“What makes a classic fantasy setting work for you?”

October 30, 2018 7 comments

The discipline of writing is, before anything else, the business of ordering and formalizing your thoughts so that someone else can be let into them. The under-appreciated truth behind this is that the first someone else also lives in your own head.*

When you have a revelation about something it’s often just that a bunch of sense impressions and partial realizations in dusty boxes in the attic of your mind suddenly tumble out into a coherent sentence that the linguistic, formal-explaining part of your mind can understand. Your pre-linguistic mind already groks it in its own way, but it can’t tell you directly, it just gossips with your habits and preconceptions, out of sight of the ever-seeking Ego. But those pre-linguistic attic goblins are terrible at thoroughness – they leave holes all over the place, they don’t care about argument or refutation. They love the memory of something shiny buried under the accreted muck of experience.

On the one hand, when your linguistic mind gets it and you can say it to yourself, it feels great, like you’re really clever. On the other, your critical mind has a hard time cutting through that euphoria because you already recognize it as something you’ve long considered to be true, even if you didn’t know it.

I had one of these today. +Brendan S asked “What makes a classic fantasy setting work for you?” and the responses caused an attic quake. First +Scott Martin said an enmagicked world… “it’s opening up all this romanticist baggage around the frühe and the völkisch.” And then +Ian Borchardt added “the character is freed from the constraints of their normal life. They cross a threshold – a moment of realisation that they are not in Kansas any more – and are free to develop and grow – or fail and die.”

And that set a chain reaction going.

First, the Romantic: for any fantasy to really work for me, it has to mean it, it has to include a spark of untrammeled imagination or indigestible emotional meaning that’s taken seriously enough to have consequences. A frisson of emotional groundedness straight from the author’s fear/desire well that isn’t, at root, about the kinds of things they’d discuss with their neighbours at the supermarket checkout.

Second, the adventurous: Ian’s protagonist breaking the vessel of habit is of course the reader’s traveling companion – someone through which the author can convey their sense of dislocation and surprise as they encounter their own creative world… kinda for the first time.

So then why the dwarves and elves and so on? Well, they still fulfill a signifying function that this isn’t Kansas and we’ll be going down some dark emotional holes. In one way the recognizability of the fantasy world is a children’s tv presenter saying “ok kids, today we’re going on an adventure. We’re going to see some different things and you may not know what to think about them. But that’s ok, discovery is part of the point.”

But why dwarves and elves initially? Why was Tolkien dusting off those old Mabinogion stories – and why did Morris and Wagner and the Grimms before him?

And that was my second attic quake for the day. Fantasy is Romantic modernism.

OK OK you’ve heard this one before – it’s the 19th century, everyone’s scared of the Brave New Mechanized World, people are wondering how we’re going to survive the population explosion and urban sprawl and smogs and Dark Satanic mills and proletarian work days and cholera and public housing. This is where popular wisdom says “on the one hand there was the Enlightenment and a Scientific Revolution which led to electric light bulbs and Einstein, and on the other hand there was a dark, reactionary impulse that led away from the future, toward Romantic poetry, German angst and Freud and, eventually, Hitler.”

And there’s probably some narrow slice of the historical population for which that simple dichotomy works, but much more generally, NO.

I don’t think Romanticism is reactionary, in the sense of rejecting modernism and its works. I think it’s a thoroughly modernist response to the question so what are we going to do with this Brave New World? Or maybe more specifically, what will we do with our hands in this Brave Mechanized world? For Morris and Ruskin and William de Morgan the answer was use them more deliberately than we ever have before, knowing that the haptic senses are endangered. Where angsty German romantic authors agonized about the soul or spirit, my contribution is that they were really asking what’s it going to be like, being a spirit among the machines? What has it always been like, being a spirit in a meat machine? It’s a trajectory from Hegel and Herder to Arthur Koestler with windows into Italian Futurism and Rudolf Steiner’s magickal empiricism along the way.

And it’s tempting to see Gothic Revivalism as a physical manifestation of the Wagner impulse, valorizing an imaginary medieval ur-folk when men were real men and plague was real plague but the best real men were real Germans etc etc but consider instead the medieval as an imaginary ground state – a world built to be unchanging in itself so that when change comes it is immediately apprehended as a thing from outside. An irruption. Then the roots of classic fantasy start to take shape. Wagner’s dwarves and elves are expressions of the human spirit shrunk back into the shadows, eyeing the challenge of the new from a distant vantage point, from which they can still see other possibilities beyond the evident, imminent danger of being sucked up into the vortex, made pistons in the social machine. Yggdrasil’s a campaign map of a bigger system than the steam engine – in fact it contains the visible outline of the mechanical u/dystopia pumping out of Svartalfheim.

In short, fantasy wasn’t supposed to stand as an escape from or alternative to modernism, but a set of imaginary mental tools for dealing with it. Seen from this angle, spirited Hegel is an elf caressing the gold and silver leaves of the sun and moon, taking a long view with one eye on God. Marx, who knows the fear of becoming a machine, has the work ethic and material, architectural sensibility of a dwarf. And if there are manifestations of the völk among the humans (and god knows there are, with Tolkien’s Geats of Rohan and aspirational Numenorean Rotwangs), still their main challenge is growing up into the Fourth Age, where they will no longer have elves and dwarves to guide them.


*Coda: the link between writing and critical thought is what bothers me most about the intensely formal way my son is being taught to write essays. It’s called the PEEL System, which I find ironic, because it has nothing to do with peeling away surface ideas to get at the kernel of truth, nor the pealing of bells that might go with a moment of realization. Instead it’s all about packing your nuggets of criticism into neat little boxes, with a Topic Sentence at the bottom and a link to the next box on top, so the containers will all stack up on the ship and sail with you into your college application. I’m not against boxes – you can do all sorts of things with modular containers. Structure is probably good. Training wheels help people to surpass them. What I fear about this system is not so much that it will format my son’s critical faculties into an easily satisfied bonsai shape, but the modules of argument he’s forming as he writes the essays. Portable little modules that he could use to bricolage moderately-convincing arguments together on any topic. Modules just big enough to fight twitter wars. Have you ever read Kapital? Most of it’s a carefully argued (although under-referenced) description of capitalist systems that clearly fits into a Smithian/Ricardian continuum. But the first chapter, where he sets out his philosophical assumptions about the Nature of Man, is pure ecstatic stream, like the Revelations of St. John the Divine. I don’t love that whole school of writing myself, but my point is, no PEEL-trained writer is ever going to reproduce something like that because it’s not how you write. Any more. The machine is here. Everything on the black square has become red.



All games are theories about the world

October 10, 2018 8 comments

1. The announcement that G+ is going to shut down reminded me that I should’ve always been posting everything here and just linking to it on G+. And if I didn’t have anything worth writing on the blog then maybe I didn’t have anything worth writing. This will be the new policy going forward, we’ll see if I can stick to it.

2. I’m planning to rescue any actual creative work I did on G+ and repost it over here so that it doesn’t just get deleted. I don’t know when, but it should give the blog a weirdly healthy look for a while, like a septuagenarian with a facelift and cortisone injections.

3. Here’s the actual post:

I’ve been writing some sailing ship combat rules and playing some sailing ship combat games, and it’s reminded me of how good Civilization (5) is.

All rules present a model of the world, which is to say a theory about it. When you play the rules you explore the theory. Really good, ingeniously written rules help you understand the theory. If they’re informed by smart theories, they might even teach you something about the subject at hand. But this hardly ever happens, especially in video games, because there are lots of competing interests demanding stuff from the rules that don’t have anything to do with theory building.
– They have to present a certain incline of learning curve or the player won’t bother with them.
– They have to offer frequent little stresses and rewards or the player will get bored.
– There always has to be a path to victory, but not too broad a path.
And the interface has another set of rules it needs to follow – it needs to be quickly grasped and then it needs to disappear, letting the game shine through.

There are lots of failure modes that video game rules tend to fall into, but maybe the most common is that the stress/reward structure and the “feel” of the interface tend to win all arguments, so that the experience of playing the game ends up having nothing to do with the theory it wants to have. And this tends to happen in particular with ship combat games. Interfaces get complex quickly, if they try to represent the systems of the ship, the weather, and the tactical space. Sea battles don’t happen at a pace that’s satisfying for a twitchy action game – the haptics of controller-manipulation are not naturally fitted to the anxieties of ship captains. A ship shouldn’t feel like a car – if it does, it’ll be a frustratingly unresponsive one.

The Pirate: Caribbean Hunt is a great example. The theory is, you can command a fleet of ships, get involved in big, 18th century naval battles, deploy round, chain and grape shot in historically plausible ways, and revel in the life of a sea captain (inevitably a pirate, because after all you’re a gamer and therefore a greedy libertarian) – swabbing blood off the decks and avoiding going into irons and getting the weather gage and so on. And almost all the ingredients are presented to let you do that – combat kills lots of people, whom you keeping needing to replace. Not only is it annoyingly impossible to sail into wind, the big ships even make you fiddle with the sails a bit to turn faster. The economics of ship upkeep and repairing battle damage are just present enough to keep you busy without becoming a big chore. So far, so good.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.55.38 AMScreenshot

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 10.11.53 AM.pngSource material

But the actual fighting… that’s where the theory breaks down. Because real sea battles are all about making less bad decisions than your opponents. There aren’t many repeatable tactical flourishes that will let you get out unscathed, instead it’s about showing up with overwhelming force, having better supplies, constraining your enemy’s movements, and deciding what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to win. Sometimes you need to charge in and board before they can blast you out of the water, sometimes you need to hold them off while you do the blasting. Nelson said he owed his success to his love of gambling – once you’ve committed your forces, you generally can’t extricate them again without catastrophic losses. Most of all if you’re in a sloop and they’re in a frigate, you’d better hide behind some islands or pretend to be a merchant of a friendly power or something.

The Pirate isn’t going to commit to that, so its battles inevitably become this:
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.56.39 AM

you running away just a little bit faster than the enemy (this is a corvette, the fastest ship in the game, indestructible in a player’s hands), throwing gunpowder barrels off the transom for the other force to run over.

(Historical note: sea mines did exist from the 19th century on, but they were big bulky purpose-built things and only sometimes worked. Nobody has ever won a sea battle by heaving barrels of gunpowder into the water for the enemy to run over.)

If you don’t use the gunpowder barrel trick, you can try this:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.58.43 AM.pngrunning away and turning to shoot occasionally. As long as you’re faster, the only limit here is your ammunition and your patience.

So this has 3 basic problems:

1. it’s boring – the very thing the designers didn’t want – because the smart way to win every battle is to spend hours doing repetitive, fairly easy things: run away, turn, fire, barrel, run away, turn, fire, barrel. (Don’t even get me started on why I don’t have a fleet – it’s because the AI for your other ships is so miserable that they just get in the way.)
2. it’s not what they sold you. This is not piracy, even if they gave you a bunch of the trappings. This is a reskin of a ski slalom game.
3. if you have any theory of ship combat you might bring as a player, it’s no use to you, because the theory they wanted to present has been abandoned in favor of some other emergent theory they didn’t even know they had – about what the player will tolerate in terms of deadliness and difficulty/failure as a learning mode. About how you should be able to fight your way up from small ships to big ones, rather than getting those bigger ships by negotiating or trickery or night-time theft.

Civilization, on the other hand, is all about its theories. And although some of those are suspect, its basic idea of combat is good – even illuminating. It’s all about concentration of force (the very thing The Pirate promises with its Line of Battle dressing but doesn’t deliver with its nugatory fleet command system).
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.45.19 AM.pngCiv’s artillery units are weak and slow, so you keep them behind your infantry. Its shock troops can take and deal a lot of damage, but they’ll get slaughtered if they’re not adequately defended by ranged weapons. Its ranged units are only strong when defended by fortifications. The way to win is to deploy all of that quickly, architecturally, so that you rain the combined forces of several units down on an isolated enemy piece, so that each individual battle is short, so you overwhelm the enemy locally (defeat them in detail), and so you don’t get bogged down over giant fronts in equal exchanges that just kill lots of people on both sides.

It’s simple, it’s abstract, it’s obviously not aiming for realism… but it feels right and it feels like it can teach you stuff about historical battles. Force concentration is how smaller Roman squares broke up enormous Greek formations. Missile support won the Battle of Agincourt, grave of the French cavalry. The theories are clear, applicable, and they’ve survived through the whole game’s development.

There are concessions – Civ plays out over millenia and no real country has military units more than a couple of hundred years old, and those that are don’t actually level up through all that time, so this Supermurderer Class Battlecruiser is strictly ahistorical, a sop to players who get sentimental about their units:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.04 AM
(that’s the good ship Semarang, evolved up Pokemon style from this ancient galley:)Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.37 AM
and when the theories do break down – when the battles get so huge as to be unwieldy – they decay more or less gracefully, not catastrophically. The question of who will win the exchange below comes down to the order in which units move and shoot, and the unpredictable performance of the submarines… the sort of thing people actually wrote about WW2 naval battles.Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.44.34 AM.png

I guess only playtesting will tell me if the rules I’m writing are more like The Pirate or more like Civ… but I’m making a good faith effort to write a game theory that will deliver historical-type outcomes.

So this is a call for playtesters – the sort who will test the theories, do the stupid things that exploit the rules, and show me what the rules actually say, rather than the kind who will imagine co-operatively with me and try to behave like historical captains. If you’re interested in being such a tester – and if you can be patient, because there may well be months between sessions, then I’d like to hear from you.

I don’t know where I’ll land yet, but for now I’m checking each of these every few days:


Oh yeah, and The Pirate? After I figured out how to beat it, I devoted my time to assembling a museum collection of ships in Miami.
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.29.12 AM.png
Of these, the 1st Rate Liverpool is useful only as a troop transporter. The faster-turning xebec and corvette are the conquerors.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.30.07 AM.png
The Pirate says it’s 1770 but it has galleasses, fluyts, clippers and paddlesteamers. So I guess that’s 1770 +/- 100 years.


Let me tell you how much I hate point-buy systems

September 10, 2018 4 comments

…just a bit less than I hate stupid tribalism about which kinds of rules we’re allowed to use.

So like everyone else I’ve been really enjoying the Random Advancement System here, and I’ve also been rereading LotFP, and this potentially stupid idea fell out of my head:

what if there were no classes? Or, what if you could just buy classes as advancements?

Using the Specialist as a base, you get 4 points to spend on distinctive stuff at chargen, +2 points per level after 1st.

To fight like a fighter (ie +1 to hit), pay 2 points.
To cast cleric spells, pay 4 points.
To start casting MU spells, pay 6 points.

The XP cost to add a class after 1st level is half the cost to get to 2nd level in that class x the number of points required. Then you advance in each class separately using the random method.

You can also change your HP die up or down a step from base d6. It costs 2 points to go up to d8 or if you go down to d4 you get 2 points extra to spend. The lowest you can go is d2. There is no upper limit – you can keep increasing your die size using d10, d12, d14, d16 etc. If you don’t have all the weirdest dice, fake a d14 by rolling say 1d8+1d6/level, keeping the 2 dice as similar as possible. Or roll a d20 and cry when you just have to reroll that 19 because it’s not a valid result for a d14. If you use your level advancement to change your hp, instead of keeping your old hp + just the new level’s increase, you reroll fresh hp using the new die size x your highest level.

What about saving throws? I don’t care. Nobody chooses a class based on them or relies on their class’s better save vs. poison or whatever – everyone just saves like a Specialist.

…yeah, I know this isn’t random. But you were going to choose your class at chargen anyway, weren’t you?

A Thousand Thousand Islands: a review of #1-4 by Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao

May 11, 2018 3 comments

I pretty much never write reviews of things made by people in the DIY DnD community, mostly because I feel compromised by knowing the creators. But I’m planning to get over it and write a few, because not everyone gets to see all the awesome stuff that’s been happening and that’s a terrible shame in this, the weird Indian summer golden age of independent TTRPG publishing.

SO, you should know and follow +Zedeck Siew and +Mun Kao. More concretely, you should try to get their zine-sized publications under the imprint “A Thousand Thousand Islands.” Zedeck kindly sent me the first 4 and they’re small but potent – it’s taken me some months to get these few words together about them because they reward slow digestion and reflection.

Superficially, Mun Kao’s line drawings seem the easier part to engage with – there are characters I feel I recognize from Counter-colonial Heistcrawl

cannon crew

and animals and landscapes and mysterious bundles of goods and situations that could be excerpts from David Roberts’s sketchbooks or fragments of a completely coherent setting with more depth that I’d pretend to. They entwine Zedeck’s writing perfectly.

haunted mahogany

Regarding Zedeck’s writing, it’s writing in a way very few RPG folks mean it – personal, poised, finely honed, and referential simultaneously to the structures of poems, novels and encounter tables. In its compression it reminds me of Ben Marcus, in its sketched suggestiveness maybe Bruce Chatwin.

You keep walking. What else can you do? It is not as if you can really run, in your condition. The house is at the end of the street.

Ignore it. Do not acknowledge it. Blank it from the world. Perhaps then – God save you – it will leave.

But it follows you, lamp-pole to lamp-pole. And you cannot help but notice details. How its belly spills down between its short, stubby legs.

It flaps its hands, once, and you see it is wearing a strange skirt: a belt of round things, that could be fruit. Or – if your aunt’s story was true – shrunken infants’ heads.

The baby in your belly turns, afraid.

The Bilangpinggang, from Hantu! – a collection of spirits.

There are no stats, nor anything to definitively place the writing as game text. Still, you could lift it and run it direct from the page – it’s all superbly clear and self-contained and conveys a really strong sense of place. If you’re wondering how to fit the material into pre-existing campaigns, Mr-Kr-Gr, the death-rolled kingdom is a watchful excursion up the river where humans serve crocodiles and Kraching a realm under the tutelage of cats, and either would slot neatly into Call of Cthulhu’s Dreamlands or David McGrogan’s Yoon Suin but I really recommend taking them on their own values and letting them serve as your introduction to their distinctly southeast Asian world.

the gates

I’m impatient for many, many more numbers. I want to know where else Zedeck and Mun Kao can take me.

What I think I’m doing with Counter-colonial Heistcrawl

March 5, 2018 1 comment

So some guy called Sean Nittner annoyed a bunch of people with talk of “reinforcing colonialist narratives without interrogating them.” And +Scrap Princess said “there needs to be more takes on colonialism other than ones where the players are the invaders” and wondered if anyone was doing that, and so I thought maybe I should explain what I’m up to with this game I’m running. Which I might one day package and sell.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl started out as something quite modest: a pirates game, drawing a bit on Traveller tramp-trading, set in island Southeast Asia because everybody does the Caribbean and it seemed to me there were possibilities in this other highly interesting part of the world. In particular I wanted Chinese mafias running protection rackets.

That was 20 years ago. I started running it, put it on the backburner, and went back to college. Along the way I picked up some courses in history, southeast Asian area studies, anthropology and a few other things. They fed into what I was thinking, which started to look less like an innocent pirate game and more like a theory. And then, after my initial enthusiasm for historical theory-formation faded, like an antidote to theory. I finally played Civilisation and my dissatisfaction with its self-satisfaction made me dust off the old obsession and think about it seriously again.

Here is what Counter-colonial Heistcrawl is: it’s an open-ended game like any other kind of trad RPG. The players do stuff. Depending on what they do and the force-multipliers they bring to bear, the world reacts in a bigger or smaller way. It’s also a Civilization style domain game from session 1. No matter how much or little the players have, no matter how Picaresque or Romantic their adventures, we keep a tally of what they have and what they’ve done. Every grain of rice is domain. Every action brings them followers and/or enemies. It’s their civilization against others, whether at the knife, ship, county, kingdom or empire level.

And their world is under attack, and if they don’t do anything, history plays out exactly as we think it did, up to today.

They start in island Southeast Asia in 1610. Why? Because in 1610 the Spanish and Portuguese have already demonstrated the structures of European colonialism to the local area, but in Southeast Asia up to this moment they’ve mostly behaved like any other warlord. The Dutch and English show up around 1600 and also mostly behave like warlords to begin with but they have a bit of a different idea that’s just beginning to form: they plan to systematize their intrusions into the local economy and subvert it. Eventually they will plan an empire independent of territory, where they’re not responsible for anything but profits. But in 1610, their plans are still forming. They represent a big but defeatable pirate fleet. in 1610 it’s still possible to start from nothing and beat them.

Beat them at their own game? Doesn’t this just make them colonialist invaders without the explicit necessity of having white skin? Well, not necessarily. That’s why I want it to be a game. I don’t know. It’s up to the players. I’m not preaching to anyone about what should happen. But I’m certain that the situations of colonialism will all come up in play because if nobody else introduces them, the Dutch and English will. Right now (in 1610) they’re fighting a war of monopoly and influence in the Banda islands, over nutmeg. Left unchecked, that war will end up with genocide against the Bandanese, imported African slaves operating nutmeg plantations, and the first Dutch global monopoly on nutmeg and mace, which the Dutch will parlay into growing control over cloves, cinnamon etc. So the players have an opportunity to do something about that. But what? What will they have to do, what will they have to become, in order to stop the English and Dutch? Will they ally with them against the Chinese (who are far from benign), the Japanese (who are in an expansive mode and well placed, right now, to rival Europeans), Mappillas from south India or the Sultans of Aceh or Riau or Ambon, all of whom know an economic opportunity when they see one?

Who are they working with and for? If they resist gaining followers, that will severely limit the influence they can have in the world. If they accept them, they have to figure out some methods of governing them, or at least maintaining them. Being in the world’s great archipelago gives me 2 basic political units, the ship and the island, which is kind of an unmoving ship because (a) it’s oh so Nusantara, and (b) it’s the most romanticized of all nation models. And using this little discrete polity, we can work out the relations of power, how people will work together (that is, for someone else), who is in and who is out of the polity, and how the outs are treated (which is what nobody wants to talk about when the topic of pirate ship democracy comes up, nor the externalities of democracies in general). And networks of trust and trading to make up where the polity is not self-sufficient and all that Ricardian economic stuff.

And the point is, if you want to do anything, you can’t keep clean hands. You will have to make difficult and often unattractive decisions. And you might have episodes where you look like the good guys but we’re not going to cut and roll credits there. You will certainly also find yourselves in the position of bad guys.

And I’ve got this far without even saying what I think colonialism is or why you might not want to do it.

Colonialism is getting forcefully in the way between people’s production and consumption and demanding that some of it be diverted into your own mouth/hands/accounts/networks. Very simply, it’s theft. Although it tends quickly to get administered so as to look routine. Capitalism is this too (against what a lot of people say on the internet, Marx’s theory of capitalism lays it out quite clearly and explains how it’s different from just trade or free markets or whatever). It’s no accident that they grew up together.

Both have good sides, for some people. Both make things possible that would not be possible otherwise. Both are so deeply imbricated in our world system that everyone reading this will owe their livelihood one way or another to them – indeed, the computer probably couldn’t have been invented without them. That business about leading or governing – it’s hard to imagine that happening without some of this kind of diverting of labour and resources. So the PCs will presumably get implicated in it and might be enthusiastic and ruthless proponents of it and if they are/do then they will have to make all those decisions about how to run their ship/legion/nation/empire. But they don’t start with an empire or nation. They have to make their own categories and draw their own lines about who gets exploited by whom, and as they draw those lines, they will know that the same lines can be used against them by their allies, enemies, children, cabin boys, priests and historians.

Why Heistcrawl? Because as a stated design principle the PCs start with little. Maybe a ship, maybe not even that. And the reason for this is, it places them in the poorer position in any fight, together with the people being exploited, not together with the invaders. If they are to find allies, it will first be among the dispossessed. And they will be able to tell themselves, at least until they achieve some measure of success, that their desperate ends justify their means. And the theory I’m operating with, for how they can go from knife-wielding to empire-wielding, is that everything is an alliance. If you want to conduct a pirate raid you need to ally together under your command:
troops and their loyalty
ships and their expert handlers
information and plans
materiel (guns, ammo, powder, etc)
markets where you can trade the booty.

Colonialists do exactly this for themselves. Then they interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits.

The challenge with making this publishable is that I would have to come up with systems for scaling all this action from the club level up to the empire. So that’s what I’m quietly working on.


Tony Demetriou, BTW, offered a pretty good response in a G+ comment. I have taken the liberty of reproducing it here where someone might be able to still see it in 5 years time:

I feel like it’s both too much and too little.

Too much because the mechanics aren’t very complicated, but I think you can get a better bang for your buck by looking at how you can use the existing mechanics instead.

And too little, because I think that if you simplify things down to a set bonus or penalty you don’t get much player engagement other than “I chose this option.” Try to, instead, create gameplay around the players making choices that have no clear “right” answer, but instead have two good (or two bad) outcomes, where they need to make in-character decisions and tradeoffs and the personality of their PCs shape what choices they make.

May I also suggest that, if you want politics, you need to create asymmetrical tradeoffs.

What I mean is that, if doing X gives you a penalty and doing Y gives you a bonus, then you’re making strategic choices, not really looking at the politics.

I’m not one of your players, and I’m sure they have a different play style to me – so do what you think best. But using your example, I wouldn’t really “engage” with the colonisation aspect. Yeah, I’d see that war destabilises things, but that would be a background part of the setting. It’d be like knowing that drought causes famine, it’s something that happens, something that creates plots in the game that my PC is involved with, but not something I think about deeply or try to influence. I’d probably pick a warlord to throw my lot in with, and try to capture other land. Then try to hold that land until the economy recovers. So, effectively, it just means “newly captured land isn’t as valuable as holding land.” – it changes the tactics a little, but doesn’t really explore colonialism.

Saying “war disrupts the economy” is very different to showing that it disrupts the economy. And saying “war is bad” is very different to showing that war creates opportunities – there’s a reason people go to war, because it’s very profitable for them. Either in economic terms, or in social terms.

If you can get the players to the point where they morally know what they support, they know how to do that, but don’t know if they should – NOW they’re really engaging with the topic.

Maybe start by brainstorming the things you want to show about colonialism. Then you can build those in with asymmetrical game mechanics.

My list would be:
– Destruction of culture and society
– Wealth creation for the colonists, wealth destruction for the colonised
– Transition and adoption of new technology and attitudes
– Assimilation of the colonised people, class standing, wealth opportunities, etc.

How would I bring those into the game mechanics? I’d look for the sort of gameplay my players love, and I’d give them meaningful choices that come with benefits and disadvantages.

So, for example, maybe you can buy ectoplasmic ammo. Everyone knows that the ammo is mostly imported by Shadow Nomads. They travel the waste, using this ammo to defend themselves, and know how to create it. Yeah, other people also know the secrets, but it’s a very involved technique that takes years of practice to get right, and needs you to trap ghosts which requires it’s own technique. The Shadow Nomads capture the ghosts as part of defending themselves, distil the ectoplasmic ammo while camping, then trade the excess for other equipment they need. Their nomadic lifestyle means that they don’t tend to accumulate or consolidate a lot of wealth – if they make a profitable trade, they’ll spend it on a better tent or more horses, since they need to carry it with them.

Mechanically, we can say that the Shadow Nomads would be easy to conquer. But if you do, that will disrupt this situation, and ectoplasmic ammo will become scarcer. At first, just more expensive. But longer term, more problems with ghosts in the cities, spirit wardens stop trying to defend the poorer areas, and so on. Maybe leading up towards another lost district. Or a new ectoplasmic ammo manufacturer (create a factory and mass produce for the entire city! So much money to be made!)

It’s this balance between opportunity and cost that you want. Something that the PCs can get involved in – both because they can be the ones to profit or lose, but also because they can see that everything comes with tradeoffs. And it’s fine if they “deal with it” by just paying more for the ammo, and carrying on with the game. They still get to experience the impact.

But why stop there? That’s just dealing with the problem in front of the players: “ammo is getting scarce.”

You can bring it into the stories. The next time a PC is possessed, they’ll be able to sort that out – the shadow nomads know how to do an excorcism. Except how do you find a shadow nomad shaman? They certainly still exist, but no longer advertise themselves (after conquering them, their new rulers don’t want shamen competing for positions of authority. Or do they? Have they incorporated the shamen into their authority structure or let the shamen speak for their people?) – they might not be willing to help an “outsider” now that relationships have soured. They might want a favour in return – perhaps an assassination.

The next time they do a train robbery, it’s to steal the ammo shipment. The next time a contact’s child is missing, it’s because they were lured away by a ghost. The next time there’s a rebellion, their goal is to bring down the spark towers and let the ghosts in now that the defenders won’t be able to repel that type of attack. The next time they are hired, it’s to help protect workers as they build a new train line (because without nomadic traders, there’s increased profit opportunities for a train line connecting those cities)

Oh, and that’s only looking at the destroyed culture. The colonists took that land, and did whatever-they-did to the shadow nomads for a reason. That will also create opportunities and costs. Are the expanding industrialisation? Strip mining for coal, steel and wood? Is this creating an economic boom in the nearby cities? With the population able to see that war is bad, but supporting it because of their benefits. With the new steel and copper and coal, their city walls and stronger, their sparkworks protect from spirits, their trains bring in food even when they’ve got local food shortages, and everyone is happy, if they’re one of the colonists. Or are they? Who loses from this? What changes?

Mechanically, maybe fine guns are cheaper for the players. Maybe they get paid an extra coin when doing work for the colonists, due to the colonists having more money. There’s certainly advantages to siding with the winners!

… that’s the first point from my list. And my initial brainstorm. With only one cultural group.

Jot down four or five different ideas for the various groups. Don’t go into detail yet. Then jot down a few ideas of how you can bring those “colonialism” ideas into the game.

Each of the groups, and each of the ideas, will lead the game in very different directions. As you come up with the pros and cons of these colonisation themes, you’ll automatically “fill in the details” about those cultures. Even so, try to keep it simple, so there’s room for the players and the gameplay to shape them and fill in the blanks.

This sounds really complicated, but as long as you start simple and keep a focus on how it will create choices for the players, you’ll probably find that it all falls together pretty easily.

These mysteries work less great for RPGs because it’s quite possible that the players make their super cool mysterious characters and then say “what now?” and the GM is also going “oh crap… what now?”. 

make sure it’s super clear, what that war actually amounts to and what actions they will take in it. Also, maybe consider maybe not war? (see above)

I want to know the roots of that power in the setting, and I think establishing those roots will help not only define the scope of the power, but the likely outcomes (and consequences) of wielding it.

Consider your values and how they affect your design choices. They always are!

Calling something a monster makes it “other” and creates a justification for killing it and taking it’s possession, the same justification for many atrocities in our history.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl: state of play

February 14, 2018 1 comment

The PCs have hit a critical point: they’ve got boats, have rescued some people who need nursing back to health but could serve as crew, and have rescued/acquired a navigator who has some idea of where they are.

Here’s their fleet:

1 prahu (Malay tramp trader or fishing boat) with sails like this:

but with outriggers like this:
outrigger sampan manila model

1 junk (half of this matched pair, the other half is still in the hands of Chinese pirates:
chinese junks in japan_woodblock2

1 korakora (Philippine viking ship). Those usually look like
but this one’s a 2-hull model that looks more like a Polynesian voyaging canoe
big catamaran

also a straightforward 12-man dugout canoe (you can imagine that, right?) and a totally pimp 6-man dragon boat that looks like it got lifted from some royal parade, kinda like a mini version of this:
Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 10.21.29 AM
It’s clearly valuable but not very practical, being twice as long as it needs to be for 6 people.

This is their current situation, stalking the remaining Chinese junk, also hoping to trade with villagers on the bigger island for food. Except they’ve just now seen some towering white canvas sails approaching from the NW, which they spied while shinning up some species of “breadfruit” tree.


More generally, they’re east of Borneo, south of Sulawesi. According to their Makasarese navigator, Sulawesi’s outlying islands are about a week away to the north. There are islands closer to the south (maybe only a couple of days, since the wind’s with you) but he doesn’t know the people there. Past those islands the currents get crazy, the water gets deeper and colder, therefore good for whaling, and then after that there’s the Great Spiritland, where he’s heard things get kinda out of control. Trees that bear women as fruit, walking mountains, stuff like that. And out to the east, maybe a week to 10 days away, are the island of nutmeg and cardomom and cloves.

Tiki’n’D2: the joy of veils

July 27, 2017 4 comments

“These aren’t really drinks. They’re trade winds across cool lagoons. They’re the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They’re a lovely maiden
bathing at the foot of a waterfall.”

So a little while ago there was an article on Kotaku that sorta celebrated D&D and sorta concluded it was obsolete:

“It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy.

“Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies. On top of their race, class, alignment and stats, today’s character sheets want to know why the player adventures, and what they ultimately hope to gain. Today’s Dungeon Master’s Guild, an official D&D website that publishes anyone’s adventures and additions to the game, tells us who really owns its legacy. It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.”

Greg Gorgonmilk disagreed: “The general thesis seems to be that giving the GM too much control is a bad thing, as though the responsibility of the other players should go beyond their characters. This is something we see in New School games a lot and it has its strengths and drawbacks but most notably (at least for the purposes of this article) those games are not like any iteration of D&D that I am aware of.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.56.28.png

…Christmas 1982 I got Traveller Deluxe and Moldvay Basic from two rather distant relatives. It took a month and the help of a schoolmate to overcome the initial confusion but then I was slowly, uncertainly hooked.

One of the things that slowed me down – one of the most distinctive elements of this new way of neither exactly playing a boardgame nor exactly playing let’s pretend – was the role played by the DM. I had no exact analogue for it and all the things I did already know betrayed me one way or another.

Like a novelist, the DM holds all the secrets and knows what’s in every cave. But that’s where the novelist metaphor ends and every other part of being a novelist – narrating what the heroes do, directing their actions, revealing the inner mental lives of the characters, using multiple perspectives to reveal facets of a story – are actively harmful to playing the game. You’ve seen The Princess Bride, of course. You know how Peter Falk breaks off the narrative to tell the kid “it’s OK, she doesn’t die here. We can stop if it’s getting too scary”? When I saw that I’d already DM’d just a little and I knew it was terrible form – threatening to take the experience away because the kid didn’t like it or it was getting too intense, deferring to the writer as ultimate guide. No. It canceled the stakes, brought the players’ engagement up short, stopped them making the decisions that could ruin them.

The other frequent metaphor, that of a referee, was equally misleading – a strictly neutral ref might adjudicate in a game of skill or luck but the DM’s thumb could never be free of the suspicion of tipping the scale. I was just getting to the age where I could recognize that answering “I got you” with “did not!” was foreclosing the game I had been invited into and replacing it with an argument nobody wanted. So for our fledgling play group it was, I think, a great but only semi-deliberate act of trust to assign the position of DM with its peculiar double responsibilities of playing the opposition and refusing to advocate for them. Never to pull punches, but also to telegraph the cues a skillful player would use to avoid getting punched. If we didn’t quite understand the awesome responsibility those first few times, we soon found out as we played with capricious, cruel and uncommitted DMs after school – people who were intrigued enough to try but not engaged enough to try hard.


I recently got to play Braunstein with Dave Wesely (+Zach H’s photo is of B4: Piedras Marrones) and I was startled by how lightly – almost invisibly – he refereed. Braunstein 1 is pretty much a statless larp in which all the scenario building is front-loaded in the character packets. Each player gets a role, a set of objectives and something to trade with, and then the game begins and people wander around learning puzzle pieces from each other, finding out why their objectives are complicated, negotiating and cajoling and threatening. Dave’s job, once it was on was, I’d say, maintaining simultaneity. Letting the room know when player-initiated events had happened (but not that they were player-initiated). Running NPCs’ responses when needed, although I hardly saw any, there were so many players.

It made me think hard about the players’ responsibilities. They were there to make their characters spring to life, sure. They needed to play their parts, pursue their objectives (on which others’ objectives depended), cause trouble. But they absolutely were not there to advance a story. There was no pressure to keep one foot on either side of the fourth wall, to have any consciousness of plot or structure or opportunities for character development. Their responsibility was to live as fully and inventively as possible inside the space.

Big deal. So far so trad. Where’s the Tiki?


1933; Prohibition ends and ERB “Don” Gantt opens a bar/restaurant called Don the Beachcomber, casting himself in the title role, sporting colonial slacks and an Indiana Jones hat. This new bar combines several innovations into a new formula that will transform American drinking culture. Most of the elements are not new but, (to belabor a metaphor) they make a new synthesis, which flourishes in the post-Prohibition environment.

And the new thing is mystery. The exotic.

Nobody wanted mystery in their drinks during Prohibition (or again during the war), when the provenance of spirits was a major concern because the bathtub stuff could cripple you. The bartender’s job was to shake clean mixes in plain sight from imported bottles displayed proudly over the bar. The classic 20s cocktails – the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni – were simple 2 or 3 ingredient drinks that showcased the qualities of individual ingredients. Bond drinks vodka Martinis because their crystal clarity makes it hard to conceal drugs. Cloudy sours – the Rickey, Sidecar, Collins and so on – might make it harder to identify a particular doubtful spirit base but to be well made, they need the best ingredients. Trust in the bartender was strictly limited and customers often led the effort to find and share new mixes. When Erskinne Gwynne “crashed into” Harry’s Bar in Paris with his Boulevardier Cocktail, he was part of a rowdy emigre drinking crowd that was inventing and publishing its own cocktails and relying on Harry to spin the bottles and keep count.


Don takes a sharply different tack. Instead of branded bottles on the bar he sells potions from a menu, made with a wild variety of under-specified rums and a bunch of secret “Don’s mixes,” which stay secret and have to be distributed from HQ as the franchise takes off and Beachcombers spring up across the US. The rum is suspiciously cheap and it shows amazing variety exactly because it’s less controlled, standardized and valorized. It comes from a plethora of small producers. During Prohibition it had run into Florida under the radar, was unpredictable and a little bit dangerous: an irreplaceable and explosive fuel for the Harlem Renaissance, the low-rent end of the 20s’ roar.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 15.18.56.png

So when Don puts his elixirs on the menu with names like Tropic Breeze and Zombie Punch he’s offering his customers a taste, not of what they expect, what they’ve helped design, but of forbidden pleasures they’ve heard of but been afraid to try for the past 14 years. And he doesn’t shake them in the open, he makes them with an electric blender in the back bar and brings them out in ornate, opaque mugs, discreetly veiled by fruit garnishes and umbrellas.

You don’t ask what’s in them. Even the bartender doesn’t know. So you get on with playing your role up to the hilt, causing trouble, taking no responsibility for what’s going on with the service because you don’t have to know how it works. And that’s how it opens up a space for magic – there’s that little bit of a surrender to fate.

So I’m not here to say which approach is better. I love Martinis and Pearl Divers equally – I even mix them sometimes. It occurs to me that Gwynne probably represents a free sharing OSR blogger more than a storygamer, while Don was unquestionably into monetizing his intellectual property even more than Gary but I guess that goes with being Phandaal, legendary creator of lost arts and inspirer of cargo cults. What I do take issue with is the idea that the player is an afterthought in either approach. It’s all set dressing for the players and the things they choose to do.

RETCON: time (the inevitable tyrant) got in the way of this post being as good as it could have been. Happily I can edit posts later, so here is Jeff’s necessary weigh-in: don’t go gently into that good night that is the game ending for your character. This is what I failed to say: the rules are good and important but they’re not as important as the game at hand, just like your lovingly created world is important but ultimately less so than moments at the table.