyond measuring how close you are to death. It might have an impact as well. But it has a number.

And it has a way to fix that number. You get x hit points back from a rest. You get some back from a healing potion. There are strictly mechanical ways to get those hit points back and consequently heal the injury. This is mechanically “fiction last”. You deploy the mechanism. It is clear. It is unambiguous. It doesn’t matter if it’s weird that a first level cleric can save you from certain death if you’re weak but can’t clear up your acne if you’re powerful. The fiction is completely irrelevant. You make some shit up later to make sense of the clear mechanism.

Consequence: knifed in the face.

That’s an extreme. Let’s see if there’s a fuzzy case. In Fate you have stress but everyone says they aren’t injury (fact is, they might be) so instead let’s look at Consequences. Those are injuries! You have a limited number of Consequences and when you’re out of Stress and Consequences (bad game show that) you are taken out. Maybe dead. Maybe something else. But you’re done. And there is a mechanical way to get stress back (end of the scene) and a way to get Consequences back (varies by variant but usually a fixed time or number of sessions or something else mechanical that fixes some time period for healing). The impact of the Consequence is manifold: first it eats up part of your limit of Consequences. Second it represents a negative aspect that someone can use against you — maybe at no cost! And third it’s true. That is, it has a direct impact on the narrative because it’s a fact. If you have the Consequence “broken legs” you cannot do things that people with broken legs can’t do. This is purely within the fiction: there’s no mechanism (-4 to do “things”) — you must weave it into the fiction and play it out.

This to me is a half measure. It’s almost there. The fiction is dominant and in some circumstances it’s first but, it’s also second (when called out for a compel, say, or when figuring out how to heal it).

In the Soft Horizon system injury is mostly narrative. It has a mechanical component, but let’s look at it.

You risk HARM and it goes bad and you get a WOUND. You describe the WOUND and put it on your sheet. For every WOUND you have, your physical abilities are reduced one step. You may be unable to function if you have enough of them. Well, unable to do VIOLENCE or RESCUE someone. You are no closer to death, but if you are sufficiently incapable you might want to narrate that as death. Your choice.

Like a Consequence, the text of your WOUND is true. You can only do things that are fictionally consistent with the text. The fiction is given primacy. It drives the effect.

But it’s in repair that we get closer to the fiction and further from mechanism: there is no mechanism to heal a WOUND. There is no amount of time to pass, no number of sessions, no particular potion. The mechanism give you nothing. You heal a WOUND by pursuing and executing action within the fiction that would reasonably heal your WOUND. You might go to the hospital and wave away six weeks; that would fix your broken leg. Or you might pursue a legendary artifact that replaces your leg with a god’s finger in steel and diamond. Or maybe you decide to trust the crazy surgeon and they just build a new join in at the break and now you have more joints in your leg.

Two things have to happen: you the player must pursue a narrative that would fix the WOUND and then you have to succeed in the process. Then your WOUND is gone. Pure fiction.

It feels to me like timed solutions to wounds (as with Consequences in some Fate variants) is groping at this solution but ultimately seduced by traditional methods: I mean, since it’s true and drives fiction by its truth, it’s only a small step further to repair it the same way. Find a fiction in which it’s not longer true. It’s so close. But we often fall back on familiar methods because they are familiar and they suffice because, well, they’ve always been good enough.

So while “fiction first” is mostly a style of play, there are ways we can weaponize the fiction to function first or instead of mechanism. Not in every case, perhaps, but sometimes. And I think we don’t largely because we didn’t think it all the way through, because we already have a familiar solution. But the fiction has always had the power to force play — it has always been the ultimate determinant between being able to use the car (it has no gas) or not. We don’t give everything some kind of point score to determine what it does when and how much (the car needn’t have zero fuel points for us to agree it will not run). We can leverage that power for other things since it certainly exists.

super powers

So the usual problem with supers games is, what if one character is many times more powerful than another? Worse, what if one is many thousands of times more powerful? How does the weak character bear on the game?

There are lots of ways games solve this, but I’m not really interested in specific solutions. Let’s tease this apart a little instead.

capn underpants.jpgSupers are super good at applying force. Super strength, laser eyes, frost breath, super speed, whatever it is, they are primarily about exerting force with it. So when we say one character is a lot more powerful than another, we are really saying that they are better at exerting force. Now if this bugs me, I really have to look a little closer at why: why does the ability to exert force better than someone else mean that there is an overall unbalance? That a weaker character has no impact on story?

So let’s look at superhero stories. They have a fairly basic pattern: there’s some situational stuff, some kind of conflict, a half hour of punching to develop the problem, some more situational stuff, some more conflict, and a really huge fight scene. The fight scene dominates the story.

Or does it? It dominates the time, but if our metric was some kind of “volume of story delivered” the fight scenes are actually incredibly sparse. They do little or nothing to develop the story they just take all the time. The meat of the story is elsewhere.

So why over-mechanize the bit that is basically fluff?

Let’s say Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. That’s a a half hour fight scene. Cap is using all kinds of tricks set up before hand. He takes a terrible beating. He eventually tricks the Hulk into Bannerizing or being thrown into orbit or something. Hulk is not dead. No one is ever dead. Even dead, next year they won’t be dead. Don’t worry about dead.

But this fight is not where the meat is. The meat is in why Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. And so that’s where the game should be too. Cap has constraints. Hulk has constraints. These are the things that define their characters far more than their super powers because they define when the character can use them…and when they can’t. Cap can’t get frustrated in a Senate hearing and solve the problem by decapitating the committee. He could do that. He has the power. He can apply that force. But he is constrained. And when you are constrained to not act you simply do not have that power in any real sense.

Cap has a set of ethics that strictly constrain him. And he is partially reliant on a technology (without that shield he is less).

Hulk is not always the Hulk and cannot apply force unless he is. And when he is he acts emotionally and not rationally. He is constrained to obey the id first and foremost. And maybe most importantly, Banner does not like being Hulk. He does not want to invoke his super power ever.

decision densityThose are the defining things about those characters. Those come into play everywhere the story is dense, everywhere there is not a fight, everywhere that culminates in that visually stunning but essentially empty fight scene.

And that’s why a weak character is as or more important than a strong character in a supers story. That character has two things going for them: outside the fight scene they are probably better at this than the supers (compare Tony Stark to Pepper Potts), and during the fight scene they invoke constraints: they need protecting, they calm the beast, they are what is being fought for. The weak character is the story. It’s what the supers react to. It’s the whole reason the super exists.

So the question to me is not how do we make sure these power imbalances work, but rather why are we privileging the largely empty fight scene over the story-dense material that necessarily precedes it, shapes it, constrains it, places it, and counts the score at the end of it? Why is the power scale problem even a discussion we have? It seems to miss the whole point of the source material.


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?