Tuesday 25 June 2013

The Law of Light

God it’s been a long time since I blogged anything I have been writing more than ever, hopefully one day you will see it.

Light is the core resource from which all others spring. If you only measure one thing, if you only remember one thing, remember light. Not ropes or food or even time, but light.

The key difference between this and other imagined underground spaces is the totality and necessity of the enfolding dark.

When most games describe a place, they do so with a series of assumptions. They use a kind of shorthand. It’s the same shorthand we use in our daily lives to arrange the spaces through which we move.

“You walk into a room.” Ok, so how do you know it’s a room at all? Because you can see the walls and edges from beginning to end, because you have seen thousands of rooms before and they all follow the same logic. Because this room is arranged in a grid pattern with other rooms in the same area. That’s what ‘room’ means. A thing like the other things you have already seen.

In a natural cave system this is not the case. You may not be able to see the roof or opposing wall. You may never have seen a place like this before. You do not understand the logic of their arrangement.

So when someone enters a new underground space, you should never say “you enter a cave”. Because they don’t know that. Only ever say “you see…”. And they can only see so far.

You should never assume sight. You should assume dark. A simple way to do this is to imagine the darkness as alive. Instead of being a simple black absence regard it as a kind of active liquid. It does not meekly disappear on the lighting of a candle. It follows the players like a stalking predator. Don’t think about what the players can see or how far their light can reach, instead think about how the darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

It should be almost embodied. In the same way that people in the Middle Ages often thought of god as a presence in the room. Not a general awareness or a set of laws but an actual person. Like someone standing silently in the corner of the room, watching you as you read this. The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing.

Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players, you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a 10 foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

Breaking yourself of the shorthand of description may be very hard. It’s shorthand for a reason. It’s very useful. If you don’t use it then you are deliberately making things more difficult for yourself.

I have tried to include sensory descriptions for the living things I have created. In most cases smell and sound are defined. Sometimes touch as well. I did this because I knew that people would need information once the light goes out. Those things also seem to lock a thing into existence, in the mind of the reader at least.

At least if people can only see a dark space around them they can still hear and smell things. They can feel air flow.

Also. Fuck Infravision. Sorry Elves but if you are at the bottom of a mine there is no light. Not even one photon. So far as I know no-one has ever conclusively set down how Infravison works. If it’s low-light enhancement like goggles then you can’t use it to see in pure dark. If its infra-red like predator vision then you can maybe see living beings even in total darkness from the heat they give out. But if you can see heat signatures then that brings in the whole difficulty of  tracking things and how far it works and what blocks it and how accurate it is and I can’t be bothered. If its magic and you can just see because then I say my magic is stronger. The dark down there is deeper and older than petty dungeon dark. Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea. So no. Infravision can work as a light-enhancer. This means you need less light to navigate by and can maybe see further in it, but that’s it.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Fuck Information Design

Good information design is one of the most valuable things you can do in an RPG book. I am terrible at it. I am not a bad writer but when I try to organise my information in a useable way then I fail. I have failed two ways recently.

The animal descriptions are good but hard to use.
The cave sensory-combination thing didn’t work out.

First I will talk about a conflict.

(I am a bit of a prick here. A guy made a dungeon, and it’s pretty good and he gave it away for free on the internet. I go after his design choices a bit based on nothing more than an incoherent feeling in my head. How you feel about that is up to you I suppose. )

There is a deep conflict in RPG’s. We can call it between Use and Context. (Though these descriptors won’t be fully accurate) Conflict isn’t the right word. Tension. These things pull against and often disagree with each other. It’s hard to do both. But they also feed into each other and can make each other better. Like buddy cops. Idea’s that fight but also make out.

There is this free module and when I read it I thought “this is quite nice, the design is a mess”. The reasons for it being a mess are entirely logical and make perfect sense to anyone who has ever DM’d a game. The guy wrote stuff out twice. Each room gets a description of what is in there and what is going on. Then, below that, there is a box with the same information, but shorter.

The reason this makes logical sense is because of the way the module is going to be used. First it gets a read through. This is to tell the story of the dungeon, to inspire the DM, to fill them with the psychic energy that gives them the impetus to run a game. And this is all floaty and context-dependant. No single room in any dungeon would inspire you to run it, no matter how good it was. The knowledge of all the rooms, as a whole, the way they might interact and the context between them. The story of the dungeon or the story you might tell in the dungeon. That is the fuel.

So you give it the long read through to see if you like it and if you want to play it. Then, if you are a serious dude (I am not) you go through it again and make notes of the things you will need as you play.

Then you play the thing and as you play it, stuff comes up and you need details really quickly. Like taking 10 seconds to find something out is probably too long. You need 3 second info. This is where the boxed text comes in. It’s the stuff you need right away.

So, like a military disaster or the catholic doctrine of purgatory, through a series of basic assumptions and simple intuitive logic, we end up with something that doesn’t quite work. Or at least it doesn’t work for me. It feels off. Seeing the stuff written down twice, reading almost the same words in sequence, it got under my skin somehow. I’m not sure why.

So this brings us back to the monsters. When I went through them I was going to make them shorter. I didn’t do this for any of them. They all got bigger. And most of the material is good. It adds something to the creature, makes it more alive. I hope most of it has psychic energy. But how the fuck do you use it? I think it is not good for use. And if it’s not good for use then how can it be a good thing? It’s just more RPG noodling, it’s fan fiction essentially.

And the cave thing didn’t work out. I had an idea about three columns, one would have shape, the other aesthetics and the third a living thing. I thought that putting those together rapidly in the GM’s head would create a kind of energising activation that made the result better. But the stuff I made for the chart doesn’t fir its original purpose. It’s too long and too fancy, the shapes aren’t shapey enough and everything else is all mixed together. The chart doesn’t work. It was driving me mental.

Maybe I could make it work. That would involve throwing out a lot of detail for the cave descriptions and re-writing everything. I don’t have the will to do it. A different kind of person could maybe do it and enjoy it but I am not that person. I am going to accept that I hate looking at the thing and want nothing more to do with it. The caves can be a d100 list. That way it makes sense and I don’t have to lose anything.

I have failed to kill my children and build a new world with their bones.

I am not sure if this is failure or wisdom.

The list is over one the side. It’s all stuff that’s been on the blog before but now it’s numbered and in one place.

I am not going to make Vornheim. I am not sure I could. I am not going to win any awards for usability or information design. What I can do, I think, is jam an idea in someone’s head hard enough to make them want to use it. Then let them do the rest. So I think that’s what I am going to have to do, just fill a giant syringe with bad dreams and plunge it into the readers brain and hope they can work it out. I think people will do a better job arranging things for use inside their own minds than I would do on the page.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Art in Games

(I am so happy to be done writing monsters that I started thinking on the page about art and, like what usually happens when I think without an end in mind, I went on and maybe did not reach a conclusion.)

I have often wondered about the purpose of art in games. One of the first things I have usually thought is that the word ‘purpose’ was the wrong one to use.

A highly purposed piece of information is one created with a very particular intent. It locks into place like the necessary part of a machine or the action of a plan. Probably the lowest form of this in RPG’s (or at least the most spat upon) is placeholder or ‘filler’ art, designed to fill the formatting gap in an already poorly designed thing. Art created simply because there is an unexpected place for art to be. We tend to think of good art the other way round. First the Artist has a semi-magical idea about something they want to make, then they select tools and forms most appropriate to the idea, then they make the thing, then we arrange the space around the thing. The space comes last . Whether this is how things work in real art I do not know. I suspect you could start at any point in this process and work out to the rest. That is how I write anyway. As you can see from the rambling of this initially-simple paragraph.

(It only crosses my mind now that I think about it, but filler art, or the circumstances that bring it about is/are like graffiti and that filler art would probably be better if the people commissioning and creating it thought about it that way. They both begin with an unexpected space which has to be filled quickly rather than a grand idea which must be incarnated a particular way. Would ‘filler’ art be better if instead of giving artists a bunch of rules and guidance RPG companies simply told them to fill a particular space as vibrantly, rapidly and aggressively as possible in as short a space a time as possible, and, instead of keeping everything in accordance with the theme and aesthetic of the product, they were told to attack, subvert and re-write their own intent onto the space? What would that look like in a book? Inconsistent certainly, but vibrant and alive.)


Let’s ignore everything I just said or inferred and assume that filler art is bad because it is ‘purposed’ and that it is the most bad kind of RPG art because it has the most purpose and is the most like a machine part. 

So, to return to my original point, art in games that is good is often the art that has least ‘purpose’. Generally this means that the art is generative, it came in earlier in the planning process, perhaps it originated the planning process. It wasn’t made to fill a role, it created the context in which other decisions were made.

I’m thinking here about the different approaches to development represented by Games Workshop and whoever is running D&D. (Hasbro? Wizards?) I don’t actually know much about this in detail but I will give you my impressions.

It looks to me that from the beginning Games Workshop brought in artists and based their games and ideas and products on art that people had already made.  The process I imagine goes like this:-

GW Manager – “John, paint something.”
John Blanche- “What do you want me to paint.”

GW Manager- “Something big and intense that kind of goes ‘RAAWWGH’ with the dark future and maybe a fetish nun.”

John Blanche- “OK I did this.”

GW Manager- “What are those things?”

John Blanche- “They are floating skulls with wires.”

GW Manager- “But why?”

John Blanche- “because they are floating skulls”

GW Manager- “Then they shall be named ‘servo skulls’ and we will make models out of them.”
And that’s where servo-skulls came from, someone saw them in a painting.

Whereas I imagine the scene at D&D HQ more like this.

D&D Manager- “We need a picture of a Troll”

Artist- “What does a Troll look like?”

D&D Manager- “It looks exactly like this” (gives in-depth description)

Artist- “Ok how about this?”

D&D Manager- “More Trollish”

Artist- “How about now?”

D&D Manager- “Yes. That is a Troll. That is the picture I told you to make”

I remember seeing pictures of the inside of Games Workshop and seeing that they had Blanche art everywhere and that the bar was a Dwarf Bar and thinking ‘yes of course, if you have a game company, that’s what you do, why make games at all if you can’t do that?’. And I think I recall seeing the inside of Wizards of the Coast on the internet and thinking ‘that looks like an office, the walls are bare, there are cubicles’, and I think I was vaguely passive-aggressively satisfied by this because of course Americans wouldn’t get it. They would think the point of having a games company was to make an efficient machine that churned out games.

(All of this may be bullshit. GW and Wizards are both corporations. Neither should be regarded as ‘nice’. A machine of capital and greed cannot be ‘nice’. However..)

However, it does seem that GW regards artists quite differently in its development process. They are brought in earlier, given more freedom  and generally seem more organically integrated. At least from listening to GW interviews, it seems that people are feeding off each others ideas and images quite a lot.

I do think the standard of art in GW is higher than that in D&D, I think part of the reason for this is the way the companies are organised.

(Sound reasons to disagree with this include ‘it’s just your taste in art’, ‘GW lucked out by having some exceptional artists in from the beginning’ and ‘you don’t know enough about this to be commenting on it’ also ‘you are prejudiced against American cultural products because you are a thoughtless, smug little-englander and you have found a way to be chauvinist about fucking toys.’)

So I have given something a negative definition. Art is good when it is not ‘purposed’. That is very easy to do when you are being Mr Smug on a blog, but it is not so useful when you are actually trying to make a thing. When you move from being the consumer to the producer, negative descriptions are not enough. You must go towards, rather than away. This has lead me to think about what I want in art and what it should do.
The answer I have come up with is ‘Psychic Energy’. It’s not a metaphor. I mean ACTUAL PSYCHIC ENERGY THAT CAN PROJECT YOU INTO ANOTHER WORLD or at least with the desire to be in that world.

Some games are well-designed and bad and some games are fucking horrific train-wrecks of design and are still good. The difference is that some have psychic energy and some do not.

Some clusters of ideas, description and actions can fill you with the imminence of being in another world. I shit you not, the gun descriptions in Cyberpunk 2020 were actually transcendent artefacts. Because of course the nightmare future would be described through its guns. And through a long list of guns too. (And when I say ‘world’ I don’t just mean as in like the land and things there, but also the relations between people that might take place there.)

Because the game is not written down in front of you. It takes place between you and other people. And generally the game doesn’t need to inspire everyone playing to the same extent. Mainly it needs to jam a sliver of desire into the head of the DM. They will then actively seek out people to make the game happen. Very often games are forced into being by one person with a weird idea stuck in their head. So that’s what art has to do. Jam that idea into the brain.

It’s not like advertising. ‘Hey come to this world and have fun’. It’s more like otherness. Like a shard of something else poking through. That is what good RPG art should be. An incursion from, or relic of, some other place. Presenting itself so vibrantly and powerfully that it leaves puckers in the skin of reality that won’t heal. Like finding something in your drink that won’t dissolve, sliding around in the bottom of the glass. An idea rolling around in the back of your brain long after you picked it up. Something you can’t quite forget.

And there shouldn’t be any art in there that does not do that. It’s not like you have to be fair to all the mediocre art that didn’t get in. You don’t have to be complete. It’s not an encyclopaedia or a dictionary, it’s just pretending to be one. It’s something else wearing the disguise of a reference book. A kidnapper dressed as a policeman. The book isn’t here to define all the fourteen varieties of ghost you can find. It’s here to make you feel like there is a ghost in the room, even more, it wants to turn you into someone who wants to make others feel that way. It’s a conductor for a kind of cultic behaviour.

So that is my rule for art I suppose.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Timing, Alignment and Lanthanum Chromate

No big thoughts today. Instead, have three small ones.


What’s up with your timing? Where are you getting the time to read this, where are you getting the hours to play that game?

This shit is a specific skill set. Playing D&D. Running it. First you have to be the kind of person who can comfortably read a potentially huge book of rules, for pleasure, remember them and use them.

There is shit at work that is less complicated than the rules artefacts I use in games. It’s vital to my job, I get paid to think about it. I can’t remember it, I don’t pay attention to it. I hate thinking about it. I absorb just enough to coast. But I can run a stacked decision tree in real time with imagined physics and shifting chronology and input from four different people in a world that I invented, using a compressed version of rules that were originally the size of a phone book. I compressed the rules because I read the phonebook for fun and then I came up with ‘better’ rules, also for fun.

I have occasionally persuaded a bunch of people, some of whom didn’t know each other, to sit around a table doing something some of them had never tried, with rules that only I had read.

I can deal with a bunch of conflicting personalities and patterns of attention and reasons to be there in a bunch of different people and the whole thing can come out ok. I can do the same thing with a bunch of teenage boys. Not every time, but enough times to keep people coming back. 

I can be a challenging adversary who forces people to think and adapt and a trusted guide they know won’t fuck them up or mess them around. I can do both of these things at the same time. If that sounds simple, it isn’t. Many people would have trouble doing that. Many people do. They play card games.

You need to be a strangely specific kind of person to play D&D and you need to be an even more specific person to play old school D&D and be any good at it. A lot of rules stuff, a lot of imagination stuff and a shitload of social competence. If you are thinking ‘ha ha social competence and D&D ha ha, then, Yes. How many normal people do you know in your life who could do all this shit, even if they wanted to, even if you paid them. It is a narrow slice of the venn diagram.

(I didn’t say better I said specific.)

Who amongst you can’t say the same? I bet most of you can do that shit, or all of you. Which raises the question, where do you find the time to do it?

Because if you are good with rules and you can handle people a bit and you can put together a game then you probably have a well paying job, that you actually enjoy. Because that arrangement of qualities is rare. And if you have enough drive and ambition and skill to have that job then how are you finding enough time to game?

The Pendragon game is down. The DM is a Doctor of the Philosophy of Law, one of the players is a Doctor of Mathematics. They have shit to do. They have wives (and families soon). People drop out because they have kids, they have kids because they have lives they have lives because they are competent creative human beings who get things done, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been able to play the game in the first place.

So for people actually doing this shit. Is there something odd about you?

(I said ‘odd’ not ‘wrong’, I am leaving my view of myself out of this along with customary internet gamer-shame because that shit is noise.)

If you are capable of playing D&D, in particular Old-School creatively intensive real-thinking D&D. (and there is nothing wrong with any other kind because games are games first) then what’s your schedule like? You have a family? A job? Student? Weird artist? How many hours of focused attention do you get per day? TELL ME ABOUT YOUR LIFE.


Has anyone ever done D&D char gen as a product of alignment?


Lawful is 4th ed style point-point buy.

Neutral is 5d6 down the line, take the highest and lowest away. (Would that actually effect the probability curve or is that dumbass maths?)

Chaotic is 1d20 down the line?

I don’t know how you work in good and evil to stats? What’s a good stat? Whats’ an evil one?
We could thing deeply about this, but why bother? Lets do it quickly.

Good stats are WIS, STR, CON. 

Wise is good, Yoda, Gandalf. 

Strong is good. Superman, Gilgamesh. There are not many weak good guys, way under 50 per cent anyway. 

Toughness is good. Good guys resist, they hang on for just one more round. Leia, Marlowe, Indy, Rocky.

Evil stats are CHA, INT and DEX. 
Charisma is obvious, Dracula, Kurtz, Richard III, Satan. 

A high INT is obviously a bad ‘un. Hans Gruber, every bond villain, Sauron. 

Dexterity? Well, maybe. Ninja’s? The Joker? Effete Nazi’s all playing with their cards and coat hangers. It measures less perfectly than the rest but I would bet that where there are characters that are strong and those that are dexterous in the same fiction and that fiction has a visible, tangible moral code, then the dexterous guys are more likely to be bad than the strong ones, not by much, but about 65%. You know it’s real cause I have statistics.

Lawful Good guys are boring, strong, wise and tough, but not by much. A little bit better. They are also predictable. So if you are the kind of player who has to know what character you are going to be then your characters are all lawful. 

Chaotic ones are the opposite. If you like having no idea who will turn up then all your characters are chaotic.

Chaotic Evil characters are Intelligent, Charismatic and Dexterous, but you never know when they will turn up. You can decide to play Lawful good or Lawful evil but you can’t decide to play chaotic good or chaotic evil because it depends what stats get  good rolls, it’s in the hands of fate, you can only decide to be chaotic.

And if you decide to be neutral? Well you get someone dull.

A world where all intelligent charismatic people are evil but also weak and vulnerable and unperceptive would be an interesting one.

Lanthanum Chromate

I think Lanthanum Chromate will be the name of the Dwarven City Without a Name. I like the sound of it. 

“Most of the greatest deposits of ore for chromium were produced by early settling of the weighty mineral chromite within the magma chamber. Black, dense bands of chromite form dull layers of booty; the chromium miner is like the naughty boy scraping all the meatiest bits from the bottom of the stew.”

“The sample heater has to be immune to the temperatures of the experiment, which rules out any materials familiar to us in the home. Lanthanum chromate (LaCrO3) has just the right properties, when encased within a zirconia (ZrO2) sleeve. Tungsten carbides’s atomic structure has something of the three-dimensional fortitude of diamond; a trace of added cobalt improves the toughness.