Weekly Update 1/8/21

This week I posted three new pieces:

The Palace in Death – a three-paragraph dungeon fantasy campaign

Experiences That Have Shaped My Thinking: The National Security Decision Making Game – a story about the incentives underlying American politics

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 2 – sleep, breakfast, and succession wars

Also, over on Twitter I had a thread talking about gamebooks I wrote back in the day, and a retweet of my Christmas revenge tragedy tweetstorm.

New year, new website

Hello, and welcome to the new and improved Plausibly Deniable! The first tranche of writings to be posted are listed below. I’ll be updating this blog with a summary of new material on a weekly basis, and on @plausiblyd when new material is posted.

Five Geek Social Fallacies – some thoughts on interpersonal dynamics

Erik and the Goblins – a cautionary tale

The Barbecue Wars – a setting element for GURPS Transhuman Space

In the City of Alago Dun – a small piece of an imaginary world

Coda to an Age of Heroes – my as-yet-unfinished improvised serialized fantasy novel

Failure Modes in LARP – reflections on LARPs than went okay

Jargon and Definitions – I get tired of certain kinds of argument

Sacrificed Chine of Beef – the flavors are divine

Squishy Yellow Elegy – I really like macaroni and cheese, ok?

Bachelor Cuisine: Box Macaroni and Cheese – ibid

The Autarchs of Cephlen – another small piece of a place that never was

Venice Biennale VR Expanded: observations

Last weekend I watched the 360-degree films (what they called 3DOF) that were part of the Venice Biennale VR Expanded exhibition. I have thoughts on a couple of topics.

The 3DOF works were available through a virtual exhibition hall within the VRChat platform, and I thought there were a lot of missed opportunities there. The experience began in a sort of antechamber where one could select a mask off of a table, and then board a gondola which whisks one away through a series of canals to the exhibition hall proper. The antechamber was nicely done, and I liked the masks; however, it struck me that one of VRChat’s more popular functions is the ability to pick up an entire new avatar inside a world, and it felt like if the designers wanted to go with a masquerade theme, they could have thought bigger.

I did not care for the gondola ride. It felt theme-parky, and the environment felt thin. It felt like it was signifying the Biennale’s home without representing it — gondolas! masks! canals! palazzos! There were several points at which I could see between the polygonal palazzos to an infinite expanse of water beyond, which was uncanny without even being surreal.

Eventually, the gondola arrived at the exhibition hall itself, which was minimalist. Essentially there was a dock for the gondola and some stairs, leading to a tasteful warehouse with a red carpet that pointed the attendee to a series of portals for each of the available pieces. I realize, on reflection, that I cannot remember seeing anything but the exhibition hall from the dock. In my memory the infinite expanse of water just goes to the horizon in all directions, which may illuminate the aforementioned uncanny feeling. I am reminded of Larry Niven’s description of hyperspace as a giant blind spot.

The other thing that was a bit offputting about the exhibition hall was that whenever I left one of the pieces, I respawned on the dock, not at the portal for the piece I had just left. I understand that this was probably technologically simplest; I’m not sure how hard it would be within VRChat to create that many different spawn points. Still, it disrupted the flow of the experience very effectively.

I did, however, very much enjoy the works being exhibited themselves. They were my first experience with 360-degree films, and there were all sorts of exciting formal novelties for me.

The most obvious difference between 360 films and regular films is the absence of the frame, and this has various downstream effects. It’s tricky to manipulate focus appropriately; on the one hand, you don’t want the viewer to miss important story information, but on the other hand if there’s only a single point of interest, what was the point of using 360? I thought several of the pieces that were centered around interviews were disappointing for this reason. What the subjects had to say was (mostly) interesting, but that was really all there was. I could look around, but why? It was a little interesting to experiment with placing the subject in different places within my field of view, but only a little. The freedom the format gave me to explore was basically useless, and actually distracting from what the creators appeared to be trying to do.

Conversely, while I really liked the fairy-tale-style adventure In The Land of the Flabby Schnook, I feel like I missed a lot of interesting environmental detail trying to keep up with the story. On at least two occasions I missed story developments because I was looking at some exciting bit of the world in the opposite direction.

The key, I think, is pacing. I thought Penggantian (“Replacements”) handled this really well. That piece is essentially a series of vignettes — almost snapshots, really — of a neighborhood in Jakarta spaced over decades, tracing the changes to one stretch of road. Very little really happened in any given segment, but because there was a limited time to look around and explore that static space, it felt like things were happening as I absorbed all of the things that had changed from the last segment. Furthermore, the pace of change was managed quite masterfully. In the early segments, very little changed. It felt slow and lazy, and even a little boring, which was appropriate to the point I think the filmmakers were trying to make about Jakarta’s transformations over the years. As it went on, however, more and more changed with each transition, and I felt increasing urgency to find all the interesting new details before they changed again. Then the second-to-last segment was relatively uncluttered, creating the sense of a pause and a moment to reflect. It was a really remarkable management of tempo for a piece with virtually no actual action.

4 Feet High also did a good job with pacing. Its story — a teenager adjusting to life at a new school — is conventional, but the filmmakers did a good job of adjusting the pace and style of the film to exploit the 360-degree format. At any moment, the story was focused on the main characters, but the pace of events was slow enough that I had time to glance around and explore the environment. The creators also did an excellent job of selecting visually interesting locations that rewarded those little excursions. I often had the feeling that I had missed something in the corner of my eye that would have been interesting, but wasn’t important; I think that feeling may be the sweet spot for this sort of pacing. The best environmental experiences have always made deft use of an inchoate sense of FOMO.

Another thing I thought 4 Feet High did well was its use of signposting. There are several moments during the film where animated effects appear, and to me they felt like small nudges indicating where I ought to orient my attention without demanding it. It was so gentle, and yet in combination with the pacing choices I think it was the only film in the exhibition where I never felt like I had made a poor choice about where to look.

I had very much the opposite experience with 1st Step. That piece adapted historical footage of the moon missions into an immersive environment. It is a really impressive technical achievement, but I felt almost constantly that I was looking in the wrong place, that the rocket was always behind me. The creators also seemed to like using fades to black, which had an almost diametrically opposed effect to what they do in traditional film. In a regular film, a fade to black is a pause, a moment to reflect on what you just saw; in the 360 environment, my instinct was invariably “crap, is something happening behind me? Did VRChat crash?”

It is, I think, a lesson of environment-oriented performances that one has to let go. There are so many possible interactions of viewer and viewed that a creator can’t control them all, and a viewer can’t encompass them all; you can only hope to channel the flocks of possibilities. The most successful works are the ones that roll with that truth, that point and nudge without trying to direct, that offer a buffet rather than a tasting menu.

Le fraise sans merci

I often get bogged down in the process of game design shortly before playtesting. In part, this is often because I get bogged down in revisions and edits. However, often I simply get daunted by the process of making the components.

I’m mainly talking here about board and card games; to playtest an RPG, you generally need to write some adventures, but what the heck, no one ever playtests RPGs anymore anyway. But at some point when developing a board or card game, you have to actually make boards and cards.

Aside from the physical making — index or business cards get you a long way in game prototyping — I often need to make up a whole lot of relatively arbitrary game tokens. If I’m writing a game about the secret politics of a restaurant kitchen after all the humans have gone home, I’m going to have to stat up a lot of creatures with Influence, Ruthlessness, and Deliciousness. And how do I know what a rutabaga’s Deliciousness is relative to a chanterelle? Presumably less, but how much less? How about a parsnip? Is a strawberry more or less ruthless than a ripe Camembert?

Worse, I know that the vast majority of these I will get wrong, because the main problem of early-phase playtesting is getting the asset distributions sufficiently right that you can figure out whether the core mechanics are worth saving. The task of spending a ton of time producing components that will probably survive only a single playtest is a daunting one, and one that often confounds me for a long time.

Experiences That Have Shaped My Thinking: The National Security Decision Making Game

Back in 1994, I went to the Origins game convention, which was in San Jose that year. One of the things I did was to play a game called the National Security Decision Making game, which was a simulation run by a couple of guys who had taught at the Naval War College. It was intended to model, in abstract form, most of the major players in international politics and their important interactions. I was all set to mix it up international relations style. However, upon drawing my role, I got to be a region of the United States.

This was 13 years ago, so I don’t remember the game’s details terribly well. I do, however, remember the basic dynamics of the US’s domestic politics in the game, because that was what I mostly had to deal with. There were, I believe, five regions of the US — New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Plains States, and the West Coast. I was New England. The main objective of the regions was to secure national resources for themselves, in the form of a share of the national budget, which was refigured regularly. A region could accomplish this by lobbying the President, who determined the budget.

There were also three politicians, whose base condition was to be a Senator, but one of whom would be elected President by the regions every so often. I don’t remember the politicians’ names, but let’s call them Senator Gravitas, Senator Unctuous, and Senator Nonentity.

At the beginning of the game, we had a choice to make, and the senators made their pitches. Senator Gravitas seemed intelligent, trustworthy, and possessed of good plans for the nation. Senator Unctuous, meanwhile, mostly seemed ambitious. He said the right things, but his eyes were a little too clearly on the prize, and he just seemed a little sleazy. Senator Nonentity I don’t remember at all; I merely assume he must have existed because I’m pretty sure there were three senators, and we shall not speak of him again. Instead, let us assume he retreated to the ranks of those elder statesmen who are always discussed as potential presidential candidates, and whose chances always seem quite good except for their inability to excite either donors or voters. Needless to say, President Gravitas was elected, and it was morning in America.

The Gravitas administration was probably quite successful; he threw himself into foreign affairs with a will, and things seemed to be mostly going his way. I, however, was not paying that much attention, because I wasn’t allowed into some of the most important stuff, and I was mostly concerned with the fact that my share of the federal budget was not what it could be.  I managed to wheedle some concessions out of the President, but the other regions were pushing hard too, and he had a lot to do.

Shortly before the election rolled around, Senator Unctuous asked if he could have a word with me, the Midwest, and the West Coast. “I have a proposition,” he said. “If you three vote for me, I will give you the entire federal budget.” We were startled. We were a little scandalized. We could do the math. Thus began the Unctuous Administration.

Sen. Gravitas was really pissed off. Here he’d been doing a good job, getting things done, treating everyone fairly, and we had straight up stabbed him in the back. I felt a little bad about it, but I was getting a much bigger slice of the pie, and pie is a wonderful cure for guilt. The South and the Plains States were pretty ticked off too, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. Unctuous wasn’t about to throw them a bone, because if he annoyed one of the regions in his coalition enough to lose it, he was going down for good.

I don’t remember how the game went from there; it had been running a long time, it was late, and I think I went to bed before we got through another term. Still, I think about that experience a lot when I think about national politics.

originally published on LiveJournal

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”

Aesthetics of Play: An Occasional Series

Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.

On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw. 

The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays (and, probably, other future theoretical works), I’m going to be using bold for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”