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Author: Graham

The Temple

I went into last week’s Swords and Wizardry one-shot with one goal in mind: have a miserable village beside a resplendent temple, and make that the result of a magical glamour. That’s all. No maps, no written notes, just an idea stemming from a similar visual in Path of Exile when my witch said something like “I wonder what manner of magic this is” when she stepped into the Lunaris Temple for the first time. I sketched a crude map and added some names I plucked from an Uncharted Atlas map and had the players start rolling up some characters. My ideas were far from original, but that’s not necessary for tabletop improv. I just needed something that could move.

The players, whose characters were a loosely formed mercenary squad who banded together to deal with a bandit crisis but were dismissed as soon as things calmed down, dutifully reported to the tavern (because of course) where they heard that the patron of the temple was sponsoring a witch hunt. I was hoping that the phrase “witch hunt” would arouse some suspicion about his motives, but nobody grabbed onto that hook immediately. So I ran with it, knowing that whenever there is a way to play straight into the villains hands, players sometimes jump at the chance. Sometimes they should know better, sometimes it is unwitting, but a DM must always be prepared for the response “OK, sure!” when the villain is making demands.

I decided that there would be three sets of witches, of increasing difficulty. The first would put up more fight than one adventurer could handle, but having seven was complete overkill. The second I would make a relatively even match, and then the third would be as difficult as the rules suggest is possible. This would give the party an opportunity for some pause during the witch hunt, and hopefully to find a reason to cast Detect Magic, which was critically important to discovering that the temple was a lie. I had read the description of the spell ahead of time and decided that this would be the tell: if a person could see magic, they would see that there is something deeply wrong with one of the relics in the temple. It was not until after the first witch was killed, beheaded, and her hut set on fire that the magic-user found the occasion to cast that spell.

Character sheets for old-school D&D can be fairly simple, which is an advantage when you have one night to run an adventure from start to finish.

It was only after meeting the second witch, this time a pair, that the adventurers started to turn sides. Perhaps it was because it was readily apparent that these were more powerful than the last, as they reacted with annoyance rather than fear when a squad of heavily armed men and women showed up on their doorstep. Perhaps it was lingering remorse over not even trying to ask questions of the first one. Whatever it was, it was back to what I had expected would be the main plot of discovering the illusion. Because I didn’t take the time to prepare (a common DM sin) I felt that I was spending more time than I should have consulting the rule book. After a few awkward pauses (“you are on the road to the temple, please chat amongst yourselves while I frantically look something up”), I found that a single ogre-mage appeared to have hit dice suggesting that it would be an appropriate challenge for a party of seven. I quickly split the abilities and HD evenly into two creatures, there being two witches, but didn’t get to use this information yet because the adventurers decided not to continue the witch hunt.

Like many references, the Swords and Wizardry book offers information about antagonists who are primarily monstrous beasts who fight physically, rather than the humanoid spellcasters I was looking for. I had the same problem with the 4th Edition Monster Vault, though they saw fit to include a few things that aren’t instinct-driven dangerous cryptids. In the case of this adventure, the first witch was a blink dog according to the statistics provided in the Swords and Wizardry book.

The second set of witches sent the players back to the patron with a cursed scroll (looted from the last group of failed witch hunters who came through), which I rolled for the effect based on the table in the rule book. I was hoping for something immediate and decisive, whether instant death or emitting a strong odour for several days. In retrospect, I probably should have just declared it to be something like that rather than rolling on the table since the experience drain effect sent me back to the rule book trying to figure out what that means to a monster rather than to a player character. Once I came up with a way to handle it (pretend that the patron was going to be more powerful than he was, but that this scroll level drained him to the actual stats I had), the party started to dismantle the illusion. This provoked an angry response from the patron, who now had a matron counterpart.

See, I had those numbers for an ogre-mage in two persons and I wasn’t about to stop the action again to figure out how the patron should fight. So that is where the matron came from. The players even asked where she came from, did we meet her before? The answer, unfortunately, was uh yeah, she was around the whole time. She wasn’t.  She was an invention to make the action keep going as we were coming to the end of the fifth hour and it was time to move on to something else. It was time for a triumphant battle of… wait, no it wasn’t, this is old-school D&D where heroic plot lines are not guaranteed. It was time for the villain to cast sleep on everyone and get out alive. The players woke up and returned to town to find that the second pair of witches left the area after they destroyed the home of the potion merchant who was sympathetic to the patron’s witch hunt. With their job complete, the players’ party moved on. In my world, other people have other adventures while you are out having yours. The game may revolve around the players, but the world doesn’t need to. In case you were wondering, the plan for the third witch was to have a steampunk-ish gnome in a giant mecha suit. I try not to keep every cool idea on the “good” path.

So, what do I take from this experience? Swords and Wizardry is good for one-shots. Never neglect to keep different paths valid, whether “good” or “evil.” A DM does not need a detailed map or backstory, but combat statistics should absolutely be prepared beforehand. One good setting idea is better than all the written lore in the world. And lastly, never count on a large group of players to play their characters in a morally and ethically consistent manner. There is still a witch’s head in the possession of a fraudulent patron who is still at large, somewhere.

The Partial Success

“Here, try reading this,” my dad says. He is, in his retirement, enrolled in Latin classes. He hands me a printout of a passage that he had been looking at for his class. Not being fluent in any of the modern Latin languages, let alone the original, I certainly was not able to understand the whole thing. But between the cognates between English and Latin, cultural and scientific loan words, and cognates with the little French and Spanish that I have dabbled in, I was able to make out a few of the words.

Libro, Satyricon, celebrato, monstrum, lupus, ferrous, argentum. I don’t read or speak Latin, didn’t understand that it was a reference to a specific tale of a werewolf, but I managed to figure out that the passage was a reference to a book full of monstrous beasts of fantasy. My immediate thought was that I wish I did more of this at the D&D table. I think there is an unfortunate tendency towards the simplification of interpreting languages that aren’t “Common” which is a euphemism for English. Players are usually eager to check their character sheets to see if, by virtue of being a Dwarf, that it was Goblin or Giant or Orcish that they are assumed to be able to speak. But without the rule book saying that their character by virtue of race or class speaks the language fluently, the player might give up right away.

What about Giant? Can someone try talking to them in Giant? No? How about Goblin?

I can also appreciate as a DM who has definitely run some sessions with less time to prepare than what was desired, that it is a lot of work to either plan or improvise these extra steps rather than calling for an intelligence check, picking a number between one and twenty, and then either giving the player the page from your notes detailing what the ancient stele has written on it, or give them nothing if they fail. However, there are some things when it comes to extra effort on the DM’s part that makes more of a difference than others. As much as I like making visual maps, I have to admit that it’s not the highest priority a DM should have. One thing that I think does make a big difference is allowing for the partial success. An experience like the one I had in real life can make things really interesting. Think about it… rather than just having a scroll of unintelligible writing in their inventory, your players could get: something something vampire, something something cave, something something priestess. Even without expertise and/or the favour of the dice, this could be enough to keep them going on a (mis)adventure.

I don’t know if this is going to make it into the very next game that I run, but I do hope to remember that little moment I had when challenging players to try and make some sense of something that isn’t written in their everyday language. Overcoming a challenge should not always be an all-or-nothing scenario, especially not when it’s trying to pick apart a written text at the characters’ leisure. I think a really good DM is one who can make partial successes the most meaningful rather than reducing the game to rolling high numbers on polyhedral dice. As a player I would certainly rather go ahead with a partial success than be told “no” and get stuck because of that 3 on a d20. In a game of fantasy we’re certainly foolish to expect everything to be “realistic” but a little dash of realism here and there to make it feel like the character’s situation is a life that a person could live helps players feel more invested in their characters than in their dice.


Today (November 4, 2017) is officially the game day for Extra Life, but my team is holding our private event next week. If you have not yet done so, please consider clicking here to contribute to my page. Note that this year I decided to try something different and play in support of the CMN hospital in Puerto Rico because I am sure they can use some extra help. I will play for my home town again next year. I don’t know how long after official game day that my donation page will be available, so if you have the means and the inclination please don’t delay any further.

Next week, Alastair continues his Full Steam Ahead series with Street Fighter IV. If all goes well with running a tabletop adventure with my Extra Life group, I will post all of the DM’s notes with additional commentary on November 18th.

The Intrigue

Last weekend I was at IntrigueCon 2017. You can find my write-up about last year here. This year I didn’t sign up for any games in advance, which meant I had to play whatever had open seats. Of the four sessions I attended, three were variants on old-school D&D and one was a variant of Dungeon Crawl Classics called Mutant Crawl Classics (which doesn’t seem to have its own page on the website, though you can find the books in their store).

The thing that I noticed about playing Swords and Wizardry as well as getting to play Sftabhmonton, an OSR-type game that I mentioned last year, was that the potential of becoming a hero is always there, but low level characters are utterly disposable. MCC, in contrast, is unapologetic about being a meat grinder. What I really found intriguing about these different games I tried last weekend was the relative ease that a party can form and get going, without having a dedicated session for character building or establishing a plot. The rewards for most of the characters I played, though, was death.

Later editions of D&D lay out a clearer path to rewards, which can be good because I find very few adults with adult responsibilities are up for taking years upon years to finally get a shot at something that can be taken away in an instant by a snotty DM who jumps on you the one time you forget to specify every inch of the floor you are going to check with your trusty ten foot pole. We want to feel like out time is worth more than that. The older games, though, don’t hand out a reliable payoff. It is difficult in these retro versions of D&D to keep a single character alive. The increase in risk does mean an increase in reward, as a high level OSR-type character is actually something to be marvelled at, rather than some powerful hero who has spent a few dozen sessions with DMs who hand out levels and XP like candy (I have been one of those on more than one occasion, especially when running 4e campaigns).

Two of my four character sheets. I invested too much effort into making Tybalt a cat-type manimal; he died instantly at the start of the first encounter.

Whether or not it’s worth going old school instead of getting in on a D&D-brand game using the relatively newer rules really depends on what a player is looking for. A satisfying heroic romp through a complex story including a nice epilogue? Or an evolving story, that has to grow on its own because investing too much into making unique characters with well-written backstories is unreasonably risky in an old-school game? I can see the appeal of both, though I have to admit that the least satisfying end to a character is when a DM punishes me for not checking every square inch of the dungeon for fatal traps. The one time I forget to say that I check the ceiling, or the whole doorway rather than just the door, and it’s all over? Congratulations, you’re oh so clever, and that’s several hours of my life that I will never get back. If I am invested in the narrative I don’t want the game to actively interfere with my enjoyment of that narrative. It’s not to say that I want it to be free of challenge, but I want failures to mean something. Even if goals become achievable or the character dies I want to feel like there was a reason that it happened if I have spent time and effort in building up a character who is part of a story rather than just a game piece to move through a dungeon. In the longer games that I run I have to work on making a valid path that includes failure rather than softly ensuring that my players win all the time because that’s how I want the story to go.

But, for being able to sit down with no prior relationship to the DM or the other characters, and no intention of ever playing more than one session, I have to say that I really quite enjoyed the games I played and will be looking into running some for groups that aren’t going to meet weekly for several months. One such opportunity I hope to take advantage of is when I get together with my Extra Life team in November to play some games. If you have not already done so, please consider making a contribution on my page.

Alastair continues Full Steam Ahead next week with Half-Life Deathmatch: Source.

Money: Progress or Property

So, I wanted to talk a bit about money last week, but being rather ill forced me to phone it in with the hype list. Money is something I always find a bit difficult to manage within games (within real life is a whole other topic). In the past two weeks I have become richer than I have ever been in EVE Online, yet have played very little. On the tabletop, I struggle with ensuring that players feel rewarded while making it so that magic daggers can’t be traded for castles and the like (an especially potent problem in 4e, where mundane items ran in the ones of gold pieces and the really cool items run into the millions).

I think part of it has to do with figuring out whether money is supposed to represent property or progress. In EVE Online, I have noted that it is a measure of property. The most profitable activity I engaged in was coming across the randomized location of a very lucrative, very difficult to clear NPC combat site (The Maze, for those familiar). I did not receive this as a reward from grinding away; it was like finding an object on the side of the road. Pure dumb luck. Now, not being a big shot myself, I was not about to risk going in there. I sold the information on the location for quick cash, which was huge compared to what I had. That location was equivalent to property, much like the old motorcycle I just sold in real life. Money for ownership of a thing, be it a tangible object or quantified access to valuable information. The precise value in currency is not always guaranteed and you can always lose the thing.

Kill the horde of monsters, pick up the stuff, trade it for fragments of orbs, use the orbs to make better stuff. The currency items in PoE are more a measure of progress than property.

In another game I’ve been playing and talking about lately, Path of Exile, money seems to be more a measure of progress. It is not completely free from the whims of the random number generator, but I can reliably predict that I can grind long enough to get the crap items to trade for the crafting items to use on the high quality mundane items to make my super equipment of death. To get more shards/orbs/etc. I must grind, but never can I unexpectedly lose these items either. It becomes, therefore, a measure less of property than of progress in grinding my character into something more powerful than she already is.

So, when it comes to tabletop, I think it is important for the DM to be straight with the players: that family sword you went on about in your backstory… could an old naked man conceivably steal it? In a heroic fantasy that sort of crap ruins the game. But if the players are into it, then such a surprise encounter could be far more intriguing than just running through the campaign with the monster lists and treasure packets and just accumulating more stuff free of risk. Because remember, if one group always wins, one group is always subject to atrocity. And that might not be as bad as it sounds if you can successfully pull off creating cartoonishly evil villains without making it into something with unfortunate implications. Or at least if you do fall into that pit, make the most of it and challenge the party to actually think about what they’ve done to “monsters” and if that money is as clean as they think it is…


Oh and one last note about money, if you haven’t supported my Extra Life Campaign in 2017 please consider doing so.

Things I Will Be Doing In October 2017

  1. Raising money for Extra Life. I have played for my local hospital in past years, but seeing what’s going in Puerto Rico lately, it seems like they can use all the help they can get. So please, if you have the means, put something up on that page.
  2. Closer to home, I have registered for Intrigue Con in two weeks, and will once again provide highlights from the games I play there. Read my post about Intrigue Con 2016 here.
  3. Continuing to run Alastair’s great series of posts about delving the dungeon of his Steam inventory, aptly named Full Steam Ahead. The next one will be about Wargame – European Escalation.
  4. Next week’s post is going to be about in-game money: is it something we should consider to be worthless because it (usually) can’t buy physical goods? Do we “earn” it? How does it make or break the game?

What You Permit

If you’ve been following this blog for some time then you will expect that when the gaming world and social issues intersect that I am likely to have an opinion on it. But I don’t think I want to spend too much time rehashing why it’s bad to use racial slurs when you are a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers. What I am interested in is how those in positions of authority respond to incidents like this. Something else happened in the gaming world this week, and that’s the collapse of CO2. No, sorry, there hasn’t been a breakthrough in carbon dioxide emission reductions. CO2 in EvE Online stands for Circle of Two, which had been a big alliance in the game for many years. The short version of this story is that a player in the alliance with very high level access to their resources handed over the castle keys to an enemy alliance because he became convinced that the supreme leader has been running the alliance into the ground. Much drama ensues after this betrayal. This is classic EVE as I have come to understand it. Upon learning of the betrayal, gigX (the former CO2 leader) logs on and makes a death threat against The Judge (the betrayer). He is immediately banned. Kotaku has the most in-depth story I’ve read on this so far. What does this have in common with PewDiePie? In both cases, a man went way too far with his words. The difference is that one is banned, and the other is still on his platform.

Gangs of Catalyst-class destroyers are a common tool among the nefarious villains of New Eden.

One could say that CCP is promoting in-game subterfuge and political intrigue by not making the subterfuge and betrayal against the rules. They even include “being the villain” in official advertisements about what one can do in the game. However, when gigX crossed the line into making real-life threats (a big no-no in EvE’s EULA) they didn’t hesitate to ban him. There was no debate over whether words were just words or anything like that. A line was drawn, he crossed it, and he was banned for life without consideration of how much money he had tied up in the game. This is a good example of how speech that isn’t necessarily illegal (local police might not find the threat credible enough to get a warrant) still leads to unfortunate consequences for those who violate community standards.

PewDiePie, meanwhile, still has his popular YouTube channel despite establishing a repeated pattern of behaviour which, while it may not be illegal, is rightly seen as morally reprehensible by decent people. It’s upsetting but certainly not surprising to see some of the usual canards about words being “just words” and all that. First, let’s keep in mind that defences that boil down to “this is not illegal” are usually very poor for establishing the acceptability rather than the legality of the conduct. I don’t think it would be right to bring the full force of the state down on PewDiePie because he dropped an n-bomb on the internet. But that’s not the only alternative to considering what he did to be acceptable. There are individual actions that one can take: I won’t be watching any of his videos and I will encourage others to abandon him as a matter of principle. I will allow YouTube’s response to colour my view of their platform. But, as a society, we need to be denying an audience to these kinds of people. If we fail to do this, then we leave too much room for something akin to a missing stair. The term is usually used in the context of sexual assault/harassment, but I think we could also apply it other kinds of psychological abuse, such as making your fellow online game players wonder if they are actually in real life danger (which has happened over MMO games more than once in the past decade so it’s certainly possible though not very common). It is certainly the case that at my D&D table it would be a terrible failure on the part of our group if a player threatened another player in an explicitly real-life context and we just worked around it rather than addressed it. Whether it was my house and my campaign or one I was just playing in, I would demand that person’s removal. In the case of the Judgement Day scandal, I don’t think The Judge is genuinely scared of gigX. But in this corner of the gaming community, there is a danger that “oh, that’s just how he is” becomes a way to permit behaviour that really ought to be unacceptable.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.” – Cliff Pervocracy

The troubling aspect of the commentary that objects to the gigX ban is that he should be given consideration because, like PewDiePie, he is a content creator and many people like him. So, the reasoning goes, deny him his platform and droves of people will quit in disgust and ruin something for many more people. I think this is a terrible line of reasoning because it seeks to excuse something that ought not to be acceptable simply on the grounds that the person is popular. If anything, people in these positions of power should be held to a higher standard because they are the ones with more power to set norms in the community. It’s not that I believe that YouTube racists with less than 100 views or the nobodies threatening CODE. agents shouldn’t also be banned, but banning those guys doesn’t send as clear a message when they have no power in the community. Rules and codes of conduct only hold meaning if the popular and powerful are expected to maintain at least the same standards of compliance as the people whose objections can more easily be ignored. If the continuation of the game really does depend on the acceptance of this kind of behaviour, maybe it’s better off not being played at all.

One thing I would like to be very clear about is that denial of audience is not the same as outrage. We don’t need anti-gigX or anti-PewDiePie rage posts; those would be counter-productive. Anyone who has watched Llamas With Hats by FilmCow will see that shouting at Carl’s heinous behaviour not only fails to deter him, but encourages it because it shows him that he still has an audience. Towards the end of part four, Carl calls us out on this: how can anyone be surprised at anything he does, given his history and the fact that despite it all, Paul is still there to see it and shout about it.

Carl is a dangerous sociopath with a long history of violence.

The series takes a turn after part 4, the originally intended ending, because somehow FilmCow’s audience kept demanding more. Although he continued to achieve greater and greater heights of depravity, it was all meaningless to Carl because he lacked his audience. He was not defeated by a powerful opposing force or by outrage and denunciation. It all fell apart when Paul decided to pack his bags and leave. That is why I support banning these objectionable people from their respective platforms: while we still let them make us outraged without denying them their audience, they keep on going. While we still continue to live with the guy who is hungry for hands, we are permitting him to continue.

What you permit, you promote. YouTube might do well to take some cues from CCP in this regard.

Everybody Wants To Build The World

I met up with most of my regular tabletop group last night. It’s been a little while since we’ve played. We didn’t play our main game last night because it wasn’t until after dinner and social time that we realized that all the notebooks and character sheets were at someone else’s house. So we pulled out the playing cards and had a different sort of games night before getting on to discussing the current World of Darkness campaign as well as the next one coming up. It was exciting to talk about the new campaign, the new characters, the returning characters, the setting. Right up until the storyteller said something that troubled me. “I guess I am going to have to hurry up and end this campaign if you are so excited to start this next one.”

Every DM/Storyteller/GM shares the desire to set the scene according to their creative desires…

The statement troubled me because I have been in that exact same position. I know what it’s like and I want to avoid making people who are running the current campaign feel like the excitement is because what they’re doing is not good enough. At the same time, the friend who wants to start the next campaign is also a very good DM/Storyteller and I legitimately want to support that endeavour. I want for my friends the same thing I want for myself: to be recognized as a talented world-building creator of fun and engaging content for interactive gameplay. That’s the game-atop-the-game I want to play, where the winning condition for me is that people get excited for when it’s my turn and tell stories of their adventures long after they have been played out. What I want to avoid is making that strictly competitive; I would like for my friends to win just as much as I do.

So, my advice: be explicit in showing your appreciation for the person running the game you’re playing. Make an effort to avoid making them feel like they’re being pushed out of the storyteller’s chair. Then, remember how hard it was to achieve that balance when it’s your turn to run the campaign and you’ve got a party excited for the next one. Enjoy the fantasy world you’ve created while the players are still invested in it but be prepared to yield. Nothing ever lasts forever.

Too Much Of What I Want

Blizzard’s Diablo series offered us a certain kind of gaming experience. In many heroic adventures the player-characters are often supposed to overcome large numbers of enemies. Diablo pitted the player against endless hordes of enemies. It wasn’t much for the roleplayer who liked to make decisions, or the players who love stories and dialogue. It wasn’t for the puzzle enthusiasts. It was all about people who like random numbers and mowing down hordes of zombies, or killer apes, or zombie killer apes, or whatever the local monsters are like. It was a hack-and-slash experience.

So a few weeks ago, I heard about a game called Path of Exile from one of my corporation mates in EVE. I was told it was basically Diablo, but free to play (the good kind of free to play, with micro transactions that are cosmetic rather than pay-to-win). So I decided to give it a shot, and quickly got hooked on that old familiar gameplay of cutting down monsters and collecting loot. But I quickly found out what the difference is between the old Diablo I enjoyed so much and the new Path of Exile: it was prepared to give me exactly what I want. Jewels, rather than being consumed, could pop in and out of sockets where in Diablo once you affix one of these bonus-granting adornments, it’s permanent. Every item could be traded for every other item, and each randomly generated magic item could be re-rolled. This meant that with enough time and determination, one could assemble a hero’s kit that is almost exactly to the player’s liking whereas the Diablo player would need not only time and effort but also luck to ensure that the rare items they find are the ones they want.

All of the skills gained from level up were passive. I find that in any game when I have the choice between passive and active skills I always tend towards picking the passive skills that synergize with each other because I have a fear of being empty. I am, as a rule, willing to trade flashy displays of power for being able to do something all day long. That is how I build characters whenever possible, but PoE is giving it to me in vast quantities. Behold the skill tree:

The top half of the skill tree…
… and the bottom.

Yep, PoE is the game EVE Online players play when they decide the EVE skill tree is not vast enough. All passive, all can be made to synergize with the active skills I already have. I don’t think I have ever seen my mana globe deplete any more than a tiny tick. I am at a relatively low level still, yet I seem to have an unfettered ability to make everything the way I wish it to be. It seems like I am being given everything I want, but somehow it feels like it’s almost too much choice and not enough challenge. Unless I am just looking for something mindless to do, I can’t help but feel like this game doesn’t have a risk/reward balance that makes it great as a game. It’s more like an interactive Dawn of the Dead. Which, if that is what you are looking for, great, but I feel like the best games I have played are capable of saying “no” to my desires every once in a while. But, if I have hardly thirty minutes to play something, I am more likely to go for some over-the-top zombie mowing than I am looking for fleets, taking just one more turn in a game of Civilization, or getting on to planning the tabletop adventures I wish I was running. But, all in good time. I hope for this fall to be good to me in terms of having more tabletop to write about.

Worth Debating

You know the guy. He quotes Voltaire and insists that anything and everything is up for debate in a truly free society. He loves posting in comment sections and social media and insists that it’s debate time, any time, or else you’ve conceded that he’s right. He’s the guy that Dr. Nerdlove is talking about in this Twitter thread. What that guy is really doing, though, is trying to lure you into a game not worth playing. One where gish galloping is not only a valid tactic, but almost essential to winning. Most of the time I see it as a game better not played than won, but sometimes I will engage if I am feeling up to it (which is not required at all times) and if I am it’s usually aimed at the silent reader rather than trying to convince the self-righteous logic-warrior that he’s wrong. He’s the kind of guy who will claim that white supremacy can be defeated by calmly and rationally outlining the logical reasons why it’s wrong. It never ends that way, ever.

If we are to support the sort of society that values human life of all types we must stop consenting to this game and his rules. I refuse to debate those who would engage in apologetics for the torch-wielding mobs on their own terms. But as someone who could be described as a “debate geek” how can I say this? Well, there are some things worth debating and there are some things that must not ever be in order to maintain a society where liberty even has a chance to flourish. That white supremacy must be rejected is, as far as I am concerned, not up for debate. How best to respond to the troubling fact that they feel it’s no longer necessary to remain in the closet is up for debate, as are the landmarks on our cultural landscape that inform what kind of people we are. That’s why I go on about video games, tabletop, and fiction on this blog in the way I do: it all adds up to what kind of society we live in.

That’s why today I am going to ask if Ready Player One a good book and a film to look forward to? That’s up for debate, too, and I don’t think it’s purely trivial. There is a conversation to be had about a book that’s getting an adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg which is, essentially, white guy nostalgia. Not that it isn’t important to put out the big fires, but understanding the cultural landscape we inhabit will help us see fire hazards.

If you search the internet for reactions to Ready Player One you will find mostly positive coverage, some effusive praise that I think reaches a fair bit too far (the trailer calls it a “holy grail of pop culture”), and a small section of people who think it’s cool to cast me as one of those torch-wielding white supremacists if I am looking forward to the film in any way. And I am, a little bit. I have previously described the book as a cool idea wrapped in a plot that’s a satisfactory vehicle but not especially inspiring or original. It’s not high on my priority list, but there is a good chance that I will give the movie a watch. Alex Nichols offers a more nuanced critique that I agree with on many points, except that I don’t think that stroking white nerd nostalgia is what makes it bad. What in my mind separates the book as it is from a great book is that it does its thing so uncritically. If you have read the book, you eventually come to see that Halliday’s was a deeply troubled mind and that for all of its technical and artistic brilliance, OASIS is a deeply problematic system. I don’t think that the narrative would suddenly disintegrate if the over-narrative was less self-indulgent than the game inside. Some parts of Ready Player One are indeed the purplest fan service that has received attention outside fan fiction sites, but a lot of it read better to me because I’m the direct target audience. But it did leave me wanting in terms of looking at how the entire premise of the egg hunt was in fact a big red flag pointing to some very ugly things about the OASIS. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to mention the book in today’s post she recommended that I look up the Thug Notes review. I thought, oh good, here’s a guy who us going to take this book to task for its biases. But he doesn’t, except in a single comment about the conspicuous lack of Run DMC. I don’t think that the narrative would have been better with meticulously researched examples of stuff that was popular outside of white suburban nerd-dom stuffed into OASIS, but it would have been better if the characters in the overworld could see how narrow and self-indulgent a lot of what’s inside is, even as they obtain an education that they could not otherwise get in the dystopian “real world.” I reject outright any implication that it’s the Turner Diaries but with video game references, but I must also be very critical of the fact that highly concentrated white guy nostalgia is being cast as the holy grail. I think because of the attention that’s building, it’s worth debating.

So yeah, think that I ought to have sympathy for the Nazi march? Go away. Think that Ready Player One is either unironically good or the actual worst thing in the world? Debate me.

Safety, Security, Atrocity

I have been thinking a lot lately about security and safety. In our non-fictional world we can’t stop talking about it. We bring our desire for security into our fiction-based games. After all, what is the point of defeating evil necromancers or eldritch space horrors if not to secure the safety of the ordinary good people in that fiction? Today I will be using an example from EVE Online to explain how risk cannot be eliminated while maintaining reward except by atrocity. There is a bit of a preamble, but don’t worry, I will as always ensure that I am writing in plain English rather than EVE-specific jargon (tooltips will be provided).

In our non-fictional world, safety and security are usually spoken of in positive terms. We generally want children to return from schools and employees to return from workplaces without serious or life threatening injuries or exposures. We expect to be able to walk out of our homes and not die by malicious action or careless negligence. Yet it is impossible to truly perfect our safety and security. Everyone who leaves their house consents  to a level of acceptable risk. You know you could lose your life simply by walking out your door, but you do it anyway because the chances are low while the rewards are seemingly endless. You don’t proceed to run into opposing traffic because that kicks the level of risk into being unacceptable: being late for work is not worth your life. You feel safe enough, secure enough, that you would not go to bizarre lengths to drive the chances of something going wrong down to absolute zero. Yet that residual chance of a drunk driver defying the traffic safety rules and laws and causing you harm always remains no matter much more enforcement is applied. As a society we work out where to set the limits, and when we do well the risk is practically zero but not absolutely zero with as few restrictions on individual liberty as possible. We can chase that absolute all we want with ever-increasing zeal for draconian rule enforcement, but somehow we never get there. We know that if there is ever to be any reward, there is a non-zero risk.

Even in a game mostly based on rolling numbers on dice, there is an element of risk vs. reward.

Risk vs. reward lies at the core of the mechanics of the finite games we play. Our level of acceptable risk can go sky-high when there is no risk to our physical safety and no real money is involved. Where we are risk averse when it comes to the risk of termination of infinite play, we are perfectly happy to play finite games where we rush headlong into danger and get destroyed when we lose. The boundaries of the game provide a safe space for us to indulge the kind of risks that we would never take if the consequences were not contained within the game. We can construct terrible totalitarian regimes where no threat to our Civilization’s hegemony can go unanswered by military force. We can fly spaceships deep behind enemy lines knowing that we could be blown up at any time. We can take four points for twos at risk of losing our bonus on the top half of the Yathzee card. Depending on the game and the player’s style, finite games played for fun involve different risk profiles. Yet wherever our tolerance lands, we know that a game with rewards but no risks is completely broken.

So what happens when a player doesn’t understand this? This week I have a great example coming from New Eden, the fictional universe in which EVE Online takes place. Since the last time I wrote about this game, I took the plunge: got the subscription, joined a corporation, and moved out to null sec. Security here is different. I no longer rely on CONCORD’s omnipotent but reactionary justice. But I still read Miner Bumping with amusement. That is the blog I referred to in this post about emergent gameplay. Many days it’s more of the same: player in a mining ship in high security space gets blown up by a space mafia enforcer, space mafia engages in a little bit of light roleplaying (the blog being the central source for the in-game propaganda), the miner goes berserk and engages in toxic behaviour, the whole thing gets posted to James 315’s blog where the man himself makes entertaining wisecracks and reinforces his mythology. After a while that starts getting a little old, but then every few weeks something interesting and different happens. This last week Miner Bumping introduced us to a player named Starterrorprime (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This miniseries is exactly why I read that blog.

For those who don’t speak EVE jargon, here is a brief synopsis: dude approaches one of the most powerful groups in a very large game and offers to build their ships rather than pay into their racket. They’re like no, we build our own ships, please pay into our racket. He doesn’t want to, so he buggers off to the area of space (null sec) where CODE. doesn’t operate. Wants to sell ships on the open market to a powerful null sec alliance. The same ships they build themselves and give out to their members for free. He complains on the official forums when his plan for pre-ordained profits fails to materialize. Then he comes back to high sec and goes back to forums with his tale of woe and asking people to donate (in-game currency) to his for-profit enterprise. If he is doing this as a scam, that’s the most perfect EVE gameplay I have ever seen. But if he believes his own BS, if he believes that there is actually something wrong with the game when he can’t just roll in and start making profit at the expense of large groups, that’s where he has a really serious problem. The game would have a serious problem if it rewarded players who are looking to get risk-free rewards, but that’s not the case. If he keeps on trying to mine minerals and build ships out of those minerals in high security space, he is going to continue to face player pirates (CODE. and otherwise) and the heartless reality of the open market where much larger and more efficient operations will be able to undercut him. He is not ruining the game because he is unable to completely remove the risk that he will either get blown up or beaten in the ship market.

Now, if he wants safety and security and the opportunity to take progressively bigger risks for progressively better rewards, he can always give it a try in a different null sec alliance. Do what I did: inquire about who is recruiting, find a good bunch of guys to play with, and be there for the group when they call for help to defend fellow alliance mates. Be there for their team mining boosts, be there for the corporation-level small fleet activities. Sure, my killboard will show that I have lost many, many more ships after leaving the safety of high security space. But my ability to build up and participate in something bigger is far more secure than it would be without being a part of a team.

Nullsec Corporation life means deriving your safety and security from being a part of something bigger than yourself with other players, not just having the biggest shiniest dakka-est pwnship in the game. The best ship in EVE is friendship.

And this is where we finally get to the part about atrocity: assuming it’s not a swindle, what would it take for Starterrorprime to be able to realize his dream of making profit without interference from opposing players? Would CODE. need to be banned holus bolus? Would a single player be able to find a way to take down a decaying Pandemic Legion? To do this without astronomical risk would take a lot of power, but not just any kind of power: it must be accessible to him but not his opponents. It may not be impossible that he is simply that much of an exceptional player that he could eventually find the hidden path to becoming John Galt in space faster than anyone else, but it seems quite unlikely. How does a one-man corporation reliably take on the masses and win every time (on the battlefield or in the marketplace) when the masses are able to change strategy and have been at the game much longer than our new bro? It is easier to imagine this power coming from some kind of exploit which CCP would make a bannable offence as soon as they are made aware of it. In order for him to use an exploit to dominate very large groups of skilled and intelligent players he would need the developers on his side to allow the exploit to continue. This would be, within the boundaries of the game, an atrocity. Now let’s think about things other than video games: if I came up with a risk-free way to win at board and card games, nobody would want to play with me anymore. I would be banned from tournaments. Casinos would kick me out. In order to keep “winning” I would somehow need to force others to play with me, which is in some ways impossible. The “players” would not really be playing the game, they would be maintaining the facade of a game to keep me placated. I would have to keep changing the rules to keep myself on top, always. The more extreme the drive to zero risk / increasing rewards gets, the worse and more bizarre the situation would have to be in order to make it possible. This why guys like Starterrorprime must be allowed to lose. Hopefully they come back better next time with a little bit more humility and a better plan. Things would need to be really crazy for it to be any other way.

So, the next time you see an embittered player pleading for more safety and security, be wary of what they might have in mind. Are they looking to bend rules to create an unfair advantages for themselves? What would it cost everyone else to see that player get their way? Are they looking to cooperate with others towards a common goal, or to exploit the good will of others and climb to power on their backs? If that kind of behaviour is allowed in the game with a risk of failure, great. But if they have the means to eliminate risk entirely and still get the rewards, some kind of atrocity is sure to follow. If it’s in the context of a finite recreational game then maybe it is time to quit and do something else. If it’s someone who wants to eliminate risk to their real-life fortunes it is important that they are denied the means to make it happen.


Next week at this time I will be rather busy. Last year’s modest proposal has lead to next Saturday being my wedding day. I have said before that this blog will always be free; that you won’t ever be pestered to sign on to give me money via Patreon, etc. just for writing posts. That is still true. However, I did reserve the right to use the blog to promote other projects asking for your money. If you appreciate my work and want to contribute, I do have a suggestion. My fiancée and I have requested of our friends and family to not give us physical things as wedding gifts (we already have enough dishware, thanks) but instead to make a donation to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. So if you, wonderful reader, are the sort of person who’d be inclined to support my work right now please take that money and make that donation instead. To do this, please go to the Universal Hospital Foundation donation page and select “Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute” from the “designation” dropdown.

Almost Infinite will continue to publish while I am away, but comment moderation may be very slow. It should be fine if you have posted before, but new commenters may have to wait a while before their posts show up. And if you are wondering why to care about comment moderation when you don’t post any, I encourage you to make a change there. I hope everyone is enjoying Alastair’s series Full Steam Ahead which will return with “Arma II – Operation Arrowhead” on the 22nd.