WisCon: Geekiness and ‘Productivity’

Squeevolution!In May, I again got to go to WisCon, one of my favorite cons. The con was overall great: thought-provoking, energizing, validating, and just generally fun. Plus, I got to see a bunch of people I otherwise don’t get to see.

I got to be on a bunch of different panels. Most were also pretty great. One of my favorites, and apparently also the most popular one, almost requires a write-up.

Geekiness And ‘Productivity’

Capitalism tells us that we are only worthwhile when we produce or when we consume. As a result, many of us end up justifying everything we do, whether for work or pleasure, in terms of “productivity”: “I’m useful to society because I make widgets.” “My crafting/stargazing/gaming/reading/writing make me work better and consume more.” “That person is a better geek than me because they spend more money on their hobbies.” These kinds of framing buy into and reinforce capitalism. Are there ways of framing geeky pursuits that don’t buy into a capitalist framework? Are there ways of justifying our geeky pursuits that don’t commodify them? Are there ways to avoid needing to justify our geeky sides at all?

It turned out to be by turns thought-provoking, entertaining, and helpful.

An audience member did a really nice panel write-up over on Dreamwidth. Go check it out — they documented it quite thoroughly. There was also some good discussion and note-taking over in the Twitter-verse.

One major insight the panel brought me was how often work done by women gets considered insubstantial, and therefore not worth money, and therefore worthless. This includes things like emotional labor, and editing, and the creation of art that is ‘only’ emotive, and much more. So not only is measuring our worth in terms of ‘productivity’ implicitly buying into the capitalist machine, it’s also inherently sexist.

We also tried to give some practical advice. One of my fellow panelists discussed setting work limits for oneself. Not minimums, but maximums. A good idea, I think, for a whole bunch of reasons. I suggested, as I am wont to, that we practice compersion for other people’s interests, rather than feeling like our geekiness is somehow threatened by someone else enjoying the same thing; that we not feel guilty for ‘only’ reading RPGs; that, for those of us who are gamers, we commit to games that take exactly as much time as they should; and that we all demand our geeky fun, of and for itself, without having to justify it in terms of how ‘productive’ it makes us, among other things.

Perhaps the biggest insight for me was something one of my fellow panelists said: that we should practice viewing our hobbies, not in terms of ‘productivity’ (or alpha-geekiness, or wealth-generating possibilities, etc.), but in terms of fulfillment. Do your geeky interests give you a sense of fulfillment? Not “Do they generate income”, “Do they produce sufficient widgets for society”, or “Do you perform a geeky function no one else could possibly do”, but “Do they help you feel fulfilled?” It was a very good angle on the question that I hadn’t thought of in quite that way before.

All in all, a great panel to have been at, and to have been on.

Getting the band back together

Instruments on stageLast month, I got the chance to game with what I still consider my weekly group. Most of the time, I’m approximately 12 time zones away from them while they’re gaming. This makes it very difficult to join in to the weekly gaming sessions. Yet I still consider myself part of the group, and they welcomed me back. Getting this rare chance to game with them again was like a breath of very comfortable air. The same goofy banter, the same great roleplaying, the same joy of knowing you’re gaming with people who are on the same wavelength. It was great, and now that I’m far away from them again, I miss that gaming a lot.

Luckily, my other group, the ongoing Blade & Crown campaign, has continued via videochat. If we couldn’t do that, I would be suffering a real dearth of gaming.

A good gaming group is a precious thing. I’ve often seen the mantra “No gaming is worse than bad gaming”, and I agree with some of the ideas behind it. If people in your group are actually being abusive, that is definitely something to extricate yourself from. But I totally understand the desire to stay with a group, any group, if you’ve been deprived too long. Building a group you can at least marginally tolerate is hard enough; finding a group where you and the other players click, have compatible politics, similar taste in games, workable schedules, can talk through problems as reasonable adults, agree on the right amount of Monty Python references, etc. etc. — that is a truly rare thing. So I well understand the desire to want to preserve gaming groups, come hell or high water. It’s important to not just say “this isn’t working out” the first moment things are less than ideal. If it’s outright bad, that’s a different story; but it’s also important to work through problems when possible, and to try to turn not-so-great gaming into better gaming. And then, when you find — or work together to create — a group of people you really click with, it’s worth working to preserve that.

Faster games are not necessarily better

Squeevolution!There’s this persistent notion that goes around that games that play faster are better. Games that require a long time commitment, the argument seems to go, are wastes of time. If you spend more than a few moments on things like character generation or mechanics, then the game isn’t worth playing. Only games that get you into the action immediately, or generate drama instantly, are worthwhile.

Now, I play a lot of games that try to get players into the action as soon as possible. I continue to have a lot of fun with Microscope, Fiasco, The Quiet Year and other games that are very much about ‘story now, story first’. And of course I consider it something of a rule that games at cons should have players making meaningful decisions as soon as possible.

However, all of that is not my only preference. I also like games that, well, take a bit of a time commitment. I still have very fond memories of all my multi-year campaigns, and I continue to thoroughly enjoy my ongoing Blade & Crown campaign. (Going on half a decade now, I think). Games with all manner of time commitments can be fun, from Spot It (which you can learn and play a complete game of within five minutes), to Chivalry & Sorcery (which I still haven’t gotten the hang of). And dumping on long-form games for taking too long is just as bad as dumping on indie games for being too ‘touchy feely’ or dumping on D&D for being too [whatever we’re dumping on D&D for now]. There should be space in gaming for all kinds of games, with all kinds of time requirements, for all kinds of players and preferences.

I specifically want to analyze some of the threads in the ‘faster=always better’ narrative, because I think it’s a very insidious narrative and one that has a bunch of really problematic assumptions behind it.

First, I think a lot of this criticism is really just people dumping on D&D or Pathfinder without wanting to name names. Those two giants are open to some criticism, it’s sure; I’ve seen way too many tables where the D&D or Pathfinder players were doing nothing but poking through books to find obscure rules. But even there, a) some people like that style of play — more power to ’em! — and b) it’s not fair to paint all traditional games with that broad brush. (Blade & Crown, I will point out, is a traditional, gritty, ‘realistic’ game that manages to not require much rules consultation at all during play, largely because of its highly unified mechanics. And B&C is far from the only game to accomplish this.) If you dislike traditional games because D&D takes too long for you… well, that might be a legit criticism of D&D, but it isn’t necessarily a good criticism of traditional games as a whole.

Also, I think a lot of the ‘play quicker!’ narratives are really just people finding ways to propagate old arguments about the inferiority of games that aren’t ‘narrativist’. (Of course, a game can be simulationist, gamist and narrativist at the same time, and people’s preferences can be all those things or none at different times; but for a lot of people, there’s only one right piece of that triad.) A lot of people seem to argue that a game where it takes longer to resolve an action than to complete that action in real life is insufficiently fast-paced. Well, of course that can be true for a lot of people’s personal aesthetics; but like a lot of arguments in RPG circles, this one too quickly gets put in terms of absolutes. Too quickly, it seems like the argument jumps to “detailed simulation and intricate mechanics are always wastes of time”.

Another huge problem with ‘play quicker!’ arguments is that they feed into about a million interrelated problems inherent in capitalism. For one thing, there’s the way that capitalism (as it is now) forces us to constantly compress our leisure time into smaller and smaller boxes. We must always be finding ways to produce more, and to ‘goof off’ less. If we’re not on call, or preparing for work, or doing unpaid work, or doing a ‘working retirement’ or multitasking or doing overtime or whatever else, we’re not doing our part as cogs in the machine. We therefore have to constantly strive for ways to ‘work harder and play harder’ — that is, get maximum entertainment value out of our ever-diminishing leisure time. It sometimes seems like we’re working toward a future where we get 13 seconds of relaxation a week, and if we haven’t swum to the Moon and back in that time then we haven’t had fun hard enough.

A closely related problem is the way that capitalism forces us to justify everything in terms of ‘productivity’. We need to squeeze our leisure time into smaller timescales because that allows us to ‘produce’ more the rest of the time; and we need to justify the very existence of our leisure time by stating how much more productive it makes us, or by forcing games to become a form of work. One example: Someone creates mods for games in the hope that they’ll get picked up by a AAA publisher, and justifies their modding by the fact that it might eventually get them a job. Another example: When someone justifies playing games as a way to make themselves more creative and therefore a better worker. All as if ‘productivity’ is the most important thing about us — as if we owe our existence to the machine, and not the other way around.

It’s definitely true that not everyone has oodles of time to devote to gaming. But I don’t think that’s a good thing. It would be nice if more of us could stand up for leisure time — not just as a way to make us more productive workers, but because we deserve it as human beings. By pushing so hard for games that produce maximum fun in minimum time (rather than allowing for things like languorous storytelling, depth of development, etc.), it often feels to me like we’re tacitly accepting the constant crushing pressure on our freetime. Instead of doing that, I think it would be nice if we could push back and assert that we want to have time to enjoy ourselves, just because. (The unions brought us the two-day weekend, etc.)

There are other problems with constantly pushing for faster, simpler, more intense gaming experiences, from the arms race/constant push for a bigger high aspect, to the misogynist memes (“math is hard!”) that it sometimes buys into. But this post has already probably wasted enough of your time. I’ll just sum up by saying: Enjoy whatever kinds of games you enjoy, of whatever time commitment, and try to resist oppressive tendencies to mold your enjoyment into consumption/production-acceptable units of time.

Bundle of Holding: Jovian Chronicles

If I ran an SF RPG these days, it’s very likely I would use the Silhouette rules to do it. The rules were pretty influential on Blade & Crown. I really like the “roll multiple D6, keep the highest, get a bonus for each additional 6, all 1s equals a fumble” — the resemblance to B&C is pretty obvious. I was already experimenting with something similar for B&C when I found Jovian Chronicles, and I like D10s better than D6s for this sort of thing — D6s tend to feel too grainy for me, with not enough distance between success and failure — but otherwise, it’s a very nice system.

A blurry photo of Jupiter, by meAnd the main game setting that goes with the rules (preceded them, actually), Jovian Chronicles, is pretty amazing. (I think Jovian Chronicles came before the Silhouette Core rules, actually. Still, I tend to think of the rules before the setting.) Jovian Chronicles is pretty hard SF, set in a future Solar System with no FTL. There are mecha, which makes about as much sense as it ever does; but it’s all very well designed. I can imagine running a game where the PCs are agents of one or another solar system power, or maybe working for an NGO. There are, of course, lots of things I would tweak. I might even need to come up with my own SF setting from scratch. But Jovian Chronicles is very inspiring. It’s a lot of fun to read, and there’s a ton of worldbuilding in there. Also, the amount of detail suggests a wealth of gaming possibilities, well into the “every page of setting gives at least one idea for an adventure, maybe for a whole campaign” range, I’d say.

Interestingly, and I never noticed this before now, Jovian Chronicles is also an alternate future. Its chronology has solar power satellites beginning in the late 90s and fusion power becoming practical in the early 2000s. By the time the game was published, its timeline had already diverged from that of the real world. It’s also a future that sidesteps a lot of the potential future-history singularities we’re facing: corporate artificial intelligence putting all humans out of work; post-scarcity economics; etc. Like a lot of other futures, it’s one crafted to makes sense to people living in the present.

The Bundle of Holding (which Blade & Crown was once featured in) is currently running a Jovian Chronicles bundle where you can get basically the entire game, with all the supplements, for a pretty affordable price. Well worth getting if you can swing that kind of change.

High-powered fighting styles?

Swords stuck into the groundI included Fighting Styles in the rules because it seemed like a neat mechanic, and a nice way to get those kind of “I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro” and “Aha, I see you studied with Heren of Lestul; Heren was always one of my poorest students”-kinds of moments. But in my experience, players don’t often seem to choose Fighting Styles for characters. This might be lack of me emphasizing their existence at character generation, or it might be insufficient clarity about how Fighting Styles work. It might also be that Fighting Styles don’t have enough mechanical benefit. I’m not sure.

Here’s an idea to make Fighting Styles have more mechanical effect, though: Instead of just giving a single unified positive modifier, make Fighting Styles give a modifier equal to their level. So, in other words, skill 2 would equal a +2 modifier. Skill level 4 would give a +4 modifier.

This could potentially be overpowering, though; who cares what your stance is when you can get a constant +4? And that kind of lacks flavor. So I think that, with these higher-powered Fighting Styles, there should still be some limits on how those modifiers get used. How about set splits between offensive and defensive, per Style? So, say, Sirikanian Sword and Shield might be more defensive, while Rhodian Fencing is more offensive. This could require extensively detailing how the modifiers must be split on a per-skill level basis, but an easier way to do it could be just specifying broad categories:

  • Must be split
  • More offensive
  • More defensive

“More” here means that the modifier has to be split with a greater portion on that side. Thus, if we say that Sirikanian Sword and Shield is more defensive, then someone who knows it to skill level 4 would have to split the modifier either as +3 defense/+1 offense or +4 defense/+0 offense. I think this would also have to indicate that an exactly even split could be allowed, though, or people with skill 2 in Sirikanian Sword and Shield, for example, would always have to go +2 defense/+0 offense because that’s the only way to split the modifier with more on the defensive side. As always, this should be about increasing interesting choices, so split modifiers should still leave the player with meaningful, fun choices to make.

Would this cause fighting styles to become overpowered? How would it mesh with stances? Playtesting may be required.

Goodbye, Ursula

Ursula K. Le Guin recently passed away. Lots of people have mentioned how she touched their lives with her prose fiction, her advice, her politics, and many other things. Like so many others, I’m saddened at her death, but glad that she got to do so much good in her time. And like so many others, I want to share a couple ways she touched me.

A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the biggest influences on my aesthetic preferences for fantasy. I think I read a lot of other fantasy fiction before I encountered it, but when I finally did, something clicked. That stark but flavorful style is pretty much exactly what I like in fantasy, both when I read it and when I create it. “Mysterious, powerful and rare” describes much of the magic systems she created there; and no wonder (cause, or effect?), that’s also how I like magic in RPGs to be. I’ve always wanted to create a name-based magic system for a game, perhaps B&C, but never gotten around to it. That desire comes directly from reading A Wizard of Earthsea. If I’ve been lucky, some of the aesthetics of Earthsea have rubbed off on B&C.

Book cover of Always Coming Home, the edition I readMaybe an even bigger influence on me, though, is Always Coming Home. Not enough people know about this book. It’s always a pleasure when I meet someone who likes it. Always Coming Home is a great, deeply flavorful mix of fiction and fictional nonfiction. Recipes, songs, myths… I think it was the first time I’d ever seen plot and thoroughgoing exposition mixed so evenly, and so well. I’d seen the genre before, but I think it was one of the first examples that reveled in being fictional nonfiction. Always Coming Home gives the worldbuilding-sans-plot equal footing with the plot; really, in some ways, the worldbuilding is the focus, not the plot. That was kind of mind-blowing to experience. And of course the worldbuilding itself is lovely, with a very lived-in feel, yet also great amounts of wonder. Like my other favorite books, Always Coming Home inspired a lot of ideas to percolate.

Goodbye, Ursula. You will definitely be missed.

Telling and retelling

Speech bubble sticky notesMy ongoing Blade & Crown campaign is in the process of integrating a new player or two. This is a game that has a pretty extensive history; as I’ve mentioned before, my campaign notes run something like a hundred single-spaced, tersely-worded pages at this point. As a result, bringing new players up to speed can take a while. Heck, even keeping the long-time players (and, *ahem*, the GM) up to speed can be a bit of a task. As a result, we’ve evolved a bunch of different ways of reminding each other what’s gone on before.

  • Various handouts and maps and whatnot. These aren’t really telling or retelling, but maybe they’re the written equivalent? And they are what many of the oral retellings are based on.
  • Recaps at the beginning of every session. I try to keep pretty detailed notes as play continues, but I feel like having the GM tell everyone what happened last time lacks something in flavor. And more importantly, it’s fun to have a specific player do it, because it often has more of a personal flair. Plus, I think this makes the other players more willing to put in their own perspective on events, which inevitably adds something that everyone else had forgotten. So at the beginning of every session, someone (or sometimes more than one person) recaps what happened last time. I always give this player an extra XP; it’s definitely an activity that contributes to the quality of play, and worthy of reward.
  • Occasional in-character recaps. Every so often, when it makes narrative sense, I’ll have an NPC ask a PC to explain an event in the group’s history. That gives everyone an excuse to retell tales, from their PCs’ perspective, which can be pretty fun. It’s interesting to hear what details they remember (again, almost always including great details I’d forgotten), and how they spin it.
  • Occasional GM-prompted out-of-character recaps. Every so often, some person or event from the past will come back into the story, and inevitably, the players and I won’t remember all the salient details. It can sometimes be useful to just ask the players, outright, “So, what do you remember about Faenwitha?” or whatever. This again helps to de-center the GM (a nice pedagogical trick — don’t always make the players listen to the GM), and jogs the players’ memory more actively.
  • Also occasional player-prompted out-of-character recaps. Pretty often, this will happen when the group is making a big decision: Do we go east, toward the marauding bandits, or do we go south, to possible direct confrontation with the Big Bad? Someone will say “Don’t forget, if we go south, I can finally pick up that armor I paid for weeks ago”, or “If we go east, remember to steer clear of that haunted lighthouse — remember what happened there?” In some ways, this is the best kind of reminder, because it’s fully player-prompted.
  • The PCs in this campaign are a group of performers & actors, so that also creates wonderful opportunities for retelling stories within the broader story. The players have occasionally put on stage plays within the game, sometimes subtly retelling events in the game, sometimes reworking classic myths, always helping immersion for themselves. (And occasionally even a play to catch the conscience of the king, which I should post about sometime.)

If this list doesn’t make it obvious, I try to avoid straight-up infodumps when I can. I tend to find the GM lecturing the players dulls play pretty quickly. From my experience as both a player and a GM, the longer a GM lecture goes on, the lower player interest goes. I guess I have a pretty strong natural aversion to GM-centricness and railroadiness, so I tend to want the players to be the focus. Ideally, the players should be the ones moving the plot forward and, when necessary, hitting rewind to remind themselves where the plot has already been. Sharing narrative power (whether in creating new stories, or sharing old ones) is a good way to keep everyone equally invested.

What kinds of retelling do you use to remind each other of what’s gone on before? How do you keep it from turning into boring lectures?

Five years

Birthday cakeThis blog is now five years old. I’ve clearly been posting less frequently over the past year or so, due to busy-ness, but still, keeping it going.

And Blade & Crown is five years old, too. (Five years since I published it, of course; the writing of it would add almost that length of time again, I think.) It’s never been a giant-killer of a game, but it’s had its little successes, which I’m proud of.

Hopefully I’ll be able to keep the blog going for another five years. The game, of course, lives on so long as anyone, anywhere is enjoying it in some form, whether reading, playing or otherwise. Thanks to everyone who’s given me support for the blog, the game, or both over the years.

How do you add flavor to an Awareness roll?

A person's eye, with another person reflected withinOne common problem for B&C players is how to use the Variation Die when they’re rolling for Awareness. You don’t know what you’ve noticed yet, if anything, so how can you narrate the way you’re trying to notice things?

  1. My eyes narrow and I stare intently ahead.
  2. I still my inner thoughts and concentrate on what is happening outside myself.
  3. I appear not to be paying any attention, but actually I’m noticing subtle details.
  4. My eyes dart to and fro, quickly taking in the scene.
  5. I stare, unblinking, for fully half a minute.
  6. I remember the last time I was here and notice each detail that has changed.
  7. I go silent for a few moments as I try to put two and two together.
  8. I take a few deep breaths and smell the air as I do.
  9. I listen to the ambient noise, both loud and quiet.
  10. I tune into the deeper rhythms of what is going on around me.
  11. My ears perk up like those of a fox as I listen.
  12. I’m not paying attention; I’m relying purely on serendipity.

Hopefully those will give some inspiration.