17 November, 2017

Sneak Preview of Dispatch Guide

For those who are interested in the progress of the next book to be released for The Law, here's a sneak preview of the current status.

It probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense without a copy of The Law, so here's a link to that.

Sourcebooks, Splatbooks, and Expansions

I'm working away on the formatting for my "The Law - Dispatch Guide", which is basically the GM's guide to the game. It includes ideas for how to run a coherent investigation, how to keep things interesting, how to use equipment (and create new pieces of equipment), and a final section on relationship mapping.

The book I'll work on after this is an "Agent's Guide", which is basically the player's guide with a description of the Department of Law hierarchy, a few option character variants within that hierarchy (such as SWAT, Internal Affairs, Undercover Agents, PSI-Squad, etc.), maybe a lifepath system to flesh out a character as they are being built, and a few ideas for how games by be run outside the regular shift structure to reflect an Agent's life when they aren't on patrol.

Beyond this, I'm thinking of a series of Splatbooks to flesh out the setting, or more accurately provide tools that a group can use to flesh out the setting as appropriate to their game.

For example, the "Management Guide" would provide a variant lifepath system for Management characters, a system to quickly generate management oriented NPCs, a few pre-generated NPCs to drop straight into a scene or investigation, a guide to creating corporations (altruistic or sinister), and a few notable corporations that might exist in the setting already.

Something similar would be done as a "Street Guide" but using gangs instead of corporations, a "Cult Guide" would use zany religious groups, etc.

In addition to these, I'm tninking of a "Quartermaster's Inventory" book that follows the cyberpunk game tradition of a book filled with equipment. It'll probably be presented in the form of a catalogue, or Department evidence log.

(Equipment Guide Inspiration)

At the speed I develop projects, this range of books should keep me going for a decade or so... I'll probably get bored and move on to something else before it's all done.

16 November, 2017


I may not like something, but I can still appreciate the technical expertise behind it. In this way, I could be referring to a piece of music that doesn't stir any passions in me, but I can understand why other people like it... on the other hand there could be a formulaic piece of drivel with auto-tuned lyrics in the top 40 and I might be more inclined to wonder who slept with whom, or how many dollars changed hands to get such a high public presence for the song.

It works for music, for visual arts, for game design... for just about anything where people put their passion into something. I know what I like, I know that other people like other things, but I feel there is something beneath the surface facade that has the potential to turn something into a classic.

Then something comes along and helps to explain those instinctive thoughts about quality and goodness. It doesn't give all the answers, but it does give a fresh perspective.

I've been thinking more about that lightbulb analogy, and I think it might actually answer some of the issues that I have with hodge-podge, ad-hoc systems in gaming. I think it has something to do with how good the inner filament (ie. the core mechanic) is.

Paul Stefko's Core Mechanic series in this analogy is basically a craftsman critiquing the various filaments at the centre of different gaming light bulbs... he ignores the glass, the table  and everything else, and just focuses on that central element. Through this kind of analysis we can see what the game does at it's most fundamental levels, then we can later see how the glass of the globe manipulates the light to produce the atmosphere and complete game experience.

My problem with ad hoc games is that there is no single central filament. Old-School D&D has one filament handling combat, another filament handling skills (if you decide to turn that part of the light on, or maybe you just leave it for rogues), another filament for magic...some like the combat filament are dangerously convoluted, others are simple straight bits of wire, but every one functions and impacts the wider game environment in a different way. There is no consistency, there's interference patterns built up at the innermost layers of the light, the layers of glass and other elements of the gaming environment all react in erratic ways meaning every game needs to pick and choose which elements to remove or keep, which bits are neglected or forgotten because they just get too complicated, or which bits become focal as the distinct flavouring elements of the session. Plenty of OSR enthusiasts will be tuning out at this point, because it's not something they want to hear. Some may claim that their preferred flavour of OSR doesn't do this...but they're all based on this retro-nostaglic base that really doesn't do a good all-round job. Others may claim that all OSR is basically a smorgasbord toolkit, where you can pick what you want from the wide array of options available... but sometimes people just want to sit down and have some fu  without being interrupted by hours of referencing and page turning. Sure there are some stripped back versions and retro-clones, but even these tend to have multiple systems handling individual things rather than a good solid core mechanic.

I do appreciate Apocalypse World for having that sturdy filament. Just the same as I appreciate Nathan Russell's FU, or S John Ross's Risus... or FATE... or the Roll-&-Keep system from L5R/7thSea. It's often outside the strong central system in these games where I have issues.

Actually, in the case of FU and Risus, if I want a simple collaborative storytelling tool, I don't have any issues at all with these systems. But if I want a system where, I can "play with the glass" and add mechanisms of my own, then they don't give much to work with.

[EDIT - I don't know what happened at the end of this post,but it ate up a whole heap of text I'd written... I'll see if I can remember enough of it to rewrite it]

Apocalypse World has a nice filament (2d6, where less than 6 = bad result, 7-9 = mixed result but generally good, and 10 or more = Good result). My issue here is not with the filament, and upon rereading the model, it's not necessarily with the bulb itself. It's with the table... actually, no it probably exists in both the table and the glass bulb. My problem with games Powered by the Apocalypse is the discrepancy regarding how and when moves are activated, where a few recent posts have indicated that there isn't a good indication of how and when this occurs (different tables play it different ways). But similarly, I don't like the way some moves modify rolls, others exists as rolls of their own subsystems inspired by the core mechanism, then there are those which simply activate, and others which seem to interact with elements of the game completely separate from the core mechanism. It seems so close to a nicely integrated system, but doesn't quite hit the mark...

...I want to do an Obi-Wan Kenobi scream... "You were meant to be the chosen one".

Look, I get it that some people love different games for different reasons, and that there are different products for different goals. But when something is supposed to be elegantly designed and adored by a large chunk of the gaming population,. I can appreciate it for what it got right, then kill the sacred cows in an attempt to see what can be done better.     

15 November, 2017

The Lightbulb

I could make links to numerous reviews like this one, saying that this particular game powered by the apocalypse, or that particular game powered by the apocalypse are terrible. But that would just be cherry picking the various sites, blog posts, forum comments, and other elements of the internet that fit my views while ignoring the numerous other opinions which state that these games are wonderful and innovative.

I really wish I could find the post where Vincent Baker claimed that he wanted a game where only the rules as written were the game, anything else should be expressly forbidden from being added to it...for pure genre emulation you shouldn't need anything else. But after a couple of hours searching, I can't find it at all.

Instead I have found something of his that I like, and particularly a comment by Ron Edwards below it.

The basic gist is that a game is like a lightbulb above a table. The whole scene is  uolt up in layers. The filament of the lightbulb is the essence of the game, the fundamental core mechanisms of play, tightly wound, burning bright, creating the deepest experience. The glass of the lighbulb is both illuminated by the filament, and allowing light to pass through it. It acts as a lens in certain ways, or there might be patterns painted on the glass of the bulb...either way it takes the core mechanisms light and modifies it for use in a variety of situations. The combined filament and glass are basically what you buy when you purchase a game from the designer.

The illuminated table is the play experience provided by the game. It's everything you bring to the session (physically and metaphorically), which isn't a part of the ga e rules. Maybe you shine the light in different ways to tell different types of stories... perhaps if the glass around the filament is tinted red, it might not pick up on nuances between greens and blues on the table, the game just isn't designed to do those things. Maybe the glass is painted in elaborate and organic swirls, and when it casts it's light on your gridded tabletop you just end up with a psychedelic mind-fuck. It's not really right for the story you want but it'll give you a hell of an adventure anyway.

The rest of the room is the entirety of experience and world that could potentially come into the game, but hasn't yet manifested in play.

The inner layers affect the outer layers, but the outer layers don't necessarily affect the inner layers. The filament produces the specific intensity and temperature of light regardless of what is around it. Changing the filament changes the whole experience, everything is lit in a different way, and even if everything else is the same it might look generally similar but there will be something subconsciously, fundamentally different about it. Changing the glass affects everything outside the bulb, using the same filament in a new glass shell is reskinning or hacking a game. It's not particularly hard to paint your own patterns on the glass, but making a filament is trickier...making them work together is trickier still. Making changes to the table is what everyone does during play...every table and every group is different, they may shine the light in different ways to get their stpries happening, they may argue about the best way to shine the light, but as long as they're all using the same type of bulb from the same design team, they're all playing the same game.

It's an interesting analogy, and I could probably push it even further. But that will do for the moment.

But what's the game about?

I've noticed a few conversations again,where one group of people say that they love the way social gaming occurs within traditional D&D...then a second group of people say, that this comment doesn't make sense because traditional D&D didn't really have any rules for social interaction... then the first group says that they love it because social play develops in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Yes, I know, there is a Charisma stat in traditional D&D, there are rules for gathering retainers and henchmen, there are even rules for npc reactions based on random rolls and modifiers if you start digging into things. That's not really the point of the discussion. The point is probably the fact that rules are there, they are promptly ignored by the players, and a simplified modelling of social interaction occurs at the table. It's a bit like the old notion of the "fruitful void" that was big in Indie design circles a few years ago, except that a void is made by ripping out the heart of a section that isn't liked and then the broken ribcage is used as a playground.

Some designers get around this by saying, use the rules as they are written, if it isn't in the rules then that's not what the game is about...if your game does end up about that thing, you must be playing it wrong. I've heard that said about Apocalypse World, there are certain moves in the rules, and if a move doesn't cover what you want to do (or isn't in your playbook), you just can't do it...you need to maneuver the story into a different angle of approach until you do have a way to address the issue. That just feels wrong to me, and is one of the laundry list of reasons why I don't like that system. A few of the games that spawned from it went with the idea of a generic roll, or rolls that can be generated on the fly in response to events as they unfold in the narrative. Which then makes me wonder why bother having a distinct playbook at all, why not go back to a generic system with a standard die mechanism, and attributes or skills that modify it according to the situation in which the roll is being made?

There seems to be a fine line between making a game too generic, and too specialised. I would have thought the grey area between the extremes was bigger, but most games seem to linger on one side of the grey area or the other. A lot of games try to bridge the gap into the generic space with rule systems that are either overly complex,or not fitting with the tone of the other rules in the game...thus the rules are ignored and house rules are modified on the fly...which then leads to players engaging in an experience quite different to the one possibly intended by the designer. I could probably run a game of almost anything, using a specific rule set with minimal modifications (beyond flavour text, fluff, and setting elements) to portray almost any genre. Does that prove anything??...no, not really. I'm sure there are plenty of other experienced GMs/DMs/MCs who could do likewise. It just means that rules should be easy enough to be remembered with minimal referencing (otherwise they get forgotten) and should integrate with the setting (otherwise they get ignored out of spite).

In The Law, I deliberately made a generic system where actions often have costs associated with them, whether they succeed or not. Then I made a range of skills thematically appropriate to the setting. A player can use their character to do anything they want within the setting (or at least attempt to), but unless they've got a good attribute or a moderate attribute and an associated skill, it's going to probably make things complicated, or fail miserably.

In Walkabout, I'm basically aiming in the same direction, but as a game focused on community, and the power of stories and relationships, I'll be using more of these elements to enhance the narrative, the setting and the way characters interact with them.

12 November, 2017

Holistically Intertwined Stories

One of the members of the board of directors for the Aboriginal Education Consultancy Group recently told me...(and I'm paraphrasing here).

It really doesn't matter whether we wanted our stories connected to those of the white mob who came here. Now those stories are tangled in ways that can never be untangled. The Dreaming still goes on, it always has, it always will. Like it or not, animals introduced to our lands like dogs, cats,rabbits, foxes, they're all a part of the Australian Dreaming now. Like it or not, if you set foot in our land, you become a part of our dreaming too.

Whether you consider them symbolic of mystic insight, or whether you think the dreaming is simply the interconnectedness of personal stories and the relationships between them, those were powerful words.

It's not like when you meet a Christian for the first time, and they say "You aren't a Christian, therefore you're going to hell... Here let me help you see the light". The Australian Aboriginal mythlore is probably more akin to Taoist thinking, where everything has its place, where no-one truly knows the true essence of everything, except possibly as a combination of metaphor, analogy and practical knowledge. In this belief pattern, you don't put something down because you don't understand it, instead you accept that it is what it is, consider that there must be some reason for this, and think about it with respect to it's relationships to the things around it.

It's a harder way to look at the world, to not look at the surface,but to build your own surface based on a deeper understanding on connections and relationships. In pre-colonial times, there were few wars over land between Australian Aboriginal groups because one of the strongest relationships someone could have was to the land of their family. There was no point invading someone else's land, because you had connections here, and they had connections there. You might trade with them or intermarry with them, so that your children then had a connection to both lands... but you didn't fight them for control of something they knew better than you ever could.

The idea of white conquest made no sense. Even now, the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land has lead to ongoing natural problems. With no respect for the cycles of birth and rebirth through fire, woodland builds fuel and erupts into flame once a critical point is reached (this has started to be better understood in the last decade or two), with no respect for water flow, vast regions of arable farmland gradually become desolate as dams restrict the water upstream. Springs delivering both hot and cold water from deep beneath the surface are drying up as mining efforts shatter the underground water tables, all for a few extra dollars in the pockets of shareholders, and often secured in tax free offshore havens where they no longer benefit the community.

When certain links in a relationship web are weakened, and others are strengthened beyond their natural levels, imbalance occurs. When the links are completely broken in a relationship web, things risk falling out of place altogether, adrift they often form new relationship anchors and connections to things that simply should not be. When colonial settlers arrived, many relationships were weakened, some individuals took advantage of the flux to strengthen relationships and gain new power, many found that elements of their relationship webs were completely destroyed. They forged new links in new places, and told new stories to solidify them.

In a similar vein, consider the Barossa Valley in South Australia.

One of Australia's premier winemaking regions.

Relationships existed between plants-and-soil, plants-and-animals, plants-and-people, animals-and-people, families-and-land for as long as there have been people in the region.There are countless other relationships that might be observed, and that might make fodder for a game session or narrative, but the ones described are probably the easiest. Indigenous communities would have had stories explaining some of these relationships, including allegories for how they formed, why they were important to maintain, what might occur if they go out of balance.

Then came the German settlers with their own relationships to new farm animals, new plants, stories from their old world, and then new stories that formed as new relationships to the existing people of the land were forged.  The Dreaming of the region incorporated Shiraz and other grape varietals to the flora stories...sheep, foxes, and rabbits to the fauna stories... tales of the Black Forest and other German folklore into the native narratives. This whole setting is one where words have power, spirits feed on the belief and faith of the mortal world, where relationships have tangible consequences in the Dreaming just as much as they might have social consequences in the mundane world. So stories in this part of the country might have hybrid stories deriving elements from Indigenous and German folklore... in much the same way that stories told in the ruined post-apocalyptic wastelands that were once Western Sydney might be filled with a dangerous mix of stories from all parts of the world, some of which are highly incompatible with one another.

It's the interaction of the echoes of these stories that brings the tension in the setting.

11 November, 2017

No Dot Art!!!

None of this!

This may be an international stereotype of the artwork produced by Indigenous artists in Australia, but it's actually only the tradition of a very specific tribe in Central Australia who were generally targeted by a white art teacher who went out to their community in the early 1970s and wanted to keep their traditions alive by transferring their artwork from fragile and degradable ochre-on-bark to a more resilient acrylic-on-canvas material. Other communities across the country have their own distinctive styles that haven't been as widely recognised, and many of those communities are still having their artistic styles suppressed because Westerners expect all Australian Aboriginal art to be dots.

The elders of the community I've been working with over the past four years have their own symbols and techniques, but much of that has been pieced together from what they can find in archival sources, and a lot more of it is obscured in artwork, only to be explained to people who are willing to look beyond the obvious. Many of the elders produce two types of artwork... dots for the ignorant,who just want a bit of "real Aboriginal culture", and their own personal techniques that tell a deeper story of a living culture.

I know one particular elder who makes a decent amount of money supplementing his income with dot paintings, but they mean nothing to him except as commodities to be traded away. His personal work, and the work he gives as gifts to significant people in his life, is a fusion of the traditions from his family's home region, and the region he now calls home. To most people it's distinctly "tribal", it has elements that may have been seen in other pieces of Australian Aboriginal art, perhaps a theme of animals, or a certain array of organic and geometric forms, but unless you know what you're looking for, the nuance in the work will often be missed. It's the colours, the way the shapes are arrayed (more than the shapes themselves), it's the interplay of positive and negative space, and it's an instinctive placement that feels right at the time when the artwork is made. All of Australian Aboriginal culture is about relationships, so the art reflects that. It's not just a surface appearance of stuff that "looks" Aboriginal, and that's something a lot of outsiders just don't get.

The Aboriginal communities of Australia have survived despite the work of the Government, the missions, the settlers and the squatters. Even though these grous wouldhave you believe that they have systematically worked to "civilise"and "improve the lives" of the Indigenous communities. There are numerous tales of Aboriginal families slaughtered because a single member of their group hunted a sheep, after their traditional food sources were driven from the land. There are tales of Aboriginal communities forced into slavery to tend the lands that had already been theirs for millennia. There are no active speakers of the language once spoken where my home is, many of the people were killed off, driven to other parts of the country, interbred with colonials until they were no longer black of skin, and re-educated until they had lost their culture. These are parts of the definition of genocide.

Acts that could be obvious “elements” of the crime of genocide as defined in Article 6 of the Rome Statute, such as killings, abduction and disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence; ‘ethnic cleansing’ or pogroms;
• Less obvious methods of destruction, such as the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival and which are available to the rest of the population, such as clean water, food and medical services;
• Creation of circumstances that could lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene or excessive work or physical exertion;
• Programs intended to prevent procreation, including involuntary sterilization, forced abortion, prohibition of marriage and long-term separation of men and women;
• Forcible transfer of children, imposed by direct force or through fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or other methods of coercion;
• Death threats or ill treatment that causes disfigurement or injury; forced or coerced use of drugs or other treatment that damages health.

It all happened, a lot of it still happens today (often under Government "protection" and "cultural enrichment" policies).

Aboriginal life in Australia is post-apocalyptic. The world they knew was destroyed, they had to desperately cling to whatever they could to maintain a sense of identity and cultural awareness, those who were less afflicted by the incoming Invaders were able to maintain a semblance of their original culture for a longer time, but even this was eroded by loss of memory and deliberate attempts to erase both their culture, and erase (or "redefine") the very acts that had destroyed their culture. It was a cultural war that was effectively lost except for pockets of guerrilla resistance.

There are a series of tropes called "The Magical Negro", "The Magical Native American", and "The Ethnic Magician". Despite these tropes all having a degree of "Positive Discrimination", Walkabout is not about these concepts. Walkabout is not Rifts Australia (even though that book was written by an Aussie game designer and is far better than it could have been). It is not a setting where the white man has faced apocalypse and now needs the formerly oppressed black man to step in with their mysterious knowledge of the spirits and save the day. It certainly isn't a setting where the heroes of the Australian Aboriginal communities are known for their abilities to magically manifest boomerangs and spears of pure spirit energy to combat the monstrous creatures of the unknown.

I actually see this game deriving more from Mage: the Ascension, where belief is power and a systematic persecution of native groups around the world has been conducted by Europeans and Christians in the attempt to make their god and their paradigm the most significant in the world. Little did they know that other belief systems hold nasty things in check, and were actually developed since the dawn of consciousness as a reflection of those dark forces. Maybe a bit of a counter-Cthulhu mythos, where the natives aren't misguided fools who worship the evil in the shadows, but it's the colonials and "enlightened" investigators who are opening the cracks in time and space by disrupting the rituals that have kept the seals from breaking. The idea of the Aboriginal Dreamtime was a misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise in the real world, but under the perspectives of the game world it's definitely deliberate), the belief systems of the European world all imply a time in the past when legends were real and a rise to rationality (or monotheism) as enlightenment was attained. But actually, the proper term for the dogma of the Australian Aboriginals is "The Dreaming"... it's not a time in the past that needs to be moved on from, it's a living set of ideas embedded into stories for those who are willing to listen to them on a deeper level. Words have power, stories have power; so adding the suffix "-time" to the mythlore, was just another way of getting the Aboriginal communities to abandon that power and the spirits who live in symbiosis with it.

Some might even claim that this is all the plan of a gluttonous, proud and vengeful spirit who first manifest in a burning bush, a few short millennia ago on the outskirts of an Egyptian village. A plan by that petty spirit to consume the world in flame.

The game was always intended to begin decades after an apocalypse where something awakened due to the lack of power being focused toward it's slumber. There are a number of traditional sites considered corrupt and dark places, where those who linger in them too long become sick, or perhaps where the spirit lands of the Dreaming are closest to the mortal realms of the waking world. Coincidentally, these are places where Uranium mines have desecrated the landscape in recent decades. It might be said that the residual radiation of these lands brought cancer to the people who sent to long in them...a side effect of the radiation, but Walkabout proposes that the radiation might be a side-effect of spiritual activity, and this might similarly be the case in other parts of the world. High radiation makes spiritual activity between the Dreaming and the waking world easier, and as a positive feedback loop, more spiritual activity produces a stronger radiation signature. The land becomes poisoned unless the spirits can be lulled back to sleep, but it takes specific stories to do this.

There are no "Magical Australian Aboriginals" to clean up the white man's mess, because in most cases the forces of the modern world systematically wiped out the culture that knew those stories. It's also important to note that Australian Aboriginals are not a monoculture, they don't all use dot painting, they don't all paint their bodies in the same patterns of ochres and dance around campfires like emus and kangaroos. The modern Australian Aboriginal communities are evolving cultural hybrids, beginning the knowledge of their local past, filling in the gaps with the ways of the people around them, and adapting the whole thing to the mainstream community that dominates Australian society. There are fragments of the old ways in the mix, but these change from place to place, from family to family, from person to person. Everyone has their role, everyone has their stories. The overlooked person might be key to the whole thing, they might have pieced together the knowledge necessary to solve the situation.

This kind of brings me back to the diagram I showed earlier.

Another way I could use this diagram is as a guide to completing an individual story. Characters might have the opportunity to learn things about the situation from each of the 8 perspectives. Once they have 4 adjacent symbols activated, they might have understood enough of the symptoms to reveal elements of the cause underlying them all. If they have addressed all 8 successfully, then it might be far easier to resolve the underlying imbalance in the scenario. None of the symbols involves combat, but that doesn't mean conflict can't exist in the story. There will always be an imbalance that the forces of the setting have drawn the characters to resolve, and there is obviously something preventing the locals from resolving the situation on their own. The imbalance doesn't come from the spirits traditionally revered by the Aboriginal people, but the imbalance may cause them to mutate and take on nightmarish forms that need to be dealt with in some way, but every spirit is different, every situation is different. Similarly, the feedback loop between people and the environment should be apparent in the narrative. The more imbalanced a place is spiritually, the more this will be reflected in the attitudes and emotions of the people, perhaps even manifesting as physical signs (stigmata, mutations, disease, etc.) in the most heinously imbalanced settings.

Places exhibiting the pristine glass and concrete of the pre-apocalypse world...
...look just as unnatural as the horrific boneyards that could have been painted by HR Giger...
...the melting forms reminiscent of Salvador Dali's work...
...or the fractal recursions found in one of the more psychedelic Marvel superhero movies...

...of course most parts of the world where spiritual energies are leaking into the mundane waking world are nowhere near as blatant.

Addressing local issues with generalisations has a tendency to cause more problems than they solve (as has been seen with decades of Government policy in Australia). This isn't intended to be a political game, but I'm not afraid to say that it reflects my political leanings and perspective of the world. I want this to be a game about stories, and about relationships. The relationships will be between people, between people and the land they live on, and between people and the stories that generate meaning in their lives.

So, no-one has all the answers in this setting, everyone is just making do with what they've got, combining fragments of knowledge into something that will hopefully let them get by. Everyone finds that they need the people around them to survive, and they need to work with the people around them if they want to thrive. Conflict generates imbalance which forms a feedback loop to generate more conflict, but sometimes you need to face the cycle before you can address it. Narratives and stories play out across the world, but there is always something underlying those narratives that needs to be understood and addressed. Things are rarely what they seem to be on first appearances, but it takes an effort, either physical, mental, social, or spiritual, to pierce the surface. The only advantages that Aboriginal people have in this setting is the fact that they've lived an unsettled life for generations longer than the new arrivals to their lands, they might also have a memory of inherited tale fragments that have survived being passed down through generations, but their strongest advantage is the fact that as a people they have always tended to value a community spirit of goodwill over the greed and dominance of individuals.

...but how do I codify that into game rules?