Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Regards to Aris Bakhtanians

So, this is a thing that happened.

This isn’t really something that affects the tabletop gaming world, but it’s something our cousins over in the console and computer gaming world have to deal with, and there is definitely some cross-over. Story time!

I have a jar at the store. It’s actually an action figure display case thingie that’s been turned into a jar. It’s called the Fag Jar. See, my little brother came out a few years ago, and I take the use of slurs of that nature pretty personally. I love my little brother fiercely, and I want my store to be the sort of place he’d be comfortable coming to play games. Moreover, our store is located on one of the trendier avenues of Edmonton, an area known for its liberalism in the face of crushing neo-conservativism, and it’s a spot that attracts a pretty broad customer base, including many people from the LGBTQ(etc) community. We’ve gone so far as to put a rainbow triangle sticker on the door to let people know that we’re an inviting, welcoming place for people of all sexual preferences.


Then we started holding Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments. Now, I’m not going to say that everyone who plays Yu-Gi-Oh! is bad for this, because I know a bunch personally who have made a real effort to clean up their language and take a more accepting and tolerant approach to the environments in which they game. But when we started holding tournaments for the first time, I was appalled at the vast majority of the players. Anything that was unacceptable, anything that was mildly displeasing, was instantly labeled “gay.” Didn’t draw well? “God, that’s so gay.” Someone plays a card that isn’t popular? “You’re such a fag.” It got to the point where I had to start penalizing people for it, which is where the Fag Jar came in.

I put the jar in a couple of years ago, and it has never, ever been popular. You say that something is gay, and it’s not obviously having sex with something of the same gender? You put a dollar in the jar. Call someone a fag, and you’re not appreciating their stereotypically fashionable choice in footwear? You put a dollar in the jar. You get one warning, that’s it. When the Jar has enough money in it, we’ll donate it to Edmonton Pride.

And here’s the big thing: I’m not a fan of censorship. I don’t like being told what I can and cannot say, and I don’t think anyone else should tell someone what they can and cannot say. But I am a fan of having manners. What you and your friends call one another outside of my store is your deal. You can say homosexual slurs all fucking day, and I won’t be the least bit upset with you for it. Hell, if you want to, be sexist to your female friends and throw in some racial slurs as well. Have at.

But you don’t get to insult my brother in front of me while I’m at work, because I’ve asked you not to. Some of my players, I’ve asked many times. I’m not allowed to leave, you see. I have to stand there and try and deal with the fact that you’re publically declaring that my friends, and more importantly my family, are worth so little to you that you will use their sexuality to describe how incredibly terrible you find a thing. And I shouldn’t have to do that, because when people ask that you stop doing a thing around them, the good people stop. When someone is obviously upset that people are doing a thing, the good people stop.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bakhtanians’ terrible behavior, and the affect that it is having on the fighting game community. Mr. Bakhtanians suggests that sexual harassment is a part of the culture of competitive fighting games, and he’s right. It is a part of the culture of competitive fighting games, but it shouldn’t be. Not that people shouldn’t make “mildly lecherous comments,” but because when someone asks you to stop, when someone is obviously upset at the lecherous comments people are making, those comments should fucking stop. People shouldn’t have to stop making sexual comments during games, but it becomes a very different thing when someone is upset about them. On one scale, you have “it’s just a joke, guys, no worries.” On the other, you have an act that is so heinous it’s been codified into law as a crime.

Take a moment to digest that. What Mr. Bakhtanians has suggested is that the competitive fighting game community’s culture has as an ingrained and irrevocable tenant an act that is considered a violation of another human being’s rights*. What does that say about the culture of that community? What does it say about the culture of that community that a horde of people have come out swinging on his side?

I hear a lot of the same comments regarding the Fag Jar, and I ask a lot of the same questions. One fellow was bold enough to suggest that he should be allowed to use homophobic slurs because he has friends and relatives who are gay**. If we want more people to play these games that we love, if we want to reach more people with these incredible hobbies we have, we’re going to need to start acting like good people. We need to be inclusive. We need to be tolerant. And when someone asks you to stop being a dick, a really good way to handle that is to listen to them.

Stop. Hatin’s bad.


*In Canada, at least. The Canadian Charter of Rights is pretty specific about it, as is the Labour Code.

**My response is that he has more reason than most people to avoid doing exactly that.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Fancy Chart Things!


For the record, this thing is fucking awesome. When I went looking around for a list of emotions, this was one of the many possible models I found, and I think that it is easily the most game-worthy. For one thing, it’s already symmetrical, it’s got concentric levels, it’s rocking a solidly game capable shape, and it would look good in black and white in the middle of a character sheet.

What I find particularly interesting about this model is that it’s got a strange number of sections in each point. There are eight points, and four sections in each point. The human mind reacts in kind of a cool way to even numbers and odd numbers. Even numbers it associates with things that are man-made, reliable, constructed. Even numbers are more closely associated with nature, randomness, and simplicity. It’s no mistake that poker deals a hand of five cards, for instance, or that 21 is the number you’re aiming at in Blackjack.

So the chart above is blessed with some inherent level of order and structure based on just how many points there are and how many sections there are per point. It’s given a bit more natural a feel by having curved edges and a flower-like design, but there is definitely something constructed about the picture, and that actually works for us in a strange way. The game we’re building is one that is built out of chaos and strangeness; any points of order we can find, regardless of how seemingly miniscule, will have a great impact in defining and balancing the game’s aesthetic.

As a playable board, the graphic provides us with some interesting new options. In my previous article, I suggested we should be doing each emotion on a 10-point scale, something like Sanity or Morality. But now I have this adorable four-point-per-emotion circular scale I can play around with, and the possibilities open right up as far as system is concerned. I’m still thinking points, but I’m thinking about ways to make the points and the scale in the picture interact. How many tracks can you have points devoted to at once? How many degrees of separation can you have? For instance, is it possible to be pensive and apprehensive at the same time? Yeah, it is. Is the grief somehow lessened by feeling apprehensive? No, not really. So trying to come up with ways for these tracks to make sense as part of a game mechanic is going to be sort of interesting.

This has been sitting in my drafts folder for the better part of a week. It’s not perfect, it certainly needs some work, and I’m struggling with making it as elegant as possible, but I figure I’ll post this up, mull it over and pick it up again when I have something worth writing about it.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


One of the major principles of good design is “Don’t design more than you have to.” Dieter Rams said something to this effect when he was setting out his ten Good Design points, and I definitely think it’s a good way to look at making something that works. Over-designing games can be as bad as under-designing them. So the first step in trying to build a system that is going to work for you, a system that will do the thing you want, is to define what it is you want the design to do. In our case today, we want to design a system that externalizes internal motivators, fears, anxieties, passions, thoughts. We want a system that will turn a nagging insecurity into a usable character, setting or plot point.

This comes in two parts, I think. First, to be able to build a character or setting or plot point from a psychological factor, we have to be able to identify those factors. This will, I think, be the harder point to address. The second is to use those factors to affect the game in a real, mechanical way. Honestly, there are so many systems kicking around for dramatic editing that I don’t think this will be at all a hassle, but I’ll talk about what’s been done before anyway. Neither of these is a comprehensive list of every role-playing game that has ever touched on these topics, mind, but are the games that I am aware of that will influence the implementation of the Classic Fantasy ideas.

Identifying Emotions

In most role-playing games, the emotional state of the player characters isn’t really all that important, and there are no mechanics really attached to them beyond the occasional status effect. In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, emotions are only given the slightest of lipservice. Barbarians rage, Bards use their pretty words to sway their foes, and Enchanters use magic to ply the feelings of their playthings. Even in games that purport to be about emotions often fail to really take them into account mechanically. The World of Darkness books make mechanical notes for willpower and the character’s morality, but don’t really look at happiness, sorrow or fear in a real way (one of White Wolf’s major failings as I’m concerned). But for the vast majority of the role-playing games, emotions don’t matter mechanically. They’re something you can just sort of ignore. It is safe in most fantasy role-playing scenarios that your players will decide the emotional state of their characters for themselves.

For the purposes of classic fantasy, though, there is a clear and present need to mechanically represent a character’s emotions. Nothing exists apart from the protagonists’ emotional and psychological state in a classic fantasy setting, and that means we need to be able to reference those emotions in some meaningful way. To my knowledge, the best examples we have of an “emotion tracking” mechanic exists in the form of Sanity from Call of Cthulhu and it’s many, many offspring (morality in the World of Darkness, stress in Unknown Armies, etc). Optionally, there are a few games that leverage the emotions of the player characters as status effects (Mouse Guard is the only one that comes to mind, though certainly D&D mucks about with the interactions between emotions and status in examples like Rage for barbarians and the various magical abilities of bards). Both of these ideas are somewhat flawed for our purposes, but they’re a solid jumping off point, so let’s see what we can cannibalize.

Sanity and it’s various spin-offs have one thing in common that makes them unsuitable for a game like the one we’re designing right now: they are thresholds for badness. When your sanity gets low enough, you go completely batshit insane. Same is true of morality. Unknown Armies spruced it up some, giving you the ability to harden yourself to various forms of stress or find yourself spiraling into various forms of horrifying delusion. But these systems don’t really catalogue emotion as much as they provide us a way to conceptualize a character’s eventual fall from stressors that are not inherently physical.

To counter that, to make it an integral part of game play, I think it’s important that we establish that each track is a system towards increased authority. Whether you are exerting authority through joy or through sadness, through anticipation or surprise, your character’s emotional state will be taken into account through the course of a scene as a positive addition to it, not as a punishment for failing to meet some requirement of play. So, no matter how much you have invested in any given emotional track, your contribution to the setting, plot or characters will be important, and your authorship will matter.

Making Them Matter

So once we have an idea of how to mechanically represent a character’s emotions on a piece of 8.5x11, we have to figure out how those emotions are going to matter within the scheme of the design. How is the game going to use the emotions we determine via the scales?

One of the things I keep coming back to is the idea that the emotions are represented through character, setting or plot. This is going to be important, I think. Your characters emotions will likely need to manifest in one of these ways throughout a scene, and that means we’ll need rules for inventing elements of those three things on-the-fly (because your emotional state is always going to be different, we can’t really plan for a game of this sort). This is also suggesting – though not dictating – that the game should likely be GM-free, much like Insects of God. There isn’t a lot of room for a narrative that is centrally controlled; this is a type of story that wants to move around freely.

One of the best systems currently developed for coming up with random plot elements is found in the Burning Wheel system. In that system, when someone fails at something, they probably still succeed at whatever it was they were trying to do, but it comes at a price. You can either take a status effect (hungry, sick, injured, tired, angry) and deal with the effects of that, or you can take a Twist, which is a cute way of saying ‘Surprise me,’ to the Game Master. It’s a really neat mechanic, one that leads to a bunch of unique scenarios, and it provides a weirdly restricted level of authorship to the player choosing. Either you can get worse, or the plot can. Choose.

With something like this game, though, that choice can’t come balanced against the bad. We want the bad, but we also want good things to happen, because the happy things can be just as horrible and life-threatening as the not-so-happy things. These choices have to come as part of the natural play flow, creating non-player characters, set pieces and plot points out of nothing as a matter of the game’s course. This means that we need to reward behaviors that provide for interesting emotional situations, and game mechanics that involve shifting from one set of emotions to another, or moving more deeply into a given emotion, and the creation of NPCs, setting fixtures and plot have to be simple, seamless, and engaging. 

To me, this sounds like a diceless system, the sort of game where you shift resources back and forth across a set of constantly shifting pools to try and deal with the various onslaughts of bullshit that are coming at you from every direction. And strangely I’m seeing a more elegant version of one of my least favorite diceless games, the game Marvel Comics commissioned to simulate their heroic world. That system relied on pools of “stones” that could be shifted from resource to resource, or split into smaller disposable chunks to provide short-term bonuses. I’m seeing something similar for this, where we have permanent points that are shifted from emotion to emotion that can be discarded for a temporary bonus when absolutely needed in any given category.

Getting Into It

Tomorrow I’m going to talk a bit more about the nitty gritty bits of making the game work, but I think that this is a solid starting point. We have an idea of how to represent emotional states within the game, using points that aren’t unlike Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system, and we have some ideas of how to implement those ideas into the game. We have a really simple idea of how that system is going to affect how the game plays and what points are focused on through play, and we have a really cursory idea of a system that could help us achieve that.

So join me tomorrow when I start punching characters in the feelings.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On Classic Fantasy in RPGs

I have about a half hour to write this before I go to bed, but it’s been knocking around in my head all day, and I sort of need to get it out. So understand if it’s a little less polished than my usual rambling diatribes of drivel and inanity.

Two things led here. The first is a book I read on the publishing of science fiction and fantasy by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder. It was published a dozen years ago, but a lot of the advice in the book really holds up, and I’ve found a lot of it invaluable as advice at the game table too, especially the bits about how to structure a story and stuff you probably shouldn’t write a book about. I’m sad I don’t have my copy anymore, because there are a lot of times (like much of today) when I would really like to flip through it and reference something. The something in particular here is an oft-forgotten branch of fantasy literature, the branch that doesn’t involve any flaming swords of ice giants or whatever. It’s sort of the grandpappy of epic fantasy, the first forays into the impossible as firmly grounded by the rules of the possible. These are the Alice in Wonderland stories, or the Wizard of Oz stores, or the Narnia stories (though to be fair, Narnia has its fair share of swords and monsters and the like). These were stories in which the events that take place make no sense except as an extension of the psychology of the protagonists. Things happen to Alice that make no goddamn sense at all, but when considered in terms of her struggles in her real life become perfectly sensible in an allegorical sense. Dorothy’s relationships with the fantasy creatures in Oz reflect the relationships she has with people in her every-day life as well, and her quest to find her way home, a quest that she didn’t have to go on at all to find the answer, is one that provides her the insights she needs to overcome her anxieties. This sort of fantasy doesn’t happen all that often anymore, though there are some more contemporary examples. The two that spring to mind immediately are Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and the Gunslinger (when taken out of context from the rest of the books in the Dark Tower series, though some certainly retain the same feel).

If I remember correctly, Doctorow and Schroeder call this sort of fantastic tale “Classic Fantasy,” though I’ve also seen it described as “Victorian Fantasy.” Could be wrong, I can’t flip through the book.

The second thing that brought me to this subject was the entirely lovely Tale of Sand. Written by a young Jim Henson, the story follows a fellow called Mac through a strange desert while he is chased down by a villainous gunman for unspecified reasons. It was never turned into a movie during Henson’s lifetime, but this year an intrepid Ramon Perez got a hold of it and kicked it into life as a graphic novel. Perez’ line art is some of the most distinctive in the role-playing game industry. His work on RIFTS and Legend of Five Rings was spectacular and the comics he’s worked on never fail to stun with their incredible action shots and unique framing. He’s one of my favorite illustrators, and his work on Tale of Sand was out of this world.

Tale of Sand is very much a classic fantasy. There are a lot of things that happen, from the very beginning, that make no sense at all outside the context of the protagonist’s psychology, from being given a map, and told to mind it carefully (but “don’t trust the map"), to having the villain and the recurrent young lady make their Big Reveal, the whole thing is a clusterfuck of strange occurances, and weird scenes. It’s beautifully rendered, it’s incredibly well crafted, but if you’re not trying to figure out what is going on in Mac’s head, the whole story makes about as much sense as a badger in a fez doing your taxes in the lifeguard’s chair at the kiddy pool. There is no reason for him to be running, there is no understandable motivation for the antagonist, the events that crop up and the characters Mac interacts with would seem entirely random if not for the fact that he clearly invented them from aspects of his own psyche.

So I read that today, and my first thought on putting the book down was “That was a damned fine book, and I’m glad I bought it.” The second thought was “Why can’t role-playing games do that?”

Role-playing games as we currently understand them are woefully inadequate tools for this sort of storytelling. In my experience, there are a total of two games that could be capable of handling this sort of narrative weirdness, and one of them is a role-playing game in only the most cursory sense. Nobilis, by the lovely Jenna Morrin, can handle classic fantasy narrative when it really bends itself to the idea; it provides a level of authorship that few role-playing games can really handle, though the presence of a Hollyhock God actually diminishes the effect of putting that much narrative control into the hands of the players. And Insects of God, by the incredible Jason L Blair, is probably the closest I’ve ever seen to a device capable of handling classic fantasy in a role-playing game, but it’s not really a role-playing game in the strictest sense of the word. No one is playing a role, players take turns narrating the entirety of the protagonists last moments on earth.

Now, it could well be that people just don’t want to play this sort of role-playing game. Not everyone wants to play a game where characters are psychoanalyzed during play, and there is certainly a contingent of players who believe that this sort of thing would be deeply boring. But I think that there are enough players with an interest in this sort of gaming that it would be remiss of us to not try and build a system that would allow for this sort of story to grow out of a game (someone recently said on twitter that “role-playing games aren’t games about characters in stories, they’re games that result in stories about characters,” and I liked that; also, I’m paraphrasing). So, how do we build a game that results in these sorts of stories? How do we take what is rumbling inside a character and spraypaint the walls with it? How to we build characters that will naturally create reflections of aspects of themselves within the context of the game?

That’s what I’m going to spend the next week or so looking at, I think.

A Better Points of Light – Afraid of the Dark

Darkness fell across the surface of the world, and civilization ended.


Entire empires were obliterated in a single night. Nations with histories older than words were toppled with ease. As the lights of every house went dim, the Darkness entered, and smothered, and tore, and rended. The only safe places were those that were used to beating back the night, the lighthouses, the watchtowers, the labyrinthine catacombs of the dwarves and the phosphorescent forests of the elves. These places, where the light never died, where illuminations magical held back the Dark, were all that was left.


Ten thousand years have passed, and while we have begun to rebuild, the Dark is still out there, waiting. It feasts on the foolish and the brave, any willing to step out into it without torch or match. We have cities again, built against the walls of the lighthouses, reaching out only as far as the light can touch. We have nations again, after a fashion, and trade. Torches that burn ever bright are our only salvation, and they come at such great cost that a mage can only fashion a few each year. But progress is being made. Every year, we beat back the Darkness ten yards at a time. We are winning, we are taking our world back by inches and feet.


But we know what is out there, we know what lives in the Dark, and we are scared. The small, skittish things that scavenge close to the light, those things we can deal with. But there are bigger shadows moving in the Darkness, and when those come for us, many fear we are well and truly doomed.

I had this idea for a setting while reading the very beginning of a webcomic. What if we took the Points of Light idea literally? What if the entire world was swarmed by malicious Darkness, and the only places left were the lighthouse cities and the watchtower fortresses? What if every adventure came with a sudden and desperate need for light.

So I decided to write it like I would for a submission to Wizards of the Coast for their Great Setting Search, the one that brought us Eberron. I’m calling it “Valgust.”

Fantasy Setting Proposal Template

1. Core Ethos Sentence. “Valgust is heroic Points of Light D&D taken to its most extreme.”

2. Who are the heroes? The heroes are the Bringers, those brave souls who push back against the Darkness and bring the relics of civilizations lost back to their people. They are the Wardens, who watch the mystical lights that keep the Dark at bay, allowing their cities to grow and prosper. They are the Foragers, who bring food and water and building supplies from the catacombs beneath the world or from the Elven cities in the Deepest Forests.

3. What do they do? The Bringers are adventurers good and true, forging out from their comfortable homes to wrest prosperity, technology, magic and resources from the Dark’s grip. The Wardens empower magical crystals with the ability to burn brightly, and fight back the Darkness with the power of their faith. The Foragers are explorers and traders, getting what they need by any means necessary. In practice, though, the lines are seldom that clear, and often the three groups work closely together, piecing civilization together from the scraps that are left to them. They work with politicians, planners, teachers, scholars, mages, and all walks of civilization to bring light and life and happiness back to the world.

4. Threats, Conflicts, Villains The Darkness is ever-present. It has been so for as long as anyone can remember. There is no light in the world, and where the Darkness exists, so too do the things the live within its cloak. There are creatures that once lived in the light, but have been twisted and perverted by the Dark’s whispering, taunting words, and there are things that have never seen the light of day, crafted from the stuff of the Dark itself. Who knows what is leading them, what they have planned, how they keep the volatile forces under their rule controlled. Also, there is a distinctly paranoid feel to the setting; everyone is acting in their own best interest, and that will often get people (and sometimes entire cities) killed.

5. Nature of magic. Once, magic was everywhere. Upon a time, swords were crafted that could hew castles in twain and wizards roamed that could set entire nations ablaze. The Darkness has smothered magic like a blanket. There are still some who can find it, but they are far fewer than once they were, and their skills are coveted. A weapon made with a simple enchantment can fetch entire kingdoms as their price.

6. What’s new? What’s different? Valgust is a setting that takes the idea of Points of Light and makes it literal. There are only a few places in the world with light, fighting back a malicious darkness that wants to smother the world. It is a deadly world of faded ideals, where people are forced to do anything to survive. The shadowborn are a new enemy type, three new classes (Bringer, Warden, Forager), a setting-established nemesis, plenty of room for various sorts of play (exploration, combat, role-playing), and a world that can easily incorporate anything from any book ever published for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a dark horror feel that steps away from Ravenloft, a hyper-deadly setting that is distinct from Dark Sun.