revolver (part 5)

(Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 for the tardy)

The revolver makes only two more appearances in my memory.

The first is at some indeterminate time later. I’m visiting my father in his work shed which has our old orange black & white television in it. My father has his work light on and is working on something at the bench. There are those strange work space towels, almost cloth but actually paper, that were only ever in these kinds of places. I have no idea where you get these because I am not a handy man but they seem super useful. They are always a pale green or a pale blue for some reason. They are one of the Secrets that real men keep, part of a club I was never really invited to and never tried to sneak in. It smells of cigarettes and oil and my father is smiling as he works.

“Hey,” I say. Even at this young age I am a brilliant conversationalist.

“Hey old man.” says my father. Sometimes he calls me “old man” and sometimes he calls me “young man”. I once asked him why he did that, why he switched between the two. “Sometimes you seem like an old man,” he said. “Sometimes you seem like a young man.”

I’m bored and thinking about building rockets or shooting my pellet gun or something. Anything. Our bicycles hang from the ceiling on my left. Maybe I’ll ride my bike.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask.

He pats the stool beside him. “Come have a look.”

I do. Arrayed on the Real Man work space towels are all of the parts of the little silver revolver pulled from my grandmother’s wall. It’s small, almost a toy, but there is something densely real about it. It would not be mistaken for a toy. It was a little .32 rimfire revolver I’d guess now and that would make it pretty illegal even at the time — a prohibited weapon. My father had no license for owning even restricted weapons (like a more typical handgun) and pretty much no one gets a license for a prohibited weapon. At this time, though, I don’t know how illegal this tiny gun is but I do know it’s illegal. I know we don’t have the paperwork to own it. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t exist at all really.

“Is that the gun from grandma’s?” I ask.

He nods. “Yup.”

“Cleaning it up?”


This is what he does with anything mechanical. I realize that this is built into his brain like wiring: he has a machine, he takes it apart, cleans everything, polishes what needs polishing, fixes what’s broken, and puts it all back together. Put any machine in his hands and this is what he will do with it. At this age I’m starting to wish I was like that too — I like machines, mechanical ones, and some of them fascinate me but anything I take apart is ruined forever. I don’t have the gift he does. But I recognize how autonomic this behaviour is because my next question, the rational next question, is not “why?”

The pistol is in suprisingly few shiny pieces on the table. It has a strange potential for danger. A kind of energy is stored in it. It could change from an array of parts to something lethal, genuinely lethal, not like a pellet gun. I sense the philosophical weight of it. I have no desire to touch it. My father begins to reassemble it.

“What’ll you do with it?”

He takes his cigarette from the old gold glass ashtray, and draws on it. It’s a Player’s Filtered like it always is.

“Put it away,” he says around his cigarette. He indicates the big cupboard that stores all of the fasteners and things over the work space. “Up there.”

“Will we shoot it one day?”


I’m fine with that and he seems to know that. There are so many more questions, we both know, but I don’t ask any of them.

“Want a beer old man?”

I’m fourteen. This might be my first beer but I doubt it. “Yeah.”

“What’s your brand?”

“Miller’s”. At this time in our lives that’s usually all that’s in the fridge I know, the gold cans of Miller’s. So that’s kind of a joke. But there are also special occasion beers and he pulls out a couple of Heinekens, pops the caps off with the bottle opener nailed to the work bench, and hands me one.

I drink the special occasion beer, enjoying the exotic skunkiness of it that the usual beers don’t have. The green glass and tall neck at a time when beer comes either in cans or brown stubbies.

We drink our beer and watch TV and dad puts the revolver together, wraps it in clean Real Man towels and puts it in the cupboard. At no time does he ever hold it like one holds a gun. It goes on the top shelf, a little out of sight. This is clearly so my little sister doesn’t get at it because I can reach it there and he knows it and he makes no attempt to hide it from me. He trusts me today.

The next day I go back to check that the revolver is still there. It is. I am a little embarrassed that I tested my father’s trust, that there was any doubt in my mind that it would be there. I feel like I stained something otherwise perfect.

I don’t touch it. I get my bike down from the ceiling hooks.

revolver (part 4)

You might be arriving late, in which case start at part 1. Here’s part 2 and part 3 as well.

We arrive at my grandmother’s house. I have mostly fond memories of this place since it’s where Christmas dinner often happened and when lots of people cook for lots of people the meals are usually pretty wonderful. At the very least you know there’s going to be some diversity.

There’s the fridge where the Grey Cup pool matrix goes when we’re there to watch the Grey Cup. That’s a pretty big deal.

There’s the dining room with its stand up piano that at least one member of the extended family plays well when suitably lubricated (and then shortly after that can’t play much at all). This is where the Christmas dinner happens when it happens and there’s dark fruitcake, a classic English pudding really, with coins wrapped in wax paper baked into it. It’s served with a sauce that everyone makes ecstatic noises over but that no one ever actually tries to replicate outside of my grandmother’s. It’s not that good, just sort of whipping cream incompletely whipped with brown sugar. But it seems to excite everyone and when it’s being made the brothers and sisters fight over who gets to lick the spoon. It has the tone of a ritual. But today there’s no Christmas pudding and no special sauce.

Stairs lead up from the dining room to the attic rooms that were built for the youngest daughter. They are the coolest rooms, covered in dayglow posters. Black light bulbs are in the sockets. The record collection is great and you can step out of the window onto the roof. It’s kind of a dream room for a young kid and I spend a lot of time up there over the years.

In the living room there are ashtrays everywhere. Big ones like we all had in the 70s. Murder weapon quality ashtrays. They are bigger than the candy dishes which, around Christmas anyway, contain ancient fused ribbon candy and humbugs, hard candy that has endured several years I’m sure. Occasionally the candy bowl has fresh candy but you only get excited about that once. It’s not as good as it is colourful.

There’s a nice recliner but that’s for Grandad Hopping, an ancient and uncommunicative old man and I can never remember just who’s father he is. He’s great at cribbage and the brothers play against him consecutively, often losing. He paints strange landscapes based on PBS painting show instructions and he’s actually pretty wonderful. He has a cane with a rubber snake nailed to it and I think it’s this visit that he gets a new cane and one of the brothers sets to work nailing a new rubber snake to it. I’m reasonably sure old Grandad has Seen Some Shit, maybe knifed some Germans during one of the wars. He’s unreadable, really. When he gets up to go to his room he lets out a ripping fart for the entire trip and it’s not clear that he knows it’s happening. I see his face though. He knows.

He could be anyone really. His persona in his old age implies nothing about his youth.

The wall between the kitchen and the living room is coming down or the doorway opened or something. I’m not clear on what the renovation is and I’m busy trying to find something to be busy with since nothing here is really for me. There’s a first generation Atari game machine but I’m already bored of Tank and Pong and Space Invaders. There’s a shelf full of Reader’s Digest version of various famous novels, all attractively bound, a showcase of literature. I’m uninterested. They are all practically brand new even though they’ve been there since I was old enough to look at them. I’m already snooty enough to sniff at an abridged version of anything even though I’ve never read the full version of any of them. At this stage in my life it’s pretty much Arthur C. Clarke or nothing.

I probably play around the house outside, picking the brightly coloured crystals out of the strange dangerous stucco that was popular at the time. It’s like a cake that’s way too old to eat, hard white icing and tooth shattering sprinkles. It’s very strange to me now that this was not strange to me then: what an absurd way to decorate a house. But as a kid I guess you’re still collecting things to make a guess at normal and so this is normal. This is the only memory I have of my sister at this location, both of us ruining the house’s stucco. Is that strange? She’s only three years younger than me so she must have been there most of these visits, and we would usually be the only kids so we’d be playing together. But I have nothing in my head there at all that relates to her. It would probably be forty years before I connect with my sister properly: something was (almost) permanently broken then.

I come back into the kitchen just as they are pulling the gyproc off the frame behind the stove. And in the wall is a small silver revolver packed in with newspaper. No one says a thing. I want to say that one of my father’s eyebrows goes up, like Spock, to perfectly punctuate this scene, but honestly I don’t remember anything except the revolver because that’s what I stared at. The gun in the wall.

Someone may have said, “Huh.” but I’m suspicious of that because it’s a pretty good scene closer as well.

We drive home in silence. I have no idea what the gun was about or where it is now. Dad puts an 8-track in the machine under the passenger seat. “Born On the Bayou” starts in the middle.

By the time we pull up to the car port at home it’s dark and we’re all singing along with Jim Croce, who’s already dead.

revolver (part 3)

Here’s part 1 and part 2.

So let’s circle all the way back. We’re on our way to a family handyman event. I’m looking forward to this since they always turn out well (partially, as I would understand only much later, because the whole family were alcoholics).

Once my father asked his brothers to come help fix the roof. It needed the shingles replaced. Again some of this I would only really understand later, but here’s what happened at the time.

So several brothers and their wives show up to help re-shingle the roof. And my aunt on my mother’s side (Robin, who this is not about, but maybe one day I’ll write at length about her) and her husband. All the guys are on the roof in cut-off jeans and mostly shirtless because it’s summer and it’s hot. I am allowed to come up on the roof which I am never ever allowed to do, so I do that a bit but mostly I’m in the way and I stop going up there except to bring up drinks and bring down empties.

The shingling is going well — I think we’ve established the sort of flawed perfectionist my father is — but less than a third of the way through we’re out of shingles. This is of course impossible. Well it turns out someone read the instructions wrong and the shingles have been going on a third from the top instead of a third from the bottom of the last row. We are putting on three times more shingles than we need to and we’re almost third done. So as my father reads it there are two solutions: we can tear up all the shingles and throw them out since he’s not putting up new shingles with holes in them and go buy one more load of shingles. Or he can go buy two more loads of shingles and have a triple shingled house. I’m pretty sure you can guess which choice he made. Besides, we’re all having a great time and the neighbour is cute and sunbathing in her back yard, well aware of the audience on our roof. My uncles are largely beautiful men, half naked, sweating in the sun.

Now there are two parties here — there’s the roofers who are working hard and drinking and laughing and there are the non-roofers, mostly the wives and kids, who are not working hard but are laughing and drinking and shouting a good deal of encouragement. And enjoying the sight of these lovely men.

I don’t know who said it or exactly what they said (there are varying accounts) but someone in the backyard party demands that the boys drop their pants.

This is captured on film. There is a photograph somewhere (labelled “The Murrays of Atholl” which we are) of the brothers dropping their cut-off shorts to revealed their sculpted asses. Their personalities are captured by how far down the shorts are — by how fast they respond to this request. At least one has pants around ankles long before the camera gets the shot. The highest, slowest is at the knees and on the way down. Honestly I suspect a hearing problem more than modesty. And Robin’s husband, the other side of the family is standing there, pants intact, staring baffled. This was my family and I love the memories I have of them. Later I would realize that our neighbour got the other half of that view. I never liked her.

The other major family renovation party I recall involved a tree removal. One of my uncles had proudly announced that he had a new toy — a cordless electric chainsaw. This was pretty novel at this time, probably late 70s or early 80s. And my father had a tree he wanted removed. Or rather I think he invented the problem — on hearing about the chainsaw he thought about what tree he could afford to lose. A party was scheduled.

The tree came down early in the day and was chopped up and set out to dry for firewood. The chainsaw was an awesome toy. The records came out (likely Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bayou Country” — a record that will forever call up images of my father) and so did the beer. By evening everyone was full of dinner and dessert and a good deal of liquor and my mother is talking home decorating with her sisters-in-law. “I often thought about knocking out that wall,” she points, “and putting in French doors to open that room up to the living room.”

My uncle’s eyes light up and he looks at my father. They grin. They go get the chainsaw.

This is the first time I think my father is not functioning properly because it’s crafting but it’s careless. They can’t find a tape measure so the measure so they pick a cutting point on one side, mark it, and measure the distance from wall to cutting point with their arm and walk it around to the other side and mark. You might be out by an inch this way but that’s fine, they are just going to cut to the nearest stud anyway. No big deal.

But the wall on one side is where the front door is and it’s about four inches deeper than on the other side, so the first cut is into the electrical box behind the light switch.

This is exciting but non fatal. There are sparks but no fire. There is a lot of laughing and some shrieking from the front room. The realize their error, re-align, and cut a ten foot wide hole from floor to ceiling in our living room. Now, my father says, I guess we have to put those French doors in. I think he always felt that a project started had to be finished and the only thing stopping him was the starting. And he was right — once you put a giant hole in the wall you need to fix it. Before the hole you don’t have to do anything no matter how badly mom wants French doors.

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.


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.


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


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


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.