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.

quintet

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?

intentionality

I’ve been hanging around in a lot of game design spaces in the last year or so, mostly to see what the “state of the art” is. Most are not well-organized. Most lack any kind of vision or direction, so they are largely regular folks talking about what they are doing. This means that many if not all develop their own unwritten axioms of design that the loudest present espouse.

I don’t talk much in these spaces but I listen because this is interesting and, in varied spaces, somewhat…well, varied. And also not. When I do participate I try to frame my advice in such a way as to avoid disparaging the assumptions at work and so have been zooming in (or out, I guess) on general design principles.

gnoll-hyarr-hires.png
Gnolls are a little thick and in heat of battle may attack their own shadows.

For example, if someone is building a roll-to-hit-roll-for-damage combat simulator, that’s what they want to build. Me coming in and saying “well how about we find a way to also address the soul-shattering horror of being forced to be a murderous sociopath all day” is not actually all that helpful. And certainly unwelcome. So my first rule is: whatever they are trying to build, I’m only useful if I help them build that as well as possible. Helping them make something they don’t want is not helping. It’s paternalistic bullshit, really.

So in trying not to be an asshole but craving the contact of communication, I have to develop some ideas that at once are useful and also do not deny specific choices just because I dislike them. I need to separate what I like from what’s a good way to design.

Fortunately there is a way to talk about design that isn’t that loaded. I was worried that in generalizing it would become too simple but it isn’t. And it’s mostly familiar: this is restating stuff that’s been said before. Let’s say it again.

First, design intentionally. Every rule you write, stop and think “why is this here?” Make everything you make on purpose. This is how you avoid cargo-culting something together and instead genuinely make what you really want to make. And maybe discovering that the game you want to make already exists since you’re echoing all of it.

This of course forces you to wonder what you want to do. People often say this is the first step but honestly the question “what is your game about?” comes off as antagonistic sometimes, especially if the designer hasn’t thought about summarizing the game’s intentions. Often their intentions are not yet coherent — they never thought to even think about it. The question asked directly is, again, a little paternalistic: I know better than you what needs to happen next.

But if you agree you should design intentionally then the question “what is my intent” is going to come up internally, whether explicitly or as the aggregate of all the “why am I making this rule?” questions. I think people are far more open to wondering if their game is indeed “about” something if they ask themselves first.

The next derivation is worth guiding to. If you have a hundred rules and you have thought about why all each exists, it’s natural now to wonder if there are common purposes and, more interestingly, conflicting purposes. Do the rules all help each other do what you intend them to do? This is “coherence” to me. When the rules support each others’ intentions. When you lack coherence you have rules that either have unrelated reasons for existing (these might be subsystems — maybe you have coherent subsystems in a much more loosely organized framework) or work against each other (and this is unsatisfying and as soon as you see it you’ll want to either fix it or make it a feature but not likely just leave it alone).

Make things on purpose.

Try to understand your purpose.

Intend your level and structure of coherence.

Once you decide that these are good things to do when designing you can start thinking about ordering them into a workflow but honestly that’s yours. I hate people telling me what my workflow should be. You will figure out your workflow. When you start thinking along those lines you can ask for advice (not from me — my workflow is crazy) and when you ask you’re generally ready to receive.

So: first do things intentionally. Everything else follows.

auto-observational design

Playtesting is always full of opportunities. Let’s look at two different things and see how they come together because of play and offer a design method. Not the only one, not a whole methodology, but rather a tool for your toolbox.

In the current Sand Dogs playtest our intrepid heroes have left the world. So they are pretty much done with the Sand Dogs concept except as it impacted their character creation and development to date. New world! They are chasing the slaver Harrison who turns out to be a planewalker and since they freed his slaves and broke up his gang, he’s looking for greener pastures.

So I have to make a new world.

This is great because the next Soft Horizon book is to be the handbook which tells you how to make worlds. And I don’t know exactly how to do that yet. But I am an experienced referee of role-playing games and I’ve developed settings before. I have the intuitive talents to do this already.

The opportunity here is to design observationally. I have an artistic intuition about how to proceed but I need to formalize it so others can reproduce it. I could start by imagining a process but in this case there’s a more fertile possibility: I can just watch how I do what I do naturally and take notes.

I’ll work in cycles here — make a thing and then look back over what I did and turn it into a process. Now, I’m not done yet so I can’t tell you the whole process, but I can talk about the meta process — the process of developing the process.

The new world started with an image that I dropped on the table in a panic at the end of the last session as the characters arrived in a new world: it’s a jungle and there’s a huge ziggurat and it’s at the end of a long straight path of churned up earth: the ziggurat appears to have moved albeit very slowly.
Seriously that’s all I have to work with here.

But hang on let’s start there if that’s what we start with. We start with an image. How do you get an image? Imagine a place with at least two things that don’t fit together. When I think about how I got to that bit of loopy ad lib, I realize that’s what I did: invented a contradiction. A mobile building. A fixed structure that isn’t.

So now I have to wonder, what’s a good way to get to that? And how exactly did I do it? This is the meta-process: when you ad lib something cool, look back on your own process. How did you get there? Can you make that a procedure? Can you mechanize that, at least in part, so someone else can reproduce it? You did it. Tell other people how. That’s how writing game texts works.

Oracles of course.

My brain kicks out some random shit and I try to make sense of it. That’s the frame we build this house on: some random crap that you have to make sense of. That’s the heart of every great Traveller session: how the hell can there be a population of billions with stone age technology on a world with no air? Don’t start with “that’s stupid”. Start with “how do we explain that?” That’s where creativity thrives. Don’t block, as the improv folks say. Make it work.

So to start with I want to emulate the random crap generator that’s in my head. I talked before about using oracles and the random noun generator and that’s the model.

Start with a couple of random words. For the game text we’ll call them “elements” and we’ll have some mechanism to deliver them. Probably they’ll be printed in the margin of the book so you can flip to a random page and get an oracle. That’s pretty much an exact model for my brain anyway. But for now here’s the start of the process: get two random words. For my new world those are “wild” and “wander”. Everything about this world is going to be about either wildness or wandering or both. If there are fixed structures they wander. If there are civilizations, they are wild.

And there’s clue two: find the contradiction and develop that. If your element is “water” start thinking about things that can’t be water and make them water. Hunt the contradictions. That’s where the meat is.

IMG_0582.png
A sartorial adventurer.

The next thing I did was draw. I want the players to immediately meet someone so that the world can be introduced through the eyes of someone who knows how it works. And whenever I do that I start drawing. So I drew this … person.

Obviously I’m not going to write a procedure that forces you to draw. That’s not practical. But at the heart of my instinct to draw were a couple of things: again I want an image. And I also want someone to meet, someone through whom the players can experience the world as a native. And so this is that person. But what can I tell you to do? And how did I get to this thing in the first place?

But maybe I’m missing the heart of this. Maybe the heart of this isn’t that I drew a cool insect guy. Maybe the heart is: create a non-player character to meet who illuminates the weirdness of this world. Yes, that’s what it is. That’s the next step. My personal process is to draw them first but that’s not the important part. Invent this character and then think about how they fit into this weird world. What does it imply about the culture? What does this character do from day to day? Is that typical (awesome, now we know a lot about the culture)? Is it weird? That’s awesome too because whatever it denies about the culture (making it weird) is just the complement of what the culture is. As long as the character is extreme one way or another, we can derive What People Here Do. At least some of them.

Obviously there will be more and more material but the important part is the meta part: if you do something intuitively then analyze it and figure out what a procedure might be for other people to replicate it. Maybe not your procedure exactly but one that gets close to it. Think hard about how you think hard and write it down.

completion vs. abandonment

Let’s see what the end of 2017 was like:

Canvas 1

Pretty bleak. Mostly I think I was looking at building a second edition of Diaspora. That didn’t pan out. And I had pretty much given up on Soft Horizon. Quite a lot happens in a year! And Elysium Flare was half done and halfway to the bin. So let’s look at 2018!

Canvas 2

Wow! Now Soft Horizon refers to the whole project or maybe the upcoming handbook and we see the new game, Sand Dogs running up centre field. Elysium Flare is out and I’m done with it. Diaspora is in the bin — it’s finished, it’s a good game on its own, end of property (as of now anyway). And The King Machine, a game I hadn’t even envisioned in 2017, is published.

No Contact and Navigator kind of switched places. Polyp is percolating again in my head, though it could rapidly head into the abandon pile. And nothing new is sitting ready to fire, which is fine because I have ideas about ideas that will go in there.

I thought this exercise was of dubious utility in 2017, but having 2018 to compare to is powerful. I attribute the change in pace and inspiration to Patreon and to my patrons.

alchemy

I used to work as an alchemist.

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

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

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

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

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

furnace
Row upon row of very fucking hot.

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

pouring out
Mmmm, muffins.

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

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

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

cupel
Cute little poisonous cups.

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

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

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

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