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The Con, Part 2

Last time on Almost Infinite… and now, the conclusion:

Playing D&D 5e is, for me, a little bit like coming home to a new apartment: it’s not familiar like where you have lived for years, yet it still feels good to get there and relax on your familiar furniture. I was entirely comfortable in the high fantasy setting of Ravenloft as a sellsword with an abundance of smart remarks and improbable sword tricks. It was, in most ways, the opposite of the game I was to play next: Shadowrun.

I am not saying Shadowrun is bad or that I did not have any fun. However, it wasn’t anything like my D&D experience and not just for the obvious differences between high fantasy and steampunk. The D&D character sheet can be up to three pages long, but the second two are optional. I can explain, in very short order, what everything on page one means to someone who has never played before. My Shadowrun character sheet looked like this:

Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.
Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.

I like to think of myself as a tabletop gamer of more-or-less average skill and ability, but this was a bit too much for me. I played Karl, the Elven gunslinger adept, as a sort of savant who was extremely good at the things he is good at (my dice pools for many of the rolls I was making seemed quite good) yet was prone to spacing out during negotiations and having seemingly no grasp on the world he lives in despite having been a part of many missions in the past. This was necessary because that was me, except for the part where I had played the game before. As soon as I started playing the game it was quickly apparent that despite the fact that not all players considered themselves to be well-practiced, anyone who had ever played the game before seemed to have a great deal of knowledge the weird jargon that mercenary-adventurers use and the setting in general. The majority of my out-of-character sentences had to start with “What is…?” I was thoroughly lost until I was told what to roll to do a thing. I had heard rumours about how cool the setting is, and my experience confirmed that to be true. I wanted to try it and I am glad I did. What I found, though, is that this isn’t something that I am going to have the time to pursue in a way that I could truly appreciate the depth and complexity of a Shadowrun adventure. I was just glad to go home and to bed after that.

And then, on the third and final day of the convention, I did not get to try the Sftabhmonton adventure. I was signed up to, but only myself, the DM, and one other player showed up. We decided to forgo trying to run the game with only two players in favour of having a great discussion about the game itself. Sftabhmonton is an intriguing remix of the old school D&D. I think you would recognize a lot of it if you’ve either read about it or experienced the old editions for yourself. However, this finely crafted mixture of homebrew and OSR is not just limited to “kill ugly people and take their treasure” adventures that the old editions are known for. It is a living world with a history generated through play. The appeal to me is obvious: I started writing because I wanted to promote the idea that games, tabletop RPG in particular, can be an agent for positive social change and creativity. I hope I never get snobby about playing new systems that push boundaries because Sftabhmonton looks like a great example of how it can be done with a rule book thoroughly grounded in the history of fantasy tabletop RPG but not necessarily sharing all of its cultural conceits. I hope to actually get to play someday.

I also heard about The Dwarvenaut during this discussion and decided I needed to watch it due to my love for visual grid maps, and Stefan Pokorny really takes it to the next level. I found it to be mediocre as a documentary. Compared to the subjects of American history and Broadway musicals, one would think a guy who writes a blog about games would gravitate more towards the story of a man who was able to achieve his dream of building a successful company out of his D&D hobby than to a PBS documentary about one of the Founding Fathers. However, I found myself easily distractable while trying to watch The Dwarvenaut and absolutely transfixed by Hamilton’s America. However, if you are interested in tabletop gaming, I think it is well worth putting in the effort to watch The Dwarvenaut because the underlying story is really quite good. I don’t know if I could ever justify the expense of what such a beautiful set of map building tools would cost, but I am thoroughly impressed that he was able to make it work and Stefan seems like a genuinely interesting person. I am therefore glad that Dwarven Forge exists even if I’m not a likely customer.

So, after such a packed weekend of gaming, what is my big take-away? In order to be a better player who can push different boundaries in new and interesting ways rather than just reiterating one of my favourite characters from other media, I can’t just play at my own table and read widely. Reading is good, but I have to get out and play more at other tables on a more regular basis. That experience will not only be rewarding on its own merits, it will make my private games better. So, having had such a great time, I will sure to be coming around to play at IntrigueCon 2017.

The Con, Part 1

I found out about IntrigueCon during the pre-game discussion leading up to that time I tried to pull some Wizard of Oz tomfoolery during a Pathfinder one-shot. In a city where the local anime convention can attract over 9000 fans and the general interest Expo attracting tens of thousands, you would think by making some not-so-wild assumptions that there are a lot of people who play tabletop roleplaying games in Edmonton. And there are. But as one of the players around the table was saying several weeks ago, it can be hard to run a convention based on this particular hobby because it is too much like monogamy: once you find the one table you want to play at, you tend to settle in and stop looking at what the market has to offer. As much as I am inclined to accept that model for my love life, I have come to find that my tabletop gaming life should be different in this way.

I don’t have a problem with my usual D&D group, but for some time now I have been open about my desire to play at other tables. It’s not that I dislike playing with them, it just gets too routine after a while and I get worried about contracting geek social fallacy #5. That is one of the reasons why I decided I needed to go to IntrigueCon, to play at tables with people I never would have met otherwise and to expand my horizons, and that I did.

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Some tabletop RPGs involve pretending to be an elf and running around shooting arrows at orcs. This one involved playing a sentient wool sock on a quest for an artifact known as the “golden needle of parliament.”

The first game I got to try was one called Threadbare. It was obviously still in the development stage, but I could not help but be intrigued by the opportunity to play in a world that is a perfect mix of Toy Story and Wall-E. Each character is assembled from toys or other junk. My character was a sock puppet (a “wool sock” is a very specific archetype right there on the playbooks) aptly named Red. The rules look similar to Apocalype World, which I have not played yet, but much simpler. We relied on only three characteristics (scrounge, strongarm, and smile) rather than five (cool, hard, hot, sharp, weird). Like in Apocalypse World, the statistics are more personality traits than they are measures of physical qualities like strength or dexterity. I think this lends itself to more role play than roll play. though I found out the hard way what happens when you botch too many scrounge rolls in a row. Negative consequences take the form of having to tear a piece off your character which is both neat and distressing at the same time. So there I was, hoping to repair some minor damage, but ended up stripping it down to just the base sock as I thrashed madly in a pile of parts.

The part of Threadbare that struck me as the most profound is that in the science fantasy setting we played in, nothing was inanimate. We tend to think of hot air balloons, jet planes, etc. as things rather than friends or enemies. You really have to rethink your playing strategy when your party contains a sentient fried egg plushie who starts speaking to, and nearly going fisticuffs with, the getaway jet. I think a game like this has a lot of potential for assumption-smashing and that’s what made it fun even as I had to tear another piece off my character. The boundaries are at least as mutable as in a D&D world if not more so, since it’s not every fantasy world where your wagon (let alone your horse) might have some suggestions or objections to how to proceed with your adventure.

I think Threadbare, in its complete state, might be great to play with kids who aren’t quite old enough to introduce to D&D, World of Darkness, etc. as the rules are very easy to understand and the setting can be dark and gritty without the need for explicit violent or sexual content. At the same time, the “stitchpunk” setting is also far from being so obnoxiously saccharine that adults who are seasoned tabletop players will still be able to access it with their role playing brains rather than their caregiver brains.Once it is finished I am sure the potentials will outweigh the pitfalls in the case of Threadbare.

The next morning the second session started where I had signed up to play the Maid RPG. I knew going in, based on my experience of anime fandom culture, that there was a high risk that this would involve some elements that would be off-putting to people who actually view women as people. However, I came to try things that were different from my regular D&D (typically an ensemble cast of heroes in a high fantasy setting) and what could possibly be more different than a game based on being the best maid?

Indeed, some of the rules that came straight out of the book were pretty gross. However, the great thing about the authority of the DM (I got to run part of the session that was set in an actual dungeon, so DM is sometimes more apt in Maid than GM) is that you can exert some authorial power to take the edge off thing a bit. I know if I could do it again I would shy away from the scenario where players can gain favour by “accidentally” kissing an NPC. Or, if I am going to run something where women are seen as playthings for entitled rich men, then I would at least create a setting where boorish ribaldry could be played for laughs. If someone hasn’t created a Trump Tower themed Maid adventure yet, I know what’s going on my list of homebrew scenarios to run.

The best part of the game, though, was that it involved aggressive action without (necessarily) violence. Competition without the need to see someone die. It was a neat little mix because it didn’t dispense with any of the tension inherent in games where there is a little bit of combat simulation, yet completely avoided the concept of “hit points” et. al. In this game you simply have to prevent your stress level from getting too high. It is hardly unique to emphasize the need to do more than hit things with a sword or shooting things with a gun; what I am impressed by is how vicious Maid can get without going there. It’s certainly not a game about talking and friendships either. It is every Maid for herself in a quest to gain favour.

In our session, the random events from the book were mediated by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.
In our first session, the random events from the book were represented by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.

After that new experience I went to the next session for something a little bit familiar: Dungeons and Dragons. We played the introductory adventure in the new Curse of Strahd adventure book. This was a good old dungeon crawl where I finally got to stress test my halfling fighter that I am playing in another campaign that involves far more investigation and conspiracy than swordplay. However, I am running long in the word count for this post so the whole story will have to wait. To be continued…

Nineteen Minutes of Moirai

If you are an adult with responsibilities it can be difficult to find a lot of time and money for video games. If “free” and “takes less than twenty minutes” sound like good parameters here, then you might want to give Moirai a try (you might not if the topics of death and suicide are things you really need to avoid). The graphics will remind you of a simpler time when you had to get off the phone to be on the internet. There isn’t much to do in the town of four houses you start in. You can talk to each non-player character to get a vague idea of something to do, but you won’t find much in detail: believe me, the nineteen minutes I put into this game is very generous for a playthrough that explores everything. It’s not an exploration game where you have to click on some obscure detail to find a clue; just keep playing intuitively and you won’t miss what this game has to offer.

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It’s not a good idea to explore the abandoned mine without a lantern and a knife.

 

In the end, I was kind of disappointed with the final result I got. It’s a neat concept, I’ll give it that, but I have a hard time imagining how it could evolve into anything else but the little trinket that it already is. I did enjoy it, though, so I encourage you to go play it before reading anything else about it. I won’t tell you what is right or wrong, but please don’t be the kind of jerk who tries to break the game. I think it’s worth playing along, no matter what you choose to do. And the Steam reviews tell the truth: there are no jump scares. I wouldn’t be telling anyone to go play it if the whole thing was just a setup for a lame prank.

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You do get to meet interesting people when exploring the caves.

That’s all I can say for now. If you have already played the game and want to share your thoughts about it, please leave a comment. I’m always interested to hear what people think of what they read here.

Broken

When I say a game is broken, I don’t mean that there are faults or errors in its execution. Whether it’s a chess set that ships without any bishop pieces or a video game that crashes without a series of post-release patches, the game itself as conceived by the designers is not broken. The media are faulty, but the underlying game is intact.

What I consider to be a truly broken game is one that “works” in the technical sense but where the rules are so contrary to our standards of fairness, enjoyability, or sense of the spirit of the game that we simply cannot abide with it until the rules are changed. This can often be the result of the overpowered nature (or as one of my friends once called it for short, OP-ness) of certain cards or strategies that almost certainly lead to victory over any alternative plays (where one or more alternatives are seen as having inherent legitimacy rather than just being blunders to avoid).

Earlier this week, Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau announced an updated set of rules for mortgages which may alter the Canadian real estate game. I am delighted by this because I see it as a solid attempt to prevent a game that is anything but trivial or recreational from becoming broken. It’s not a good thing when people see the only way to get ahead is to load up on debt.

Either way you look at it, something needs to be done when a runaway market breaks the game.

In this post I won’t be making any arguments for or against the timing of a correction or a crash, nor whether it’s a good idea for any individual to be able to buy right now. I don’t have the expertise to give specific advice and I am not going to try to predict the future. What I will be talking about is risk vs. reward in a game; I am of the opinion that it’s a good idea to adopt rules which dissuade Canadians from going all-in betting on real estate, regardless of whether or not it’s a “good investment” in any individual case.

First, let us consider the possibility that what goes up must come down. Not everyone agrees that prices are unsustainably high. Some people believe for a number of reasons that house prices will continue to rise for decades to come (with only an occasional hiccup) and that it only makes sense to get onto the train as soon as one can. It would then seem unfair to millennial renters trying to get on board to have to do more to qualify for a mortgage. Some people would say we are losing while we wait. But consider for a moment that the price of a typical house blasting past the million dollar mark without a corresponding boom in wages and salaries is the sign of something very unhealthy. If it doesn’t go up forever, then the game isn’t as broken as it could be. Those who gamble will eventually lose, with the magnitude of the risk increasing as the stakes get higher and higher. However, even if the game is not broken in that sense it’s still the case that the higher prices climb, the bigger the fall. Having had front row seats to what happened in the USA ten years ago, we Canadians should know better than to keep on raising the stakes until catastrophe strikes. New rules that bring us down slowly are a welcome alternative.

Now, suppose the average millennial’s dad is right when, over Thanksgiving dinner, he channels the Lex Luthor from the 1978 film Superman and tells them to buy land because it’s the one thing that nobody is making any more of. After all, it worked for him when he bought a house in the 1970’s. But for a moment let’s put aside any skepticism and imagine for a moment a world where Canadian cities, lead by Vancouver and Toronto, never see a meaningful correction or crash. Those priced out now can never afford to buy there again and both prices and rents get launched into the stratosphere. Vancouver becomes Manhattan. This is what happens if the game is broken and it stays broken. The logical end of this scenario is a new aristocracy where the only good way to get into the market is to be born into a family that is already in the market. This is much, much worse than having a bubble burst. If such a thing was possible and it really is buy now or buy never, then it would be time to change the rules before the commoners start getting agitated.

So, one does not need to know much at all about the finer details of finance to reach the logical conclusion that regardless of what happens in the market, average people looking to make the most of what they’ve got are in for trouble when the game is broken. In order to sustain itself, any gamble (whether it is an investment or a betting game) will have to find its place in the following triangle:

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A modified risk triangle to illustrate that an investment can’t be all three at once. The problem is that when other kinds of investment can be shunned when unaffordable, we can’t just say no to shelter.

A runaway market will eventually fix itself, but the human consequences might be hard to take. It’s all fine and dandy to be priced out of the market for Dutch tulips or for the returns on Beanie Babies to crater, but when we are talking about places to live and life savings it becomes necessary to try and mitigate the extreme consequences. And so we come back to the new rules. They transfer more risk onto the lenders and less onto the taxpayer, reducing the moral hazard of banks being able to lend out increasingly outrageous amounts of money to people whose ability to repay is dubious if anything goes wrong. They crack down on people hoping to get around paying taxes on rental income by misusing principal residence exceptions, putting them on a more even field with other kinds of investments/income streams. They ensures that people take on less risk when they sign up for 20+ years of debt. Are the new rules enough? Will they yield the desired outcomes? I don’t know. But I find it encouraging that we have a government that is making an attempt and signalling that there may be more to come.

It’s bad news if your finite game involved becoming rich by jumping on the train at just the right time and laughing at people like me when we still have to pay rent when we are old. Good news, however, if your infinite game involves changing the rules mid-stream to allow as many players into the game as possible. In changing the rules to not favour real estate over other kinds of investment as much, we are not just encouraging the market to calm down to the point where people aren’t priced out of the market just because they can’t get a small loan of a million dollars from the bank of mom and dad. We are also creating the conditions where a young person can get ahead by investing in other things. Boomers may have coveted the garage and the yard and encouraged their children to do the same, but the post-millennial generations may instead choose a future that involves participation in the sharing economy rather than owning cars, investing in companies that create and implement the technologies of the future rather than counting on real estate equity for economic security, and retaining flexibility by living in a housing co-op rather than having to spend previous time mowing the lawn. The economic game of the future needs rules that don’t unfairly advantage the holders of the homeowner title, as that boomer dream may not last forever.

So whatever strategy we employ to invest in our future prosperity, let it not depend on the game being broken in a way that gives us an unfair advantage over our peers. Let us seek to play by rules which allow as many players as possible to be a part of the game. If the history of wealth inequality is any indication, our survival as a nation may very well depend on changing the rules when the game is broken.

Token Caricatures and Character Tokens

Six days ago, I was discussing representation in various media, including games, with an ad-hoc panel of friends and new people I just met at the local comic con because we just weren’t ready to let the conversation end when the scheduled panel discussion was over. During one of these discussions I stumbled upon a turn of phrase that I think is pretty clever: there is no such thing as a token character. Today I will explore that and contrast it with the character token, a practical craft for the tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D.

Tokenism certainly exists, I won’t deny that. But if a depiction of a person is a two-dimensional inauthentic caricature of a gender, a culture, or a sexuality then one can hardly call it a full-fledged character. Likewise, a well-rounded character with their own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, fears, and role in the narrative does not become a token simply by existing while being something other than the “default” straight white cis-man. Our ad-hoc panel was unanimous in declaring our frustration with increased representation being tagged as tokenism. When you look at an all-white all-male starship crew that is supposed to draw from the whole Earth and perhaps beyond, you aren’t engaging in tokenism when you take a character and make them something else. You’re just looking critically at what the “default” is and deciding to more accurately reflect the human race as a whole.

And so, when it comes to the cast of characters in tabletop RPGs that I run, I encourage crossplay around genders, colours, and cultures. Stepping out of your usual demographic is part of the cool thing about playing customized characters: you can be something else without making a token character. That brings me to the character token. In my post where I proclaim my love for the grid map, the photo I use also shows what I consider to be an essential accessory for the grid map: the character token. When I run a D&D game I like to make one of these for each player as a way to complement the map visually, for the practical purpose of tracking each character’s position on the map, and because it is a tangible representation of the character. “Pen and paper” tabletop RPG in the age of the video game may be about eschewing the finest graphics in favour of the theatre of the mind, but the tangibles are nice and if your character isn’t “default” then it only makes sense to have a token reflecting that rather than just settling for the white-skinned archer you found in your dad’s collection of AD&D miniatures. Because playing 4th Edition D&D was the first time I got to sit down with a group to play a real tabletop RPG, the tokens became even more practical than the miniatures because of the highly tactical nature of combat encounters and the rules that allowed player characters to share a space. Tokens stack much more neatly than miniatures.

Well, Ser Donathon doesn’t ride a horse, or wield a sword, but sure I can use this mini for my knight.

Before the first session of a campaign, I ask the players for character names, backstories, and general concept. I don’t get into character sheets and numbers until the first session, which is often more character creation night than it is the start of the plot. But I also ask for a picture. As someone with almost no talent in sketching I’ve never felt comfortable with the demand that I draw my own character. So I don’t ask that. I ask for a picture whether it is a scan of original artwork, copyrighted material we don’t own the rights to that the player found on Google Images, or just a detailed description that I can use to come up with something. In today’s example I will only be using copyright-free images and original work that I created or commissioned, but you can see from “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map” that some of the tokens in my collection are obviously taken from other sources for private use.

So how would I go about making some character tokens for the players? Suppose I ask for pictures, and from one player I receive a link to an image of an elf from Pixabay (a wonderful site offering copyright-free images where almost all the stock photos and illustrations used on this blog come from) and a description from another player: “She is a humanoid, with a head like a cat, and an eerie green glow.” The submitted image is easy to handle. Open up the good old word processor and insert the image on the page. I don’t need software that is any good for page layouts, just something to ensure that the scale is close enough to what I need. Most word processors can handle the task of drawing simple shapes at specified dimensions, so for use with a 0.5″ grid map I can draw a circle or square at that size on top of my image to make sure the scale is correct.

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I will want to scale the image down a little bit more if I am making a token for a 0.5″ grid

For the second one, I will take a picture from my own media library of a suitable cat and fire up a good image editor. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a big fan of cheap or free stuff whenever it is made available morally and legally above board. One of the reasons for this that the 90/10 rule of program optimization also applies to usage cases: it is likely that 90% of Photoshop users will use 10% of the available features. I know I am firmly in the 10%. I don’t do advanced image editing; I just need something that isn’t as appallingly featureless as MS Paint. Sensible methods for cropping, basic colour adjustment, and the ability to do some simple masking is all I need. Paying for the latest version of professional-grade software seems pretty steep when all I want to do is take my picture of a cat, crop it, then mess around with the hue and saturation a little bit. For my purposes I find that paint.net is fantastic because it does all of this and it’s a free download. So I open a photo of a cat, crop it, then adjust the hue to emphasize green and crank up the saturation. A cat with an eerie green glow.

I will lay out as many images as I need to make the tokens, then print the page. I find my consumer-grade colour laser printer produces a high enough quality of image for this purpose, but I could take it over to a local shop if I had no printer at home or a truly awful inkjet. Then I apply two-sided tape to the back of the page well beyond the edges where I will carefully cut them out. This, for anyone not familiar with design terms, is called using a bleed. It means that your image is printed first, then cut down to size allowing the image to go right to the edge. I will affix the image to a small piece of cardboard taken from my household recycling bin. The finished token will look something like this.

Ca[tion
Preparing the printed image for cutting. Tape works much, much better than craft glue. I learned my lesson when producing this beauty of a dungeon tile. Nothing, neither weights nor a steam iron, has ever been able to fix that piece of work.
So, if your fictional character is as simple and flat as the character token I would use to represent them on a grid map, perhaps it is worth reconsidering how you portray the character in general. But there is indeed more to your elf than being slim, glamourous, and skilled with the longbow then I think its worth celebrating the character with a unique visual element even if you yourself lack the skills of an artist. Like the grid map or the graphics that give you an impression of the world, so too can your tokens represent the diverse array of characters in your game. I hope today’s foray into practical tablecraft had provided a little bit of inspiration even if it’s not something that you’re going to do for your group and your game.

White People Talking

In this post I’m going more game-of-life, philosophical, and political than usual. A few things have happened in the past few days: my local university had another case of deplorable posters. Twitter user @jaythenerdkid posted an excellent sequence of tweets on how social justice work isn’t always just. Another man in the USA was executed by police for the crime of being black. About all of these things, white people will be talking. We will be talking about racism in the media, about policing, about political correctness, about what makes “us” good white people as opposed to those “bad” ones for whom making America great again is making it white again. Last week I wrote about when it is better to not play than it is to win or lose. This week I will talk about what that means in some very serious games.

Full disclosure: I am white/cis male/straight/middle income/no specific disabilities. When I speak of “white people” I am not talking about someone else. I’m talking about myself, most of my friends and family, and others who make up the majority in Anglo-North America.

Yep, this is basically what all my dinner parties look like while we discuss the world’s problems.

One bad habit white people have is to to criticize “political correctness” as a failing. It may be true that there is something there to criticize if you use a very specific definition of it, but the way the term is thrown around generally doesn’t refer to a nuanced critique of insincere theatrical performance of opposition to bigotry. In general, being opposed to “political correctness” equates to the deliberate normalization of dehumanizing terms and false assertions against anyone who doesn’t fit that demographic I belong to. It requires a person to believe that life is a finite, zero-sum game in which the winners rightfully exploit the losers, and it’s right to put winning before any other ethical principle. If it wasn’t white people doing the winning, then we’d be doing the losing according to this wildly defective way of thinking. When talking to someone who rants about “political correctness” it is not worth trying to win arguments with then because the facts won’t matter when fundamental principles clash. I implore my fellow white people to choose better principles, and to “win” against those who choose the zero-sum game by depriving them of an audience rather than pummelling them into submission. Agreeing to and playing by their rules will not lead to anything good.

But what about those people, often white self-styled “progressives” who seem to have appointed themselves the language police? The ones who delight in the gotcha moments of showing how good they are at finding and denouncing bad white people for using the wrong words and phrases. They aren’t interested in the messy work of improving our society and our culture. Their concern is about burnishing their personal reputations and those of the institutions they manage. This is what I think @jaythenerdkid was calling out in that series of tweets. Criticism and discussion should be about understanding and improving the societal and cultural environments in which we live together, not about sorting out the good people from the bad. The winners from the losers. Being an even better racist prover than Señor Chang. This is a game we should not play.

I agree with her that it is particularly odious for a white person to seek the mantle of the saviour, as if it is possible for us to be so liberal, so progressive, so free of the “problematic” that we can solve all the others’problems without having to actually make any room for the people for whom we presume to speak. That’s just not the way it works. Sure, I’m white and I here I am saying anti-racist things, but I claim only to speak for myself and not for the people who suffer from systemic prejudice. They can speak for themselves. They don’t need me to speak for them. My responsibility is to speak for myself and into the spaces which they do not have access. I am concerned with keeping my own house in order, not in winning titles.

So, what does that have to do with white people talking about acts of evil, both small and large? I think we can reasonably come to two conclusions:

  1. White people must accept that there are some ugly realities about our society and culture and that it is our responsibility to do our part in making things better. A failure to do so, and seeking to debate the problem out of existence, doesn’t just perpetuate the unjustified termination of life. It ensures that such happens in unheard silence, and that is evil.
  2. Doing our part to make things better doesn’t mean getting into a pissing contest to see who is the wokest white guy there ever was. In fact, that is counter-productive. Don’t even try. People of colour don’t owe you a stamp of approval for proving yourself worthy. You don’t even need one in order to work on making things better, so just keep making it awkward anyway. If you have the chance to do good without getting an award for doing so, just do it.

So, that’s me, a white person talking about racism. Take from it what you will, feel free to criticize me all you like, but whatever you do please don’t stay silent while this kind of thing keeps on happening. The problems large and small are all getting much harder to ignore. If we keep going the way we are going, allowing people to be dehumanized and killed in silence, we’re gonna have a bad time.

The Difference Between Not Losing and Not Playing

If you are losing at a finite game, there are two ways you can win within the rules:

  1. Change your opponent: defeat them by circumventing their advantages, coerce them into make fatal mistakes, or overpower them by whatever means are allowable within the game. For example, in a political contest, you change your opponent when you are able to stick a label on them like lyin’ or crooked or racist. In a war, you change your opponent’s resolve by killing their forces. This doesn’t always work because some games are pretty tight with the rules; I don’t know of many things one can do within a chess match to change the opponent aside from dubious methods of “psyching out” the opponent.
  2. Change yourself: this is the generally accepted method of defeating your competition in future instances of the game you are either losing or have already lost. You change your own tactics, practice your own skills, train harder, and so on. Become better somehow.

The third way is to change the rules of the game. Whether or not this is successful depends entirely on the consent of the other players in the game. This happens all the time in online multiplayer games where an update “nerfs” some aspect of the game to improve balance or when you are playing a friendly game and need to improvise a little bit to keep the game going. Either the players agree to the rule changes, or they stop playing. More likely, the game is played to its end and then the rules are changed for the next iteration to prevent the same strategy from winning again. When participants in a political contest talk about campaign finance reform, it’s always for the next election rather than the one taking place right now.

When one tries to change the rules in the middle of the game and does not receive consent from the other players, that is cheating. However, if you see that your opponent is breaking the rules and consent to keep on playing (perhaps the rules provide for some kind of penalty), then the opponent is not cheating and you are still in play. A professional hockey player who drops his gloves and starts punching an opposing player is not breaking the rules of the game. The rules allow for that. Of course, he’s going to receive a penalty or other sanction. But if hockey fights were truly against the rules, then the moment one breaks out, the game would stop and the local police would be called and the assailant would be facing criminal charges. Although this can happen in extreme circumstances, it’s not a common outcome of a hockey fight.

That this will result in a trip to the penalty box does not mean it is against the rules of hockey; it means that the rules of hockey allow for this to happen.

Not playing is the fourth way to go, and it should be distinguished from accepting a loss. Not playing is walking away from the table without conceding a loss, even if the other player(s) yell “forfeit!” as loud as they can. It’s also the hardest thing to do in many serious games. It’s easy in recreational games. I barely have a handle on the rules of Go. I’m not going to play in a highly competitive game of Go. Isn’t that easy? But what happens when it’s a political contest? A war? Isn’t political apathy a bad thing? Doesn’t pacifism mean the fascists/communists/fundamentalists win? Hey buddy, my human rights are on the line here. The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

How, then, can we ever listen to the Buddhist monk telling us to let go of suffering when the struggle is real? How then can we respect Ghandi when his commitment to pacifism is strong enough for him to tell the British to let the Nazis slaughter them?

“I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength, whether expressed through the muscle or the brain.’ Your muscular bravery is an established fact. Need you demonstrate that your brain is also as unrivaled in destructive power as your muscle? I hope you do not wish to enter into such an undignified competition with the Nazis. I venture to present you with a nobler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. ‘If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
― Mohandas Ghandi, 1940

How can a good progressive liberal not participate in a shouting match on the internet with a proud Brexiter or Trump supporter? It’s difficult. I am still working on wrapping my head around this. But I know there is value in taking this fourth option, and I can understand it in the context of one of my favourite games being referenced on one of my favourite television shows. In the Community episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” the party does not defeat Pierce through changing him, themselves, or the game. It’s when they stop playing. Pierce is defeated not by dice rolls in the AD&D game or by an out-of-game display of superior charisma, but when he loses his audience.

It is one thing for a person or faction to lose a contest according to accepted rules, but true defeat comes not with infamy but with irrelevancy. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice, but the art of not playing is perhaps one of the most important to master.

All Hail the Mighty Fog Cloud!

One of the great things about the tabletop RPG is the tales that players tell of games past. Today I will tell you about how my recent experience in restoring the world to its rightful balance as the almighty fog cloud got me thinking about the time investment we make in those games.

I had the distinct privilege of being invited to a one-night Pathfinder session away from my regular group. I played a pre-generated Kitsune sorcerer. It’s a standard practice for “one-shots” to have pre-generated characters rather than sitting down with blank character sheets and rule books. I value character customization quite a bit when it’s practical, but for a one-night scenario it’s just not practical. We could easily have spent more time generating characters than playing them. So we got a choice of four characters: a sorcerer, a rogue, a fighter, and a cleric. I was excited to find that nobody else was in a rush to claim the sorcerer. I enjoy spellcasters in general, and especially the sorcerer in editions of Dungeons and Dragons which use Vancian spellcasting.

This affected my experience in very specific ways. Vancian spellcasting refers to rules about magic in games based on memorizing spells which are “forgotten” upon casting rather than having a “mana” or “energy” pool which can be used to cast any known spells. The sorcerer, unlike the standard wizard, does not conform to this Vancian system. They have a spell list and a number of spells to cast per day. What this means: more versatility in what my character can do in a day. More room for experimentation with less need for preparation. If this was a longer campaign, I might not have chosen “fog cloud” or “ghost sound” as spells that my new character knows. And even if I did, I would not necessarily have memorized these ones in particular just in case there was a need for a distraction. But as a sorcerer, I had them on the list that was handed to me. And so, when the big bad evil cult decided to lay waste to the innocent village our party happened to be passing through, I had what it took to make a snap decision: enter the mighty fog cloud.

All hail!
I spent more time summoning a fog cloud and trying to intimidate enemies with a booming voice like a vulpine Wizard of Oz than I did doing the usual D&D stuff: magic missile enemies to death and loot their bodies. Of course I did some of that, including turning a water creation spell into a weapon against fire elementals. Yeah, the ones I would soon find out were born of sacred fire and were actually there to rejuvenate the local temple. Oops.

So, what’s the point here? I enjoyed myself immensely without investing very much time at all compared to a full campaign. With a great group and a fantastic DM, I was able to take an assigned character and make it my own, complete with a sassy personality and a sense of kinship with actual foxes. While I do think that being involved in a longer story is a matter of getting what you give, it’s not a linear relationship. Playing a little bit, even just a single session, can still yield a tale to tell.

Whenever we engage in a finite game for recreation, we expect a return on the investment of our time. Whether it’s Dungeons and Dragons or cribbage, it hardly seems worth playing if we have to spend a lot of time to get a small amount of enjoyment. What really made this one-night Pathfinder session work for me is that despite the need for pre-generated characters and a simple plot to make it possible to complete in one night, I was able to put my own spin on the character that wouldn’t be the same as another person playing the same character in the same scenario. The amount of time spent on rules was minimized and offering choices to players was maximized. A diverse array of actions were available to me and allowed me to do things that would not be possible in any other sort of game. Pathfinder‘s rules are relatively streamlined, especially in the hands of a good DM. Everything worked out just right in a way that highlights the potentials rather than the pitfalls. It was among the best two hours I have ever spent on games. I hope that the next adventure I run can hit as many of those points as possible in order to make the time spent by the players worthwhile.

Space, space… going to space!

Back when I wrote Diversions and Doorkeys I stated that I was not a video game reviewer at the beginning of the post. The comment on the post then praises my review of Undertale. I propose to resolve this apparent contradiction by talking about what I meant when I said I am not a reviewer.

My objective when I started this blog was to talk about the ideas behind games, not necessarily the games themselves. My intention is not to for this to be a rinky-dink self-published version of what Gamespot, IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, etc. do professionally. I don’t want to try and keep up with what’s new or the most popular. I want to write about games I find interesting even if they are several years old and/or somewhat obscure. A video game reviewer might have to be familiar with how new games compare to others in the genre or other games released in the same time frame, while I don’t intend to keep up with all of that. Sometimes I might want to skip over talking about some aspects of the technical gameplay to focus on why a person might play a game over how. A good reviewer would have to make some comment on several aspects of each game, which means that they would have to actually play the game in order to give it a fair review.

That brings me to a game that is fairly recent and that grabbed my interest fairly quickly with one of my favourite watch words: infinite. As soon as I heard a little bit about No Man’s Sky, I had to find out more. And I did: I found out why I’m not actually as excited to play the game as I was initially, before even trying it out myself. I’m not reviewing it because I haven’t played it, but I’ve watched and read some things about No Man’s Sky that has knocked it off the top of my list of video games I’m eagerly anticipating.

At first, I was as excited about the prospect of peaceful exploration of a vast and beautiful universe as you might expect the space core to be. “Procedural generation” is the buzzword that most of the hype I’ve heard about No Man’s Sky revolves around. It means that the game world that isn’t designed and drawn by a developer or development team. It comes together in a new way each time a new instance of the game is started. That’s not new; I still remember playing through Diablo II’s procedurally generated dungeons sixteen years ago. What’s new is the scale: No Man’s Sky promises us 18 quintillion planets, which is more than any human can possibly explore in a single lifetime.

The observable universe, containing an estimated 100 billion stars, or 1/1,800,000 of what is said to be possible in No Man’s Sky.

If you only spent one second on each planet, and did nothing but explore planets for 100 years, you’d fall short of 3.2 billion. Spending one second on each of 18 quintillion planets would be like taking the approximate age of the Earth, multiplying it by 1400, then by a million, then by a million again. My math is heavily simplified, but the point is that No Man’s Sky is almost incomprehensibly YUGE. I’ve heard it described as “infinite,” though I think that is a mistake.

No Man’s Sky seems every bit as finite as Andariel’s Cathedral: you may never see the precise same thing twice, but the limitations still exist. They’re conceivable even if we can’t reach out and touch them, and to be truly infinite is to be beyond the conceivable. In both Diablo II and No Man’s Sky the player can’t rely on specific knowledge of what monster or mineral deposit lies around which corner, but can know exactly what to expect conceptually. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact I would be really worried about any game that was indisputably infinite. That’s getting into The Matrix or OASIS territory. That No Man’s Sky is a finite game is not the problem I have with it. It’s that I was hoping for something that would push more boundaries, spatial and otherwise, rather than simply having well-defined boundaries that just happen to be far outside my reach. From what I am led to understand from watching play-through videos, it’s an exploration game where the main antagonist is your inventory management system, sort of like a massive multi-planet 3D Terraria but with less emphasis on building construction.

Caption
The eternal struggle in Terraria: keeping your inventory clear of garbage such as blinkroot seeds, waterleaf plants, and 999-stacks of dirt blocks.

So, what would excite the space core in me? A spiritual successor to Hyperspeed, a game from 1991 that I picked up on Steam a few months back for a cheap nostalgia trip. It’s a game where the player is sent out in a Trailblazer class starship, which though huge and powerful, is capable of being piloted by a single person. The idea is that you have been sent out ahead of a colony ship in order to gather resources, find a suitable planet for a colony, and ensure the neighbourhood is safe for colonization through some combination of peace treaties and warfare. As the player, you manage exploration, resource gathering, diplomacy, ship-to-ship combat, and the ship’s engine configuration. The limits in this game can be quite harsh due to the design standards of its time (remember, this is a game that was available on 5.25″ floppy disks). I can certainly forgive it for being limited compared to what is available today. One example of these limitations is as follows: my impression is it is almost impossible to honestly roleplay your way through the first trip into the Cerberus cluster and win. I tried. I explored, I gathered as many resources as I could find, secured the right alliances, and defeated my mortal foes. Even after turning on my allies and going on a resource-hungry rampage through the cluster I came to a dead end in being able to find what I needed to start my colony. To win, I would need to metagame: know which unknown star was the Athdalde homeworld, beeline it for that system, then commit swift genocide before I could even see what they do to solar systems (the only thing they are good at is strip mining at the planetary level). Without taking this step it may very well be impossible to gather enough resources before the rapacious Athdalde turn too many systems into barren husks. And perhaps even then I might have to do more. Knowing that I had to have the foresight that can only come from a previous run at the same cluster made the whole thing a little less fun, though I still thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia trip for what it was worth (less than $5).

Caption
The Trailblazer’s navigation display showing the Cerberus cluster.

This is what I imagine is possible: start with the same concept by giving me an awesome ship and tell me to go on a single-player expedition in an unexplored region of space. Except with the magic of procedural generation, unbind me from having to know what sequence of actions leads to success and create new star maps and alien races for each new instance of the game. But don’t stop there. Randomize the plot elements too. Does one of the generated races enslave a quadrant? How many previously unknown human colonies does the player come across? What possibilities are there for war and/or peace? Do I need to find a habitable but unclaimed planet to settle on, or can I impose (or peacefully negotiate the place of) my people on a populated world? What happens after my new colony is established? Am I even obligated to support the mission of resettling humans from Earth? In addition to the amount of space that can be covered, several other boundaries can be explored and played with. I know that’s asking a lot, and No Man’s Sky may well be a masterpiece in its own right and I still do want to play it, but I know it’s not the near-infinite space exploration game that I thought it could have been when I first heard of it.

The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Caption
Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.