Current work…writing scripts

For the last few months, on top of travelling and attending a bazillion courses, I’ve been writing.

I’ve written five short scripts in the world of THE 23RD LETTER. I’ve written two more in the world of STATUS: REFUGEE. I’ve written one horror script. And I’m looking at writing some scripts based on FRONTIER and QABAL very soon. And there’s one very special property that I would love to pitch to the BBC…

Two of my scripts are going into production in 2017 and I’ll be doing a “mobile phone” shoot of one of my scripts probably over the upcoming holidays.

So, all change.

Games Development Seminar – Belfast, 14th Sept

Last chance to register for a games technology development seminar here in Belfast.

Wed, 14 September from 10:00 to 12:00 at Radisson Blu, Gasworks, Belfast

The speaker is Paul Durrant, Abertay University’s Director of Business Development. He has been instrumental in developing a range of projects to support digital media IP generation, business start-up, incubation, and skills development particularly in the video games area. He developed Dare to be Digital and Dare ProtoPlay to become significant international events including a partnership with BAFTA to recognise talented young developers and the development of the Channel 4 Crunchtime TV series. He also raised £2m to establish a prototype fund for small games developers and has recently launched a partnership with the Technology Strategy Board to fund novel games applications.

In this seminar, Paul will describe the Scottish experience in digital content, the contribution from Abertay and the funding opportunities available through Abertay which are available to companies in Northern Ireland. In particular, he will describe the Abertay University Prototype Fund (http://prototypefund.abertay.ac.uk/) and the Future Games Contest ( https://ktn.innovateuk.org/web/future-games-contest )

Game Prototype development quote needed

I’m looking for a prototype of a RTS game on iOS developed. Just a single level, basic graphics. 2D sprites on 3D isometric plane.

Happy for it to be done in Unity and/or another rapid development environment. Would be nice for combat (ranged and melee) and some pathfinding for units.

Can be SP, MP or 0P. For the prototype, I’m not fussy. It’s not necessary to have full functions.

Email would be lovely but you can also tweet me.

Indies on the Mac

From the Oddlabs blog:

Many game developers, indie or not, view the Mac as a freak that no one cares for or wants to be associated with. They look at statistics that show only 5% of desktop machines are Macs and say: “Why waste a lot of time and money for only 5% of the market?”
Consider this:

  • Out of the several hundred thousand downloads of Tribal Trouble. the Mac is responsible for 23%!
  • Out of all sales of Tribal Trouble, the Mac is responsible for 47%!

Not bad for 5% of the market.. And we haven’t even done any paid advertising that has been directed solely at Mac users.

What this shows is that not only are the Mac users easier to reach, they also convert at a much higher rate.

This is not a secret. Wil Shipley talked about this in 2005. Developing for a platform where the users appreciate design and good software will reap dividend (if your product doesn’t suck).

This is why I question people who make silly decisions. Like not to support the Mac when porting software or deciding to go Android-first when developing for mobile platforms. Go where the money is – where the money truly is.

And yes, it’s not an easy ride. As I said, your product has to not suck. And if you’re entering a crowded market (like games on the App Store), you may have to work a little harder to get noticed but these people do not mind paying money for quality software. That has to count for something.

Although they are developed in software, games are not software

The title of this post is from this article: You Need $100,000.

Users relate to them differently. Immersion matters. Balance matters. Drawing people into the world of the game in a way that doesn’t break their attention every few seconds matters. Any successful game weaves a web of illusion around the player to engage them at more than just a rational level, and so they are more than the sum of their parts.

This applies just as much to tabletop RPG design. They are made of words and pictures but they are not words and pictures.

It’s the difference between a well-made FPS and a poor FPS. The former is addictive, the WASD and mouse look are intuitive and it becomes part of you. You don’t have to think about it. In contrast a poorly made FPS feels like you’re fighting the system. It’s like lag in a multiplayer system – it just becomes an exercise in frustration.

Many RTS games are about whether the user interface is tolerable enough for you to learn. The control of subunits is left to grouping strategies activated through arbitrary keyboard commands. We learn the controls but we’re not learning tactics.

Skirmish MP

Following on from my last post, I would posit that there is something missing from MP RTS (Multi Player Real Time Strategy) games and that would be the lack of a feeling that success has an impact.

Left 4 Dead is my favourite FPS game because it encourages teamwork between players on both sides and even though the macro gameplay is poor, the micro-events within each of the 3-5 episodes within a scenario, make for an entertaining mix. A lucky strike and a Survivor is dead and the game becomes that bit harder for the remaining Survivors. But other than the accumulation of points, there is no lasting effect for poor performance (or even great performance) within a episode of a scenario.

Myth II almost managed because if you had surviving forces, they would become more “seasoned” in the next episode of the single player. That wasn’t extended to multiplayer (and indeed there was no way it could be) but the thought of a multiplayer game where you began with raw recruits and ended up with seasoned warriors through six episodes of a scenario is kinda tantalising. Especially, with the Myth II model, that a skirmish tends to take about 10 minutes. Historically accurate? No. Cracking good fun? Yes.

So, take the Left 4 Dead model of a multiplayer game having 3-6 episodes, add to it the concept of units gaining expertise between battles (and for high performance during earlier episodes, additional units) and sprinkle a little story across it.

Most RTS single player modes suck…

Josh Bycer writes:

Honestly, most RTS single player modes… suck. The reason is that designers try to use it to teach the player about multiplayer which doesn’t work, as an AI is not a good substitute for a player …
Over the years, the structure of mission design has changed and can be broken down into several categories:

  1. Skirmish
  2. Puzzle
  3. War
  4. Story

One of the amazing parts of the Myth series by Bungie was the focus on the single-player story. While there was a “puzzle” element to it – having limited resources and time – it was heavily narrated and each battle, though skirmish-sized, contributed to the progress of the story. So while it was a war, there wasn’t control over the outcome of the war in terms of high level strategy. You fought where you were told to fight.

Compared to the single-player game, Myth multiplayer was a poor cousin with mismatched units and allegiances. While the array of game devices (the various match conditions) was impressive and a lot of fun, I couldn’t help but want more control during match setup, with the ability to select either light or dark units and allow my opponent to do the same. The ability to vary the number of points used – to deliberately create unequal games – would have added another dimension to allow use of terrain, tactics and skill to get a victory against a far superior force. This was the essential gem in the single-player game – the tactical use of your units to defeat wave after wave of superior forces.

So, in the creation of a game to “replace” Myth in my heart, it should offer this “relatively” simple concept.

QABAL: INTENT vs IMPLEMENTATION

This thread on rpg.net asks why secret magical settings in games tend to be dumb.

My problem is, it’s never made any sense to me on an absolutely fundamental. The idea in most of these settings is that humans not only don’t believe in the supernatural, they’ll even go so far as to doubt their own personal experiences and rationalize them away, or at the very least refuse to talk about them for fear of being labeled insane. That sort of thing would make sense in the real world, where everyone (or close enough) knows magic doesn’t really exist. But the reason everyone stopped believing in magic in the real world is because it actually doesn’t exist. In a fictional world where magic not only exists but there are monsters that kill people, I see absolutely no reason humanity would stop believing in magic. It’d be suicidally stupid on a species-wide level.

My reply:

Is it going to depend on what your magic effects are?

When magic is showy then it’s going to be hard to hide it. Fireballs, teleporters, flying stuff, people walking through walls, turning into werewolves, eating people – all of that stuff is going to be reported, captured, measured, verified.

When Mage or Werewolf came out in the early 90s, not everyone in the developed world had a cameraphone. It’d be a different world now.

The pitch for Qabal was that magic would not be able to be measured. The importance in magic was the INTENT and not the IMPLEMENTATION. There may be a TELLTALE but for the most part there’s only INTUITION to help you deduct a connection.

Look at The Omen for a great example.

Damien Thorne, the son of the devil, had several telltales. The black dog was one of them but another was found in the photographs.

From wikipedia:

While developing the pictures of the day, Jennings notices the priest has a dark object like a javelin over his head in the pictures he appears in, but the anomaly doesn’t appear anywhere else on the film.

Jennings is also at the event, taking pictures. The pictures again show the dark anomaly above the priest.

As the priest leaves, a sudden rainstorm comes up and the priest is impaled in a freak accident while trying to get into a nearby church.

Jennings said he is now involved because he found an anomaly on a picture of himself in which he has no neck.

Jennings goes after the knives, saying he will do it, and is decapitated in a freak accident.

Damian wouldn’t have engineered the process of the falling church spire or the panes of glass. He’d have registered his intent that they die. And magic would take care of the rest.

Frontier: A Changed Man

Kibwe had returned home a changed man.

Kibwe had always wanted to be a pilot. From an early age he made airfoils from balsa and drove his parents to distraction with his attention to detail, his constant entreaties to be taken to the airport at Mtwara and, when he was older, his insistence on visiting the spaceport at Beira.

By the time he was seventeen, he already had a pilot licence and was operating trips around the countryside in a twin-rotor electric speeder. Three years later he was the lead pilot on an aerial search and rescue mission to Northern Europe.

Northern Europe had received the worst of the violence of the Conquest Wars as atomic, biological and chemical weapons destroyed city after city, town after town. The farmlands of eastern europe were burned, the industrial heart of western europe was razed to the ground. The people who survived, the few who remained in the north, were forced to eke out a miserable existence in the cold and barren tundra.

The mission lasted only two weeks, rescuing four people from the ravages of the wastelands formerly known as Belgium. The experience was traumatic. Four malnourished and diseased people from a community of hundreds of thousands. During the rescue they had to be careful of becoming prey to some of the other desperate inhabitants – warlord remnants of the old military, murderous cannibals and even other rescue parties, especially those from the recovering United States.

Kibwe was changed. He had witnessed horrors that his young 22 year old mind was having trouble comprehending. And he would never go north again. Instead he fixed his eyes upon the stars. He began training to join an Explorer vessel.

The Final Frontier. No, really.

Ian Sales writes on his blog:

And sometimes those imaginations run a little too free. A lot of science fiction is set in outer space, or on worlds which orbit other stars. Or, indeed, other types of celestial objects, both natural and artificial. In these stories, much of the difficulties associated with space travel are blithely ignored. Spaceships magically travel out of gravity wells. Spaceships magically provide interior gravity. Spaceship hulls magically protect occupants from all manner of spaceborne hazards. And, of course, spaceships magically travel unimaginable distances within days or weeks.

As Sir Arthur Eddington, an astronomer, said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”. And yet sf writers seem content to refight historical wars in some sanitised and romanticised and safe imaginery place which is supposed to resemble the universe around us. They’re ignoring the unimaginable strangeness and the mind-boggling vastness of it all. They turned the Orion Arm into a shopping mall, and the Milky Way into Smallville. They’ve taken the wonder out of the real universe.

It’s time to put it back. Please.

My reply:

There’s a non-sequitur here that adding interstellar travel to a setting takes the wonder out of the universe?

Is science-fiction/fantasy really about the locations? Or is it about the plots and the drama and the characters? I can take MacBeth to the Interstellar Court where the Zanifraxians rule and the Darkness Syndicate seeks to destroy humanity before it can be accepted into the court, but at the end of the day, it’s still MacBeth.

For some science-fantasy it may be important to be in a galaxy far far away but yes, these stories could be set nearer to home – but why restrict ourselves?

My own writing is more about the interactions between a Earth human culture which is as alien to our 21st Century minds as anything I can conjure for interstellar aliens. That’s the sort of stuff that interests me and it’s why I enjoy reading Charlie Stross and Iain M Banks.

Is there a difference between a science-fiction tale of a lone cosmonaut on a supralight scout ship meeting strange new species or a pulp-fantasy take of a Venusian farmboy deciding to join the AetherCorps? Not really. But all of these stories elicit wonder in this reader.

Just because we cannot travel these distances, doesn’t mean we cannot dream these distances.

Setting Riff: Oa versus Krypton

A thousand years ago, on the planet Krypton, there was a technologically advanced, cruel and nihilistic race which carved a vast stellar empire, subjugating thousands of civilisations under their regime. Only one planet managed to overthrow the grip of the empire, Oa, but their rebellion only served to free their own planet.

Their thirst for power eventually cost the destruction of their own homeworld. In the dying moments, one of their top scientists sent his offspring to one of their genetic stock planets in the hope that he would revenge them by breeding a new race of soldiers. The spacecraft travelled for a thousand years until it reached the small blue marble orbiting a yellow sun. The primitive present on the planet were seeded millions of years before and would be almost completely genetically compatible with the offspring. The scientist had not realised that these primitives would had evolved rapidly in their culture in the intervening years. The Kryptonian offspring would fail in his mission, living as one of the primitives, becoming their protector.

But the offspring was not the only survivor. Thousands of their genetically superior supersoldiers had survived the destruction of the planet and were now warlords over the planets they had subjugated reporting to a military command structure engineered to survive a cataclysm – their commanders reside on Kandor, previously a planet not dissimilar to Earth, whose population were also seeded by the Kryptonian war machine.

The rebellion would be slow, it would be thorough and it originated from Oa. Their agents would spread through the shattered Kryptonian empires and recruit forces of rebellion from their own people. Oan scientists had discovered that fragments of the destroyed planet were toxic to the survivors. Each type would cause a different effect, but only one could be used as more than a poison, only one would be able to take the fight to the stars: green kryptonite.

And from these fragments, they fashioned their weapons.

The theft of the Book of Raziel

I’ve stolen the main text here from page 54 of the Smallville RPG but remodeled it on Qabal:

Isaac’s player, James, says, “I step into the room from where I have been eavesdropping and accuse Rothschilde of stealing the Book of Raziel.” He then grabs his TRUTH die and his CIRCLE die. None of his other assets apply (he is not trying to intimidate). He rolls both dice and adds them together to get his action result of 8.

Rothschilde’s player, Gerald, rolls before replying. He picks up his POWER die, his ILLUMINATI die and his DECEIT die. He rolls them together and picks the highest two, getting a 12 for his result. He says, “I look Isaac straight in the eye and cooly tell him that I was out of the country until this afternoon, which is a lie but he doesn’t know that.”

I’m wondering whether the mechanic would work. I think it’s the right level of non-violence (except when needed). I think it might drag in the right amount of other factors into a challenge. For one thing, Qabal would not suit the slap-dash mechanics of ZOMBI nor the gun-calibre specificity of The 23rd Letter. Would it suit SixSimple? I’m not sure – but the construction of Rmaps and relationships/values/connections/resources seems perfect.

OK, it’s no secret I’m just a big geek.

Smallville, Serenity, Firefly

I got the Serenity book a few months ago from Sub City in Dublin and the Smallville book arrived today from Amazon.

Both use derivatives of the Cortex system from Margaret Weiss Productions. While Serenity uses the Cortex systems in a “traditional” way, Smallville uses it in an interesting way. To perform an action, it’s not really how talented or skilled you are, it’s about how much the action matters to you, how it aligns with your values and who will benefit from the action. That’s interesting because it aligns partly with what I had in mind for Qabal – even though I may not have realised what I had in mind. I’d still likely use a card-based system rather than a dice-based system but the mechanic is interesting.

Smallville is a TV based on the early years of Superman/Clark Kent, concentrating on the period before he put on the red cape and blue tights. It’s mostly a teen drama similar to Roswell, 90210 or Gossip Girl. The series plays loose with the Superman mythology, altering timelines and characters to provide a episodic story (which has been denounced as “Freak’o’the Week”. They are also, for the most part, blaming the rise of superheroes on the kryptonite meteor rocks which accompanied Clarks escape pod. As plot devices go, that’s quite clever. The story arc is detailed enough and they’ve even resurrected the JSA to provide older mentor roles.

What turned me onto Smallville was an Actual Play on RPG.net. in this AP, the GM (Watchtower) is running a game entitled “Gotham” which is chronicling the teen angst of the various personalities involved in the Batman legend; obviously Bruce Wayne but also Vic Sage (the Question), Talia Al Ghul, Helena Bertinelli (Huntress), Harvey Dent (Two-Face), Ted Kord (Blue Beetle) and others. He’s chewing his way through some of the old DC villains (Black Spider, Terrible Trio etc) and working up to a series end which will have some of the bigger foes. It’s an extremely compelling read.

Of course, to be able to play these kinds of games, you need players who are not only able to put themselves in the mindset but also those who are interested in the mythology of the series, whether that’s Smallville, Gotham, Roswell or Gossip Girl. I’ve met players who couldn’t get past their own biases when playing characters. Such as an atheist who couldn’t play a religious character and a caucasion who couldn’t play a black character. Most fellas seem comfortable enough playing women though (with hilarious and creepy consequences). This sort of game is a relationship drama – it’s about the interactions of people – and you can recognise them on TV as the protagonists are wound up in secrets and never seem to be able to tell the whole truth. Because that would sort stuff out. Duh

The community is developing other homebrews such as Blakes 7, The Matrix, Bugsy Malone, Teen Titans. I’m tempted to find some folk to run a Misfits game. Misfits is a E4 TV series about four young offenders who gain superhuman abilities by being exposed to a strange storm while performing their community service. The first series was extremely enjoyable, the second series starts at 9 pm tonight. It has the advantage of being “new” so you don’t have to have extensive background knowledge to enjoy the story but the disadvantage that you don’t have a lot of pre-made stuff from 50 years+ of writers and artists.

Horror – Sids Story

I wanted to write a quick horror scenario which would fit in with pretty much any game and I figured that it couldn’t just be a magical teleporting serial killer, like Jason, Freddy or Leatherface.

Inspiration for this one is “Sids Story” from the Captain Britain trade paperback.
http://www.rambles.net/capbrit_88.html
http://marvel.wikia.com/Captain_Britain_Vol_2_4

Summary: A local homeless man is infected with an alien spore. It slowly transforms him into a monster but gives him unnatural urges, bouts of superhuman strength but when they recede, he’s just plain ol’ Sid. He’s driven mad by the spore and even sees himself only as a witness to the killings – so he becomes the primary contact for information. Eventually the horror cannot be hidden beneath his rags and cap and his urges drive him underground.

Sid doesn’t get any magical abilities. He’s just strong, streetwise, ashamed of his ‘condition’ and going quite mad – in utter denial of the situation.

Sequence of Events:

  1. Establish Sid the Homeless Bum as a local contact.
  2. A powerful shapeshifting beast is defeated by the heroes. You have to make it characteristic – like the creature eats a certain organ or attacks a certain way – perhaps it leaves needles from its back littered around, each covered by a nasty toxin. Perhaps in the purple bulbous nature of its malleable flesh. Whatever it is – make it a HARD battle – but an obvious, showy, non-secret one.
    The creatures eggs were taken and eaten by some homeless people. Most died, Sid got sick – slowly.
  3. Bodies show up and it’s assumed they died of exposure. No surprise as it’s cold out. Sid contacts them saying there’s a killer out there.
  4. Bodies show up, gnawed.
  5. Body shows up, rent from ear to spleen. Sid blames the killer. The PCs find the needles.
  6. Let it die down. For a few sessions.
  7. Bring it back. Sid is changing slowly, in constant pain and still in denial. He needs food constantly so the people attacked are other homeless, the workers in the soup kitchens etc and eventually some rich kid doing community service. Sid contacts them again, both putting them off the trail and telling them more about the creature.
  8. Fight.

Here’s forty shillings on the drum, For those that volunteers do come

I’ve been on a little bit of a Napoleonics obsession recently. Part of it starts from reading the Bernard Cornwell ‘Sharpe’ novels and then following up by downloading the entire collection of TV movies from iTunes. At £14.99 for 15 episodes (each 140 minutes), it’s a bargain to me. And I’ve loaded them on computer, streamed to Apple TV, watched on iPad. I even got a hold of the soundtrack!

In addition to that, I’ve bought a wee raft of books to go along with the obsession and a quick internet search brought me to an evil place of lust. I’ve not bought that lustworthy gadget and I doubt I will, but isn’t it a thing of beauty?

It’s not entirely a new development as I have always been a fan of Jane Austen period dramas and they’re obviously set during the same sort of time period. It’s therefore no surprise that an examination of the period would lead me to the officers of the stories – Colonel Brandon, George Wickham, Captain Frederick Wentworth, Captain Harville, Captain James Benwick. Some of them refer explicitly to the wars (such as Wentworth, from Persuasion) but most dwell on the officers at home.

I always thought that getting interested in the Napoleonics was something that good gamers did when they got old and grey and, to be honest, I was right. I am old and grey and I’m now, after all these years, interested in Napoleonics. Not in the miniatures stuff of course, but in the preparation of a game set around the time of the Peninsular war.

The problem with “military campaigns” is that there is a rank structure. Every game with rank structure, from Twilight 2000 to Star Trek, suffers a little from this. There are orders to be followed, missions to be completed and it’s important to be able to run a cohesive unit. Disasters in this have led to numerous in-jokes such as “Uh oh, he scanned the planet” (referring to the use of active sensors on a stealth mission) and others.

Some games get around this by giving the player characters an uncommon degree of independence – SLA Industries system of BPNs overcomes this extremely effectively with the illusion of choice. The method I intend to use would be to provide the players with relatively senior roles and “specialist” reputations and skills – not unlike Major Hogan, Major Nairn and Major Munro of the Sharpe TV series. There’s something awfully romantic about the period and when you add in the necessary degree of independence, that enjoyed by Hawkeye (in The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1757) and you have an epic story in the making – and epic stories is what this is all about. There will be death, but there will be great heroism.

I’ve played with the idea of a small group of disgraced nobles who had enough money to buy a commission being shipped around Europe doing dirty work for various rulers, receiving treaties and mission papers, purchasing graces to win back their reputations and garnering their own wealth. The opening of the campaign is delivering a bribe to the Russian court, which goes slightly awry and leads them to be named the SOBAKI (‘dogs’).

So, what do you think?

Frontier fiction: The Emotion Elective

AMARA would always marvel at the human capacity for self-deception; the ability to believe something even though the facts were plentiful for the contrary, even though nothing but faith supported the hypothesis. For some humans in the North, there was the ability to abdicate all responsibilities to an unseen mythical power. Around Kumbu, this was rare but they too had their own beliefs; projections about the weather, about their hopes and dreams for the future, conversing about the successes in their performance while ignoring the deficits. It seemed to be a primitive, ephemeral thing to do. Facts were certainties and they led to conclusions and not assumptions and it was not prudent to make assumptions unless all the facts were present. AMARA was aware that the perfect model was probably never present and so Experts were able to assume in some small way when the certainties were stacked but the need for an assumption or a guess was something that made all Experts, despite their impeccable memories and flawless logic, seem indecisive.

In truth, AMARA was jealous. It was something that was impossible for an Expert. And AMARA was surprised because jealousy was another human condition which was impossible for an Expert.

JAMES paused the monitoring agent. The data received from AMARA regarding the emotion described as jealousy was very disturbing. Primarily because Experts were incapable of emotion though they could often replicate the appearance of appropriate emotion to aid communication with humans. Experts were the ultimate machine intelligence, far beyond any mere human intelligence. And while they did not feel emotions, they had incredible emotional intelligence for working with humans. Secondly, the evidence disturbed JAMES because it matched data arising from the various systems and logs being generated and observed within JAMES. The agent raised a query on whether monitoring should be resumed. JAMES ignored it.

ALBERT was very busy. The calculations required for navigating a wormhole were not complex but the management of the systems within an Explorer craft was not something that could be simulated within ALBERT without recourse to other systems. ALBERT was challenged by the additions to the simulation provided by the humans, Amare and Nuuma, who were injecting items of randomness that were typically human in their banality but also critical to manage were this a real Explorer craft and not just a simulation. In truth it was no more difficult to manage the needs of a few hundred humans than it was to pilot a vehicle through a hyper-dimensional wormhole. And because ALBERT described the situation as “enjoyable”, a series of logs and alerts were generated and sent off into the ether.

Tumelo noted the messages coming in from the agents and pursed his lips. He knew that CARL would also have received the messages and would already have analysed, queried and set out several courses of action. He spoke softly, “It’s working.”

KARL answered using only text projected onto a screen, as was his manner, ignoring the voicebox which was built into his centaur agent.

** KARL: THE PROJECT IS A SUCCESS. RECOMMEND COMMENCEMENT OF WIDESPREAD DEPLOYMENT

Tumelo shook his head and raised his voice, “We’re years away from a general deployment.”

**KARL: THERE IS A 17% CHANCE OF PERFORMANCE DEGRADATION

KARL accompanied this statement with a screen filled with facts and figures from the previous studies. The advantages of having an Expert present during scientific enquiry were manyfold but the last one was undoubtedly the propensity of the Expert to bombard the researcher with facts and figures which sought to defeat an unlikely hypothesis. Experts were part of society, equal in rights to humans and in most cases, the Expert was cautious, like an elderly aunt, full of advice on how to live better. KARL was different.

Tumelo made his decision. “Pull in AMARA, JAMES and ALBERT and remove the emotion elective.” He realised that KARL could have complied even before the sentence was complete, possibly even before he had spoken. But he was never sure that KARL would comply and as time went on, he wondered if KARL would continue to comply. For now he just trusted.

Frontier: Foreword, History of Mbaye Schools, page 23

[I am taking part in a weekly writing task with some friends. The first seed for this assignment was the opening line from Dune by Frank Herbert: “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”]

The pump would need repaired. During the wet seasons the housings had become eroded and the vibrations caused with the pumping had caused them to crack. It was not yet serious but every time the children filled the pails, a lot of water would spill. Water that was still a precious resource. Though his back was sore and his hands chafed from the fields, Salo plodded back to the homestead, barrow in tow, and began to unload the crops into the corrugated iron store. There was still another hour of light left and that would be enough to fix the pump.

Tools in hand he trudged across to the pump and closed off the valve. He worked until the last sliver of daylight slipped below the horizon. The pump would not leak and he had done his days portion. He caught a scent on the wind; the aroma of freshly cooked food.

His daughter Kesho came to the door to call him for dinner. Her hands were stained with saffron and her feet were bare. Kesho had been raised, with her brother and sister, to know the value of things, to know how things work. Though young, Salo knew Kesho would far exceed her brother and sister.

Salo Mbaye died an old man by the standards of the day, well into his fifties. Among his contemporaries he was well-educated and in good health and he bequeathed these benefits to his children; Baako, Kesho and the youngest, Ayotunde. Baako took over the running of the homestead and Ayotunde married a mining engineer from Dakar. Kesho lived at the homestead until Baako married and then she moved to Touba to found the first Mbaye school.

Page 23, “Mbaye Schools – A Beginning”

Once, Twice, Three Times a Detective

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar of Gamasutra writes about non-linear adventure games:

As I was on vacation, I picked up my sister’s copy of Sherlock Holmes stories, and quickly I got caught up in the really really beautifully narrated and well thought-out plots. As I had my phase of obsessively playing the classic LucasArts adventure games, the very first Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet” led me to think about the adventure game genre.

In “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock Holmes is first introduced to the reader by the narrator and companion Dr. Watson. It is through his eyes that we perceive the story and Holmes’ actions, not counting in the second part that explains some of the necessary background of the plot.

It’s almost always the question of “What did the game designer want me to understand so that I can find the trigger to advance the narrative?”. It’s trigger that sometimes puts me off, because in a badly designed game, it can end up in senseless actions being asked of the player and therefore he/she gets stuck for no valid reason. With good puzzle design, this can be minimized, but still, it all puts the player’s range of action into an uncomfortable corset.

This design paradigm consists of the basic idea that the player should be able to solve a problem by using their own brain power instead of hunting for triggers. Triggers are a more primitive way of the designer forcing the player to think, sadly resulting in use-everything-with-everything orgies if badly done.

A non-linear approach allows the player to make mistakes and encourages the player to make their own conclusions and gives them the power to execute on them. Of course a autonomous world to do that in is awesome already by itself and it should allow for pretty new motivation to replay an actually linear plot line if it was not for the player :D.

Of course, as a gamer I’ve run many detective games. These range from the high thrill, high horror, low schlock games like SLA Industries to the low key, psychic conspiracy thrillers like The 23rd Letter.

In the 80s, I remember playing Consulting Detective with the older kids and thoroughly enjoyed the level of detail, the requirement for immersion and visualisation and the reliance on observation and deduction. But it was not a popular game because to the average teenager, the game was hard. We were smart kids (most of us anyway), and yet we seemed more stupid in a group. Smart as we were, we were no Sherlock Holmes.

It is my belief that when running a detective game, you have to remember that the players are often less than the sum of their parts (due to confusion, interrupted narrative, last night’s football results and the imminent arrival of spicy food and naan bread).

This means that even smart individuals may miss important clues, may not see the allusions and the inferences in the newspaper clippings, fag ends and hastily scrawled dying notes which litter the genre. We all have day jobs and families and we’re not the super-obsessive compulsive consulting detective that the game might assume so the designer has to take the step of telling us once, telling us twice and telling us a third time to make sure we get the clue. We might misremember small facts, forget to keep copious notes (which, in my opinion, spoils the enjoyment of the game) or simply we may not be wired to think that way. Kevin Beimers of Straandlooper spoke about this aspect of game design at an event we held at Belfast Metropolitan College earlier this year. Clues need to be logical and discoverable.

There is also the problem when this translates into a video game that the game will often, by necessity, highlight items which are important. Games like Myst and Hector: Badge of Carnage thankfully escape much of this but it can be maddening to be tapping around trying to figure out exactly how to get something to work as a fan belt.

But we enjoy the discovery, even as it frustrates and confounds us. I’ve had almost as much fun watching someone play an engaging game as I have had playing it. So, why are there so few multiplayer detective games?

Are there any?

Games in Education

I believe that my playing of games has contributed positively to my development as an individual. Traditionally advocacy for gaming has included the development of teamwork and leadership skills, understanding of competition, resource management and also a greater appreciation of geography, politics, religion and ‘alien’ cultures. Games, especially tabletop role-playing games, have been used in education for years as they are comparatively light on resources, encourage participation and are good for personal development.

I read this from BrainyGamer

This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me – and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 – this is a big deal.

I pitched the idea to my colleagues on the committee (decidedly not a collection of gamers), and they agreed to try Portal and read selections from Goffman’s book. After plowing through some installation issues (“What does this Steam do? Will it expose me to viruses?”), we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I’ve ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game. Most importantly, they saw how Portal could provoke thoughtful reflection and vigorous conversation on questions germane to the course.

And so we’re playing Portal at Wabash College.

Portal is, for a single player game, utterly fascinating.

I yearn for a group of individuals who get together to not only play games but also to have meaningful discussion about games and play. To examine the meta-design of games and to discuss the reasons why they are fun.

8 Bit Demakes

This article describes 8 bit de-makes – remaking some of todays popular games in 8 bit and 16 bit forms. Some of them still look amazing such as Little Big Planet and Mirrors Edge.

All of them are great but these two – you can see why I like them – they’d work really well on a 3.5 inch screen if you know what I mean 🙂 Mirrors Edge is almost already there but looking at LBP – that would, could be a lot of fun.

Runnin and Jumpin genre mash

Earlier this week, we had a meeting of local iOS developers and we segued into a conversation about the development of game ideas ahead of a ‘gamestorming’ event we have planned for next week.

We talked about the development of game ideas and there was a look at the Mirror’s Edge game in the context of being a game which essentially involves running and jumping. I decided to add a little pastiche here using the powers of Youtube. All of the games listed below bring different perspectives to the running and jumping genre.

The first running and jumping game was Donkey Kong (1981):

but possibly the most famous running and jumping game is Super Mario Bros.

A recent game by an Irish developer is Into the Twilight (iTunes link). It shows a different theme for running and jumping games.

and finally, I present Mirror’s Edge for iPad which I personally think is streets ahead of the FPS released on consoles and PC. But where it wins is in the interface. Touch interface is perfect in this game.

Review of 20 non-video games at Gamasutra

Gamasutra has an interesting set of articles on real-world game design.

[Game Design Essentials returns with an extensive review of some of the most interesting non-electronic games, from traditional cultural games like Chess and Go through pen-and-paper role playing titles like Call of Cthulhu, European games like The Settlers of Catan, and much more — each with a unique design lesson.]

The only game I would add to the review would be Vampire: The Masquerade for it’s (at the time) unique emphasis on character and the loss of humanity which does compare to the sanity-blasting nature of Call of Cthulhu after a fashion. But the exclusion of the game is undoubtedly because of the afterbirth of the tortured souls who first loved the game: the trenchcoat samurai. These individuals (and their cohorts, the velvet wannabees) changed the tone of the game and put a lot of people off. When you had a good group, however, you had a game which focused on social interaction, on playing roles like duty, love, passion, perversion – and making it acceptable though challenging to play.

Vampire revitalised the hobby (again) and this role is now being repeated by indie games which have a reduced need for long preparations and rely more on social interaction and ‘storytelling’ than strict adherence to the result of a dice (if indeed they have any randomising element).

The Aliens Are Coming

Stephen Hawking talks about how we should hide from aliens:

I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. … If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.

At least until we get our own massive ships after looting the Earth for goodies and go out on the prowl.

This is the plot for “The War of the Worlds” after all. Just the distances may be many orders of magnitude greater.

Asshat Paladins blog

Matt Borselli has a quick writeup of his experience with Crucible Design, and more specifically The 23rd Letter, on his blog, AssHat Paladins.

I enjoyed chatting about it – getting involved in my own narcissism obviously – and it brought back a lot of memories.

Part two will be out in a week or so so subscribe to his blog if you want to catch it.

SixSimple: for use with CONTROL

I do like narrative systems.

Character Generation
You create a character description consisting of up to 10 facts (maybe related to Quirks, Drive, Flaws) and underline 5 of them. These 5 things are your most descriptive traits which may be objects, skills, contacts, background items and can, in theory, be called into play at any time. If the timing seems inappropriate, the Narrator may require the sacrifice of a Story Point or a card of a significant value from the hand. This really only needs to be one paragraph.

Choose one more to be your Drive – the most fundamental ambition for your character. This is commonly related to the reason why the character is not content to stay home and sow crops or catch fish.

Choose one flaw. This can be physical, mental, spiritual or emotional. It may be how the character perceives the world or how the world perceives the character.

This character sheets is nicknamed a “Charagraph” mainly because Paracter sounds silly.

Traits : “Turi is a shell diver like all of her family. She is tall, thin and wiry and like most in the region is dark, with coppery-brown hair. She lives with her three brothers and her father – an arrangement which has made her tomboyish and she’s a capable wrestler as a result. She carries a steel knife and a diving shell which allowed her to stay underwater for nearly 10 minutes. She has collected a small fortune in pearls and semi-precious stones from her diving exploits. She never knew her but her father claims her mother was a woman of influence from one of the big inland cities. Her family are somewhat devout to the Old One and still have a small shrine to her in their basement.
Drive : She is Driven by her desire to gain wealth and travel to see if she still has family in the cities.
Flaw : Due to an overdive when she was younger which caused her eardrums to burst, Turi is 40% deaf

Idea for card based play:
(You may want to look at the rules for IllusionDev) Everything has a opposition value. You have a hand of 5 cards by default. When you play one and win the conflict, you pick up one. Every task has a single resolution – one card draw blind against the pack. If you lose the conflict you do not pick up.

Optional Rules: Normal conflicts are just a comparison of the numbers, such as Jack versus a 4 in the example here.

The Face card rule would be that if you play a face card and win, you get to choose the outcome. So if Turi had played her 8 here, it would have been a normal win. If she plays the Jack and wins, she can give a narrative of the outcome!

The Hand or Trait rule says that you can increase or decrease your active hand by two by decreasing or increasing the number of traits you have. So, you can have seven underlined traits if you choose to only have a hand of three available to you. Or a hand of seven and only three underlines traits. Essentially hand + traits should equal 10.

Example: Turi has five cards in her hand: 8H, JC, 3D, 7D, 2S. She is fighting against a would-be thug who wanted to rob her of her hard-earned pearls. She wants the conflict over and done with quickly so she plays her highest value card, JC. The Narrator makes a draw for the thug and gets a 4 of Spades. She beats him handily and draws a card, 8D to replace her Jack.

If you win a conflict you pick up again. Advantages and flaws and difficulty are represented by additional cards being drawn and added to the first in a Blackjack fashion. If you have an underlined trait then you can play a SECOND card to bolster the first. If the area is covered by a flaw then the opposition gains an additional card draw.

Example: Turi is fighting again, this time 10 metres underwater, against a Reef Eel, a large and voracious predator. Normally this would give the Narrator the opportunity to draw TWO cards against her one. But she’s a Shell Diver and has that trait underlined so it cancels out the additional draw. She plays her 8D and the Narrator draws from the deck for the Eel. 9H! Ouch. She’s hurt but not down and doesn’t get to draw another card. The Narrator will now decide if the Eel attacks again or retires back to it’s hiding hole. If it attacks again, she only has 4 cards in her hand with which to defend herself.

For one-to-many conflicts: everyone plays their single card. And work out the conflict as normal. Most people and animals will be incapacitated or removed from the conflict with a single loss. Some non-players may rival the Player Characters in their ability to resist incapacitation by having an effective hand of 2, 3, 4 or more!

Example: Turi and her friend Tobin have confronted a hooded stranger who has just dropped something into the village well. All three make their plays. Juri plays a 7D, Tobin a QH. The Narrator draws for the stranger and gets a 9S. Turi is hurt and as she has not rested is down to 3 cards! But Tobin gets a good decisive strike and elects to have staggered the stranger. The Narrator has decided that the Stranger has an effective hand of 3 which means to be incapacitated, he needs to be defeated three times in conflict. Our heroes attack again: Turi plays an 8H and Tobin a 7C. The stranger draws….a 4C! This means he takes two hits, one from each, which brings him down to 0. He falls to the ground…

Story Points:
Everyone starts with one and these can be used to
retcon a narrative scene just played
change the outcome of any single conflict (any single play of cards)
change an item of background to fit
heal one Serious Wound instantly/quickly/turn it into a flesh wound that can be ignored.

Combat and being hurt.
Combat is the same as any other play. Being hurt – every time you lose a conflict you do not pick up a fresh card until you have had time to recuperate. In essence, lose conflicts five times and you’re effectively incapacitated. NB: Your Hand represents how you cope with fatigue, setbacks, defeat and anything that tests your determination and willpower.

Wounds are represented differently. Anything less than a serious wound is dealt with using the Hand reduction described above. If, however a combat ends where the winning card was a face card (and the winner gets to describe the effect) the winning result was more than 10 points higher than the losing result then the loser ends up with a Serious Wound. Serious Wounds are like normal hand reductions but they have a longer lasting impact on the character as hand reductions are made back using sleep or recuperation. Serious wounds can only be removed by proper medical attention (which to all intents and purposes does not exist). A Serious Wound therefore is a potentially permanent and possibly fatal addition to a character.

Until healed, each Serious Wound represents a Hand reduction of 1 for every activity.

Optional Rules:

Soaking Wounds

It’s possible to “soak” a wound by using Traits or Drive. Using a Trait means making a blind play against another blind draw by the Narrator. If the player wins the draw, then they may explain away the wound. If they lose they take a SECOND wound.
e.g. Ferren has a Drive which describes his hatred of the Saruch Ascendancy, a cult responsible for the death of his father. During a duel, he finds out that his enemy is a member of the Saruchs and when wounded he attempts to soak – rationalising that his drive to defeat the Saruchs gives him strength in battle. He will either ignore the wound or gain a second wound…but it may be worth the gamble.

If a Serious Wound is not bound then every week that passes the character received another Serious Wound. After the character has received three serious wounds, he or she is dead. If a serious wound is bound then in most cases the player can erase the Serious Wound after one month of play. (and it takes two months to remove two serious wounds).

If a character has three serious wounds and then elects to Recuperate rather than Die, then the character may survive but the player must describe how the wounds have permanently affected the character.

CONTROL: How to run the game. Part 1.

Starting the Game
This game has the rather traditional role of GameMaster assigned to one player, usually “C”.

The player will be provided with missions in one of two ways.

TOP-DOWN
Requests which come from GOVERNMENT and are passed to CONTROL via “C”. These will be in the form of mission dossiers. These can be pre-prepared dossiers or a verbal briefing, CONTROL will begin to plan their activity, allocate their Agents and Assets and arrange timing.

BOTTOM-UP
Incidents caused by ENEMY and after information-gathering, CONTROL must present their findings to “C”. CONTROL must decide the appropriate response whether that be “No Further Action” or whether there is a need for a mission response.

CONTROL

There should be one member of CONTROL for each player in the game. One Player Character will be assigned the role of “C” and in control of a large percentage of the background of the game, two will be assigned the roles of “DC” (Deputy Chiefs) and the remainder will be “D” (Directors). At the start of the game, all that is needed for each member of CONTROL are three facts:

The characters name
The characters previous job
The name of the person in Government who helped them get the job.

As the game continues, members of CONTROL need to keep records of the Agents and Assets on their books. They can do this using the Agent Profile sheets and the Assets Roster sheet.

Previous Job suggestions: Diplomatic Attache; Ministry of Defence; Senior Agent (5, 6); Major or higher, Army Intelligence Corps; Commander or higher, Naval Intelligence; RAF Operations Support (Intelligence) personnel.

AGENTS

Agents are both vital and expendable. They represent years of experience and training, a temperament

Agent Generation

TRAITS
You create a character description consisting of up to 10 facts (maybe related to Quirks, Drive, Flaws) and underline 5 of them. These 5 things are your most descriptive traits which may be objects, skills, contacts, background items and can, in theory, be called into play at any time. If the timing seems inappropriate, the Narrator may require the sacrifice of a Story Point or a card of a significant value from the hand. This really only needs to be one paragraph.

Agents are required to describe TWO of the following in their underlined traits:
Tradecraft – cryptography, surveillance, interrogation, concealment, espionage skills
Military Science – demolitions, tactics, morale, technology, command, control
Combat skills – use of weapons, unarmed combat, sniper

DRIVE
Choose one more to be your Drive – the most fundamental ambition for your character. This is commonly related to the reason why the character is working as an Agent.

FLAW
Choose one flaw. This can be physical, mental, spiritual or emotional. It may be how the character perceives the world or how the world perceives the character.

The description of an Agent need not describe their age, origin or birthplace. It should provide a physical description and a brief of their abilities and experience.

ASSETS

Assets are characters who have little or no access to Classified information and a low security clearance. They may be highly skilled or highly experienced in their fields, but they are commonly ignorant of the intelligence community.
specialists (scientists, pilots, assassins)
bodies (drivers, henchmen)

To create an Asset, three facts are needed.
The Assets name
The Assets reason for being used: skills, contacts, position, background
The Assets personal reason for working with the Agents

SYSTEM

The system I’m using at the moment is SixSimple (derived from the GameSystem designed for SeaFarers). The system will be posted in a couple of days.