See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!

The User’s Guide

While browsing about for Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine resources, I happened upon A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse, a fan supplement of uncommon size and depth.

It is extraordinary.

I haven’t finished reading the thing, but even from partial experience, the layers of meaning in the project boggle the mind. User’s Guide* can, to scratch the surface, be read as:

  • A playable alternative campaign setting for Chuubo’s
  • A reflection on life and relationships while dealing with abuse or the lingering trauma thereof
  • A love letter to/eulogy for a now unraveled online community
  • A codex of or guide to Replay Value, a Homestuck alternate universe
  • Speculative fiction of the cautionary tale variety, exploring the potentially disastrous nexus of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification
  • An existentialist parable, grappling with the search for meaning in a universe where, given sufficient time, all things are futile
  • A deconstruction of video game tropes, particularly those belonging to the MMORPG genre
  • An examination of digital addictions to games and discussion fora
  • A sociological commentary on the communities that come and go across the Internet

The author herself lays out the first few I listed; the rest unfold in emergent fashion from the work. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I still had a foot in the educational sphere, to teach this text or write a thesis on it!

Prior to discovering User’s Guide, I hadn’t quite understood alternate universe fandoms, or AUs. The idea of an alternate universe for a fictional setting was straightforward enough, but e.g. Undertale with its Underfell, Reapertale, Flowertale, etc., etc., each with their own fan art and other assorted media, mystified me. User’s Guide, though, made it click. When a fandom grows large enough, like-minded individuals within it gather into sub-fandoms, and one way such a group can coalesce is around a particular AU. The AU itself—whether via the ongoing efforts of a central author, or the roleplay and works of its fandom, or both—takes on a life of its own. It brings back a sense of belonging to those longtime fans of the parent work who feel crowded out by its becoming too popular or mainstream. And it revitalizes fannish activity when the depths of the parent canon might otherwise seem tapped out.

Now I’m in the curious position of becoming a fan of a specific AU’s commemorative project, without any familiarity in the parent work. I know Chuubo’s, of course, but I’ve never made it further than a couple of pages into Homestuck. I’ll take a look again, but it may be that’s how it stays! If that’s how it goes, all the more credit to User’s Guide author Elaine “OJ” Wang for managing to so mesmerize someone who doesn’t even get Homestuck.


* The author tends to refer to the work as “RV Chuubo’s,” but I find that a bit cumbersome for casual use. Not least because it suggests a Chuubo’s campaign involving road trips with really bad gas mileage.

Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.


* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.

Might as Well be a Drug

A while back, I wrote about how the relative ease with which I traversed the education system led to a lifelong habit of procrastination. Suffice to say, the bad habit’s not yet kicked.

It’s not a terminal condition, to put it crudely. I have a job, and I get things done. But every minute I spend wandering YouTube or TV Tropes is a minute of a finite life pissed away. And while I’m not likely to go to the extreme of never indulging in these largely useless pastimes, the balance in my day is pretty badly skewed at present. It’s too much, and often at inappropriate times when I’m clearly putting off more important matters. Something’s gotta change, and that something is me.

Cue Zen Habits, a book whose Kickstarter I chipped in on last year and which has provided me with a great framework for bumping up my sporadic writing to a daily practice. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation of new good habits, but there is a chapter and an accompanying worksheet for helping quit a bad habit. So I’m putting that to use, in similar fashion to how I used public accountability, a Zen Habits tip, to goad myself into finishing last year’s NaNoWriMo. (Maybe I can come up with a similar stinger of a punishment for failure, eh?)

The goal starts this Saturday, Feb 22, with a super-easy target: 25 minutes a day of effort in which I indulge no digital distractions. Succeed with that, and I’ll add on another 25, and another 25, and so on until I have my work day full of wall-to-wall productivity. I’ve sketched out a whole plan beyond that according to the above worksheet, but that I’m sharing only with my accountability compadres on Habitica. For you folks in the blogosphere, I will instead post updates to Twitter.

Wish me luck and keep me honest!

We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.


1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.


* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here

 

Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.