Thursday, 31 May 2007

Pentasystem - Underground Railroad

Version 0.4 of the Pentasystem is available, this time adjusted in concert with my Underground Railroad setting. (And here's a link which will always be the current Pentasystem version.)

It was an interesting - and fun - process working on the two side-by-side, and I see why designers generally work on a setting and a system in tandem from the start. As soon as I started to imagine more tangible scenarios, it became clear that there were things missing from the system.

What have I added?

First, implied attributes. These became necessary almost as soon as I started thinking about a Mage character. A Mage (in UR) needs to have a robe, a ring, a staff, several magical skills, two elemental affinities, and a spellbook - that's part of the definition of a Mage. All of those function as attributes. But can you make people spend that many attribute slots just so they can fireball something from time to time?

And then I realized it was a general problem. The example I use in the rules text is a policeman, who has various pieces of equipment (truncheon, handcuffs, maybe a gun, radio...), relationships to lawyers and coroners and private detectives and informants, a badge and probably a uniform (emblems), particular skills... So I came up with the concept of implied attributes. If you have an attribute Mage, you have all the other stuff, and unless otherwise stated it's at the same level as your Mage attribute. (You can pay resources to raise it or get them back by lowering it.)

Secondly, groups. How do you represent a plot to overthrow the government, a political struggle between gangs, a battle between armies? Groups is the answer. Originally, though, I thought of groups because I needed a way to deal with cooperation that allowed multiple mages to work on great projects together - so that you could have cool things like flying horses or permanent teleportation gates that the magic rules didn't quite allow individuals to create, but that would make the setting much more interesting. This fed into the Assistance rules.

I got Consequences straightened out, at least enough to be going on with - I'm sure these rules will change further. At some point, something someone posted at Story-Games alerted me to the fact that there were Consequences in FATE, at which my ears pricked up, I went to the FATE SRD, and - SNARF. (Actually I only pinched the first two levels of Consequences, and adjusted even them.)

Information and Secrets - how do you find out how much you find out? There's more work to do on this, but (stimulated by the question, "How do you decide if you recognize the symbolism of another mage's robe, staff and ring and hence know his level, skills and school?") I put in place some basic rules. It's down to how obscure the information is, given your attributes.

I also wrote up the initial bits of the Personal Scenes section. Personal scenes are where you take a bit of a break from the external action and sort things out in your head, heal up, prepare for future action, work on your issue or goal, or (possibly) refresh your pools. They're the bits in the movie where the music slows down and goes more strings and less brass and percussion and you have two-shots of the hero and heroine discussing What It All Means and possibly Their Relationship. (And, if it's Hollywood, probably getting into bed.)

What about Underground Railroad? Well, most of what I did was work on the magic system, back and forth with the Pentasystem. The magic system got simplified a bit; it was just too baroque for no really good reason. I couldn't think of an easy Pentasystem way to do the "Sometimes the supply of mana in an area isn't as high as at other times", for example, so I dropped it.

I'm not entirely happy with the Healing skill. I still haven't completely worked out the injury and healing rules, and everything is likely to simplify. Perhaps Healing will just become a Special Effect.

I completely rearranged the example spell tables, splitting them up so that there's one table for each skill, with levels down the side and elemental affinities across the top. I think this is easier to refer to than the old layout, with skills down the side, levels across the top (making it necessary to go to landscape format), and differences between elemental affinities crammed into the text. Damn, there's some fun stuff there; I'd forgotten about the Icy Weapon and Fiery Weapon spells, for example. Sometimes you want to address theme, and other times you just have to set something on fire. UR caters for both.

A note on the name: It's a double reference, firstly to the dwarvish system of (literal) underground railroads in the setting, but secondly to the network which helped slaves escape before the American Civil War. I'm thinking of a similar network which helps gnomes escape their dwarf oppressors. Need to put that in the text.

(There's no reference intended to the RPG term "railroad", meaning "the GM has made up the plot beforehand and will force you to stick to it." In fact, the Pentasystem, played as written, specifically does not support this. There is even a bolded statement that "the Opposition should not prepare".)

Next steps, I think, will include making some of the play aids that I have blithely referenced in the text, now that the rules are detailed enough that I can figure out what they should look like. This will include the character sheet, the group character sheet, the consequences sheet, the magic item sheet and a few others. I'm concerned that it might seem like a bit too much bookkeeping; on the other hand, the actual system is relatively simple and has few exceptions. The play aids are really to help you apply the same system in a number of different ways.

I'd like to work out a few example templates, too, not just for mages but for Earthist shamans, and Lunar-Asterist priests, and dwarvish merchants, and dwarvish craftspeople, and gnome mecha pilots, and a few others. Also some Special Effects. This is likely to have the effect of making the rules still more concrete.

And then I'd like to do it again, with a non-magical setting that so far I haven't come up with. Pirates, ninjas, pulp, it's all been done, and done well. There's a more-or-less generic space opera game based on FATE coming out, apparently, though I may just say "To hell with it" and do one anyway, or maybe a transhuman or cyberpunk game.

I do have an idea for a setting which is a ringworld, with a sophisticated space-facing civilization on the outer side dealing with the universe at large, while a naive pastoral society lives on the inside, growing their food in exchange for minor tech, and kept deliberately unaware of the greater scheme of things. Apart from what they each know, the economic thing is a bit like the dwarves and the humans in UR, but that may not be too much overlap. I don't have a name for it just yet.

Badly thought-through advertising

Advisory: Ranting.

On my commute this morning I was contemplating how badly thought through advertising is sometimes. I can't find an image on the net (partly because I don't know the product's name - you'd have to be really close to read it, and for bus stop advertising, this is stupid in itself), but there is a poster around at the moment which conveys to me a message which I'm sure the advertisers didn't intend.

The background is a waterfall in some idyllic spot. A man is standing with his head tilted back so that it's aligned with the waterfall as if he's drinking from it, but he's clearly not. Behind him, low down on the bottom left, is an ugly bottle of some yellow drink which I assume is the product.

Here's the thought bubble I imagined:

"Ugh, that looks like flourescent urine. I'll turn my back on it and fantasize about drinking fresh water instead."

I'll try to take a photo of it if I see one close to home.

The last advertising campaign I saw that was this stupid was a long, rambling poster about how some woman - I forget her name - "used to walk this way to work", but now she doesn't, because she went to some tertiary institution - I think Unitech - and got a qualification and now she's doing what she wants. (Presumably involving either working somewhere different, living somewhere different, or owning a car, or some combination.) These posters were all over the city. It made me wonder how, a), this woman ever got any work done if she was walking all over the city on her way to work, and b), how she ever had time to study as well.

And don't even get me started on the Burger King bikini girls. Quite apart from the obvious objectifying exploitation angle, those models have clearly never eaten a burger - or, probably, a square meal - in their lives.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Established religion

Advisory: Snarkiness, widely distributed.

So Brian Tamaki, the leader of the conservative Destiny Church, is protesting the National Statement on Religious Diversity (which I've blogged about before), because it says that New Zealand has no "official or established" religion, and he doesn't understand the technical meaning of the word "established religion" - that is, a religion officially adopted by the State.

He apparently consulted a dictionary for his definition: "Footnote: 'established' meaning, 'those things that have been set in place'". His education at Te Nikau Bible College didn't cover much church history, I suppose. Nor, apparently, did it teach him how to spell "formally" (his statement says, "We formerly recognise New Zealand as a Christian nation") or that the Prime Minister is head of government, not head of state (though I'm sure Helen Clark would love to be our head of state).

He also ignores the clear statement in the Statement's preamble:
Christianity has played and continues to play a formative role in the development of New Zealand in terms of the nation's identity, culture, beliefs, institutions and values.
Which is basically what he means when he says that Christianity is New Zealand's "established" religion. But he is also going beyond that, and saying, in effect, that Christianity should have first-class status and other religions second-class status, rather than, as the Statement says:

The State seeks to treat all faith communities and those who profess no religion equally before the law.

In other words, on Planet Brian, Christendom still exists and is a Good Thing, and this is an underhanded attempt by the Government to undermine it against the wishes of the majority of New Zealanders. (Whatever Brian wants is generally wanted by the majority of New Zealanders, on Planet Brian.)

On the whole, I think our habitually interfering Government should indeed not be sticking its oar in, but for pretty much the opposite reasons to Brian Tamaki. See, I see Christianity as a religion for the powerless (I shouldn't even really be practicing it myself; I'm white, male, educated, middle-class and prosperous). I think that joining up with the institutions of power was the worst and most distorting move Christianity ever made, though I suppose it did open it up more readily to people like myself, so I shouldn't be completely ungrateful.

I don't think I actually want a religion that needs to be intertwined with secular power in order to be listened to, respected and followed. I prefer one that can achieve those things on its own merits. And that goes just as much for interfaith initiatives as for individual faiths.

Now, Paul Morris's Hamilton speech (19 February), of which I can't find an online copy so I'm referring to one Brenda sent me, does say this:

The idea of a ‘National Statement’ was that it would not originate from government and be mandated from above, as it were, rather it would arise as a result of broad discussions among faith and interfaith groups and the wider New Zealand public.

And, speaking of the consultation process:

...a minority were concerned that the National Statement on Religious Diversity was a new law to be enacted and binding on all New Zealanders. Of course, this is not the case but this was obviously not made as clear as it might have been...

...and evidently still isn't. Starting out with a statement "The State seeks...", having the text primarily hosted on a government website, and inviting the Prime Minister to present the statement are not good ways to convey the impression that this is a form of grassroots initiative, and not another attempt by the Labour Government to legislate every aspect of New Zealand life into conformity with their liberal ideologies.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Technical note: label feeds

Thanks to purplemoggy, who blogged on how to add label feeds to one's Blogger template, you can now subscribe to a feed of all posts with a particular label, if some specific aspect of my ramblings should, bizarrely, interest you.

The little next to the labels in the sidebar links to the individual feeds.

(This post deliberately left unlabelled, as a very minor exercise in irony.)


One thing from Andrew Newton's seminar I will go into more detail about. He mentioned the Persinger experiments with stimulating the brain with magnetic fields and producing what seemed like mystical experiences, which he claimed to have replicated. He then made the usual logical leap which atheists make at this point and implied that this constituted evidence that spiritual experiences were "not real".

I've said this on the Knife Fight, but that isn't Googleable, and I want to add some speculations. Firstly, even accepting the Persinger experiments at face value (and, like many controversial pieces of science, their validity is questioned by other researchers), the fact that an experience can be produced by stimulating the brain proves nothing whatsoever about the reality of that experience when the brain is not being directly stimulated. An electrode used to stimulate the brain during brain surgery can produce an experience of smelling a rose or hearing music. Does this mean that smelling roses and hearing music isn't real? Of course it doesn't. What it means is that the way in which we perceive smelling roses and hearing music, and, presumably, the way in which we perceive anything else, involves electrical activity in the brain - which is well-known and uncontroversial.

In fact, I like to turn the question around, and say: If these electromagnetic fields are producing a perception of something which is like a spiritual experience, then, in the absence of electromagnetic stimulation (or temporal lobe epilepsy, which can apparently have similar effects), what stimulus is producing these experiences? The atheist assumption that nothing is producing them seems to me to be more mystical than my belief that something is.

Now, it needs to be pointed out (and has been known for over a century - it's in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902) that the interpretation of these experiences will tend to follow a person's already existing belief structure. A devout Catholic may experience the presence of Mary or a saint, a devout Protestant may experience the presence of Jesus, a devout Buddhist will use Buddhist terminology, and a believer in UFOs will experience it in terms of alien lifeforms. This isn't really a surprise if we are dealing with something "ineffable", that is, beyond names and forms, inexpressible in our everyday language. And that, in turn, is no surprise if we are dealing with stimulation which doesn't come through the normal sensory channels, so that any language we put to it has to translate it into metaphor, because we don't have non-sensory language available.

The interesting thing to me - and here's where speculation comes in - is that it's often mentioned in this context that the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins did not have a religious experience while wearing the Persinger "God helmet". The Wikipedia article linked to above quotes the Telegraph:

Dr Persinger has explained away the failure of this Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator. Before donning the helmet, Prof Dawkins had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity.

I just checked the article and found this additional quote:

Recent studies on identical and fraternal twin pairs raised apart suggest that 50 per cent of our religious interests are influenced by genes. It seems Prof Dawkins is genetically predisposed not to believe.

Which was my speculative conclusion, kind of. Could it be that some unbelievers are such, not because of logic but simply because their brains lack sensitivity to the signals coming from - wherever such signals come from?

I myself am a member of a family which is far from noted for devout belief, and I haven't ever had anything approaching a mystical experience. It would be interesting to discover how sensitive my temporal lobes are.

Two Hypnotherapy Seminars: Compared and Contrasted

Yesterday I went to a seminar with Andrew Newton, the well-known stage hypnotist, who trained Paul McKenna. It was interesting to compare and contrast it with the last seminar I went to, with Lawrence Follas.

Lawrence's seminar was somewhat dull and poorly organized, and I learned relatively little, whereas Andrew's was (as you would expect from someone who's been on the stage for almost 30 years) entertaining and professional, and I learned a lot more. Lawrence is an elderly and rather kindly man; Andrew is a dynamic man in his 50s (partly because of his accent, but also in his general appearance and manner, he reminds me of Tony Blair - a man he openly despises, so he wouldn't welcome the comparison). He has a persona (which I think is partly put on and partly real) of being cynical, sarcastic and uncaring. But there were also similarities between the two seminars.

Firstly, the amount I paid for each was about what it was worth (obviously, the Follas one was a lot cheaper).

Secondly, both of them could have productively been a lot shorter.

And thirdly, both of them were as long as they were because the presenters went on about their personal beliefs to an annoying and unnecessary degree.

Now, Lawrence Follas is a New Ager who believes pretty much anything, while Andrew Newton is an atheist who believes almost nothing. But both of these positions annoy me for the same reason, which they have in common with fundamentalist and evangelical believers of all religions, and don't have in common with me. That is, they think they understand how the universe works - not necessarily in every detail, but overall.

I don't think they understand, and I don't think I understand, either. The detail level is the only level at which I think I understand anything, and that's only satisficing.

Although I have very little respect for the content of their beliefs or the way they support them, I do respect and even admire the fact that they are passionate in them, that these beliefs are important components of their lives. It shows they're considering the important issues. I think their conclusions about these issues are totally off base, but at least they are admitting them into their mental universe rather than leaving them unexamined.

But I did learn something from both seminars, apart from the hypnotherapy techniques which were what I was there for. That was: However important my beliefs are to me, when I'm speaking to an audience which doesn't share them about another topic, I should mention them only in passing, if at all.

Friday, 25 May 2007

David Zindell's Lightstone

On the recommendation of my compatriot and fellow Story-Games hanger-out Mike Sands (thanks, Mike), I'm reading David Zindell's book The Lightstone. I have to tell you, this man's blurb writer has not done him justice.

I'm fairly sure that I've picked up his books in the library, read the blurb, and put them back, dismissing them as Just Another Genre Fantasy Phonebook - thick, full of names, and unoriginal. Assorted group quest for Maguffin to prevent dark lord taking over the world, yawn.

And yes, an assorted group is questing for a Maguffin (the Lightstone, a golden cup with magical powers), to prevent a dark lord from taking over the world. And yes, Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome (it's a really bad idea to give your hero's brother, horse and beloved names which all begin with A and differ only by a few letters). And yes, excessive Tolkein influence - mainly from the Silmarillion, which even provides a couple of the names as well as the cosmological backstory. But.

Amid all this stale genre stuff, I find the central character genuinely engaging and fresh: trained as a warrior, but blessed/cursed with an empathic power which makes him feel any violence he does to someone else as if it's done to him (which mitigates the usual crass cruelty of the genre). There's a fair bit of Buddhism (almost certainly more than I recognize; I know a bit about Buddhism but I'm not an expert), which makes for a different flavour and is well-handled. And Zindell does something I've never seen done before, which is obvious to me and which I've been planning to do myself sometime: he has the hero learning meditative practices which help him to deal with the trials he encounters.

So far, I'm enjoying it a lot - thanks again, Mike.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Pentasystem: Capsule Summary

Let's see how compactly I can summarize the Pentasystem. It's useful to pull back from the detail and boil it down like this. I may occasionally contradict yesterday's draft slightly here; it's still in process. Some of the terminology is likely to change, too.

The basis of the Pentasystem is the five categories: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Creative and Quintessential (which has to do with identity). There are five pools, five arenas, five realms, and five grounds of conflict, all with the same names.

The pools work like TSOY pools, and the arenas and the grounds of conflict are closely linked to them. The realms are slightly different; they represent, respectively, things, knowledge, relationships, skills and characteristics. All attributes of characters, situations and setting elements are placed on a grid of arenas vs realms - for example, the physical arena/emotional realm intersection represents blood relationships, and the quintessential arena/physical realm intersection is emblematic gear, like a policeman's badge (or a Dog's coat).

Depending whether you are going for characters who are average or above average for their setting, everyone gets a character rating between 15 and 20. Each player distributes this many points among the five categories (minimum 1, maximum 5 for each), and creates attributes (wherever they like on the grid) which total to this many dice.

The number of points in a category determines:
  • the starting level of the pool;
  • the success number on the dice rolled in an area (6-sided die, roll equal or less, so 1 is always a success and 6 is never a success);
  • the default number of dice to roll if you have no attribute to use in a realm.
Attributes are like Dogs traits or FATE aspects, except that they also take in skills, gear and so forth. They can have "twists", which come in two types. An "uptwist" is an advantageous side of the attribute, and gives rerolls on failures; a "downtwist" is a disadvantageous side to the attribute, and forces rerolls of successes. Using an uptwist costs pool points, using a downtwist refreshes pool points (this was inspired by Thematic Batteries in Full Light, Full Steam).

In a conflict, as with Dogs escalation you can bring in further resources by shifting the ground of conflict (five grounds, remember, same as the five categories). Each time you do this, the consequences increase. I haven't fully worked out how, but basically you end up with more or stronger twists and potentially more attributes, affecting the attributes you declare "at risk" in the conflict.

These are distinct from the attributes - of characters, situation or setting - which are "in question" in the conflict. These are directly affected - strengthened, weakened, changed, protected, destroyed - by the winner's margin of success in the conflict (winner's successes minus loser's successes, or just winner's successes less an "inertia" figure for unopposed rolls - haven't figured out yet how inertia works).

If an attribute is central to your character's self-definition, you can "lock" it, meaning that it will always be true, unaffected by consequences, and can't be put in question. Unlocking it, however, releases more power, as well as being narratively interesting and serving as a "hit me here now" flag.

Special Effects (like TSOY Secrets or FATE stunts) do unusual narrative and mechanical things, and basically give you an API to tinker with the standard way the system works.

You buy additional Special Effects, influence on the setting and other goodies using pentapoints (like TSOY XP or FATE points), which are earned when attributes turn up in the fiction which you have declared some of your own attributes to be "enmeshed" with. This is also inspired by FLFS, this time the Situation Engineering rules (in turn inspired by Dogs town creation), as well as by TSOY Keys. Basically the idea is that you set yourself up to earn points by coming up with ways that your character is engaged with the other characters, the setting and the situation - which should produce gameplay that everyone is invested in, especially since setting and situation creation is a group activity.

I think that's basically it.

Oh, and further to yesterday's post - I decided I'm going to go for the fantasy-steampunk setting. I mean, the way I've set it up, it not only has dwarves, gnomes, elves, steampunk, mecha, zeppelins and magic, it also has theme: gender roles, racism, forbidden love, rebellion, industrialization and its discontents, generational conflict, postcolonialism (the elves, as former imperial masters), a nascent empire, haves and have-nots both economic and magical, rivalry among the several philosophical approaches to magic (specifically designed as an analogy for the open source/closed source debate in software development)...

Steam. Theme. Mechanical reinforcement for caring about the setting, situation, and other people's characters. Mechanical reinforcement for taking a beating now so that you can be unstoppable later. Sounds like a storygame to me.

EDIT: new version 0.3 completed, merged with the Acts of Increasing Desperation material (so there's now plot-level advice as well as character-level mechanics, and it's 33 pages long).

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Pentasystem v0.2

So here's the Pentasystem version 0.2 (14-page PDF).

It's a lot closer to an actual system now, though there are still gaps. I still haven't quite figured out the escalation of consequences, and there are obvious holes like "How do I do an unopposed action?" and the like. I also need to blend it with the Acts of Increasing Desperation text or much thereof, and build some templates, character sheets and the like. And piles and piles of examples.

I think there may be a mechanic whereby a minor character (or organization, or other character-like thing) can start out as an attribute, or even part of an attribute, and gradually become a fully-fledged character with their own motivations and desires. That could be fun.

The big thing that's missing is any kind of setting. It's designed for setting-neutrality, but some kind of default setting is needed. Problem is, I'm not sure what. I could use my Underground Railroad setting (fantasy steampunk: Dwarves in trains, exploiting gnomes in mecha; elves in zeppelins; camel-centaurs...), but I have a sneaking suspicion that while it would probably be tremendous fun to play, it may turn people off to have Yet Another Elf Opera Setting. I've been browsing the "settings we want" threads on Story-Games, but frankly, very little of it appeals to me. A lot of it is dark, for a start. If dark horror despairing post-apocalyptic dystopian tragic total party kill is the North Pole, I'm sitting approximately in Auckland, New Zealand (metaphorically as well as literally) - about 2/3 of the way to the opposite pole. And much of the stuff that isn't dark is historical, which sounds like work. I need to find either something that everyone loves that's never been done well (cyberpunk might be a candidate), or come up with something completely creative along the lines of City of Masks.

It would be good to have at least two example settings, a magical one and a non-magical one.

Oy, there's a lot of work to get this thing finished, and I don't know if anyone will even be interested in it. Which is what encourages me to work primarily on the fun bits.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Nice bit of serendipity

You can't tell, of course, but I'm blogging this across our brand-new wireless network, which I spent most of yesterday morning setting up. I hit a few issues initially, but now it works really well.

We were sitting in the lounge taking it for a test-drive, and Erin went to the NZ Herald site to see if it's possible to subscribe just to the Weekend Herald (it isn't). While there, we spotted a random Google ad for The Labyrinth Company, and clicked on it, since we're interested in labyrinths. (I talked about putting in a garden labyrinth at our other place. There isn't really room for one here.)

On their About Labyrinths page they say:

Research conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute has found focused walking meditations are highly efficient at reducing anxiety and eliciting what Dr. Benson calls the ‘relaxation response’. This effect has significant long term health benefits, including lower blood pressure and breathing rates, reduced incidents of chronic pain, reduction of insomnia, improved fertility, and many other benefits. Regular meditative practice leads to greater powers of concentration and a sense of control and efficiency in one's life. Labyrinth walking is among the simplest forms of focused walking meditation, and the demonstrated health benefits have led hundreds of hospitals, health care facilities, and spas to install labyrinths in recent years.

We thought that was pretty interesting, so we Googled for Dr Benson and his Institute and found one of the best descriptions of Centering Prayer we've seen that doesn't call it that - he calls it "Elicitation of the Relaxation Response". It's all there: choose a focus word from your belief system, sit quietly, close your eyes, progressively relax your muscles, breathe slowly and naturally, when you find yourself drifting into thoughts gently return to your word, practice for 10 to 20 minutes twice daily for optimum effect.

It sounds, on rereading, as if he is more on the lines of John Main's Christian Meditation, where you keep repeating the word, rather than Centering Prayer as such, where you only use the word to return to when needed. But basically it's all the same stuff.

I'll have to look out for his book. And a link to his research is definitely going on the Hypno NZ website.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Journey in Four Directions - Publisher Interest

Just heard from my agent (that feels good to say). A publisher is interested in looking at The Journey in Four Directions: Ways of Becoming in Everyday Life.

And that feels even better to say.

Nothing definite yet, of course, but it's further than I've ever got before.

Wen Spencer, please work harder!

ADVISORY: Probable complete unfairness to a living author.

I've been reading a few books by Wen Spencer lately. I came across Tinker first, liked it, moved on to the four Ukaiah Oregon books, liked them too, and last week read A Brother's Price. Which I liked. But I would have liked it a lot more with a bit more work from the author.

To get at what I mean I'll have to give a little background. Like my City of Masks, A Brother's Price is speculative fiction in which there is no magic and the technology is lower than our current real-world technological level, but there is a significant sociological difference. In ABP's case, this is based on a significant biological difference: Very few male children are born. Consequently, men are highly valued - as possessions, to be protected, traded and sold. They aren't usually taught to read (which leads to the classic "deny them education, then point to how dumb they are" maneuver), and they do most of the domestic work - washing, cooking, childcare - for the very large families of sisters and their offspring by a jointly-held husband. Women do everything else. In other words, gender roles are switched, and this provides some thought-provocation.

Where I detected laziness, though, was in the worldbuilding and in the characterization/plotting (I group those together because plot is what characters do).

Firstly, the setting. It's basically 19th-century America, complete with sixguns, Stetsons and derringers (each so called), which I find very lazy worldbuilding. There is a difference: the country is ruled by Queens (they aren't a monarchy as such, because whichever generation of the royal family is currently the "mothers" are, jointly, the rulers; rule passes to the next generation at the birth of its first child). In fact, the country is called Queensland, which raises the never-explored questions, how are other countries governed? What other countries are there? Where are they located in relation to Queensland? What trade goes on with them? Is Queensland a former colony of somewhere else, or has it been settled time out of mind? Queensland seems to sit in a historical and geographical vacuum, surrounded by blankness. There is some history of Queensland, a kind of civil war fought a couple of generations before, but that appears to be all the history there is.

What's more, the women who do everything in Queensland do it in exactly the same kind of macho way as men would - they are warlike, violent and argumentative. Whether this is realistic could be debated, but in this book, it certainly isn't; it's just a given. The people who run society will be macho idiots a lot of the time, end of issue, now let's have some fighting.

Then the characters and plot. One of the (male) main character's sisters behaves very badly and irresponsibly early on, then - gets over it and doesn't do it again, doesn't take revenge out of anger for her punishment, generally seems to mature for no discernable reason. One of the princesses has a very understandable objection to a course of action favoured by the others, and then - gets over it all of a sudden and for no discernable reason. We don't see any process of how these characters changed, how their powerful emotional issues were resolved. They just cease to be an impediment to the plot. Just as in Ukaiah Oregon the "Famous Bitch of Ice", FBI Agent Zheng, thaws completely and instantly when she meets Ukaiah. We're not told why she's a bitch of ice in the first place, exactly what was magic about Ukaiah... We see no process.

I'm not advocating holding up the action while the characters talk endlessly about their internal conflicts; after all, I'm reading this kind of fiction rather than another kind because I like the externalization of internal conflicts. But that's not what I'm receiving. I'm receiving the replacement of internal conflict (and its resolution) with external conflict, and it's just not fully satisfying; it feels rushed and incomplete.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Designing in public: the Pentasystem

Inspired by a Story-Games thread on designing in public, here I am.

The other day I came up with a (still extremely sketchy) character-level game system I'm currently calling the Pentasystem, because the number 5 crops up in it a bit. It will do so more if and when I integrate it with my plot-level system, currently called Acts of Increasing Desperation. This is - I think - all a part of my Modular Game System.

The Pentasystem is kind of inspired by the Big Three Indie Systems, namely:
  • the Dogs system (as far as I know this doesn't have a more generic name, but it's now used in The Princes' Kingdom and Afraid as well as Dogs in the Vineyard);
  • the Solar System (basis for Clinton Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday, but under an open license and hence widely used for other games, including my own Errantry and Tony Dowler's Mathematica);
  • FATE (basis for Spirit of the Century and the forthcoming Dresden Files RPG, but again, widely used as a basis for "homebrews" because of an open license).
The Dogs part of the inspiration is the smallest, partly because I don't own any of the games which use it and only know what I know about the system by indirect methods. But the key Dogs idea I want to seize on - not really reflected in the current draft - is that anything, from "Girls make me feel funny" to "My rifle" to "My relationship with Sister Abigail", is mechanically represented in the same way: a certain number of dice, which can change in the course of the game. (This is what I'm currently calling "Attributes".) Also, the concept of "escalation", that when you change how you're dealing with a situation that opens up the possibility of bringing new factors to bear. And finally, "fallout" - having a conflict will change you (though my implementation will be different; I don't know what it will be, but it will be different).

Because I've done a Solar System game (Errantry), its influence is the clearest. I like the idea of "pools", though I'm planning five of them (the current draft of the Pentasystem says 3, but it will be 5, as per AoID). I think these will also be used as the escalation elements as per Dogs.

Pools power and fund your unusual actions. At the moment, my plan is that the base level (not the current level, but the base level) of your pool determines your success number on the dice for anything connected to that pool.

Keys are commonly mentioned as the best bit of the SS. They're the things which drive you - unrequited love, a desire for glory or whatever - and you get rewarded when they turn up in the fiction, in such a way that your character can only change if the Keys turn up regularly. The Pentasystem draft doesn't have them yet, but AoID does (in the form of goals and dilemmas). I want to do more work on this, it's at a very early stage as yet. I'm not entirely sure that they won't be dealt with, mechanically, as Attributes just the same as everything else, maybe tied to the Will pool.

A bit like Keys are Aspects in FATE. The cool thing about Aspects, though, is that you not only get rewarded for playing them, but you can also not play them in a given situation, if you're willing to pay out a resource. Also, anyone can invoke anyone else's Aspect - point to it and push it, basically. That's going in.

Secrets in SS, or Stunts in FATE, are ways to do unusual things. They have a resource cost. At the moment, AoID has "Special Effects" which are equivalent. I'd like this to be more integrated with the other mechanics, but that's a want, not a design goal.

A couple of things have come from outside the Big Three. One is the "corruption"-type mechanic of dice turning into their opposites, attributes or relationships becoming "problematic", etc. This is more-or-less a storygames commonplace, probably coming originally from Sorceror's Humanity. The other is the idea of a "pool" of opposition dice, which I'm currently calling "risk dice"; one of the espionage games, I forget which, has something like this. However, I'm making some available to the protagonists as well as to the Opposition player, so that they also can give attributes to the environment.

Oh - the GM role is spread around like butter. This is my normal approach and is partly cultural. It's just assumed in NZ these days that there should be a rotating chair for most regular meetings and that other roles similarly rotate around the participants, even if someone present is, hierarchically, the "boss".

Finally, what I'm doing deliberately different from the Big Three is using only 6-sided dice. They're more familiar to people who haven't previously gamed, and they're certainly easier to get hold of. If you go into most cheap-crap-from-China shops, of which there are a plethora, you can pick up anything up to 12 D6s for $2. That same $2 will buy you one polyhedral die from the one shop I've found in Auckland - largest city in the country - that stocks them. The picture in the US is very different, of course, but I'm not there.

FATE and the Solar System are Fudge-descended and use Fudge dice, which even many long-time gamers dislike (and which you have to add and subtract every time). Dogs uses masses of assorted polyhedrals. The Pentasystem uses, at base, five D6s at a time - though you will need more dice than that, and in a couple of colours. You just count successes, which are rolls under a certain number, set by your pool. Ones are always successes (and do other good things), sixes are always failures (and do other bad things). There are no modifiers to add or subtract.

There's a very long way to go from this sketchy thing to any kind of finished game, but it's a start.

Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible...

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

JavaScript frustration

Advisory: Whining. Also, technobabble.

I really, really hate developing in JavaScript. And the basic reason is not that the language is butt-ugly (though it is); it's that when you make a mistake, it's so hard to find it because the tools are so primitive.

I'm almost certain I remember that browsers used to give you error messages when you screwed up your JavaScript. They were near-useless ones that said "Syntax error in line 12", but at least, if you could locate what your browser thought was line 12, you had some chance of fixing it.

I'm using the much-lauded Firebug in Firefox. Yes, it's useful, it shows you a lot of what's going on, but if I mistype something in my JavaScript so that I have an unmatched bracket or something, does it tell me where? Does it hell.

Instead, it just silently stops working. I then have to flounder around, more or less randomly commenting bits out, until I figure out where the problem is and fix it.

Right now, something that was working yesterday has stopped working and I can't for the life of me figure out why. I click the button and nothing happens, where yesterday good things happened.

Stupid JavaScript.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Why I like the stories I like

This is a kind of follow-up to The Loneliness of the Postmodern Protagonist, which was about why I don't like the stories I don't like.

I like stories set in an environment that is somehow quirky, odd, eccentric or bizarre. (Hence why I hardly read anything that isn't fantasy or SF; not because such environments are restricted to those genres, but because you can be guaranteed to find them there.)

I like stories where the protagonists are not cynical, selfish nihilists, but people with a degree of childlike innocence, who want to do the right thing and will do so even if it costs them. They may be wrong about what the right thing is, they may get themselves in terrible trouble by trying to do it, and they will suffer, but that's their motivation. They care about people. They are engaged in a heroic struggle on behalf of others, and it's one that they will win - though they may get badly battered along the way. They're not perfect; they suffer temptation, they make bad choices, they get it wrong. Ultimately, though, they triumph against people who are grasping after power for their own selfish ends, or because they think they know better than anyone else what is good for everyone (and think that it's OK to have other people, not themselves, pay the cost of that good), and who "treat people as things" (Granny Weatherwax's concise definition of sin).

And I like humour with that. Either the characters don't take themselves too seriously, or the author shows up their quirks and foibles in an amusing way.

So: quirky, funny, not too dark, underlying ethical assumption. What have I found that matches these?

  • Terry Pratchett. Hardly any other "funny fantasy"; everyone else is either too cynical (e.g. Tom Holt) or not actually funny.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold. Particularly the Vorkosigan novels, but any of hers really.
  • Jim Butcher. Great thanks are due to Fred (Iago) at Story-Games for putting me onto him. Harry Dresden is exactly what I like. And I have the ninth one waiting for me at home tonight. W00t!
  • Julian May, at least in the Galactic Mileau novels.
  • Some of the later Ursula Le Guin, after she got over herself and got a sense of humour.
  • Some of the earlier Sherry Tepper, before she got under herself and lost her sense of humour.
I also enjoy some cyberpunk, despite the darkness, rather than because of it. I think if there's an excess of one of my favoured elements (in this case, bizarreness of setting) I'm willing to put up with a lack of one of the others. I'm just about to finish re-reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It's amusing to see how dead wrong a highly intelligent and well-informed person could be in speculating about, essentially, the Internet in 1992. That's only 15 years ago, you realize? Yet before the World Wide Web.

I read a round dozen webcomics regularly. My favourites fit the above profile:
  • El Goonish Shive. A sweet ninja squirrel girl, transformation guns, obvious aliens who wear T-shirts saying "Human", and really, really good handling of human relationships.
  • Get Fuzzy. If a Siamese cat could talk, he would trash-talk, exactly like this. And the little dog is priceless.
  • Irregular Webcomic! Bizarre nerd humour, done by photographing Legos. Very, very creative and often extremely funny.
  • The Dreamland Chronicles. A 3-D comic that is just so beautiful, the story almost doesn't matter. (Not that it's a bad story, either.)
  • Scary Go Round. I got onto this through Vincent Baker's blog. High on the quirk, a little low on the ethics (but that's part of the humour), saved from being dark by its total absurdity. Great quotes, often in the final panel.
I wish there was more of this stuff. I may have to write some.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Playing myself after all

Big blogging day. Basically I'm at a difficult point in my Unfolding Form application and can't be bothered wrestling with it.

Over in another post (Playing the role you don't want to live), I banged on about how Garan, my character in Vaxalon's Amber game, was a way for me to break type and basically play a barbarian.

It doesn't seem to have worked. In this particular game, characters can grant other characters "traits" based on their actions, which they can then use later in the game. The two traits Garan's received so far are "Intuitive Insight" and "Wisest Choice".

Looks like I'm a cleric at heart after all. Sigh.

(Though I did ask the other players specifically to help me put some ropes on this loose cannon. Perhaps this is their way of doing so.)

Religion as accretion

I was talking the other day with Lois, who has known the Cityside church building at various points in its chequered history, and she was saying how its present state is the result of numerous small changes, without any overall plan, over a period of many years. Some of the switchboards (there are multiple switchboards) control half the lights in one room and the other half are on a different switchboard. There are little nooks and cupboards and odd areas everywhere.

Which is a bit like Christianity, really.

If you know very much history at all, it's hard to consider the Church and its faith as the outcome of a divine plan when it's so obviously the result of thousands of years of more-or-less uncoordinated human decisions. Half the "theology proper" (the theology about God) is based in Graeco-Roman philosophy, and so is a great deal else about the theology, including how it is traditionally constructed and conducted. The Trinity, as I've referenced elsewhere, is probably a result of Egyptian and/or ancient Indo-European influences. The Dying and Rising God, the Flood and its defeat, and many other biblical themes are common to much of the ancient Middle East.

And if you really start looking back, a lot of features we think of as essentially Christian - angels, resurrection, the prospect of a future judgement, even the figures of the Messiah, the one good God and the evil Adversary - come ultimately from Zoroastrianism via late Judaism, from when the Jews were subjects of the Persian Empire.

One response to this is to try to strip all of the accretions away. This is what the Reformation tried to do, more or less, and the later Puritans; also their philosophical descendants like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who remove the Trinity, Christmas and other evidently pagan aspects (while leaving the Zoroastrian bits; after all, they're already there front-and-centre in the New Testament writings). Some theological liberals do the same, for slightly different reasons - not to take the faith back to a mythical, primordial state of purity, but just because, having discovered their origins, they are no longer able to take these aspects seriously.

But I regard it as a bit like, oh, an old building. Say one of those really old churches or manor houses in England, where they have more history (our oldest extant building was built in 1820). Its core might be Norman, perhaps built on the site of an older Saxon, Celtic or Roman fort, villa or temple. But someone built onto it in the late Middle Ages, and someone built another bit in Tudor times, and then again in the reign of Queen Anne, and in the Georgian period, and in the Victorian era, and then they rewired it several times over the course of the 20th century, and now... now it's very rich and layered, and everywhere you turn there is history. It's a jumble, yes. But it's our jumble. And if we stripped all the new layers back (and how do you pick which ones?), what you would end up with would be, frankly, cramped, draughty, primitive, and lacking in either beauty or utility. It's the end product of a great many people who each, for reasons that seemed good at the time, altered it in a particular way, sometimes destroying things we now wish they'd preserved, sometimes preserving things we wish they'd destroyed, but adapting it to the needs of their own time as they saw them.

I can worship in a building like that. But you can see why I hold the Christian particularities fairly lightly, and am quite comfortable being around people who have other particularities in their quite different faiths. To change the metaphor, we all need lenses to look through, because we all have imperfect sight, but your lenses may not help me (though they help you), and my lenses may not help you (though they help me).

What's an angel?

My previous post about Tony's Mathematica game reminds me of something I've been thinking about for a while. What's my view of angels? I put them in a play; I put them in my Celtic art; I put them in my rituals. What do I actually conceive of them as?

Well, like so many things, I try to keep the Schroedinger's box closed on that one as much as possible. But if I have to say something, I would say that my working hypothesis is this: Angels (and gods in a polytheistic context, and in some ways saints in the context of medieval devotion) are a manifestation of the human tendency to put a face on the abstract. They're ways of engaging with ideas and parts of our own selves which we can just access better if they're external personalities - much like the way you can have a therapeutic Gestalt dialogue with an alienated part of yourself.

But I would be betraying my own principles if I said they were only that (I can't stand "X is just..." arguments). I admit at least the possibility that actual spiritual forces and/or beings - whatever those are - connect to these constructs and animate them. And for some reason, I find angels a very appealing concept. Look for more of them in my future work.

Ideas as beings

Tony Dowler recently let me critique his work-in-progress Mathematica as part of a critique exchange over at Story-Games.

Capsule summary: it's a well-done alternate-history Renaissance game, built on Clinton Nixon's Solar System. His main addition to that system is the "war of ideas". Without giving away too much, questions like "Can the Pope be infallible?" can be invoked during play for mechanical advantage, and eventually get "resolved", the answer becoming part of the game world.

That triggered off an idea in me for an alternate treatment. What if the ideas (let's call them Theses, like Luther's) become like very cut-down characters, which "advance" as they are invoked and involved in conflicts until they "transcend" and become orthodoxies or truisms accepted by at least some people as just part of the way things are?

This makes them rather like gods, of course. And, in fact, the ideas of the Renaissance and afterwards did start to be treated, in many ways, like the gods of polytheism.

Those same gods were given a revival in intellectual and artistic discourse in the Renaissance, their symbolism and attributes used in discussion and symbolic art about ideas. Probably this had something to do with the age's desire to disentangle itself from the medieval Church, which did a similar thing with the symbols and attributes of the saints.

Interestingly, like me in City of Masks, Tony has made the continuation of Roman paganism part of the background to his setting. I suspect his reasons may be similar to mine (I seem to remember him saying somewhere that he's a fairly conservative Catholic): Doing this enables you to play with ideas about the role and influence and corruption of the Church in those times, without the emotional complication of its historical continuity with the Church of which you are a current faithful member.

So anyway, there's an idea for my file of "may have legs" ideas. Theses, and, naturally, antitheses, which act like characters in at least some ways.

More in my next post.