20 November, 2017

Dark Crystal Creature

A few days ago, I indicated my intention to create a creature for a contest relating to the new Dark Crystal TV series.

I've finally managed to get an image together.

The Northern Tree Squiggon is one of the few arboreal Squiggons, and one of a small number of subspecies who live the majority of their lives out of water. It spends the majority of it's time dangling from branches, often growing lichen and moss over it's body, blending into the trees of the woodland. With spring-like musculature in it's neck, it shoots it's head at unsuspecting prey in the undergrowth, snapping with it's beak and lifting prey back up to the branches, where a tentacle or two are used to strangle the victim, while the beaks rips the flesh. Like most squiggons, this subspecies is a predator of opportunity, and generally ignores or hides from larger forest  creatures. 

19 November, 2017

Thor Ragnarok and Justice League

I went to the movies yesterday to see two superhero movies.

They say that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Thor Ragnarok was awesome. A few little quibbles here and there, a couple of parts where it felt like there should be more, but were obviously cut out for time, or other reasons, a few easter eggs I was aware of but when I sat there and looked for them, I missed them... definitely one to add to the DVD collection. 

17 November, 2017

Sneak Preview of Dispatch Guide

For those who are interested in the progress of the next book to be released for The Law, here's a sneak preview of the current status.

It probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense without a copy of The Law, so here's a link to that.

Sourcebooks, Splatbooks, and Expansions

I'm working away on the formatting for my "The Law - Dispatch Guide", which is basically the GM's guide to the game. It includes ideas for how to run a coherent investigation, how to keep things interesting, how to use equipment (and create new pieces of equipment), and a final section on relationship mapping.

The book I'll work on after this is an "Agent's Guide", which is basically the player's guide with a description of the Department of Law hierarchy, a few option character variants within that hierarchy (such as SWAT, Internal Affairs, Undercover Agents, PSI-Squad, etc.), maybe a lifepath system to flesh out a character as they are being built, and a few ideas for how games by be run outside the regular shift structure to reflect an Agent's life when they aren't on patrol.

Beyond this, I'm thinking of a series of Splatbooks to flesh out the setting, or more accurately provide tools that a group can use to flesh out the setting as appropriate to their game.

For example, the "Management Guide" would provide a variant lifepath system for Management characters, a system to quickly generate management oriented NPCs, a few pre-generated NPCs to drop straight into a scene or investigation, a guide to creating corporations (altruistic or sinister), and a few notable corporations that might exist in the setting already.

Something similar would be done as a "Street Guide" but using gangs instead of corporations, a "Cult Guide" would use zany religious groups, etc.

In addition to these, I'm tninking of a "Quartermaster's Inventory" book that follows the cyberpunk game tradition of a book filled with equipment. It'll probably be presented in the form of a catalogue, or Department evidence log.

(Equipment Guide Inspiration)

At the speed I develop projects, this range of books should keep me going for a decade or so... I'll probably get bored and move on to something else before it's all done.

16 November, 2017


I may not like something, but I can still appreciate the technical expertise behind it. In this way, I could be referring to a piece of music that doesn't stir any passions in me, but I can understand why other people like it... on the other hand there could be a formulaic piece of drivel with auto-tuned lyrics in the top 40 and I might be more inclined to wonder who slept with whom, or how many dollars changed hands to get such a high public presence for the song.

It works for music, for visual arts, for game design... for just about anything where people put their passion into something. I know what I like, I know that other people like other things, but I feel there is something beneath the surface facade that has the potential to turn something into a classic.

Then something comes along and helps to explain those instinctive thoughts about quality and goodness. It doesn't give all the answers, but it does give a fresh perspective.

I've been thinking more about that lightbulb analogy, and I think it might actually answer some of the issues that I have with hodge-podge, ad-hoc systems in gaming. I think it has something to do with how good the inner filament (ie. the core mechanic) is.

Paul Stefko's Core Mechanic series in this analogy is basically a craftsman critiquing the various filaments at the centre of different gaming light bulbs... he ignores the glass, the table  and everything else, and just focuses on that central element. Through this kind of analysis we can see what the game does at it's most fundamental levels, then we can later see how the glass of the globe manipulates the light to produce the atmosphere and complete game experience.

My problem with ad hoc games is that there is no single central filament. Old-School D&D has one filament handling combat, another filament handling skills (if you decide to turn that part of the light on, or maybe you just leave it for rogues), another filament for magic...some like the combat filament are dangerously convoluted, others are simple straight bits of wire, but every one functions and impacts the wider game environment in a different way. There is no consistency, there's interference patterns built up at the innermost layers of the light, the layers of glass and other elements of the gaming environment all react in erratic ways meaning every game needs to pick and choose which elements to remove or keep, which bits are neglected or forgotten because they just get too complicated, or which bits become focal as the distinct flavouring elements of the session. Plenty of OSR enthusiasts will be tuning out at this point, because it's not something they want to hear. Some may claim that their preferred flavour of OSR doesn't do this...but they're all based on this retro-nostaglic base that really doesn't do a good all-round job. Others may claim that all OSR is basically a smorgasbord toolkit, where you can pick what you want from the wide array of options available... but sometimes people just want to sit down and have some fu  without being interrupted by hours of referencing and page turning. Sure there are some stripped back versions and retro-clones, but even these tend to have multiple systems handling individual things rather than a good solid core mechanic.

I do appreciate Apocalypse World for having that sturdy filament. Just the same as I appreciate Nathan Russell's FU, or S John Ross's Risus... or FATE... or the Roll-&-Keep system from L5R/7thSea. It's often outside the strong central system in these games where I have issues.

Actually, in the case of FU and Risus, if I want a simple collaborative storytelling tool, I don't have any issues at all with these systems. But if I want a system where, I can "play with the glass" and add mechanisms of my own, then they don't give much to work with.

[EDIT - I don't know what happened at the end of this post,but it ate up a whole heap of text I'd written... I'll see if I can remember enough of it to rewrite it]

Apocalypse World has a nice filament (2d6, where less than 6 = bad result, 7-9 = mixed result but generally good, and 10 or more = Good result). My issue here is not with the filament, and upon rereading the model, it's not necessarily with the bulb itself. It's with the table... actually, no it probably exists in both the table and the glass bulb. My problem with games Powered by the Apocalypse is the discrepancy regarding how and when moves are activated, where a few recent posts have indicated that there isn't a good indication of how and when this occurs (different tables play it different ways). But similarly, I don't like the way some moves modify rolls, others exists as rolls of their own subsystems inspired by the core mechanism, then there are those which simply activate, and others which seem to interact with elements of the game completely separate from the core mechanism. It seems so close to a nicely integrated system, but doesn't quite hit the mark...

...I want to do an Obi-Wan Kenobi scream... "You were meant to be the chosen one".

Look, I get it that some people love different games for different reasons, and that there are different products for different goals. But when something is supposed to be elegantly designed and adored by a large chunk of the gaming population,. I can appreciate it for what it got right, then kill the sacred cows in an attempt to see what can be done better.     

15 November, 2017

The Lightbulb

I could make links to numerous reviews like this one, saying that this particular game powered by the apocalypse, or that particular game powered by the apocalypse are terrible. But that would just be cherry picking the various sites, blog posts, forum comments, and other elements of the internet that fit my views while ignoring the numerous other opinions which state that these games are wonderful and innovative.

I really wish I could find the post where Vincent Baker claimed that he wanted a game where only the rules as written were the game, anything else should be expressly forbidden from being added to it...for pure genre emulation you shouldn't need anything else. But after a couple of hours searching, I can't find it at all.

Instead I have found something of his that I like, and particularly a comment by Ron Edwards below it.

The basic gist is that a game is like a lightbulb above a table. The whole scene is  uolt up in layers. The filament of the lightbulb is the essence of the game, the fundamental core mechanisms of play, tightly wound, burning bright, creating the deepest experience. The glass of the lighbulb is both illuminated by the filament, and allowing light to pass through it. It acts as a lens in certain ways, or there might be patterns painted on the glass of the bulb...either way it takes the core mechanisms light and modifies it for use in a variety of situations. The combined filament and glass are basically what you buy when you purchase a game from the designer.

The illuminated table is the play experience provided by the game. It's everything you bring to the session (physically and metaphorically), which isn't a part of the ga e rules. Maybe you shine the light in different ways to tell different types of stories... perhaps if the glass around the filament is tinted red, it might not pick up on nuances between greens and blues on the table, the game just isn't designed to do those things. Maybe the glass is painted in elaborate and organic swirls, and when it casts it's light on your gridded tabletop you just end up with a psychedelic mind-fuck. It's not really right for the story you want but it'll give you a hell of an adventure anyway.

The rest of the room is the entirety of experience and world that could potentially come into the game, but hasn't yet manifested in play.

The inner layers affect the outer layers, but the outer layers don't necessarily affect the inner layers. The filament produces the specific intensity and temperature of light regardless of what is around it. Changing the filament changes the whole experience, everything is lit in a different way, and even if everything else is the same it might look generally similar but there will be something subconsciously, fundamentally different about it. Changing the glass affects everything outside the bulb, using the same filament in a new glass shell is reskinning or hacking a game. It's not particularly hard to paint your own patterns on the glass, but making a filament is trickier...making them work together is trickier still. Making changes to the table is what everyone does during play...every table and every group is different, they may shine the light in different ways to get their stpries happening, they may argue about the best way to shine the light, but as long as they're all using the same type of bulb from the same design team, they're all playing the same game.

It's an interesting analogy, and I could probably push it even further. But that will do for the moment.

But what's the game about?

I've noticed a few conversations again,where one group of people say that they love the way social gaming occurs within traditional D&D...then a second group of people say, that this comment doesn't make sense because traditional D&D didn't really have any rules for social interaction... then the first group says that they love it because social play develops in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Yes, I know, there is a Charisma stat in traditional D&D, there are rules for gathering retainers and henchmen, there are even rules for npc reactions based on random rolls and modifiers if you start digging into things. That's not really the point of the discussion. The point is probably the fact that rules are there, they are promptly ignored by the players, and a simplified modelling of social interaction occurs at the table. It's a bit like the old notion of the "fruitful void" that was big in Indie design circles a few years ago, except that a void is made by ripping out the heart of a section that isn't liked and then the broken ribcage is used as a playground.

Some designers get around this by saying, use the rules as they are written, if it isn't in the rules then that's not what the game is about...if your game does end up about that thing, you must be playing it wrong. I've heard that said about Apocalypse World, there are certain moves in the rules, and if a move doesn't cover what you want to do (or isn't in your playbook), you just can't do it...you need to maneuver the story into a different angle of approach until you do have a way to address the issue. That just feels wrong to me, and is one of the laundry list of reasons why I don't like that system. A few of the games that spawned from it went with the idea of a generic roll, or rolls that can be generated on the fly in response to events as they unfold in the narrative. Which then makes me wonder why bother having a distinct playbook at all, why not go back to a generic system with a standard die mechanism, and attributes or skills that modify it according to the situation in which the roll is being made?

There seems to be a fine line between making a game too generic, and too specialised. I would have thought the grey area between the extremes was bigger, but most games seem to linger on one side of the grey area or the other. A lot of games try to bridge the gap into the generic space with rule systems that are either overly complex,or not fitting with the tone of the other rules in the game...thus the rules are ignored and house rules are modified on the fly...which then leads to players engaging in an experience quite different to the one possibly intended by the designer. I could probably run a game of almost anything, using a specific rule set with minimal modifications (beyond flavour text, fluff, and setting elements) to portray almost any genre. Does that prove anything??...no, not really. I'm sure there are plenty of other experienced GMs/DMs/MCs who could do likewise. It just means that rules should be easy enough to be remembered with minimal referencing (otherwise they get forgotten) and should integrate with the setting (otherwise they get ignored out of spite).

In The Law, I deliberately made a generic system where actions often have costs associated with them, whether they succeed or not. Then I made a range of skills thematically appropriate to the setting. A player can use their character to do anything they want within the setting (or at least attempt to), but unless they've got a good attribute or a moderate attribute and an associated skill, it's going to probably make things complicated, or fail miserably.

In Walkabout, I'm basically aiming in the same direction, but as a game focused on community, and the power of stories and relationships, I'll be using more of these elements to enhance the narrative, the setting and the way characters interact with them.