Skip to content

Almost Infinite Posts

Not A Game

Dear Esther; this is not a game. Spoilers ahoy! On the recent occasion of celebrating the anniversary of my birth, my wonderful fiancée bought me a gift. She is not a video gamer, but set up a Steam account so that she could conveniently browse my wishlist as well as those of our friends. Yuletide gift shopping can be rather simple and convenient for people who like PC games. However, the item on my list she picked is something that people struggle to define. Is Dear Esther a game? Interactive fiction? A walking simulator? What is it? The best short answer I can come up with is “it is hauntingly beautiful.” It is a psychologically dense fictional story. But it’s not a game.

If the words “graphic novel” didn’t already refer to a specific kind of printed book, I might have considered using those words. It is not a finite game because there are no objectives to be met, titles to be won; with its boundaries it is finite but the essence of the game is missing. It is therefore as far from an infinite game as I can imagine, being decisively neither of those things. It is not interactive fiction, because although the viewer/listener controls the pace and direction of the camera, there is almost nothing to interact with. It’s not a simulator because it didn’t try to replicate a real world process or operation. It’s not a book or a movie. It comes in the form of a video game, but does not function as a video game. It’s just… a story. One I can more easily recommend than describe.

Night time on the abandoned Hebridean island where the story takes place. I loved the aesthetic throughout the experience.

When I said “almost” nothing to interact with, I was referring to one critical moment in my experience where I actually felt like I made a choice that affected how my experience was to play out. Ian Danskin, in his video Story Beats: Dear Esther, identifies the scene at the bottom of the pool as the critical part of the story where the viewer/listener experiences doubt over what is real and what is not. I don’t disagree with this, though I don’t think I found it as jarring as he did. In assuming the persona of the narrator, I immediately worried about my sanity and ability to perceive reality in about the first minute of play. It was when I saw the structural formula for ethanol scrawled in luminescent paint on the inside of a ruined shed. That’s just not normal. The picture above? That’s mostly normal for an abandoned island, save for the seemingly eternal candles that I certainly didn’t light. I was wondering what was real and what was not right from the start.

The scene at the bottom of the pool was, for me, the critical point because that is where I made the choice that mattered. Throughout the rest of the story I could choose which way to walk and what to look at, and indeed I ended up doing some unnecessary and unintentional backtracking when I missed where the path ahead is. I could loiter as long as I liked, but there was only one path for me to go forward on. Except at the bottom of the pool. I didn’t linger at the bottom, even for a minute. In-character as the narrator, I was still trying to piece together my own story. Yes, there was a lot of doubt over my grasp on reality, but even in the craziest parts I still felt somehow tethered to reality as I understood it. Finding the accident scene at the bottom of a pool in a cave was just too much for me. Too unreal. As soon as I saw what it was, my in-character reaction was along these lines. The first thing I did when I saw the scene of a street was swim right back up to the surface, which dropped me back into the relative reality of the island. I didn’t even bother to look at the car or anything else at the bottom of that pool. That is when Dear Esther felt most interactive, if not a game. This is where I wondered what this kind of storytelling medium could accomplish with something more interactive.

In the end, I enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone who likes thick psychological literature as well as people who are interested in storytelling itself. It is far from necessary to be a gamer to enjoy Dear Esther because it is not a game by any definition that I work with. As a lover of fiction, this is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy. I think my fiancée made a pretty good call on this one.

CAGEO: Fitting a Frigate

This is the third post in my series Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. You will see that I am now linking to a nifty new index page that you can access from the sidebar. The other thing you might notice is that this isn’t a Saturday feature. I will be doing some EVE posts during the week when I have something else in mind for Saturday, because I know not everyone wants to read about this one game all the time. Some of these extra posts won’t be as long or as detailed, but I will still be doing one for every two hours I actively play.

OK, enough housekeeping, let’s get to talking about the game.

When I last left off, I was docked in a station with a few hundred thousand ISK in my wallet and a beginner’s mining ship. This week I started running some industry missions for the career agent so that I could learn more aspects of the game, generate some income, and keep my skill training queue in motion. I am finding the learning curve is treating me well so far and not living up to the rumours. The first mining mission was neither hard to figure out nor was it a paint-by-numbers experience like the tutorial.

I had a little hiccup when my first mining ship, a Venture class ore miner, was told it did not have enough cargo capacity to complete the mission. I had to do a Google search to find out that this warning message was only considering the space available for items, and that being a specialized mining ship, my Venture had more than enough capacity specifically dedicated to hauling ore. Without the EVE forums just a few clicks away, I would not have been able to play this phase of the game according to the rules as I understood them. Fortunately, those who play this game have the ear of the demons who come when you call their name: the EVE community seems very responsive to anyone who is willing to engage with it. While the game may be very deep indeed, most questions one has can be answered in the forums if not the many Wikis, subreddits, etc. Simply by mentioning the game in my tweet on December 3, not having posted it anywhere in particular, I got a small spike in readership of this blog. I haven’t even reached out by posting on the forums yet, and already I know the community is there. That is really neat.

Anyway, it took me a while to figure out that the feldspar I mined in my first career agent task was supposed to be reprocessed into tritanum for my second task. I went back out to the asteroids looking for the finished product when all I had to do was refine the stuff I was already asked to do in the previous mission, which I could do while sitting in the station. Doing these little missions require a little bit more effort than the tutorial, but it’s still all about learning the basics. Eventually, though, I did get to the point where the industry career agent is offering me a mission in dangerous space. This is when I decided I needed to outfit the frigate hull I bought last week when thinking about pursuing the military agent. While I doubt the hostile NPC drones will actually present an existential threat to any beginner ship, I wanted to play with the idea of putting together the best ship I can with my small budget, even if it is a tad unnessecary. I ended up with a Blast class frigate, which I renamed Genesis because I enjoy naming ships rather than just having it designated by owner and class. I think it’s how the Star Trek fan inside of me imagines a science fiction character talking about his ship, rather than how in real life I refer to my automobile by make rather than by a name.

“Aleff Knoll’s Burst,” renamed Genesis.

As I am outfitting the ship it occurs to me that I can buy a few components to make it pack a little punch and be tougher than a child’s birthday party piñata. Not by much, being my first ship, but I figured I should make an effort. So I bought some upgrades for the Genesis which happened to be eight jumps away. I quickly figured out what this actually means: I have to actually go to the station where the part is to pick it up. This involved going out to the edge of “high sec” space, which worried me a little bit considering I hadn’t even got the skills and the ship upgrades I wanted to. The ones that I hope at least buy me a few additional seconds against beginner-level NPCs and other new players who aren’t well equipped for griefing guys like me. I was a little bit worried when I noticed the security rating on the system where I had to go for my new part. As it turns out, going from systems where the security rating is 1.0 (the highest) down to 0.5 is still considered “high security” space. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t taking as big a risk as I thought I was when I saw that security rating dropping. While high security is no guarantee that someone won’t try and blow up my ship for the lulz, it is at least comforting to know that the in-game police force will come harass them if they do.

And lastly, I find that I am cheating on my time limit, a little bit. One of the restrictions of being on a free account is that I can only have my character training three skills at one time, and the third skill must be scheduled to start within 24 hours. This means I could have been wasting oodles of training time (which increments in real-world time, not in-game time) if I didn’t go in and queue up more skills (which can be prerequisites for using cool new ships and components). So I’ve popped on for a couple minutes at a time each day outside my play time to keep the queue running and claim my Youil Festival gift crates. I expect this will calm down once my skills are up to the point where the next level is 7+ days away so I can leave it alone on any day when I am not actively playing. All of this to say, I am quite a fan of the balance CCP has achieved in giving me enough game for free that I want to check back in almost every day, but not too much for me to fail to see the value in subscribing and not necessarily drawing me in for huge amounts of time. I’ve got a brand new copy of Civ 6 sitting in my Steam inventory for when I am ready to risk having a video game attempt to eat my soul. I am at least saving my delve into that rabbit hole for an evening when I don’t have to work the next day.

CAGEO: A Measure of Property

This is the second post in my series Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. Today I will be talking about property, represented fundamentally in EVE Online by ISK. It’s the in-game currency which sort-of has a real world equivalent value. I say sort-of because CCP Games (the developer and publisher) forbids any sort of direct conversion of in-game currency to real money which, I assume, is done to cut down a little bit on exploitative farming. They do, however, let you convert your real money into in-game currency (one can buy a monthly subscription for about $15 USD, or Ƶ1,000,000,000 ISK at current market rates). That’s why people can estimate the dollar value of ships in EVE, such as the $10,000 keepstar that’s under attack as of ten minutes ago at the time of posting (18:50 UTC-Reykjavik).

Buying Aleff his first data analyzer.
Buying Aleff his first data analyzer blueprint. I’ve got about Ƶ400k to play with at this point, which is 0.004% of the ISK I would need to buy myself a month of “Omega State” time, which is the upgraded experience for paid subscribers.

In the first hour and a half of tutorial missions, the tutorial bot Aura taught Aleff Knoll how to buy blueprints in the market using ISK. Using such small amounts of money, and the fact that I have done nothing to earn it but follow the very simple instructions in the tutorial, means that I understand the process of exchanging currency for merchandise, but not the value of money – much like the kid handed a few dollars to buy an ice cream.

Fleet Commander Vadari, the quest-giver NPC from the tutorial missions for my faction (Minmatar), does come off a little overdone. The narrative serves as an adequate framing device, but it’s not going to be winning any awards. Which is perfectly OK, because this isn’t the game for people who are looking for witty dialogue (these people are better off browsing the Bioware catalogue). EVE Online is a game for people who are looking for the biggest, most player-driven sandbox in the world that has enough lore in the background to make it work. I can forgive a little NPC ham here and there. The only reason it really sticks out is that I know how little the challenge and accomplishments were despite the effusive praise being thrown at me. Indeed, the significance of property hinges upon being seen and recognized. But I can claim all of New Eden as my property, and nobody would recognize my title no matter what kind of hero Vadari thinks I will become.

Recruit, you have consistently BLOWN AWAY my expectations by demonstrating the ability to follow simple instructions and click on highlighted buttons! You are a legend!

“One reason for the necessity of a society is its role in ascribing and validating the titles to property” (Carse, p.47, Finite and Infinite Games). We can presume that at some point, the title to property will be enforced by coercive force. In the context of EVE, it is presumed that my ISK and everything I buy with ISK belongs to my character. It is therefore a measure of my titles, that is, the sum of the public recognition of all the little finite challenges I have won.

Titles to property can be enforced by coercion, but no amount of force can truly make a person acknowledge a title – this is voluntary. As V says in the 2005 film V for Vendetta, “stealing implies ownership; you can’t steal from the censor.” No matter what kind of coercive force the Norsefire regime could apply, nothing could possibly make V recognize their titles. If enough people with enough power come to agree with V, then the regime loses all their titles to all their property no matter what their laws say. In order for laws (and the coercive force backing those laws) to be truly effective, the owner must persuade others that the titles are legitimate.

Legitimacy of the title is based on how well the owners can show that it is compensatory. “There must be an equivalency between what the owners have given of themselves and what they have received from others by way of their titles” (Carse, p.47, Finite and Infinite Games).  And so, whether it’s my first frigate or a keepstar, in order for my to rightly consider a ship in EVE Online as property, it must be seen as appropriate compensation for the effort put into its acquisition. Although the game is more complex that a simple matter of property acquisition, it can be said that earning ISK and visibly consuming it by building bigger and more elaborate starships is one measure of how much I am winning the game. To get started on this road, I must therefore start acquiring currency.

In order to facilitate my accumulation of ISK, and get me started on the way to worthwhile measures of property, the end of the tutorial pointed me at some career agents.

Aleff’s first visit to a career agent.

It will be interesting to find out how my fun can be had in this area of the game. The ISK I earn from doing these career missions will represent something, whether it was “I completed a set of challenges for beginner players and am moving up the ladder” or “I put lots of time into grinding.” I hope for more of the former than the latter, as the grind can become a chore and I have more than enough of those to do offline.

I spent my last half hour of play time this week messing around with my skill training queue such that the valuable days in between sessions do not go to waste. Having training occur in real time rather than game time seems like a boon to players like me, whose characters can continue training while I am away for a significant amount of time. There are lots of guides out there, but I just started picking up whatever looked kind of useful. Bonus to shields? Sure, why not? I can specialize more later once I can actually understand those user guides. I will have to check in and see how things are going tomorrow, since I don’t think I will enjoy the time dilation I expect will be affecting the rest of today.

The Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online

MMO. The TLA that became famous shortly after I graduated from high school. Despite enjoying Warcraft III, I never picked up WoW because I felt that a game that never really ended wouldn’t be good for me. I had some reservations about being able to pay a monthly fee for something I could get too involved with. Indeed, the lifetime cost of a WoW account kept current from 2004 until now exceeds $2300. Which is fine, if in 12 years you’ve derived enough entertainment value from the game relative to how much one might spend on theatre tickets, sports/hobby equipment, board games, rule books and miniatures, etc. It’s not fine if the daily grind has long ago become more of a chore than a way to have fun, because you are paying to work. If you are going to do something monotonous that you don’t like (anymore), it’s nice to at least get paid for it.

My main fear, though, was not that I would waste money or even time. It was that I would get sucked into taking the game too seriously. I can look upon my time spent playing any other video game without a sense that the outcome still matters to me. The experience still matters to me, but not the score. The key concept here is that infinite players “enter into finite games with the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players.” (Carse, p.14, Finite and Infinite Games) Therefore, to enjoy infinite play, one must approach a game playfully rather than seriously.

And so, to prevent myself from taking this game too seriously (a pitfall I anticipate for a game derided by detractors as “spreadsheets in space”) I am introducing the following limitations on my play:

  1. I am going to start with an Alpha clone. This is EVE jargon for “free account.” This was a recently introduced feature to encourage expansion of the user base, with Omega clones being the characters associated with paid subscriptions. I am doing this at least initially to reduce the risk that money spent on this becomes a sunk cost which makes playing feel a little less voluntary. I am not ruling out the future possibility of a subscription, but this will come much later if at all.
  2. I am going to be decidedly casual. I am going to limit myself to two hours of active play time per week, even if I feel like I have the time and the desire to keep playing. This is being done to ensure the experience is applicable to people who have busy lives outside of video gaming. I would expect that playing EVE is a very different experience for people with lots of their time on their hands, and I want to focus on the experience of people who don’t. Remember, it’s a limit rather than a minimum.
  3. Every weekly play session comes with a blog post, but it won’t necessarily be my Saturday feature as it is today and will be next week. I assume that people reading this blog will also want to read about things other than EVE for the next few months, so I will keep on writing about other subjects at least 2-3 times per month.

The goal I have for this series is not to tell the readers of this series of posts how to play the game. Indeed, there are many resources readily available for that, which quite quickly delve into numbers and tables and that’s not something I will be doing at all. My goal is to provide a narrative about my experience as a casual Alpha with my thoughts on the gameplay as it relates to the philosophical concept of infinite play. A good narrative about the experience of playing EVE Online, rather than guides and references on how to do it, is something I haven’t yet found on the internet. That is what I hope to provide here.

Creating a mask to wear, the face of Aleff Knoll.
Creating a mask to wear, the face of Aleff Knoll.

I started this morning with the character creation screen, a common experience in video roleplaying games. I could have spent all day here. In the finite aspect of playing a game, play is theatrical rather than dramatic. No matter how trivial it seems, I like it when I get to choose my own name and have lots of options for the mask and costume I will wear. Do I try to represent myself or play as something else? I settled on going halfway, not the opposite in every way to my appearance but absolutely not a self-portrait either. I find it a little easier to separate the character from myself when I make the character physically different from me in one or more ways. I chose the name Aleff Knoll as a reference to Aleph Null, the smallest infinite cardinal number. What that means is explained in plain language by Michael Stevens (Vsauce) in his video “How To Count Past Infinity.” I imagine all of this physical appearance stuff to be trivial when it comes to the actual dramatic play of the game, but for some reason I can’t help getting engrossed in detailed character generators.

I will say this about the tutorial mission in my first hour and a half: it’s more intuitive than I thought it might be considering how fast many of the beginner guides to EVE go from “this is a science fiction game based on far-future space colonization” to “here is a table full of numbers.” There is a lot on the screen that I don’t know about in depth, but the experience so far has been relatively easy to follow. The plot seems a little overwrought given that I know a new character in this universe is a gnat in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t want to get too nitpicky. I know that it’s the open sandbox that makes the game popular, not the quality of the NPC dialogue.

At this point, I’ve just learned how to manufacture my first “civilian data analyzer” (which I imagine to be, in terms of computers, more or less this level of advancement) and am ready to start going on some beginner missions. But that will have to wait until next week, as my play time has expired for now.

New Stuff

This is my 30th post on this blog. I think I’ve got enough space here now to be a little bit self-referential. Today, rather than talking about tabletop games or video games or political games I will be reflecting a little bit on my approach then announcing some new stuff!

This may seem counter-intuitive to people who know how blogging works, but I’ve actually avoided doing a lot of self-promotion since I started the blog. I didn’t want to put time, effort, and possibly money into hyping up something and then have it fizzle out just like billions of other ideas that people on the internet have. I didn’t want to try and sell people a promise. Now I feel like I’ve got a solid base of content that shows that I’m somewhat serious about creating stuff. So, without further ado…

New Stuff!

Here is some new stuff that I have either added today or will be doing in the near future:

  1. I added an “About” page to the site to provide some background information on myself and the blog for all those new readers I’m going to be getting.
  2. I’m still doing Mapvember 2016. Check out my Twitter or Facebook pages to see my maps ranging from grade-school art class to reasonably good quality. The idea behind my participation is not to demonstrate the skills of an artist as much as it is to show that anyone can create practical art for tabletop games even if they can’t draw any better than an average eight year old. Also, it means that I will have an online archive of both what I’ve got physically and of ideas. It’ll be a little bit easier to access than having to sort through everything I have in storage.

    Some of my freehand maps I made for Mapvember 2016.
    Some of my freehand maps I made for Mapvember 2016.
  3. Now that EVE Online has a free to play option, I’ve decided to do a series on that. My dad plays this game and has been trying to get me into it for a long time. I’ve resisted because I just can’t devote the kind of time that a retired science fiction fan has available and I know that it’s a huge game that could easily be a full time occupation if one let it become so. However, in discussion with a friend about exploring games that are deep enough to be, well, “almost infinite” I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t ignore the biggest and most complex MMO out there. I will be doing a series called The Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online which will chronicle my experience using an “alpha state” (read: free-to-play) character on a strictly casual basis (maximum 1-2 hours per week). The mission will be to see how possible it is for a skeptic like me to play and enjoy the game casually without building up a sense of guilt over sunk costs. Humouring my dad will be a nice side bonus to this.
  4. Self-promotion. In 2017 I will be actually be putting some work into promoting the blog now that I can confidently say that it’s not just an ephemeral daydream. It’s a real project now and I want it to go somewhere. If you are a blogger, podcaster, etc. who likes to be a signal booster for this kind of stuff, I’d love to have your support in spreading the word. Seen and Heard in Edmonton has featured my posts a few times now, which I really appreciate. And if you don’t have your own project, engaging with the Almost Infinite social media pages also helps reassure me I’m not just typing into the wind.
  5. I want to actively encourage comments on this post about what you think of the blog in general and where you want to see it go. Or, just say you like what I am doing. I want to hear from you.

Mandagon: I Don’t Get It

“Explore Mandagon, a world inspired by Tibetan theology and philosophy. With a focus on life and death, discover what it means to make a true sacrifice…” – Mandagon’s store page on Steam

That sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Sounds like a video game I would write about. And available for free on Steam? Too good to be true! I just had to download and play Mandagon. The game is relatively easy to understand: you move your totem-block avatar through what I think is the most beautiful pixel-art landscape I have ever seen. This game is gorgeous.

The beautiful pixel-art landscape, with the blocky protagonist in profile.

It seems fairly straightforward: you find stone tablets to insert in the shrines, and in doing so unseal the big temple door. Along the way the player also finds several cryptic messages in a series of steles:

The blocky protagonist facing the player, at the foot of one of the steles.

The mechanics are neat, especially the statues that enabled short-range flying. Other things like unlocking the elevators was just challenging enough to make it feel like a game without making it difficult. There are also lots of seemingly-significant symbols scattered throughout the world:

If I knew my eastern philosophy better, would I understand these symbols?

There is just one problem in all of this: I don’t get it. The game was a fun little diversion and I loved the art. But the world itself remains just as much a mystery to me as it did when I read the description before downloading. I suppose I might have been able to piece something together if I wrote down all the cryptic messages from the steles. But I without an in-game incentive it was hard to find enough determination to figure it out. I just cruised through the world and did what I was incentivized to do: get the tablets to break the seals to unlock the big fancy temple door. Where is the theology? Where is the philosophy? Perhaps over my head, perhaps I passed it by, but wherever those things were it didn’t hit me. I didn’t get my mind blown any more than I did when I played through Hook, another simple almost-free game I picked up looking for a simple diversion. It was peaceful, fun, then over.

This is one thing I hope to avoid in my own work: being too clever, too subtle, for my readers/players to get it. While I might strive to write a video game or a tabletop adventure for “everyone” I still have to remember that I can only reach people who come into the experience with a similar enough set of tropes in their mind. I found Mandagon to be good, but I lacked the context to be able to appreciate anything deeper than the simple game of matching the tablets to the shrines. Perhaps I will have to find some references, read up on Tibetan Buddhism, and try again. But for now, I still have to admit that I just don’t get it yet.

Remember, Remember

I typically don’t see a film more than once during its time in the theatres. It has to be exceptional for me to go a second time before it’s available on home media. Going a third time is almost unheard of. There is only one film that I saw on the big screen three times. That film is V for Vendetta. With November 5 falling on a Saturday this year, I figured it would be a wasted opportunity to forgo talking about Guy Fawkes, V, and the meme that mask has come to represent.

Guy Fawkes was a terrorist before “terrorism” was a thing. It certainly wasn’t a good time to be a Roman Catholic in England in 1605. Now, 411 years later, we still have trouble figuring out which forms of resistance are acceptable and which forms are cures worse than the disease. The fact that Fawkes, Catesby, et. al. wanted to murder lots of people to facilitate the rise to power of their monarch of choice is conveniently ignored in V for Vendetta, especially in the film. That parliament is conveniently free from honourable members from such-and-such county, lords of wherever, and all the various staff and servants makes blowing it up less terrorist-y so that we can still identify with V. He is the liberal freedom fighter who kills a handful of neo-fascist collaborators with surgical precision. We can get on board with that, right? Just kill the ones who surely deserve it, with zero collateral damage. Doesn’t that make it easier to wear the mask of the man who would have committed an atrocity?

Sure, it makes it a better popcorn flick to be able to adopt Prothero’s slogan good guys win, bad guys lose, England prevails with a 180-degree turn to cast V as the good guy, the neo-fascists as the bad guys, and the secretly anti-Norsefire everyman as the true Englishman. But the anarchist V from the graphic novel has far fewer scruples than our 2006 superhero, and the real Guy Fawkes even fewer. The V of Moore’s graphic novels is more ambiguous, certainly doing more killing and destroying, but is acting in perfect accordance with his convictions whether we agree with them or not. The gunpowder plot conspirators cannot even claim that level of ideological purity, as we know that they would personally benefit from having a Catholic on the throne. So no matter how much I might deplore intrafaith persecution and violence, it is quite clear that I cannot even sympathize with Guy Fawkes (while still being glad the treason and plot failed.)  Nor can I endorse the unfettered anarchism of the graphic novel V any more than I can look back on la Terrueur and think of it as a great time for freedom. The mask which represents Guy Fawkes represents something far more troubling than the thought of an explosion destroying the British parliament. It represents rebellion unconstrained by the rules we have become very fond of in liberal democratic countries.

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof. But resilient as they are, not all ideas are good ideas.

By the time we get to the film, V for Vendetta is thoroughly whitewashed and ready for North American liberal consumption. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, when the movie industry acquires the rights to Alan Moore’s graphic novels they invariably create something that makes him angrily scrub his name from the project. He doesn’t seem to like it when other people make the story palatable to western liberals who like ideas and a little bit of a gray scale when it comes to morality in fiction, but who also aren’t allergic to fun and being entertained. That’s not a criticism coming from me. I like what has been built to appeal to my tastes, and so in the case of both V for Vendetta and Watchmen I enjoyed the movies more than the graphic novels.

I remember how the film inspired me. I also remember the outrageous amount of money I paid to have one of those masks shipped to my house in time for the following Halloween, way before they became ubiquitous. I still have it somewhere. I wore it for a few subsequent Halloween seasons, but then I stopped feeling like it was a good symbol for me. At first it was an article of fandom costume, but then it became the face of Anonymous, which is something I’ve always had a lot of mixed feelings about. Before becoming the face of internet libertarianism, Anonymous emerged from 4chan as a malevolent force, engaging in the sort of mob harassment that we would expect from the alt-right movement today. For the same reasons I am wary of identifying too closely with Moore’s V, I am hesitant to wear the mask that represents something ambiguous at its best. A game cannot be played when the players do not consent to the rules, and the game where political power is based on mob harassment, explosions, and death is not one I am willing to play. I appreciate the art of both the film and the graphic novel, I might wear the mask again as a costume, but the mask is not an icon that can represent who I am.

This month I am participating in Mapvember 2016. Each day of this month I will be posting some old maps from campaigns I have run in the past as well as some originals. If you love grid maps as much as I do then you should be liking my Facebook page or following me on Twitter if you don’t already.

Also, it’s Extra Life day today (November 5, 2016). If you have not already done so, please consider supporting the effort to do something good through gaming.


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.

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…