Safari So Goodi

…I went abroad for work and caught something unspeakable from The French; a nasty little bug that did its worst about 12 hours after I landed back home and pretty much wiped out the weekend.

Coughing my way back to the normal routine, I’ve already missed a few deadlines–two weeks of playlists, for one thing–but this will all be rectified shortly. In the meantime I’ve been playing with pen and paper.

The latest fountain pen aquisition is a Lamy Safari. I bought two–a Vista (clear plastic) and the Safari in white. I offered one to my wife, who said “I’ll have the clear one, the white one is U-G-L-Y”. True, although I think of it as Dr Marten’s boot ugly–or maybe Lego brick ugly, since the Safari is made from ABS plastic.

Safari

Aren’t you a bit short for a stormtrooper?

The Safari was designed by Wolfgang Fabian and Bernt Spiegel more than 30 years ago as a school pen for German students. Notice the triangular shaped grip that makes you hold the pen in a particular orientation–the kind of “feature” that inspires fanatical devotion or hyperbolic outrage in equal measure. Like anchovies, or the New Mini, or Harry Styles1 you either love it or hate it.

It turns out that a lot of people do love it. And by love it, I mean fetishise it. And don’t tell me it’s nostalgia–not all of these people can be German.

Lamy pander to these obsessives via limited edition colours–last year’s was a rather nice apple green, this year it’s a questionable neon yellow. There’s a variety of combinations of plastic and clip colour, and even country specific editions.

The cunning thing about the Safari is it’s just cheap enough to be an impulse buy, which probably motivates most purchases. But it’s not actually a cheap pen. A new one with a converter will be the best part of 20 quid, which seems a lot for a plastic pen (although shop around and you’ll knock a fiver off that). As for the impulse buying–I found myself considering the green one, the charcoal one, and other colours after buying the two I already had.

The thing about reviews of the pen is that they’re rarely objective. People either love the colours, the swappable nibs, the playroom feel of the pen, or they hate the triangular section and the variable quality control. Here’s my very brief review:

Pros: ABS plastic is tougher than you think; I love the design; the swappable nibs are a huge advantage; cheap enough not to worry if you lose it (unless you paid an outrageous sum for a collectable).

Cons: the nibs vary a lot in quality between batches–going from buttery smooth to really scratchy. The grip section is uncompromising. It’s plastic.

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p>I like using fountain pens, and the Safari is one I can travel with and not be upset if I left it in another country. This is not true of my other pens. However, despite the fanatic’s admonitions that they would use a Safari in preference to their other pens costing ten times as much, the Safari isn’t as nice as a Pelikan or a TWSBI or a more expensive pen. But it’s a lot nicer than a biro.


[1] Actually, I quite enjoyed One Direction’s performance at the Brit awards. I say enjoyed, I tolerated it. I say tolerated, I stuck a spoon up my nose. Because if I’m going to hurt that much, I’m going to do it to myself.

City Accelerator part 9: Sunder

Previous examples of the City Accelerator were just made up for demonstration purposes. Here I’m going to try to use a real game I am running as a worked example.

The game is called Sunder’s Children.

Sunder is a village at the edge of a Kingdom at war. Every year the Army comes to recruit the brave, the adventurous, and the ambitious to cross the Valley and do battle with the Foe. Glory and riches are promised to the returning heroes; horror and death to everyone else. The Children of Sunder compete for the Recruiter’s attention as a means to escape the drudgery of a farmer’s life.This year you were not picked, and watched your friends and family go off to war. Were you too weak? Too young? A coward?

The game will be about… farming.

Step One: Start Writing, Stupid

I got a stack of index cards, and started writing a heading on each card for the location. I wrote each location down as it came to mind. I didn’t worry about whether the location was out of place. I didn’t try to flesh the location out. I didn’t consider it in geographic space, although some of the cards include compass points in the description. I just tried to keep writing locations until I ran out of ideas.

The Mill

Here’s the thing about brainstorming: at some point, you will run out of ideas. This is a natural part of the process. You can then do one of two things–push through the mental block and continue to write crap until you write something decent, or take a pause for an overview and identify gaps or areas that deserve more detail.

I did a combination of both. First, it took me about 5 minutes to make around 30 cards–locations ranging from the scary woods at the edge of the village, to those key locations at the centre of the village.

Once I’d ran out of steam, I gathered them into Districts.

Districts

Step Two: Assemble Into Districts

To make more progress I needed to have an overview. The second stage was to gather my cards into Districts. That terminology doesn’t quite work outside of a city, but I’ll keep it for now.

I decided the first District would be the village centre; the second would be the area to the West of the village that included the mysterious territory of the Enemy; then eight more, one for each farmstead. Lastly I grouped Everything Outside The Village as one District–this included everything from the nearby lakes and mountains to the closest large town and the Capital itself. Yes, they’re all in completely different locations–but from a villager’s point of view, they’re all equally distant and therefore can be lumped together.

Districts Assembled

Many of the locations are farming locations–I simply stacked those into different farmsteads. Now, the emphasis of the tool is identify the important bits. If I mention the onion patch of one farm, it doesn’t mean none of the other farms have onion patches–it just means that this particular onion patch is important. This is important in the next step…

Step Three: Fill In Blanks

My village isn’t done yet. There are an awful lot of farmhouses an no actual farms. I go back to Step One and Start Writing again.

The difference is this time, I know what framework I’m working to. This focuses my attention. I write more Farm locations. Then the village centre looks a bit sparse, so I think of other locations there. Then I think about the surrounding area some more. Gradually I produce more cards and fatten up those District stacks.

Stacks

At some point I think I have enough. I might add a card here or there later, but for now it’s starting to feel like a community. I could run a game here. What I need now is…

Step Four: Make Maps (Like Crazy)

Optional, but probably useful. I considered Everything Outside The Village beyond the boundary of the paper. This at least gives me an idea of where different farms are.

Map

Step Five: Numbers

I have several stacks of cards. I now need to decide on their Priorities. My approach was a lot like Step One–I didn’t think too long about the numbers I applied, simply went with my gut feeling on what the numbers should be.

Numbers

This was the most time consuming part, because it involved drawing a lot of straight lines:

Ruler

Very satisfying.

Step Six: Summary Table

Once I’d rated each card, I summarised them by District.

Table Blurred

I’ve blurred out the names of the locations in case any future players read this (unlikely, but hey). The table lets me see at a glance which aspects are dominant in which district.

Last Words

This is the first time I’ve used the tool in anger. What do I have to show for my efforts?

  1. I have a framework in which to base my game. If players move to a location, I have a stack of cards at hand for the areas they can explore. Naturally some areas will be more complex than others–fields will occupy a much greater area than houses, and houses will have more individual parts compared to fields. I don’t feel the need to map out my houses. What matters is that players know the house is there, and the field is there.
  2. For each location I have a priority. This means I know that when a player enters the area, they will be immediately affected by either Tension, Domain, Catalyst or Portal.
  3. By tabulating the priorities by District, I know the tone of each District. Some are highly controlling, while others are chaotic. Some are laden with clues while others are just a gauntlet for the PCs to run.

There are still a few unknowns, however. Foremost in my mind: I don’t know if the four criteria I picked are going to remain equally useful. Already in the numbers I can see a bias against the Portal axis. Is this just a consequence of this game, or a general indication that it’s not so useful?

A final comment. Although I have a general plot/scenario worked out, I have no specific encounter-by-location established yet. That’s for this tool to help me fill out. I have a general idea of the game’s direction, and what I want to achieve with this tool is a decent fleshing out of detail, establishing side plots, and so forth. That’s what the numbers should do–tell me where the clues are, where the fights are, where the powerful people are, where the mystery is.

About People

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p>Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is all about the people. He also says you should make maps like crazy. I totally agree.

In AW the structure is the people; the maps that are drawn are a consequence of the emergent story, but what matters is how the PCs relate to the NPCs.

My approach has been location-centric rather than people centric. There’s no-one living in my village yet (aside from family names). That’s OK. In this case, people are a consequence of locations. This is not denying NPC agency, but it is a reality of a fictional world: people are found in the areas where the action is, and become part of the story. You can start with the people, or you can start with the world. The two are intrinsically linked.

Playlist: An Echo

 This week…

  1. Jesca Hoop, Peacemaker
  2. Thighpaulsandra, Christ’s Teeth
  3. Imogen Heap, Glittering Clouds
  4. Moby, We Are All Made Of Stars (2008 version)
  5. Arling and Cameron, Games
  6. Alan Parsons Project, Children of the Moon
  7. Frankie Rose, Had We Had It
  8. Portishead, Chase The Tear
  9. Felix Laband, Whistling In Tongues
  10. Bjork, Hyperballad
  11. COH+Cosey Fanni Tutti, Lying
  12. Can, Smoke
  13. Herbaliser, A Mother (for your mind)
  14. Massive Attack, Teardrop
  15. Alt-J, Something Good
  16. Hybrid, Blackout

His Nibs

“You’re about due for something new to geek over” said the other half recently.

Nibs

We’ve just started playing De Profundis and although I planned to type all my 1920’s style letters (with the Travelling Typewriter font) handwriting them is a lot more fun.

Some time ago I decided to buy one fountain pen. Then I kept it in a desk for ages and never used it. Then I aquired a second fountain pen from my late grandmother, which prompted me to start using the first. Since then I’ve carried a fountain pen to work every day. 

Pens

Legend

Top to bottom, the four pens are a clear TWSBI mini with a steel italic nib, a Pelikan M200 with a fine gold-plated steel nib, a Parker 51 with a broad-ish nib which is probably gold but I don’t know, and my boring Sheaffer 300  with medium steel nib.

The Sheaffer is my going-to-work pen, including going abroad–it’s the only one that takes cartridges and I’m not about to walk onto a plane with a full ink reservoir. Its body is brass and it has a really strong articulated clip that can even go into my leather jacket.

The Parker is a vintage pen. No idea what age; I inherited it from my late grandmother. It’s my “Sunday Best” pen, for obvious reasons.

I didn’t need a third pen, but the Pelikan was a birthday present. I certainly didn’t need a fourth pen, the TWSBI–that was a recent present to myself, and is pretty impractical with its 1.1 italic nib.

They all write differently. The Pelikan is probably the most fun, being slightly springy and giving my handwriting the most slant. The Parker and the Sheaffer are both lovely and smooth, although different due to weight, thickness, etc.

The TWSBI needs a bit of care because of the italic nib, but it’s very nice and smooth. Nice enough that I fancy a broader italic to practice some blackletter and other styles.

Pens

Paper

Paper2

My hands-down favourite pad paper right now is Rhodia’s DotPad. It’s special for 2 reasons:

  • it’s spaced like 5mm squared paper, but because it’s dots instead of squares its much less obtrusive;
  • it’s a pretty robust pad, and is great to work on in landscape for drawing diagrams etc.

Munch

It’s nice white shiny paper that takes ink very well.

The runner up is Pukka Vellum. It’s a bit yellow which is a feature, although blue looks slightly peculiar on it. It’s only available ruled, and it’s slightly rougher – but it’s spiral bound, punched and perforated making it easy to bind up the useful notes.

Due to De Profundis I’m also experimenting with nice letter paper. Since the stamp is more than 50% of the cost of sending a letter, spending a bit more on nice paper makes sense–writing on laid paper is a lot more interesting and (I hope) makes the letters nicer to receive.

I would fancy some Old Crown Mill paper, however it only seems to come in A4 (too large for a handwritten letter) and A5 (too small). In between there’s the Post Quarto size which is just right, and supplied by Basildon Bond.

Ink

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p>Ink

Diamine inks are UK-made, cheaper than than fancy inks and come in a hundred colours. The Edelstein Onyx comes in a nice bottle and flows well on all sorts of paper–but it’s rather boring.

It’s worth noting that pen luminary Richard Binder rates Diamine as highly reliable and low maintenance, which is good to know. Also I love the bottle my WES Blue came in.

The Tyranny of Dexterity

If there’s one trait gamers avoid like the plague, it’s a low DEX. We’re fine with a PC who is stupid, or ugly, or weak, or sickly; but please, don’t make us clumsy.

Why? DEX is shorthand for physical competence, at least in the post-Storyteller milieu. No-one was bothered in the 80s, where skill% or levels were the primary measures of competence, but now the default is to add stat and skill, and DEX makes its way into all kinds of challenges–driving, shooting, fighting, stealth, crafting, dancing, climbing.

Systems of note for pre-eminent Dexterity:

The Palladium System has “Physical Prowess”, a stat which gives massive bonuses to attack, defence and dodging in excess of level gains. I don’t think it influences DEX-type skills as such, but it always dominated in our games.

Vampire 1e was completely broken, at least where Celerity was concerned–that discipline overshadowed everything so badly that the measures applied in 2e to reign it in were positively draconian to the point of making it unplayable.

GURPS bases its entire range of physical skills (with few exceptions) on DEX. The times when it’s more profitable to raise individual skills by 1 point rather than raising DEX are few and far between. GURPS is a special case however, as I’ll discuss later.

Cyberpunk’s REF is the only stat that matters for success in combat–it governs attack, defence, and initiative. Everything else comes down to kit, which comes under a completely different game currency. I understand in 1e Cyberpunk Solos added their Combat Reflexes not only to their Initiative but to every other REF roll as well–making their special ability the equivalent of Celerity. 

Now consider systems with a slightly better balance:

D&D splits combat advantages over 3 stats–crucially high DEX didn’t make it easier to hit people in melee. Extra attacks were gained through level gains in certain classes, meaning levelling is still the primary measure of competence.

Paranoia 1e divides DEX betweem Agility and Manual Dexterity–also that game used skill trees as a primary measure of competence (and face it, your clones weren’t going to live that long anyway).

Like D&D, Warhammer FRP 1e also has wargaming roots–combat abilities are stats, rather than derived from generic stats. The Dex attribute is completely separate from Attacks and Weapon Skill, covering non-combat actions.

Apocalypse World is one of the new breed of crunchy games that avoids DEX entirely, and allows for the same moves to be based on different attributes depending on class. There’s not much redundancy in the system, either.

The worst cases of “DEX Supremacy” are where that one stat governs actions, speed, attacking and defending. It’s further compounded in a system like Storyteller where the apparent currency of the game–one die equals one dot equals one action–is not a fair exchange rate across the board.

But, but, but–it’s just a game, after all. If the players all know the key to making a physically competent character is to max out their DEX score, and everyone is free to do so, what’s the problem? None, really, though it invites some terrible kludges to “fix” the problem. Vampire, seat of rule 0 invites house rules that divert attention away from  DEX and towards Strength and Perception as operative traits, although it does this completely unofficially. I remember discussing using Perception for Firearms rolls 15 years ago, but I can’t find a single reference in any text. But it did happen, because it’s the basis used in the VtM: Bloodlines game. Paranoia weren’t the only game to proliferate stats excessively to give more definition to Dexterity–and once you have two attributes for DEX, why not two for CHA1, two for CON, etc.

So players expect dexterity to mean coordination and physical competence–why not just embrace that? It’s what GURPS has done. GURPS uses INT and DEX as shorthand for mental and physical ability and is arguably very successful in doing so. A binary system offers something that more complex systems can’t achieve, which is a clear statement of priority and preference for mental or physical action. The Mind-Body dichotomy is the classic Mage-Fighter scale, with Rogue filling in the middle ground (or providing extra functionality).

I was considering perception and decision-making as attributes of physical challenges. I drew this:

Dia_0001

The concept is that perception (top left, bottom right) is the foundation for both mental and physical competence. This perception is the foundation for phyiscal and mental Experience, which in turn generates satellite traits of Presence and Competence (physical) and Knowledge and Decision-making (mental). It’s the interactions of these satellite traits that produce the actual useful processes of game play–of which there are three:

  1. fighting and other physical challenges that use player tactics to overcome (“DEX”);
  2. social interactions that use player tactics or exposition to overcome (“CHA”);
  3. crafting or otherwise making things in non-stress situations that require neither roleplaying nor tactical decisions (“INT”).

There is a fourth, which is the intersection of Knowledge and physical Presence; the product is some kind of debate, I suppose. While debate is a product of gameplay it’s usually tied to ideologies of characters, which are rarely expressed mechanically (the closest I can think of is Burning Wheel’s BIT system).

Is this model useful? Honestly, I’m not sure. I think it would be a mistake to try to map the satellite attributes in a game, but it should bring to light what really matters in game design–the places where players need to exercise judgement and make decisions in real time.

This is the fallacy of the Storyteller system, with its common currency of physical, mental and social processes. That uniformity is seductive, but ultimately not very useful. The opportunities for character exposition are disproportionately weighted towards some processes over others.

Crucially, the area of “INT” is divorced from direct player decision making and is relegated to a support function2. It’s always great to have smart characters but when planning and thinking falls into the realm of player agency, what good is INT as a gameplay marker? It’s best used as a placeholder for other game aspects like number of spells you can remember, languages, and so on.

So there you have it. There is nothing wrong with calling an attribute “DEX” and having everything default to it. What matters is if there is decision making to be done, every player is clear on how they can make tactical input. More to the point, the player can articulate the kind of game they want (action, social, etc.) and design a character that can actually contribute and not be relegated to a passive support function.

 —–

  1. Moxie and Chutzpah.

  2. I’ve ignored areas where a sub-process in the game does default to mental traits, and requires player decision making in real time. Netrunning would be an example, but again that’s much more a marriage of Competence and Decision Making, so it’s combat by another name.