Seven Reasons You Should Never Play Monopoly

I started work on a post about why Monopoly is a goddamn warcrime of game design, but Matt Forbeck beat me to the punch yesterday. Here’s the thing though: Matt Forbeck is a really nice guy who never has a bad word to say about anything. That Monopoly got Matt to be critical is a testament to how godawful it truly is.

I am not a nice guy. I am a critic, and it is my job – nay, my sacred duty – to be to the game craft what the allosaurus is to slow-witted toddlers.

But I am not unfair. Let’s give Monopoly a running start before we take it down.

Mr J points out that Monopoly isn’t that bad, and it’s true, there do exist worse games. If you go into it with your eyes open, Monopoly can pass the time less painfully than being eaten by a bear. At the same time, the game industry and hobby and craft owes a lot to Monopoly. It is the very giant on whose shoulders all of us are standing. Aside from The Game of Goose, Monopoly is the longest-standing oldest and still-published board game ever, and Goose cheats by being a non-licensed game that was eventually taken over by a company (like if Parker Brothers decided they owned Poker one day). Monopoly put board games in every person’s house and with the kind of cultural imprint that even Poker or Bridge have trouble matching. During WW2, Monopoly sets were sent to British POWs in German camps, containing secret information from the British forces. Nobody has shoes with handles that big on them any more but we remember them because of Monopoly. The Gleaming Terrier of Finance being run over by the race car is a joke of esteemed cultural heritage (I also like Jasper Fforde’s character called Landen Park-Laine). There are wild chimpanzees who cannot use tools but know what happens when you win second prize in a beauty contest.

Monopoly is also important because everyone knows the rules (sort of) and it appeals to children because they get to handle money. Kids love to play grown up, and until someone makes a great, mass-market kid’s game about being a Banker and Investor with lots of cool cash, the let’s-pretend factor of Monopoly cannot be ignored any more than you can ignore that climbing frames are cooler when you shape them like a pirate ship or rocket.

And now, with that out of the way, we can turn to Monopoly’s various sins. Now, of course, every time you bring up Monopoly, some asshole says “oh, it’s not so bad if you play by the real rules”. This is a GODDAMN LIE. It’s one of those situations where people are so keen to point out a correction of information they forget any concept of knowledge. I know the real rules, I play by the real rules and although the house rules make it worse, the real rules are still the goddamn crime. Respect me enough as a critic to realize I’m not a fucking idiot.

1. The Snowball Effect

This is the one Mr Forbeck mentions, and it’s the most common and obvious complaint. The person in the lead has both more power and more options to further that power, meaning their lead only increases. It is perhaps the most egregious snowball effect ever, though, because the losers don’t just lose their ability to win they lose their ability to participate in the game. The less money you have, the less property you can buy. Soon enough you exist solely to prove the winner is winning in much the same way as a pinata or a poker machine. You spend four hours as a game mechanic, spitting out coins to prove a point.

The popularity of the Free Parking rule proves how obvious this problem is, because everyone tries to fix it. Many of the house rules, including the ones now officially being added, do the same ($500 for rolling snake-eyes, more money for passing Go). Of course, it just makes a bad game take longer. Which brings us to:

2. The Length

Every game of Monopoly now says on the box “now with shorter play time”. Basically, there are different types of rules that declare the game won after a certain time or a certain victory point is reached. Again, the desperation with which this rule has been added proves how badly it was needed. Your average game of Monopoly takes about four hours, minimum, plus an hour for each player beyond four. That’s not conducive to fun family play. You can play two hundred games of Hungry Hungry Hippos in the same time, and have more control over the outcome and more fun, and you can stop anywhere between with a sense of satisfaction. I’m not saying all long games are bad, I’m saying that length needs to be balanced by strong involvement throughout, no snowballs and a depth of mechanics to make the time expenditure worthwhile.

3. The Knockout

Knockout games are kind of the ultimate snowball. Bit by bit, players are reduced in their agency to the point of totality: they are out of the game entirely. They cannot engage with the experience, which means they no longer really care who wins. For the remaining three hours or so once they are knocked out, they can do nothing. They can’t get back into the game. They can’t start another. They wander off. The remaining players have a game that feels less social and more of an imposition on those twiddling their thumbs. Every turn you take after the first knockout is an exercise in being rude. And it doesn’t feel like you’re beating the other people any more, because you’re not even playing with them.

Again, not all knockout mechanics are bad (Bang! is a modern example that’s not awful) but it’s a dangerous mechanic with a huge potential to be unfun, when combined with other factors, such as:

4. Cruel, Unavoidable Randomness

Monopoly is, for the most part, as random as a game of snakes and ladders. Technically, there are ways to control the randomness. You are in effect trying to spend the least amount of money to make the longest and most frequently visited traps on the board. Like in Settlers of Catan, there are ways to attack the most likely outcomes, and people compete for them, which is fine. But then there are random dice rolls which power you up or harm you immensely. The Income Tax spaces which suck away a lot of cash. The Go To Jail spot/card event, while excellent in the late game since it is free rent, is enormously punishing in the early game where property must be bought as quickly as possible. The cards are scattershot attacks and boons that can’t be shored up against. And if you randomly roll a double, you get extra turns, which is not just more winning power but more game engagement. Which means basically, Monopoly IS Hungry Hungry Hippos: you’re jamming down the lever and praying randomness helps you land on the ladders instead of the snakes before the others.

5. The Puzzle

And make no mistake, there are clearly defined snakes and ladders here. The absolute best properties, by a mile, are the orange ones, because they are six, eight and nine spaces from jail. Red is a close second. The two lowest and two highest are not worth getting because of their small catchment areas, and the stations and utilities are a trap. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a game being a puzzle, with certain strategies offering more return than others, and said strategies emerging through continued game play. As a game for kids, particularly, emergent high strategies are a great idea as it helps kids learn and learn how to learn. But once you’ve spotted these high points, the entire game defaults to a race to grab those high points, a race which is full of random setbacks. And a race that you can stop anyone else from winning by being a spoilsport because of:

6. Chokepoint Blocking Negotiation

It doesn’t matter one bit in Settlers of Catan if everybody is feeling anti-social and refuses to trade. Resources will still come in. It doesn’t matter if everyone refuses to deal with everyone in Diplomacy, the battle moves will still happen. Monopoly doesn’t work that way. The game hovers at a gigantic chokepoint in that until you get a set of properties there’s not much you can really do. Stopping anyone from getting past that chokepoint is always in your interest, even if it is also stopping you. The winning negotiation strategy therefore is about a crushing game of brinkmanship, of making the game so dull and lifeless that eventually your opponents will becomes so bored with nobody moving forward they agree to make a trade that gives you a primary value set and them a lower value set (or worse, just closer to a set). The auction rule most people aren’t aware of makes breaking this lock a little more open, but only to those who have already had better luck, of course.

In essence the strategy of the game is risk management and brinkmanship: it might be worth say, getting yellow and red and purple in return for giving away orange, and the poorer everyone gets the more knife-edge that choice becomes. That is an interesting choice. But there is still nothing that will ever force anyone to make that choice. Players playing to win are generally better of not negotiating, which means – and this is the biggy – activities that help you win go against activities that make the game more enjoyable for you and everyone else.

7. Hating Monopoly Is The Whole Damn Point

Elizabeth Magie designed Monopoly’s first draft, The Landlord’s Game, to make a real-life political/economic point, which was that monopolies destroy competition, crush business and send everyone to the poor house except one person. The fact that is a long, slow, un-fun descent into abject poverty that nobody enjoys because one jerk can set prices so high he bankrupts everyone else is a scathing attack on 20th century finance, particularly in the United States, and it was a hundred years before its time. You could say that if you don’t mind playing the game, then Magie has failed at her goals but I think most people really don’t like Monopoly, they only play it because it is there, and they just don’t know how better things can get. They don’t realize that scattershot randomness and having to wait your turn and playing for four hours and boring themes and crappy little wooden houses and knockout mechanics and blocking negotiations and tedious mathematics are all game design dinosaurs, long since extinct in every other gene pool. Instead, because of its popularity, we make excuses for Monopoly, because everyone knows it or the kids like it, but that is actually the exact opposite of what Magie wanted.

Pointing out that Monopoly is awful is, in fact, playing it how the designer envisioned. It’s what we’re supposed to do. So not only is sticking with and apologizing for Monopoly remaining blind to a world of wonder, it’s missing the point. We should shout from the rooftops every single day about how goddamn awful Monopoly is, because that’s what it was for: to put its awfulness on show to tear down the architects of that awfulness. It’s as bad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Not at our game tables, nor from our politicians. Occupy Wall Street, and burn your little silver terrier when you get there.

I’m serious. The world – and more importantly, game design – will get a lot better if we stop pretending we can put lipstick on a pig, and make Hasbro stop producing this shit. Gamers don’t let gamers play, own or buy Monopoly. Ever.

Card Game Design Journal, Part One

I think it was Thurber who said “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.” In that spirit, most of my games start from a game I enjoy but want to tweak. In this case it is an obscure but wonderful traditional card game of Netherlander origin called Thirty One. It’s a great game that kids from eight or so can play and it works for three to nine players, so I’ll take this opportunity to pimp it and teach it to you.

First, discard the 2-6s of a regular pack of cards. Deal three cards to each player and three cards to the middle. Player to the left of the dealer looks at his current hand and chooses to keep it or discard it, taking the three in the middle. Either way the three that end up in the middle are turned face up. Then the next player may take one of the cards on offer in exchange for one of theirs or pass and not trade again. Players are trying to build sets in their hand of matching suit (unlike 21) but adding up the value as in 21. Ace counts as eleven, picture cards are all ten so the highest possible score is A-x-x where the xs are ten-cards, giving a score of thirty one. Players keep exchanging until one player scores 31 and declares it (showing his cards) or all players pass. Then all show their hands and the lowest hand loses a chip. Last one standing wins.

Low cards are of course more often discarded but sets of three matching face are rated as thirty-and-a-half in score. This and the hidden nature of your opponents (and what may not be in play, since not all cards are dealt out) produces an interesting situation I’ve never seen duplicated in other set-building games: your struggle to produce a good hand can end up making the cast-offs in the centre more and more powerful. Actually, that happens in the Canasta family too, but in a different way. There is a rule where if you like what’s in the middle you can exchange your entire hand for said hand, but then are passed, so everyone knows your score.

So anyway, that’s my muse: what if you had a set-building card game like Ticket to Ride but if there was something far more dramatic that happened when there were thee jokers face up. Then I thought, what if as well as building sets in your hand you were building something on the table, and you had to decide whether to make it bigger and more dangerous or improve your own hand. Add in a touch of Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and Bang! two games I find quite amusing, and then I had some vague ideas for mechanics. The nature of game design seems to be a lot of see-sawing back and forth between mechanic and theme, like music and lyrics in a song. Some times you’ll have the mechanic for years before you find a theme you like.

Then one day these ideas crashed into my obsession with Owlbears, which is kind of a weird in-joke. I just find them hilarious and stupid and an example of the wackier side of D&D and there have been a few incidents with my various gaming buddies where funny things involving owlbears have happened. Like playing a round of Articulate and given the clue “It’s a land mass surrounded by water and its named after a D&D monster” and immediately and with 100% certainty answering “OWLBEAR ISLAND”. Later we freeformed the idea of an RPG set on Owlbear Island, where everything is an owlbear, including you (not to be confused with the island in World of Warcraft where all the monsters are owlbears, but the grass and trees and skies are grass and trees and skies.) ANYWAY. You kind of had to be there. But it’s a thing. Owls and bears, stuck together. Squid panthers. Teleporting dingos. The vulture elephant. The mosquito bird. That time in D&D when we got the druid’s weasel and stacked it with spells so it was a True-Seeing Alignment-Sensing Invisible Hastened Weasel and we used it as the ultimate spy camera. We never needed drugs growing up because Gygax was on them for us.

The two ideas met. Gluing animals together like a mad D&D mage – that could be the thing in the middle. And in your hand, harvesting their bits back into your magical laboratory to make potions of giant growth and alignment sense – that would be the set-building. And so I had a concept, and we were begun….

In which my blog wanders away from gaming and writing again

“There is an inherent generosity to the human spirit, and one of its faces is the face of the teacher”

- Michael Crichton

I like to teach. In many ways I got into gaming because I liked to teach – and learn. I love learning new rules and I love explaining them to new people. I love GMing because I love explaining rules and settings and stories and genres.

If you want to put it cynically, I like feeling smart, and teaching is a great way to do that. For a variety of reasons.

For one, the teacher gets to learn. As the old saw goes, the teacher always learns more than the student. The art of taking facts in your brain and sorting them into a way to express them so you can lead someone to them and through them to understanding demands a greater synthesis and understanding of those facts than you possessed before, and seeing knowledge in another’s eyes reflects back on your own providing greater clarity and depth.¬† But perhaps the greatest thing you learn is that you can teach, that you have knowledge. Sometimes you don’t know that, until you teach it. You can understand on some academic level that you have accumulated facts and experiences and memories and grasped how things work but until you teach, you don’t realize that all of this adds up to the magic of something more than information: to the power of knowledge and the wonder of wisdom.

To teach is to comprehend the existence of something within you you did not, until that moment fully understand, and have it recognized and valued and certified instantly. Anyone can think they know something, but if you can teach it, then you cannot be doubted.

I did not know what I knew about Kickstarters. But after watching a good many gaming and RPG ones succeed – and succeed madly! – and taking part in some of that madness, not once but twice, well, three actually since we should count all crowdfunding sites, and running my own successfully to get start up funds for The MESSAGE, my movement to make gaming men make their hobby more accommodating to women … and being the kind of person who watches closely and carefully as things happen, it turns out that after all that I knew rather a lot. And I was able to teach it to someone, who has also taught it to someone else. My knowledge was not unique, but it was the only collection of that knowledge accessible to someone who needed it – an accessibility made possible by the generosity of a teacher but even more so by the curiosity of the student.

That student runs Tea Tree Oil For Good, which is one of the greatest ideas ever: a program which exists to sell products and make money which then entirely funds charities, so said charities can do their work without worrying about the income stream, and the products can get sold by people trying to make money without balancing their work with charity. Freeing up charities to be run by people who know exactly how best to spend money and income to be generated by people who know how to generate money, on a systematic level, is an absolute game changer. Tea Tree Oil has a plan not to back just one charity but a thousand in Australia alone, and then on, eventually, to other countries. Each project can change thousands of lives, and they can change other lives. Millions of ripples, going out, from me, from teacher to student to kickstarter to Tea Tree Oils operation to all the charities it funds to the lives it recreates and the new worlds it builds. A million ripples becoming a tsunami of change, but every drop in that gigantic wave connected too, through Tea Tree’s Ripple Effect project which allows, through the magic of the internet, every single person who buys just one product to see where their money goes down to an individual level. So no more worrying about greenwashing or dumping money into a great big black hole and hoping it goes somewhere.

So this is me, casting out my ripple, my introduction of knowledge, to see where it goes. The thing about ripples, though, is they go in both directions. When a ripple hits anything, even another ripple, it bounces back to its origin. What we send out comes back not just in the knowledge of the work it can do, but in reinforcing ourselves. Like I said, I discovered I knew a lot. And I plan to use that when we run a second crowdfunding campaign for the MESSAGE later this year. We also plan to link the MESSAGE into Tea Tree’s income stream, so The MESSAGE can finally travel around Australia to boost the signal, and much more. There may also be other ways I will be crossing streams with Tea Tree, for the benefit of everyone. We will see.

When there are things to buy, and ways for others to send out ripples more simply and directly, I will let you know. For the moment though, just some good news about the future, and a reminder to everyone that teaching is good for us. Even if it is just a new game, or a new setting, or a new adventure. Even if its just to make you feel smart. It is inherently generous, and it sends out ripples of ideas. And that always makes things better.

The Five Worst-Named Products in Roleplaying

Last week we looked at the five Best-Named products and as warned, now it’s time for part two. The flipside. The missteps, mistakes and wtf moments in titling over the last forty years. As always, this isn’t about the product, just the name. A rose by any other name would still have new class feats, right? Things that inherited bad names because of a pre-existing license are off the hook, too, and so are people trying to avoid last minute threats of litigation. The first one means I can’t ping Dragon Age for having very few, if any dragons. The last one means I have to be merciful to Lejendary Adventures. And yet it sickens me to even type that. Direct all bitching to the internet, it loves that stuff.

#5: The Annoying Acronym – G.U.R.P.S.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with acronyms, but like everything good, geeks love them so much it becomes creepy and wrong. As a result the RPG industry is full of unnecessary and painful acronyms and abbreviations, from companies like BTRC and ICE and LUG and TSR to games like FUDGE and FATE and ORE and CORPS and QAGS and JAGS and the poorly fudged CHIL-L (the last L didn’t stand for anything). Maybe we weren’t supposed to pronounce EABA (it sounds like someone popping a hamstring while pooping), but after GURPS could we ever be sure? GURPS became a household name which proves it doesn’t matter if you sound like a bowel movement if your content is good enough. Maybe you think I’m being unfair but the final nail in the coffin comes from the games full title: the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Generic and Universal is very redundant. No points.

(Yes I know it originally stood for “the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System”, but that’s no excuse. TORG originally stood for The Other Roleplaying Game and it sounds much less like belching, and doesn’t stand for anything.)

Acronym Runner Up: OSRIC. Because not only does it have nothing to do with minor characters in Hamlet, it also has none of the letters of Dungeons and Dragons which it is basically a rehashing of, and it takes me ten hours to remember what any of the letters mean. The 5 slot would have gone to OSRIC but it slides on the technicality of not actually being a product.

#4: The Unpronouncable – SLA Industries

We’ve done some truly horrible things to the English language and its list of characters to make game titles. The endless love affair with colons and ampersands lasted well beyond the boundaries of good taste, but then there was the pointless inanities like the little, up in the air “o” in C*ntinuum (which I can’t even write on this blog), or the lower case reversal of deadEarth or the dollar sign in Vampire$. Or the never-explained circle in Mark Rein-SPLAT-Hagen’s name. Dear game writers: stop that, it’s incredibly annoying, and it’s also bad business. I don’t want to pick up a game that I can’t read, or have trouble trying to pronounce. But there was no greater offender then the game that wanted you to pronounce things incorrectly to make it work. In no universe ever would the word SLA be pronounced “slay”. It looks like a hard A, it quacks like a hard A. At best it could be SLAW Industries, which might explain the guy with the pumpkin on his head.

Unpronounceable Runner Up: H.O.L., unless it was a deliberate parody of SLA, which is definitely plausible, forcing it to sound like a hole in the ground was just annoying. Everyone I have ever met uses the name to rhyme with “toll”. Again though, maybe that WAS the joke.

#3: The Terribly Under-Selling – Underground

Okay, so imagine the best cyberpunk setting you’ve ever seen, something that is built on the rules of political and social satire at its fundamental level, like Transmetropolitan and Judge Dredd got married and had a super-powered baby. And it poked fun at roleplaying as well, casting the PCs as in-genre murder-hobos, cybernetic superheroes built for war and now turned lose on the streets with nothing but bystanders to kill – but subtle and low-key, unlike other satires like Violence! and Power Kill. And more playable too. And clever. And sexy. And with awesome rules. Now name it Underground. I guess it’s about moles? Or alternative music?

Under-Selling Runner Up: Feng Shui. Most people get that it’s not about moving furniture. Eventually. Eeeeeventually.

#2: The Inanimate Object – The Window

Okay, maybe I’m being unfair. The Window was a system, so it didn’t have any cool ideas from a setting to use for its title. The Window was free, it didn’t have to try and sell itself. It was a metaphor about a window into drama, or narrative. Sorry, not good enough. Even if it’s just a generic system, that’s no excuse to name it after an inanimate object. Even a game engine deserves a good name. Like The Amazing Engine. That works. D20 is succinct and clear, and doesn’t make me feel like the sequels will be called Door and Wall. There was, of course, an RPG called The Ladder, but it actually had a justification for that in its dice ladder. The Window doesn’t justify itself at all, but does – ironically – make heavy use of a ladder.

Object Runner-Up: Burning Wheel. It’s just plain false advertising. There’s no fast cars, no auto-racing, and the rules offer no real guidelines for chariot duels. The Wheel is vaguely hinted at as being involved in the system, kind of like the ladder, but they don’t try very hard, and it ends up feeling like it was named by a random generator. Two more rolls and it might have been the Fisting Banana. Man, I would play that.

#1: The Oh My God Did Nobody Edit This At All Insanity – Panty Explosion

Seriously.

It has a new name now, because obviously. I know hindsight is 20-20, but you should at least squint into the future sometimes. Try and make out the blurry shapes. One of them is a train coming to punish those stupid enough to play on the tracks.

Oh My God Runner Up: there is a supplement for Silver Age Sentinels called Country Matters. That’s old fashioned slang for fucking, made famous by Hamlet, the most famous thing ever. The book is also about female superheroes because we wanted that book to have the letters C U N and T right front and center to make that clear. Is that better or worse than the gynecological exam of Exalted’s Savant and Sorcerer? You decide. I still need to point out that nothing in the Forgotten Realms seems to have been forgotten…

Oh, and one final thing: nobody has ever, EVER, called Denver the City of Shadows. And nobody ever will, no matter what your setting says.

 

The Five Best-Named Products in Roleplaying

Because the listicle is Cthulhu: it rises and we worship it, and we need more of them about RPGs. Now, understand this has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Just the name.

#5: The Imperative – All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Nothing’s better in a title than an imperative. It grips you by the throat by its very nature. Verbs are exciting but turning them to the imperative commands attention like nothing else. And this is isn’t any small demand. Eden Studios Zombie RPG is very clear that ALL flesh is involved, and it needs to be goddamn eaten. This is as unpleasant as it is all-consuming, if you’ll pardon the pun. You’re left with no false illusions. All flesh is going to be eaten. Whose flesh? YOUR flesh. Chills the blood just to say it.

Imperative Runner Up: Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind¬†by Mind Ventures. This little-known horror title had a doozy of a command, with a great reason. But it’s a little long, and when it comes to a command, you want it punchy. Of course, length can also be a plus, as we see below…

#4 The Quote – Lawyers, Guns and Money

True story: I discovered the music of Warren Zevon because of this supplement for Unknown Armies. Oh sure, I knew Werewolves of London, but that was it, and boy, was I glad I found out. And Lawyers, Guns and Money is one of the best of his incredible collection, which is important: if you’re going to do the quote, you have to take from the best. Zevon’s catalogue tends to deal with rogues, vagabonds, mutineers, losers, sinners and junkies, plus the occasional undead machine gunner and psycho killer, so its amazing he’s not an RPG on his own, and that it it took twenty something years to borrow from his work for a title. Tynes, you are a glorious son of a bitch.

Quote Runner Up: Nasty, Brutish and Short. It was a good joke applying Hobbes’ quote to a book about orcs, but it was for Columbia Games’ Harn so nobody gave a damn, and also, depending on when you saw the book, the pun got pretty old.

#3 The Insanely Literal Description – Cute and Fuzzy Cock-Fighting Seizure Monsters

Sometimes, legal injunctions and similarity to licenses cause terrible copywriting disasters (Lejendary Adventures, anyone?). Sometimes, though, it causes genius. When it came time for the clever people at Guardians of Order to turn their anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth to the wonderful world of Pokemon, Digimon and Monster Rancher and all the rest, they decided to explain exactly what was going on with a duty to precision that leaves the reader gasping for air. It’s like being bitch-slapped with a dictionary, and you’ll never think of Pokemon as anything other than that. For the sake of propriety, some were issued without the Cock-Fighting in the title, allowing gamers to righteously walk into their stores and demand more cock.

Insanely Literal Runner Up: TWERPS, aka The World’s Easiest Roleplaying System. Gutsy, and precise in what it is gutsy about. And it tried hard to live up to the claim.

#2: The Exotic – Comme Il Faut

There’s an old saying that if you served boiled boots in a restaurant but put them on the menu in French, they’d taste fantastic. The same pretty much goes for roleplaying games. But it’s not just that it’s a classy French phrase that suits a classy-as-all-fuck game like Castle Falkenstein so perfectly, it’s that it’s a French phrase that says it better than English. Literally it translates as “As it Should Be” and it refers to etiquette and appropriate behaviour. What made Falkenstein so special was how it made social manners front and centre of the gaming experience, like say, Pendragon, but in a very different way. A way that needed an entire supplement to communicate. A way that could only ever possibly be expressed in French.

Exotic Runner Up: Parma Fabula. It might sound like a ham and salad sandwich but anyway you slice it it’s more exotic than “GM’s Screen”. Ars Magica doused itself in Latin, but nowhere so perfectly in making something that sounds stupid sound mysterious and otherworldly.

#1: The Exquisitely Mysterious – The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues

A title is like lingerie: it’s what it hides as much as what it shows that makes it so enticing. This behemoth that graced a Paranoia supplement suggests a great deal of specification – the box is black and only available to Yellow Clearance clones or higher – but then again, tells you nothing at all, because what’s in the box? What’s in the box??? Brad Pitt would later say the same thing as your players did back in 1987, and with the same mixture of dread and sure knowledge. And what’s more, this title has cadence. It trips off the tongue. You can dance to it. Heck, you could write a song to it. I got the blues, you got the blues, we got them yellow clearance black box blues….

Mysterious Runner Up: Deeds Not Words. Scott Lynch’s minor entry into D20 superheroing evokes great depth with three tiny words, but leaves all the details hidden – but you want to know more.

That’s my list, but like any list, it exists to miss things out and include heresies. What did I miss? What did I wrongly include? Let me know in the comments! And tune in next week for the five WORST named products in roleplaying!

Using Disney’s “Frozen” to build sanity mechanics

On the surface, Frozen can’t quite compete with Disney classics like Aladdin and The Lion King: the songs aren’t as good, the story lacks epic punch and it’s all a bit twee at times. On the other hand, it has very strong, likeable characters, two women in the leads, an entirely non-conventional love story and enough emotional depth to make it interesting to adults. All of those things make Frozen add up to something more than the sum of its parts and it’s become a new Titanic: a staying-around widely-appealing juggernaut that you might end up seeing even if you have no desire to.

So if someone has dragged you along to Frozen and you’re drumming your fingers on the arm-rest, relax, I’ve got you covered. You can watch the movie as a clever demonstration of what’s called Schema Theory, a popular tool of modern psycho-analysis and you can then use your newfound understanding of that to add really interesting and realistic. Now, I’m not saying that Frozen was written with Schema Theory in mind: like a lot of good fiction, it keeps its metaphors general, so they have wide appeal. But Schema Therapy is a wide therapy, so it works.

(If you do want to watch the film first, I’ve avoided spoilers).

So one of our two protagonists is Elsa, a girl born with the power to create ice and snow and coldness (it borrows much from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’). As a young girl, this power leads to Elsa injuring her younger sister Anna and the reaction of her parents causes Elsa to be taught to repress her power as much as possible. Eventually, however, she can’t repress any longer and lashes out. Then, fearing the damage this has done, she isolates herself from everyone else. The chief substance of the film is her younger sister’s journey to find her and resolve the issue, and I won’t spoil it any further, because that’s all we need.

Schema Theory is an expansion of cognitive theory of mind, which basically says that we tend to think things before we feel things, and it is the thoughts we have that actually transform or even malform our feelings before they reach our minds. You have a slice of cake and before you can even get the sensation of enjoying the cake it’s hit your thought of “I’m so fat and ugly” and a simple, unloaded event like a slice of cake becomes excruciating as emotions of guilt and shame explode without you noticing the thought even happened. Schema Theory simply expands on cognitive therapy by identifying key over-arching statements which govern our whole lives – they are the “schema” through which we view almost everything. Elsa’s Schema is “By my very nature, I’m a threat to those I love”.

Schema Theory also identifies three ways we as humans deal with our Schema. The first is Schema Surrender, where we give into what the Schema tells us, to excess and indulgence. The second is Schema Avoidance: we don’t ever want to have the schema’s thoughts triggered, so we remove ourselves from anything that might trigger it, sometimes subconsciously sabotaging ourselves as a result. The third reaction is Schema Overcompenation, where our obsession with never proving the Schema true causes us to act in the opposite direction as much as possible, such as over-achievers who are driven by a sense of their own failure.

Elsa begins the story with Schema Overcompensation. She becomes borderline OCD, as she uses rituals such as wearing gloves constantly to remind her to keep her powers in check. She takes no risks, she double checks everything and tries to make everything perfect and flawless. She also practices some Schema Avoidance in staying isolated from her sister as they grow up. However, events continue to push on Elsa until she encounters things she cannot control. She immediately snaps and switches to Schema Surrender. We all know this moment in monster transformation stories, it’s the bit where the persecuted decides if he is being treated like a monster, a monster he will be. Elsa’s Surrender is quite short, though (which is what’s nice about this movie, the reactions aren’t over the top) and she immediately reverts to Schema Avoidance, by running away.

As she climbs into the mountains, she sings a song about how, without anyone around, she can finally let her powers go and be herself. It’s a joyous song but also cut with sadness because it reflects how trapped she’s been but it’s also no solution. In fact what it is more surrender to her Schema: now alone, she can let the powers explode out, but because it’s only on the condition of being alone, it ends up just reinforcing the Schema. As indeed, all three methods do: they all work to confirm the Schema in our heads, because Schemas want to survive, and will do everything they can to do so.

So now we understand Schema Theory so well thanks to the wonder of Frozen, how do we apply it? A lot of sanity mechanics in RPGs use similar kinds of concepts – Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies have small chips which whittle us away, but also big breaks that drive us off the rails. Plenty of modern RPGs have belief statements and the like. So it all fits in pretty easily. You can adapt existing mechanics, or simply add these in, but here’s my take:

Give every player a Schema (or perhaps let them take one as a Flaw.) They should sum it up as a statement, written as widely as possible so they can apply it to everything they do. It’s a great way to help roleplaying even just like that. Now, the player chooses which of the three methods they use to deal with their Schema. For the most part, Avoidance or Overcompensation work well, because we’re used to Surrender being the “limit break” one, and because Surrender often impedes adventuring, but Surrender can work as a standard (for example, your belief could be that you are made only for killing, so you wander the wilderness fighting monsters). Also, you’re going to want a number associated with the belief. If you want your game to be all about people falling off the wagon, make it something easy to fail, maybe 60-70%, if you want less focus on that, set it around 90%. You’ll have to figure out how to model that in your particular system, I’m using percentages because they’re clear and easy.

Now, every time something threatens the Schema or how you deal with it, you make a roll on that number. So Elsa’s method is “Control everything” so as soon as there are lots of things she can’t control, she starts rolling. Our barbarian with the “I’m a killer, nothing else” Schema Surrender starts rolling as soon as he hits civilisation and has to talk to people. If you pass the roll, you stay with your method – Elsa stays in control, our barbarian starts a fist fight and gets thrown in jail. But even if you pass, you weaken that number. Drop it down by 5% or so. The Schema is still just as strong, it’s just you’re running out of emotional strength by trying to hold the Schema in place. You could also model this with a drop of Willpower or some other mechanic, as long as that is also tied to the Schema rolls.

Eventually, as your ability to hold onto your method gets lower and lower, you will inevitably fail the roll. At this point, you dramatically switch dealing methods. In Elsa’s case, she flips to Schema Surrender. In our barbarian’s case, he flips to perhaps Avoidance (“Chained in a jail is all that is fit for a monster like me”) or Schema Overcompensation (“I shall become a monk and relinquish the blade forever”). This status is rarely stable, so reset the Schema to maybe half its original value. Eventually, they’ll crash again, and flip back to how they started, or something similar. And then reset the value to its original value.

Remember that value is simply how well the character can hold to his method. You might like to weaken it with each flip too, as some people descend into purge/binge cycles on a roller-coaster schedule. Or you might strengthen it with each flip, so the character becomes more and more resolute about their dealing method…but however high it starts, they will still wear it away over time as they run out of emotional strength.

You can add mechanics for rebuilding that strength through enriching activities, but it is still strength in maintaining a dysfunctional approach to life. Building in mechanics to lessen the hold of the Schema will have to do with how you like your rules for getting rid of Flaws. Another possibility is simply modifying the extremeness of the actions taken, to lessen the impact of the Schema. Elsa stops trying to control everything, but remains very focused on detail, until she flips out and has to take a big time out from other people. Our barbarian takes power from his gift of killing and does it often and then occasionally grows melancholy and too soaked in blood. This also allows you to differ between minor and major Flaws, if your system does that – by playing around with how much the Schema controls behaviour (somewhat/greatly/entirely) but also how much the subsequent behaviour affects the character, their lives and those around them (just a quirk/hindering/dangerous/deadly). As above, you may also tune these to your genre and the focus of your stories.

And there you have it. Works in any system, and now you can all go mad and run up the mountain sometimes.

Why We Don’t Read the Comments

Once upon a time there were people who – seriously – thought the internet would be a bastion of communication and that comments under works and articles would lead to a powerful new field of discourse. Recently, this idea has surfaced again, as has the suggestion that “don’t read the comments” is somehow a statement of tolerance, as if to suggest that by not reading them we are accepting the idea that they are going to be full of hate, and we’re okay with that. It’s not that we’re okay with it, but that there’s no other way it can be, and it’s got nothing to do with how polite we are so much as the limits on human communication capabilities.

Work with me here.

For the main chunk of our one-million-years-ish of being humans, we existed in relatively small tribal groups, like less than a hundred. Our communication abilities were designed to work in our tribe, and anyone who was outside our tribe and over the hill was anathema. Not only did we not talk to them, but we were able to see them as the Other so much we could crack their heads open with stones and dance on the pink goo within. And with sound reason: they said things we couldn’t understand like river runs fast all year when we knew river froze solid every year, duh, dude, do you even weather?

Even as we built up written language and increased travel and communication our cultures have remained fairly insular in so far as what words mean. There is only so far we can stretch our mind to be able to communicate with other people. We can imagine how someone might come to a certain viewpoint, but not fast enough to talk to them. We agree on the meaning of lots of words but we just can’t always work across cultures. Different words mean different things to different people, even if they are both using English. Indeed, sometimes we deliberately changed the meanings of words to raise up cultural and political barriers.

And the thing is, we tend to see culture first before we see content. Before we can evaluate if river runs quickly all year we ask ourselves, did people from south say that, or someone we can trust? It’s an instinctual thing and it runs into the kind of words we use, making those words mean different things and make our underlying beliefs shift.

And over the history of humanity only two things have really challenged this idea. The first is the printing press, the second the internet. Gutenberg’s press appeared in the 15th century but it wasn’t until like the 18th century – in the age of enlightenment – that books were travelling all over the world and people were reading things completely outside their culture. And that’s right about the time people started burning books, too. Because they encountered views that broke their minds and were better off being destroyed.

The internet has in many ways encountered the same problem. The sudden rise of total communication has forced us to encounter minds we simply aren’t evolved to easily comprehend, let alone communicate with. Some of them we consider so anathema we want to take out of circulation. Others we simply block from our community or our exposure. I’m not saying blocking people on Twitter is the same as burning a book, but I do think they are driven by the same sensation, by people encountering thoughts so poisonous to them they had to be shut away, and the reason those thoughts are so poisonous is they come from a completely different culture.

To some people, gay sex is what happens when sailors rape people, because that’s what they were taught in their culture. And unless they educate themselves, they’ll always have that context. To find a milder example, the shouting match I had on facebook the other day was because people could see something as being racially insensitive but didn’t recognize it as racism because to them, racism meant shouting about killing all the Jews. To put it another way: almost all arguments on the internet are definitional arguments, all that changes is how long it takes you to realize this.

But in a comments thread you can’t sit down with each person and work out where your cultural word definition issues are occurring, because they don’t allow for that. And we do not have the mental capacity to constantly adjust for cultures we can’t see while having the kind of conversations that take place on comment threads. The thing about the internet is everyone is in there, and they all come from different valleys, so the odds of having any kind of useful, productive, interesting conversation are infinitesimally small, because nobody is speaking the same language. Whereas in real life, we have throughout our lives created natural villages of shared values and common social, political, economic and educational understandings that mean we rarely have to adjust our language at all.

And it’s this phenomenon that has made the world seem so much more divided since the net arrived. As much as we believe in universal fraternity of our species, we’ve spent our entire evolutionary history living in tiny valleys and not having the ability (regardless of how much we might want to) to talk to people in the next valley. The net throws all these people together, and in the Babel, all we can do is talk in memes and try to rally around flags as much as possible, to get our valleys back. It’s interesting how political they’ve become – it was the same way with the enlightenment, and may be a feature of humanity too.

I’m not saying we can’t talk on the internet, or that it won’t bring people together. Indeed, what it can do is help you see people who live in your valley even though you’re millions of miles apart. But it is important to understand the limitations of the medium, and how it differs from real life. There are a lot of weird weird valleys out there and you’re just not going to be able to understand how they talk, and they won’t be able to understand you. And there is limited value in exposing your mind to that, in an arena that isn’t helping cross-valley communication.

And that’s why we say: don’t read the comments. Except on my blog, of course.