31 July, 2010

Fame, Fortune and the Vagaries of Fate

WARNING: Another long one....

I received more comments on my Old School versus New School post than I was first expecting, and the responses from Raven Daegmorgan have really gotten my mind thinking. Have a look at the post and it's comments before reading much further on this one.

To an extent, I agree.

I've often pondered why some people get ahead in life, while others simply struggle away with no recognition at all.

I think the quest for knowledge is a part of human nature (it's certainly a part of my nature), and anything we can't pigeon-hole into our paradigms becomes a mysterious force at work in the universe. Some people use this mysterious force to justify conspiracy theories, some people use it as the foundation of religions, others simply declare the unknown to be a hidden randomness that can never be truly understood.

People are always looking for answers, and devious individuals are always willing to give their interpretations on those answers for a price. Motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins charge a small fortune to impart their keys to success to unwitting dupes who actually believe he might have insights into the fundamental secrets they have yet to learn. Best-selling books like The Secret claim to provide similar keys.

People find it exceedingly hard to admit that there are events beyond their control. If they have money, this is a tangible method of control in a specific economic sense (you can use it to buy things, and to survive...and if you've got enough of it, you can be comfortable), but people are willing to gamble this money on the chance at learning a "secret" that might not actually provide tangible benefits.

Apparently, "The Secret" is simply that like attracts like. It gives heaps of examples about how this works in biological life, social life and other aspects of reality. I've flicked through it in a bookstore. Personally I think it's not true, Opposites attract. On magnets, north poles attract south poles. In chemistry, positive charges attract negative charges. In social circles, bullies are attracted to easy targets. Motivational speakers attract those who need to be motivated. Nature abhors a vacuum and nothingness attracts the presence of something.

If like attracts like it's simply because something different is attracting both of them to a central point.

But how does this help a game achieve success? How does it help a person achieve success?

It doesn't.

Life is more complex than that. Complexity is often designed into mechanisms to overcome randomness, it works as a buffer. But at the simplest state of things, randomness is probably all there is. Whether you choose to believe that this complexity arose through divine intervention, evolution or simple random chance, it's one of the driving forces behind us. Atoms bond into chemicals, which bond into proteins and onward up to cells, animals and us. Instances bond into patterns of thought, which bond into philosophies, religions and sciences.

Do the individual electrons have any choice in how they are swapped between structures as a DNA chain replicates itself?...there is a degree of relation between the two levels of existence, each electron must perform it's ordained duties for the replication process to occur, but the individual electron means very little in the grander picture.

Individual cells can be looked at in the same regard within the animal body. A single cell dies, but the organism remains viable. New cells take over.

It's even been posited that a new stage of existence has formed above us, it first achieved consciousness when we founded our first crude religions (or when we first attained self awareness and formed our first social groups). Like a hive mentality among insects. Each individual becomes subservient to a greater ideal. Proteins become the agents of genes within the pool of existence, and single consciousnesses become the agents of memes within the pool of possibility. Individual consciousness are expendable in the grand scheme of things, as long as the meme survives.

Just as genes combine to form the visible structures of identity within a race or species, memes combine to form visible structures within our society. They combine to form the economic sector, the justice system, the religious orders, the arts and everything that we can't tangibly connect with. Individuals create books and speeches to describe the way they understand these meme structures, but since everyone is imparted with a different set of memes through their parents and upbringings, everyone will connect with different memes and will interpret those books and speeches in different ways.

I don't know if genes and memes are related. Genes are nature, memes seems to be purely nurture. Genes come purely from our parents, memes come from the people who raised us and the situations we have encountered. Through their collection of genes, some people have a predisposition toward certain diseases or ailments, and a resistance to others. Through their collected memes, some people have a predisposition toward certain belief patterns, and a resistance to others.

It makes me think of Raven's recent post Hide it Under a Bushel. Muslim women are indoctrinated through their memes to believe that the hijab is a good thing. For centuries they didn't question it, they hadn't been exposed to opposing memes. Buit now they are being exposed more thoroughly to other cultures, they must consciously choose whether to abandon this aspect of their cultural heritage, or defend it. Their minds fall back on the pattern structures of the other memes they have been brought up with and each individual makes a choice one way or the other.

There is a common thought through Jewish religion that suffering is good. Those who suffer are having their souls tested more thoroughly, and those who suffer the most will be the most ready to enter the kingdom of heaven (this is paraphrasing quite a bit, so don't shoot me too much). Arguably, this could be one of the reasons that stereotypical Jews are always complaining about things...to make it look like they are suffering more than they really are. Regardless of this, it is an ingrained meme in the Jewish culture that they are the ones being constantly tested by the creator, and they are the ones who will reap the greatest rewards when a new age dawns.

Who is to say which is right or which is wrong? Each decision is purely an individual judgement call based on the information available and the ideas that have most successfully linked into solid patterns within the decision-makers mind.

You can provide an individual with new facts, but if those facts don't integrate within the meme structure of the target, they will simply be discarded and forgotten, no matter how much evidence backs them up.

But what does this have to do with success? Or games for that matter?

If a conscious mind is a function of memes, then it's outlook is purely derived from the information is has been provided while developing. A rich kid whose parents spoiled him rotten will develop a very different set of memes to a poor kid who had to work for everything and occasionally had to do without because there simple wasn't enough to go around. The rich kid will probably be a demanding diva, the poor kid will probably be more down-to-earth.

Such memes are passed down through generations just like genes. The children of nobles will be given the teaching of nobles and thus they will think like nobles. The children of peasants won't know any better because their parents have learnt to accept their place and the children are simply told to keep to their station to avoid causing upsets. This is how caste systems maintain stability.

The most successful person for the job isn't the person who has the best genetic capability to fulfil the job. Instead, the most successful person is the one who thinks in a manner similar to those who are already successful. It isn't like attracting like, with both ascending to the top; it's like attracting unlike, with both exploiting the same opportunities.

I saw this when I touched on the corporate world and my memes were reinforced through this.

People who played the finance game were often descended from parents in the finance game, their entire upbringing revolved around meeting other people in the finance game and hearing the dinner conversation with their parents. Financial memes were embedded in their minds. For someone without the financial memes, there would literally be a point where they'd start the game a decade behind everyone else. The new arrival would have to build up the memes from scratch, and probably remove any memes that weren't beneficial to playing in the financial sector.

The same applied to the design department. Those who wanted to get anywhere had to go to the right social functions to establish themselves in the right social circles, they had to attend the right art schools so that their style would match the others already ingrained within the department. It might be possible to bluff someone for a while, but if your memes were attracted to areas different to the people around you....you were considered an oddball and gradually ostracised.

I've got Asperger's Syndrome, I don't understand the nuances of social interaction. But over the years as an outsider, I've learnt to recognise a lot of the patterns involved.

I know my memes are different to a lot of people, and I know that I'll never fit in socially. I can mimic the patterns well enough for a while, but eventually people start to see that I'm mimicking the patterns and this either freaks them out, or they get intrigued and want to learn more.

I've tried to initiate relations with people (work or social) by telling people that I have it, and they treat me like a freak from the beginning. Or I choose not to reveal it to them and play along, but this often leads to suspicion later and resentment that I didn't reveal the truth from the outset. I've lost jobs over it.

The way I now look at it, Asperger's is an inability to accept certain memes in my minds pattern, a resilience to certain memes and a predisposition toward a focused meme set. For me the predisposed meme set seems to be drawing and the nuances of roleplaying. Other memes become obsessions for a while, then fade away.

Because I don't understand social aspects of life at an instinctive level like a lot of other people, it's easy for me to categorise success and failure with social patterns. They are both mysteries to me, so it's easy to say that the two have a chance of sharing a connection.

There might be something to it, maybe you have to know the right people in order to get ahead (that's long been a belief of mine). Maybe it doesn't matter how much work you do, unless you know the right person to give you a head start, you'll never get ahead of the pack. People who are already successful would never admit to this; they want you to think that it was their hard work and perseverance that made them special, or maybe they want you to think that faith in an invisible force will give you the right stuff to succeed. Maybe they honestly believe that they were struggling away and then "their moment came", or maybe they are deliberately trying to hide the truth.

Do I have to personally know Oprah in order to get a million selling book? Where did Oprah get her fame from anyway?

Why does Hollywood keep making the same movies over and over? Is it because the memes in these movies remain consistently linked to those of the studio executives, while new scripts are a bit too different and they just don't want to take a risk?

Why do millionaires get to declare bankruptcy only to rise from the ashes again a decade later? Is it the fact that they are absolute arseholes who know how to work the system? Do they simply share memes with other millionaires and by virtue of continuing to move in the same circles they are welcomed back into the fold with open arms while others desperately struggle week-in/week-out?

Why are some people famous while the majority of us wallow in obscurity? There are performers and actresses with more talent in their little finger than Paris Hilton has in her entire body...but they'll never get anywhere while she has the virtue of fortunate birth and the diva attitude of a rich kid to get what she wants.

Is there any point thinking about this stuff? Does it make a difference? Do I simply choose to struggle onward knowing that my memes are firmly established in my mind, and the chances of success are purely arbitrary anyway?

These are the things I think about. These are the things that get me depressed.

30 July, 2010

How to Make a Great Dungeon

I've just had my first piece of writing accepted.

I hope to see it available some time soon on DriveThruRPG or RPGNow.

Of you get the chance to buy "How to Make a Great Dungeon" from the Avalon Game Company, I'd thoroughly recommend purchasing a copy (it'll mean I get work a bit more regularly from now on).

24 July, 2010

The Origins of Fuzion

While I'm looking at Fuzion stuff, I found this fascinating article about how it came to be...

Fuzion RPG design

It's interesting to see how the designers took two sets of very different rules, seeing that one set performed a specific range of function well while the other performed well in a different area...then tried to create a generic toolset to cover all styles of gaming.

Reasonably successfully given the number of games that adopted their rules (both professional and amateur).

That's all for now.

23 July, 2010

d10 Core

After my last post, I've been poking around a bit and have found a kickstarter project for a system called d10 Core.

Kickstarter seems to be the hot new thing for getting small to medium sized projects up and running. A few indie games are taking this route to get the first print run out.

But this one's a bit different, it's more like the old school games. Lots of intricate mechanics compared to a lot of new school indie games, so either the author is comparing the game to something like D&D or Pathfinder when he says that it's "Total weight is 150 pages, so I think it is just heavy enough to be crunchy, but light enough not to be all-consuming."...or he is pretty much on par for a lot of the game in the old school renaissance crowd. If it were formatted differently it could probably be cut down to 100 A4 pages (then expanded back out to the 150 mark with pictures).

It follows the old GM/Player split. Nothing really revolutionary in it (Die + static skill modifer + situation modifers versus a static difficulty for task resolution...die + static skill modifer + situation modifers versus die + static skill modifer + situation modifers when characters are facing off). Combat in rounds. No inherent genre or leaning toward a specific style of story...which leaves it pretty vanilla.

On the whole, it's the kind of game that makes me think..."Why bother rewriting what a dozen other writers have done before? Why not just admit that you are retreading the Fuzion system?...why not just release some supplements for the Fuzion system, since it's already done most of the hard work?"

Actually now that I look at the Fuzion System for the purposes of adding links into the blog...it's probably not the best analogue to d10 Core, the previous Interlock system (used in Cyberpunk 2020) is probably closer. It's a 20 year old game engine, at least. You can change the names of the stats and skills, but the results are effectively the same.

Maybe I'm just ranting again, but it's really frustrating to see a designer pop their head up and say "Hey I've got something new, please give me money"...when the very thing being offered is a retread of old rules.

At least this guy has had the common decency to offer his product as a free pdf.

Maybe I'm just getting grumpy in my old age.

Old School vs New

My first foray into the world of serious freelancing has been just as much an eye-opener as when I first opened up The Forge and Story Games.

For years I had been working away on game designs in a amateur fashion, throwing together the stuff that I thought was cool, and then wondering why other people just didn't seem to get it. A part of that might be my Aspergers, but another part is simply the fact that different people think different things are cool.

I hadn't consciously considered the notion of what ties a game together, and how it can be used to produce a specific experience within the minds of the players. Sure , I'd been home brewing systems that didn't seem to do what I wanted, and I picked elements from different games until I found a nice set of mechanisms that told the stories I liked to reveal to my players, but I still had no idea why certain people didn't like this style of gaming.

People may argue the validity of the GNS theory, but it went a long way to helping me understand the motivations of players and the ways in which a game can facilitate certain experiences or hinder others.

I could see players within my group who thrived on Gamist reward cycles, intensely competitive to the point of being obnoxious (then saying "but it's only a game"), focusing on specific broken combos within a system (then saying "but there's nothing in the rules that stops me doing this"), and ignoring the story that others might be following for the chance to gain a bit more power over the commune.

I could see the players who thrived on "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" reward cycles as well.

It's a simplistic analogy, and a lot of players will vary between two of the cycles (though they tend to gravitate to one cycle primarily), but it really gave me some better insight into how games might have failed in the past, why certain players will simply never get along, and how games can be manipulated to promote one cycle agenda or another.

It was amazing to see that a lot of people had thought about this stuff in far more depth than I had, and it was a great touchstone to begin my own investigations into the topic of Roleplaying Theory.

I thought that maybe the world had changed, and my own designs had been left behind. So I rushed to catch up with them.

In the meantime, I've been struggling to pay bills, gradually getting out of debt, and progressing through a string of jobs that always lead me into the same social problems (one person doesn't like me, I don't notice the subtle signs of social manipulation around me until it's too late...and by the time I see the writing on the wall, I've been set up to be fired....again). So I haven't spent much time going in roleplaying stores (or comic stores...or any other kind of store where my money is spent on the pleasures of entertainment rather than the economics of daily survival).

I've been in an insular bubble, hearing about how Warhammer 3rd Edition has been influenced by Indie Game design principles, and how D&D 4th edition has finally admitted that it's simply a game about combat encounters and has thus transformed itself into a streamlined (but still relatively crunchy) combat system...I'm hearing about new games that are trying to push the envelop even further.

I'm trying to develop games that cater to a niche market within a niche market, not really looking at the wider picture.

But recent weeks have forced me to reassess my perspectives.

There are a lot of people getting on fine without new-fangled design principles. They are still playing the hit-and-miss game of offering the public things that they think are cool...still using the traditional GM-Player model, because that's what they;ve been doing for years and that's what they think roleplaying is all about.

Some are still going the old route of the kitchen sink (How do you tell someone who's never flicked through a RIFTS book that they are basically just creating a RIFTS heartbreaker?), some are tagging along with the old Fighter/Thief/Mage/Cleric party split (even if they are calling things by different names and trying to show a bit of originality in their flavour text and basic mechanisms).

But it seems that the old school is still firmly entrenched in the majority of the roleplaying field. People simply expect there to be a GM who will guide them through a story, it's almost like they expect their character concepts to be ignored in the face of the GMs plot. They think this is all a part of the game, and since they don't know about the developments in RPG theory, they neither know of better ways tp play, nor do they want to...it's worked relatively well for a over a generation (40 years), why change now?

How do you evangelise to people who complain that the RPG market is shrinking, but they don't want to examine the reasons why? They just throw their hands up in the air and blame the dominance of computer roleplaying, without accepting the fact that the GM-Player split is hardly any better as an entertainment model. Then they clamber for what's left of a "shrinking" traditional RPG pie.

Here's where the problem with my theory lies...

These guys are making money with their old school products. Many of the Indie designers I know aren't.

The old school games like Pathfinder, D&D 4th Edition, and the numerous other products with a supplement treadmill are getting exposure in retail stores because the retailers see the opportunity for add on sales...it's good business sense. They look at a short indie game and wonder if it's worth the effort of filling up shelf space with a product that might move one or two units per financial quarter (if it's lucky), when the big guns might sell one or two core-books per week (and at least as many supplements).

This all leaves me with a dilemma.

How do we get the innovation of the new, with the stability and business potential of the old?

How do we push the roleplaying market in new directions to capture a segments of other markets (cosplayers, comic readers, fantasy fiction readers, fanfic writers)? A lot of these groups know of roleplaying; cosplayers and fanfic writers often consider their hobbies to be "roleplaying", but many wouldn't know how to play a game of D&D if they were forced to sit down at a table with a bunch of others. It's a frustration.

The new school seems to be spending so much time ignoring it's roots that they aren't transitioning the existing roleplayers to new formats. While the old school is falling back on complacent business models that are gradually being lost to a fast-food/instant-karma generation who prefer the work to be done for them through computers.

But even this doesn't completely explain how a juggernaut like Games Workshop continues to dominate the sister industry of role-playing, the miniatures gaming market. They seem to do this by recycling the same stuff over and over, just with enough tweaks to make sure that players need to keep buying the new rulebooks and supplements to remain competitive within the game. And to make things worse, they don't open source things like WotC did with recent versions of D&D, they hold a very tight reign on their products but their market share seems to continually be growing (or maybe they've just become very adept at expanding a market that might otherwise have been shrinking).

It's a lot to think about, and I'm only part of the way toward unravelling potential answers.

22 July, 2010

Two freelancing gigs

I've just signed the paperwork to become a regular freelancer for two game publishers.

Here's hoping that things will turn for the better, and one of these options might prove to be a regular source of minor income. Or might lead to some good portfolio pieces that get me into larger companies for some regular work.

I'm not holding my breath though, this year started out looking so good, but it turned dark so quickly.

The companies I'll be writing for are :

Avalon Games


QT Games

Both seem enthusiastic, both targeting very different ends of the market. Avalon happy to quickly and continually publish pdfs through online retailers, while QT is taking a slower path and wants to make some big moves when they are ready.

It will be an interesting journey.

14 July, 2010

Game Page active for "Come One Come All"

I've finally gotten the page up for Come One Come All.

It's a weird game, it didn't get a great response from Little Game Chef, but it's out there now.

Anyone is free to have a look at it, manipulate it, modify it, and generally play with it in whatever way they feel improves the experience.

I might go back to it once I've finished working on my Quincunx graphic novel, or my new series of children's books "The Adventures of Butterball and Skitz".

(Yes..that's right, I'm starting yet another project. You can blame my wife for this one.)

11 July, 2010

Unexploited Resource #3: The Magic Eight Ball

I've decided that the Magic Eight-Ball has absolutely huge potential as a roleplaying resource.

The game I've just finished "Come One, Come All" uses it as a randomising mechanism, but it could be used in so many more ways...

So, in accordance with the Unexploited resource format I'm developing, here are 10 things to consider and ways you might be able to use this marvellous toy.

  1. The magic eight-ball can resolve binary disputes fairly simply. The standard ball has 20 possible answers. 10 of which are traditionally considered positive, 5 of which are considered neutral and 5 of which are considered negative. Instead of "Say Yes or Roll the Dice"...how about "Say Yes or consult the Eight-Ball".
  2. As a storytelling oracle, the subtleties in the Eight-balls answers become more interesting. "Does Event X happen?", it might happen now, it might happen later, it might happen in a different way than expected, it might appear to happen, you might not be sure if it's happening or not, it might be definitely not happening, it might appear to be definitely not happening...you get the idea. Unless there is a definite response, there is room for story twists and interpretations.
  3. While we look to the Eight-Ball with definitive questions, the Eight-Ball throws back uncertainty. This could be a good analogue when used in a game where quantum uncertainty or even mysticism become core elements.
  4. Turn it sideways, and the eight on the ball becomes a sigil for infinity...surely there is some meaning that can be derived from that.
  5. Unlike dice and cards, a magic Eight-Ball is easy to carry around and it doesn't get messy or require a flat surface to determine its randomisation.
  6. The device has the word "Magic" in it's name, there has to be something mystical about that.
  7. With 20 possible results, on a spectrum from definitely "yes" to definitely "no", the Eight-Ball has the same granularity as a d20. In this light, a lot of the same benefits from die rolling also apply to the eight ball.
  8. Using the Eight-Ball is instinctive, as a child's toy it only takes one or two flips to see the potential in it. Different people also have an innate reaction to develop their own rituals to get the best possible reading from the ball.
  9. Without distinct numbers on it, the Eight-Ball prompts its user to think in a non-numeric (possibly even non-linear) format. This is obviously most useful in games based on the possession of traits, not games with numerically assigned attributes or skills.
  10. There are a variety of themed Eight-Balls available, each of which could be used to enhance the play experience in different genres of game.
Like many of my unexploited resources, I'm sure there is a lot more potential to be explored.

10 July, 2010

Come One Come All

I've just admitted to writing "Come One Come All" for Little Game Chef.

It was a bit of a monster, but it got some ideas out of my system.

I thought that I had gotten them out in a coherent fashion, but I guess I was wrong.

The game concept is a step toward realising my Brigaki Djili idea, in two ways.

Firstly, it is a game of communal storytelling. A single focus drives a story and the players collaborate on uncovering a collective truth.

Secondly, it is a game described from the perspective of an anthropologist. A game developed from a ritual described by an outsider.

I'm trying to write things in such a way that they are approachable by someone who has no idea about roleplaying games. Perhaps something that might have been developed in the late 19th century as a parlor game; maybe based on Ouija boards and penny-dreadful mysticism. It's probably even connected to my current thought patterns on Art Nouveau style gaming.

I guess these two concepts need a bit more work before they are truly coherent to someone encountering them for the first time.

Then again, maybe it was just a bit too overwhelming for a contest where the judges were looking for short form games.

I don't consider the game a failure, just another step on the path of Brigaki Djili.

I'll probably end up reworking "Come One, Come All" in some way to develop it as a part of the Games for Goblins project...thematically it could be a nice fit.

Link coming shortly

06 July, 2010

Art Nouveau Roleplaying

As a student of design, one of the periods I loved was Art Nouveau. You can see this a bit in my website (especially through the swirling parts of the menu block in the lower right corner).

But I'd love to develop a game where this aesthetic echoes through all elements of the product, not merely adding graphical elements and nouveau typography as a veneer over a standard base.

The recent Cyberpunk revival project has reminded me of the many games which have been designed with a cyberpunk attitude. The output from the project has added a few more great examples to the mix; it would be nice to see a few of them achieve refinement and professional publication (whether free or otherwise).

I've seen games try to push a modernist agenda through their imagery, mechanisms and flavour text. The transhumanist games even seem to push a post-modernist agenda.

But the closest I can think to an Art Nouveau game is Nobilis; and that's only from flicking through the game a few times over the years at my local game store. It looks unfathomable on many levels, and the confusing conflict in feedback over the product hasn't enticed me to run out and buy a copy.

I have a pdf copy of Fae Noir, and that also seems to come close. But along with it's art deco and darker noir aspects, it seems to be the very type of product I'm trying to avoid...a standard base with a stylised veneer overlay.

I'm wondering what else might be out there.

02 July, 2010

Little Game Chef (Part 2)

I just re-read the rules for Little Game Chef and one of the rules explicitly states that you are allowed to talk about your entries on your blog (if you so choose).

But at this stage, I'll just hold off.

I could write pages about my insights...maybe even write more than the length of the game.

I've had a quick look at the other entrants so far, and there is an interesting mix, some short...some long. Some following the traditional forms of roleplaying, and others pushing into that weird role-playing space that I'm associating with Scandinavian play styles.

Some clever short form games, I probably should have considered last year's "Harper Award" when writing mine (write a game that fits on 2 sides of a single page....NO MORE!!!), as normal I went a bit too descriptive.

I'm most intrigued by the game "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?" because every time I download it, my pdf reader just gives me a black screen...very zen. I'm wondering if the comedy with this entry is that fact that the whole thing is a joke entry. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

For a one week project, I'm reasonably happy with my result. It actually gets close to what I was aiming for with Brigaki Djili.

01 July, 2010

FUBAR is done and dusted

1km1kt's Cyberpunk revival contest has now reached it's conclusion, so the FUBAR project has now reached it's first stage of completion. Now it's just a case of sitting in anticipation for the judges responses.

The game was finalised, PDF'd and uploaded last night. I'm just checking now to see if the links work. I'll be very annoyed if they don't.

Either way...it's time to move on to new things.

If you want to have a look at the final contest submission check out this page on my website.

[EDIT: Since my domain server doesn't seem to be working at the moment...also try here.]