Tagged: rant

PDFs (Three Different Ones)

Here are three different examples of a RPG digital product:

1. The Legacy PDF


The Legacy PDF here is Weather the Cuckoo Likes for Over the Edge. Hard copies can be had for 20 quid or less if you’re lucky, but if you’re not the digital revoloution is a godsend for the RPG collector.

As you’d expect Weather the Cuckoo Likes is a compromise in PDF form. It was designed for the standard magazine print size (US legal? Foolscap?) so it’s not great for reading on a modern 16:9 screen smaller than 24 inches, let alone a modern tablet. There’s no hyperlinked table of contents. But it’s a black-on-white interior and should be fairly cheap to print (under 2 dollars) on a monochrome laser printer. It’s also not a crazy file size and it’s not a fuzzy scan of a physical book like some products (for example Engel) so the text is searchable.

The value proposition of an otherwise OOP book like Weather The Cuckoo Likes is the physical alternative will be hard or expensive to find so realistically it’s this or nothing; and with digital distribution I can get it right now. Unlike a modern PDF I don’t expect it to be supported with new errata since it’s 20 years old, so you take a chance.

2. The Freebie PDF


Trail of Cthulhu isn’t free, of course — but it’s a typical example of bundling the PDF with a physical product. You can buy the PDF only at half the price of the print+PDF bundle, but it’s obvious that the PDF is a free incentive for the full-price print copy.

This is possible when the cost to Pelgrane of bundling the PDF is probably low. Aside from a hyperlinked ToC the PDF doesn’t have any advantages of a modern digital file but it has all the disadvantages of the Legacy PDF (i.e. too big for comfortable screen reading). But on top of that it’s actually worse than the legacy file for printing out, because it’s not just B&W — like a lot of modern games it’s a full bleed, full colour document with a sort of grubby sepia background behind black text. Looks nice but it will muller your toner cartridge.

The annoying thing is of all my Trail of Cthulhu files, only Bookhounds of London has a printer friendly version with a white background. Was that easy to do? I have no idea, but if it was just a matter of turning off the background layer in the source file, then creating a printer friendly copy should add value for low effort.

I honestly wonder if this is a blind spot for publishers. Feng Shui 2 is a gorgeous PDF and at the same time completely useless (to me), because it’s edge to edge colour, white text on black backgrounds, etc. Try to print that out and your printer might not survive. Would a monochrome, white background version for printing have been hard? Maybe. But it’s clear FS2 was always intended to be a physical product, and it’s more likely Atlas just didn’t consider how a print-friendly version could be a value proposition.

This is the problem, I think: mainstream publishers are still focused on physical books, and digital products will always be second string offerings. They’re a value proposition as a free extra, which doesn’t incentivise any effort making the digital products any “better”. The result is a crippled product that ensures the print version from the supplier, dead trees shipped around the world, remains the most practical way to read the game.

3. The epub

My go-to example of a good RPG on epub/mobi is Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions, but there’s a more obvious and mainstream example:


Evil Hat have form for producing digest-sized, e-reader friendly RPGs going back to Spirit of the Century and Don’t Rest Your Head.

I wish I liked FATE Core more. As a digital product it’s really good, portable and device-aware.

Let’s clarify the value of e-readers. What they are not good for is use at the table — too slow and small to flip between bookmarks, and they render tables badly.

What they excel at — not least because with adjustable font size and e-ink they’re easy on they eye — is in the first read-through. I have a terrible habit of not reading my RPG books cover to cover on the first pass, and a Kindle version helps a lot.

Are they better than the physical book for the first read? Supposedly physical books make it easier for the reader to recall the sequence of plot events, and this may be something to do with the “haptic and tactile feedback” of books vs e-readers, where the point at which you absorbed certain content is connected to how the book feels at that time.

On the other hand a Kindle is without peer for reading one-handed while wrangling an infant, and I wouldn’t be without mine.

(here’s an interesting, not at all black-and-white article about comprehension and learning from electronic devices vs. physical books)

Value for Money

You can probably tell that I don’t think the mainstream PDF offerings are good value for money. But that’s OK, because I didn’t pay anything near “full price” for them — they all came free with print, or in Bundles of Holding.

Interestingly the RPG pdf market seems to allow for a lot of consumer price setting, with PDF prices anything from “full whack” (say 15 to 25 dollars) to “free” (free with hardcopy, PWYW). Customers who want it now will pay up the cover price, and those on the fence will wait for the next sale or Bundle of Holding.

Talking about value is difficult. I can say “Feng Shui 2’s PDF is terrible” and it’s a meaningless statement (and could start a fight). It’s subjective. On the other hand “Feng Shui 2 is a poor reading experience compared to FATE Core” can be objectively reasoned; at that point the consumer can decide whether the fact that they want to play Feng Shui 2 more than FATE Core outweighs the inconvenience. These are some value markers I could use:

  1. Is this thing free or low cost, or is it full price?
  2. Can I read it on my tablet, kindle or phone, or do I need the biggest screen possible?
  3. How flexible are my printing options?
  4. How much do I want to own and play the system?
  5. Are there other benefits, like supporting the kickstarter or donating to charity?

Honourable and Dishonourable Mentions

Here’s a short list of other games I like for their approach to digital distribution:

  • Nova Praxis for its “enhanced” (tablet friendly) PDF
  • Urban Shadows for being on epub and mobi
  • Nobilis 3rd Edition has Kindle-ready versions
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses a digest format, which is probably a happy coincidence but I find it way better for tablet reading
  • Blades in the Dark’s landscape format for laptop reading, and printer-friendly releases
  • Apocalypse World’s approach to materials at the table, a great approach to play aids, no need to have the complete rulebook printed out (and digest format, so more-or-less tablet-friendly)
  • Durance includes an epub version (that you can probably play to in a pinch)

As far as I can see, most of the innovation in the digital domain is coming from the independants. That should surprise no-one given that it’s driven by a credo of self-publishing and digital distribution.

And for the record, here’s a number of mainstream PDF products I own that are stuck in the 90s, format-wise:

  • Wild Talents (and Monsters and Other Childish Things)
  • Runequest 6 (a.k.a. Mythras)
  • Shadows of Esteren
  • Lords of Gossamer and Shadow
  • Trail of Cthulhu
  • Hillfolk
  • Feng Shui 2

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great games full of quality writing; and in many cases the PDF looks great right up to the point where you start reading. If you can get over the compromised reading experience, go for it.

(well, maybe not Wild Talents)


James Spahn moans about being respected as a GM here. It boils down to

  • People didn’t turn up on time
  • People didn’t bother to learn the rules, after I put effort into making it easier for them to do so
  • People came with their preconceived notions about the game that weren’t aligned with everyone else’s
  • People didn’t say thanks

We don’t know whether “people” is more than one person, a repeat offender, or just a generic “that bloke” indicating a type of ingrate who turns up from time to time at your table. And I think we can all sympathise with (a) how awful these people are and (b) the need to vent. The question is, what comes after the venting?

If it’s nothing, if you just want to let off steam but otherwise have no desire to effect change well, that’s your prerogative — but this shit will happen again, guaranteed. Whatever the social circumstances that led up to this point it boils down to one fact: the person you’re cross with does not value the thing you value as much as you do. Above all it’s a failure to empathise, which may be benign or malicious. It’s 100% repeatable, because most people you meet will fail to share your values in some way or another.

You may want to do something about it. What you do can be either passive or active. Passive actions might include writing a blog post and hoping your offender reads it and has enough (a) intelligence to realise you mean them and (b) enough empathy to care. Active steps are confrontational, and could be empathetic appeals (“when you do this, I feel…”) or transactional (“if you don’t stop/start your behaviour, I will…”). The active steps are an ultimatum, setting down the stakes for change vs no change. For empathetic appeals these are around bad feelings and loss of integrity of relationships (with the DM, or with the other group) and for transactional ones, it’s about loss of service (i.e. get the fuck out of my game).

All of these actions, passive or active, have a cost. And the cost of taking action vs. no action is what being a leader is all about (and I don’t know exactly what James means by “a DM worth their dice bag” but I’d say leadership comes into it).

Every hobby will have unpaid or underpaid leaders — from organising charity cake sales to book groups to RPGs to martial arts. And leaders will generally do their unpaid work for two reasons:

  1. They desperately want something to exist (an event, a game session, a project), and are prepared to pay their own time to make it happen, or
  2. They want fame or recognition for being a leader and/or expert.

These two are complementary and most folk will sit on a binary axis between two extremes. And all leaders have to decide whether some combination of 1 plus 2 are equal to the effort they put in. If it’s not, they should stop what they’re doing (bitching and moaning to sympathetic ears isn’t payment, it just offsets the cost in the short term).

Back in 2002 when I became a HEMA instructor, what did I want? If I’m honest, it was the second one. I wanted recognition from a sub-culture I was invested in. 14 years later, has that changed? Yes, sort of. I haven’t been to a gathering of groups for a few years, nor participated in online forums — and those are the places I need to go to if I want peer recognition. Instead I’m happy just to train weekly, and while recognition still strokes my ego I get more from just being part of our school — so when I’m called upon to stand in for our head instructor the benefit to me is the continuation of the school and having students walk in.

I have been thinking about respect in HEMA, though. We have our share of problem students. There are some who just turn up to a few classes and then leave for whatever reason — and while some masters will complain, the fact is these students have done a cost-benefit analysis of their continued attendance vs. whatever personal development they get out of it. And just as leaders should be honest about whether or not they want recognition, students should be honest about whether learning is worth their time and money.

An honest decision to stay or leave is respectful. The real problem students are the ones who come with their own pre-conceived notions about what the school does or behaviours it tolerates, and proceed to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Talented students who deviate from the lesson plan because they want to “win” all the time are the biggest problem — they tend to be self-serving and not interested in training cooperatively with their partner, only defeating them. There’s a lot you can train out of someone but being an arsehole is one of the hardest things to correct. Usually these students will respect the master as authoritarian, but not their peers, and honestly I’d prefer it the other way around — not least because not respecting your training partner by deviating from the lesson plan is a recipe for accidents. As the leader in that situation I’m not invested in winning that individual’s respect, I’m far more concerned with the damage (physical or emotional) they may cause to the rest of the student body. But at least it’s fairly clear when they’ve crossed a line and I can just dump them outside on their arse.

Demanding Bad Game Design

This is quality trolling:

So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?

Hah. Hah hah. As if the OSR is a single, homogeneous body — the “members” can’t even agree what R stands for. Note that the request for “counter examples” isn’t an invitation to challenge the premise; by inference any such examples are marginal cases.

Bad Design

Forgetting the “demands” of your strawman, what do you mean by “bad design”? When someone looks at a specific example and proclaims “this is a bad design” they can mean one of three things:

  1. Bad foundation theory (someone is designing on a basis — sociological, scientific, factual — that is wrong)
  2. Bad implementation of good theory (the basis is fine but the implementation is a mess)
  3. Bad product (actually the product is on spec, but you just don’t like or want it)

Coming from Chem Eng we have design standards. These form the basis for actual designs of chemical plants including vessel shape, flow rate, heat transfer, pressure relief, etc. so what you build will make product consistently and not blow up and hurt people.

This is a big toolkit that forms the basis of any design — and when people draw on that toolkit to make a specific thing, that’s their implementation of the standards. They can still foul up by implementing them badly, but if they don’t then the finished reactor should make what they set out to make, reliably and safely. But even when you’ve done everything right you can still fall foul of a customer who doesn’t like the thing you’re making perfectly (for reasons).

So anyway, part of the problem with saying “it’s a bad design” is it’s hard to tell whether the person saying it is talking about foundation, implementation, or personal taste. Take this (from my namesake):

You have six standard attributes so poorly defined as to what they’re supposed to represent that the very first change most subsequent fantasy RPGs did was clarify what attributes covered

Maybe the very first example of six attributes was a bad implementation; but if subsequent derivative works immediately clarified the attributes, this problem is functionally solved for all later works, i.e. the ones in use (including Dungeon World).

None of it suggests a bad foundation. Six attributes obeys my personal design standards for working memory, for example; it’s easily sub-grouped to reduce cognitive burden. And there will always be a need to interpret abstract terms — speaking of which:

You have a play culture that encourages simulations thinking and a rules structure that is so abstract there is no simulative value to it whatsoever.

Abstraction is the freedom to interpret and make cognitive leaps that connect the objects to the thing being simulated. Some rules do this interpretation explicitly, some defer the interpretation to the group and their tacit assumptions. In either case, this interpretation is all the effort needed to confer “simulative value”.

The inference is that the OD&D foundation is a poisoned well and nothing good will come of it. This is bias, and unproven.

I reckon the OSR foundation is technically functional — you have clear divisions based on class, attributes, and ancilliary properties (like armour, hit points, etc.). Clear divisions where the players can recognise each moving part without ambiguity makes for a lower overall cognitive burden, i.e. less time negotiating the system, more time roleplaying (see here).

Good Design

As expected the thread has prompted some examples of “good OSR design”. These are mine:

  • Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions does a great job of deconstructing the genre and providing a complete world building and faction management system for the GM
  • The Black Hack for usage dice
  • Beyond the Wall for the vast amount of player-facing material (playbooks, scenario packs, threat packs) and the way it incorporates rumours into the landscape in Further Afield

These are design implementations of the foundation rules framework. They each have moving parts that are designed to be interacted with.

Then there’s the other things the OSR does well, like really well designed books with economical text and high utility, high signal-to-noise, like Scenic Dunnsmouth (compare that to reams of overwritten, fluffy White Wolf supplements, or even CoC adventures).

The problem is that some people don’t value these as design goals. They are the customer who doesn’t like the finished product.

Youth and Experience

Now comes the rant.

No-one under the age of 40 gets to lecture someone whose (sic) been gaming since the mid-70s on not understanding Old School. Us old timers get lots of laughs listening to 30 somethings try to tell us what gaming was like back in the day.

I’ve been getting a fair amount of this lately. Being new parents we’ve been inundated with unsolicited advice, most of which is highly subjective and/or out of date, couched in the bias of a previous generation or two.

Then there’s the EU Referendum — and I won’t deny there are strong left-wing arguments for Britain having never been in the EU (neoliberalism, etc.) — but a lot of the Leavers are the older generation who are voting “for the younger generation” on the basis of decades-old cultural bias, and seem oblivious to the cultural and financial hurt it will cause the youngest generation who voted strongly (and with a pretty high turnout, actually) to Remain. I guess the millenials will have the last laugh when the Tories do away with our bill of Human Rights, and people over 70 will automatically be fed into the municipal biodigester as part of NHS cost-cutting.

And I’ve had my fair share of martial arts masters holding court, while their students buy the next round. When you’re young it’s hard to look at your elders and think “no, sensei, you’re wrong”.

But here’s the unpleasant truth about age and experience. First, expertise does require age and repetition, but skills also decay. This means that if you’re not continually refreshing your skills, be they technical, oral, or critical thinking, you can and will be superseded by people younger than you. And if you wrote off a culture as a waste of time years ago, you’re probably not engaging with it. (see Accelerated Expertise by Hoffman et al.)

Second, once an “expert”, by which I mean someone who has been practicing a thing for 10,000 hours or whatever gets up to speed, there isn’t much difference between practicing experts after that stage.

But very few people are actually experts; most of us are spread over a range of transferrable skills and we don’t achieve true expertise (speed of decision-making in the given field, tacit awareness, deep knowledge) in any one area. And in those examples, there’s not much difference functionally between a 30 year-old and a 60 year-old. The 60 year-old may have worked in a lot more places, but for any one task they may be worse than the 30 year-old thanks to lack of practice and skills decay.

What does increase with age are the heuristics and biases in decision-making. So if you’re part of a culture that continually devalues certain ideas then you will develop biases against them, and heuristics that exclude them. And that will only get worse as you get older.

No, YOU get off MY lawn

This post is so familiar and alien at the same time. Familiar because it describes the make-do of roleplaying in the 80s, but not the scene I remember since as a Brit I hardly played D&D. And thanks to that I can wax lyrical about old-school Stormbringer or WFRP or Fighting Fantasy and there’s just not enough interest to create any kind of argument. No-one’s invested in being right about that particular “Old School”.

It’s the comments to Rick Stump’s rant that are illuminating. “This kid who wasn’t even born in the 80s had the temerity to tell me about the Old School”. Etc. Which is fair enough, but let’s unpack that a bit.

First, this veneration of the Old School… it’s not cool. The Old School is frequently reactionary, outdated, and harmful — how about “old school” industrial health and safety? Or gender roles or family units? Or methods of disciplining children? Or attitudes to women in engineering roles? Or punitive teaching by rote? There are a lot of instances of Old School that can just piss off, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, since roleplaying was so localised and cobbled-together, there really never was any “school” or single coherent body of thought and practice back in the 80s.

Third, it’s ironic that the normally reactionary older generation is admonishing millennials for being so prescriptive and inflexible in defining “the Old School”.

But fourth, it’s not really Old School, it’s the OSR. And all the OSR really is, is an evolving collective of modern ideas which uses the one component of “the original roleplaying game”, the system, as a basis — because that’s the one part of the Old School that actually doesn’t need updating, because it’s still functional 40 years on.

What the OSR is doing is more like what we do in HEMA — we take historical treatises, some of which are incomplete, and turn them into functional modern systems that can be taught and used. As such, the age and experience of people in the OSR is irrelevant, it’s their output and participation that matters; but just like the MA world, there’s an expectation that the most senior members will be able to wear their 20, 30 or 40 years long-service badge and hold court over their juniors forever.

Of course I’m lucky because no-one is going to come back from the 18th century and tell me I’m doing it wrong. But then if they did I could just stab them because they’d be undead.

The Cost of Everything, the Value of Nothing

You’ve probably seen the article about how people should pay what games are worth, not what they cost. There’s a fair amount of response about whether creators “deserve a living wage” for “their dream job writing games”. On the one hand I’m in favour of people being able to live to do things that benefit society, like fringe academic studies or art, because if we don’t support people doing those and just attach a pound sign to everything then these things that are hard to monetise but enrich society disappear. On the other hand, no-one is entitled to their dream job, though more power if they can achieve it. But that’s not what I want to get into.

There are two key points. The first comes at the end of the article:

Yes, paying sixty to seventy dollars for a core role-playing game will hurt financially in the short term. It might mean having to get fewer coffees from Starbucks, or bring a lunch to work from home rather than eating out for a few weeks. You will still get months and years of pleasure and enjoyment out of that book, and the people who made it for you will be able to pay their bills and be able to make more games and supplements for you.

So, in order:

That $60 dollar price point

The 60 dollar price point is a price threshold from AAA video gaming. Indie video games are a lot cheaper, and there’s an implication that you get what you pay for. But there are also weird justifications like “it takes a huge studio to generate this content, so the price must be higher” which in turn leads to outcry when a small studio charges the same price (see Jim Sterling’s commentary on No Man’s Sky here). The lessons here are that price does not equate to value or even long-term playability, and that companies will charge what they think the market can support, regardless of quality.

Let the company try to justify that 60+ dollar price point (by quality, longevity, brand recognition, etc.), and let the market decide. On the other hand appealing to the community to spend more money on the pretext that currently the companies aren’t paying their writers enough seems absurd, for these reasons:

  1. There’s no guarantee that a higher price point will improve price per word for authors
  2. It suggests that there is, or should be, a relationship between those authors and the buying public that obliges the latter to underwrite the lifestyle of the former

Point 2 is particularly important in light of indie self publishing. Indie authors get reputation by engaging with the community in various ways. But if you’re working for someone else and you’re not getting the pay or recognition you feel you deserve — why don’t you do the same? By working for a monolithic entity and arguing to raise the price point for that entity’s benefit, without getting any extra recognition for yourself — how are you making things better?

Years of enjoyment

The fallacy here is that this single, $60 game is the only game the consumer will buy and play. The reality is that most gamers will consume multiple game lines, and some of these products will be played for a brief while or even shelved and never played.

I can’t speak for anyone else but a higher price point will certainly make me think twice about an impulse purchase, and I’d lay odds that’s what a lot of RPG consumption is.

More Supplements

This is the same model as always. You’re not just buying a rulebook as a one-off purchase, you’re buying a subscription to a game line.

What you’re really saying is… our product that you’ve paid a premium for isn’t complete, and you need to keep paying us on the off-chance we’ll add to it in the future. Well, OK, there’s a proven market for multi-volume watered-down fantasy novels, and while I hold that in equal contempt who am I to tell the someone else how to spend their money?

But take another look at indie community crowdfunding and specifically patreon. That subscription model that puts the consumer in direct contact with the content provider, at a low initial outlay. By comparison there’s no name recognition for the author here; again, this spurious argument advocates for the company, not the beleaguered writer.

Not Getting Younger

This is my second point:

Game creators aren’t getting any younger.

I’m hugely sympathetic to the medical predicament. It must be terrible to have financial worries heaped on health issues, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without a national health service (though if Jeremy Hunt gets his way).

But there are two issues.

First, what, all the game designer slots are taken up and there’s no room for young designers? This infers that there’s an elite old guard of game creators and publishers, and they are the only people who can continue to give us the product that we want. This is establishment nonsense.

Second, how is this different to any other industry, where people get older?

This may sound insensitive, but… people will leave, one way or the other. This is a problem that companies small and large ignore. And the deification of the one true expert panders to that ignorance. Not that our venerable experts shouldn’t hold court, be treated with respect and listened to… but the way to address this problem is with succession planning.

The next generation will always pick things up, (if there’s something left to pick up), and the only question is how much will they have retained from the previous generation. And none of this is guaranteed by your premium price point.

Trendie Trindie

Indie music started out with independent labels. But then it became the indie music scene, a broad outsider genre that included a range of styles (Britpop, alt. rock, shoegaze, baroque pop, etc.). And by the time fans started picking sides between Blur and Oasis, “indie music” was clearly commercial and getting radio airplay.

Similarly, Indie RPGs are creator owned and independent; but the Indie RPG Scene is generally what people mean by an indie game — particularly the us-centric movement that gravitated around the Forge. Josh lists a bunch of very different games that fall under that moniker, partly in response to my trindie triangle post.

Some of the differences of opinion are semantic — in particular freeform which he’s taken to mean live action (or at least real-time, improv-style) play, but in my case I meant a negotiated rather than rules-bound system of adjudication. Both Ribbon Drive and Everway are negotiated — in the former you’re negotiating scene elements with the other players without any real weighting other than the precedent set by the fiction (and the music, yeah). In the latter you’re basically negotiating with the GM for advantage, with a side-order of random from the Fortune Deck draws.

And let’s not forget — this negotiating with the GM is a time-honoured practice that pervades nearly all RPGs where the central tenet is “if there’s no rule that applies, make something up” (with the exception of many self-identified indie games where the dogma is “if it’s not in the rules, it’s not in the game”). Negotiating is a cornerstone of OSR play, and it’s really the only way you can play Vampire and not get frustrated by the godawful d10 system. I’ve heard several people refer to Over The Edge as “the original indie game”, probably because so much of it is freeform, based only on a few character traits and one-line qualitative sentences. Though I have to say those people should seek out Ghostbusters International for its Tags and Goals — it beat OTE by 6 years.

“Trad” and “Indie” are terms of convenience for two very rough groups of products. Indie games largely define themselves as not Trad — not mainstream in marketing, not reliant on the tacit procedures that most mainstream games expect the players to know in order to play, but also not based on a supplement-driven publishing model that delivers metaplot and downstream rules fixes as long as the consumer subscribes to the game line.

Now, the “Trindie” moniker (as applied to FATE and Cortex) is being used not for marketing, but by players and fans (the same ones calling OTE “indie”). So while some might object that the mechanics in these games are only superficially “indie” and just don’t go far enough, this is largely an ideological divide between purists and people who have identified and are attracted to certain features. It’s a bit like people saying Suede aren’t Indie because they appeared on Top of the Pops. I had hoped we were over this kind of thing, with all the past accusations of gatekeeping and elitism. The fact that FATE is identified as like some indie games is overall good for indie games — well, except for those people who want to keep mainstream players out.

I have deep love for indie games, but the Indie movement means nothing to me; I do not identify with that culture. I was never there. And that’s cool: I can discuss games with other people and as long as I know what they mean by trad and indie and the bits in between.

But really I’d like a more functional taxonomy: if indie games really as functionally diverse as Josh points out, then clearly there is no specification for them and therefore no technical argument you can apply to what is indie or not (and to rag on people for calling a game trindie just makes you a hipster).

FU, Empiricism

In light of the declaration that the Big Model Is Dead, here are some parallel thoughts I’ve been having on Empiricism and Fundamental Understanding and also Knowledge Management.

These two terms are a big deal in my industry (corporate science). The issue is that we’ve seen a slide towards empiricism for years now, in that projects are pretty much based on brute-force experimentations and by comparison with previous successes. We know that X works, our new thing is Y, let’s try a bunch of things and get Y to work a bit better than X. This works in design and it works in engineering and in operations, and it’s all based on observations that if we do a thing, we can be sure of a certain response — but we often don’t know precisely why that is.

The antidote to this empirical approach is fundamental understanding, which is all about getting to the root cause. It involves modelling, basic science, appreciation of causes of variation and what gives rise to good and bad results.

It sounds like FU is highly desirable, and the empirical approach is outdated and doomed to waste time with repeated experimental cycles — right?

So, one group in the wider RPG community has used the Big Model as a tool for Fundamental Understanding, a sort of Rosetta Stone for the mysteries of game design. That’s a good effort, it’s highly desirable to lay down the fundamentals with such precision so everyone works from a common basis.

Another group is entrenched in old-school design. It has no real fundamental model, but it has a lot of tacit understanding of how to play within individuals that goes back to how the game was handed down from the previous generation. It might be considered empirical in its approach, making very small functional changes to achieve specific aims. And phrased like that, it sounds like I’m suggesting that approach is inferior to the Big Model, etc.

BUT it misses one vital point: the empirical approach frequently outperforms a fundamental approach in terms of sheer output. This is for a few organisational reasons, and not all of them are good — for example, the “we’ve always done it that way” is cited as a reason not to change the scientific method. But “we’ve always done it that way” also removes any need for retraining or reorienting workers, designers and players. You can ignore that chunk of effort and get straight to designing environments, plots and ephemera that, while “colour” are really the things that attract and satisfy players.

Furthermore, an outside observer might assume empiricism requires scientists and designers to start from a position of complete ignorance every time, and reinvent the wheel. They don’t. Those people using an iterative approach base there design partly on feel and their own tacit experience. They do have expertise, a lot of it; it’s just not articulated into a written model. Many probably feel there is no need to write that model down, because they view it as common knowledge (and so obvious that writing it down is a waste of time).

I’m a strong believer in Fundamental Understanding, but the times when FU runs into problems are when it lacks connection with common practices. For FU to work, it’s not enough for the theory to be tested; it has to engage with the tacit practices of people, somehow extract their feedback (e.g. via Cognitive Task Analysis) and then reincorporate it in a satisfying way. Part of the success of any model has to be how it engages with and listens to a community, incorporates ideas and above all reflects feelings. Marketing is probably the biggest challenge in any Knowledge Management effort, and that’s exactly what a written model is. And Knowledge Management doesn’t just need a place to store stuff, it needs active curation and challenge for the written content to keep it up to date.

I sincerely hope that the Big Model (or its successor) persists, because the alternative is that it simply dies out, beyond even the ability of the Wayback machine to resurrect. At the moment I’m wary that the Big Model that’s being declared “dead” by that community isn’t the one that’s written down, at least not in its entirety. The community has a tacit, collective idea of what the Big Model is, and that only exists in the community’s collective head, and if that’s now consigned to that head’s waste bin it may as well be that the Big Model never existed. That would be sad.

John and Zak’s Mass Debate

For anyone who cares, I watched the Zak S / John Wick debate.

The whole video is one hour long, which is a bit too much for the casually interested. Here are the hilights I picked out.

23 to 25 mins

A discussion about how mechanics spontaneously emerged from “fluff”. I think it’s probably the most interesting part of the discussion, and yet trivially obvious.

The comments about how 90% of the rules of CoC aren’t applied on a per-session basis are good. The general tone is the difference between the rules and how you actually play.

This is my favourite quote:

A lot of people say the game is about what the rules of the game are about. I say no, the game is about what the game ends up being about at the table when you play it with people.

The game exists in a context

You play the game, you watch what happens when people play the game [and the result], and the game is about whatever that result is… the result is what matters, not the text…

Wick notes that learning a game is very hard based on the text alone; you need to be taught by someone else. Comments on Wick’s article generally agree that “how to play” advice is generally poor — in other words it relies on oral tradition and tacit understanding.

33 to 36 mins: Cannibal Mermaids and Giant Hats

A discussion of dealing with cannibal mermaids in a moat by using mercury from a giant’s hat. The subtext is that playing D&D without creativity will generally not favour the players — trying to play D&D as an actually balanced game is stacked against PCs at lower levels. More crucially the various advantages that tip the balance are negotiated via roleplaying.

41 to 45 mins: Tactical Infinity, Fluff = Potential Crunch

Continuing from the above, the “tactical infinity” of the game is this: any new rule or factor can be introduced and become a negotiated benefit, simply by virtue of being plausible and consistent with the world, even when these elements were not included in the original text. The phrase “portrayal with mechanical weight” is used somewhere.

OK, those are the best bits. I’ll admit that my examples are heavily biased towards Zak’s side of the debate — but then I find those to be the most compelling points. Mostly I don’t think the premises put forward in Wick’s article are adequately explored or backed up. One point Wick deserves is the absurd focus of combat over anything else, viz the disproportionate number of dice rolls for combat mechanics over non-combat mechanics. That revelation is hardly going to set the world on fire, though.

Mostly the debate seems painfully obvious. I strongly agree about the importance of interesting results (coupled with decisions to act and acceptance of risk, as previously stated).

New Thief

The new Thief game is apparently not good. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Some say it’s a calamitous disaster. A woeful disappointment. There’s a complete roundup of reviews but I mostly went straight to the Zero Punctuation review:


Another good review, slightly less acerbic but just as sweary:

There goes my last reason for buying a new console. Oh, wait, there’s Dishonoured…

I would like to be the last person in this post to say “taff”.

Thief Reboot

One thing that has driven my PC upgrades — the Thief series. Of course, Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 which means my most up-to-date PC is a single-core clunker that runs on steam and Pedigree Chum.


For the past five years I’ve been putting off buying a new console until I heard news of the fourth instalment, which is a difficult thing to imagine. The third game closed the narrative loop very elegantly, and the three titles focused on the three factions of Pagans (Dark Project), Hammers (Metal Age), and Keepers (Deadly Shadows).

So, there’s not really a fourth faction. Knowing that and the amount of time since DS,  it should be no surprise that Eidos Montreal are rebooting the franchise — the refuge of an artist devoid of ideas or any connection to the original source material.

Seriously, I do not believe this reboot will be worthy of the Thief legacy. For one it looks like Garrett is multi-classing into an assassin which ignores the basic premise of the original TDP: you’re not a soldier, not a superman, and if the guards catch you they have a good chance of doing you in. But OK, I can live with that.

Second issue: Stephen Russell will not be voicing Garrett. Obviously there will be fan outrage, and justly so; but this is a reboot, not a straight-to-DVD fourth sequel. Huge shame, but that’s not the worst.

The big head-scratcher is the decision to abandon the Pagan/Hammer mythology in favour of “aristocrats vs rebels”. One of the most compelling parts of the series, the thing that contributed to the fantasy atmosphere the most was the concept of the Pagan wild outside the city against the Church-sanctioned industrialisation inside. Perhaps there will be more depth to the regime in the reboot, but at the moment it sounds like “just” another corrupt city state, a tiresome clone of various other assassination-themed franchises with a bit more personal larceny this time around.

The mythology and atmospheric elements were a big influence on a couple of my RPGs (City and Square, my current work in progress being influenced by the notions of inside/outside), so the abandoning of all that was good in the original franchise is a bit of a disappointment; on the other hand the series was past its peak with the third game (mainly for the unnecessary simplification of the city map) so it was time. I can hold the reboot at arm’s length, like the recent Total Recall.

I wonder if Eric Brosius will have anything to do with the soundtrack. I’d buy that. Just not the game.

Probably not.