I used to think I was interested in everything, and I am, but thankfully things have coalesced over thirty seven years into some clear patterns. It is amazingly nice to identify things which are up one’s alley, amazingly disorienting when you cannot identify such things. The latter situation may sound strange to the point of ludicrous, but not if you’ve spent any time studying the brain of the depressive or otherwise mentally ill, and that area of knowledge is one in which I am furiously pursuant. Partly because it interests me to understand the mind of humans (and others species), partly because of how it intersects with epistemology and memetics, two of my other interests, but primarily out of a survival instinct. My own brain has inborn defects, and only by understanding them can I transcend them.
Another of my passions are games and puzzles, as witnessed by this blog, and no puzzle more so than the crossword. Usually the two things – mental health and crosswords – don’t intersect, but lately that hasn’t been the case. For one, I’m currently talking to someone about designing some games to help with men’s mental health initiatives, and two, I today stumbled onto the work of Susan Haack. The information was found in David Astle’s Cluetopia. Astle is the Australian Araucaria, which won’t make any sense unless you’re a crossword nerd; he is the Australian crossword guru, suffice to say, and Cluetopia is his lovely 100-chapter anecdotal chronology of the crossword, which turned 100 in 2013.
Each chapter is devoted to a year and to a landmark in crossword setting, including many of its encounters with other fields. 1995’s entry is devoted to Susan Haack, an epistemologist who found the crossword to be her perfect metaphor, like Plato’s Cave or Sisyphus’s Stone. Epistemologists and psychologists alike know that our human understanding and mindset is not just based on experiences but on how those things are interpreted. Haack’s metaphor of choice puts the clues in a crossword as our experiences, and the half-filled-in-grid as our beliefs and reasonings.
The clues are, in their nature, unlinked to each other. 1 across owes nothing to 2 down. But in our head, the answer of the clue, or the meaning of the event we experience, is extremely limited by everything that intersects with it. What’s particularly good about this metaphor is that in crosswords, we almost always defer to the grid, not the clue. Indeed, sometimes we don’t even need the clue, and we work backwards. If the letters fill in E F T we learn that is a kind of newt. So too in life when we can’t comprehend something we ask for fill-in letters. And we guess what could go in them, and the clue be damned. Just yesterday the last clue in the Times spelled out S_I_N_E and I knew black-and-blue it had to be SCIENCE, because nothing else could possibly fit there. It fit nothing in the clue, but I decided this was just me not understanding the clue’s cleverness – it had to end up meaning SCIENCE, somehow. Of course, SOIGNEE (well-dressed) fits the gaps just as well, and was the right answer, and builds perfectly from the clue, but it’s not in my vocabulary.
And our brains are so like this. They only know certain words, and they only know certain patterns and ultimately we use brute force and guessing to fill in the gaps. This is why we have dream-logic, where we don’t need to know how we got there. It’s why magic tricks work. It’s why murder mysteries can be such fun. It’s also how mental illness and mental unfitness work. When your mind’s grid and vocabulary of choice is full of STEVE IS CRAP and STEVE SUCKS and STEVE WILL FAIL only certain kinds of words can fit in any more. And whatever the clue, you try to work it to fit the grid. Throw away parts of the clue, try and twist the meaning, because it has to be made to fit. Even those not mentally ill know this trick. Start having a bad day and the grid lines up with WHAT A BAD DAY I’M HAVING. And then you step in a mud puddle and it fits right into that pattern, instead of into HA MUD PUDDLES ARE FUN IN A WAY or WELL THESE THINGS HAPPEN or AT LEAST THEY WERENT MY GOOD SHOES. Strong mental health involves attacking like at the clue level (reducing stressors) and at the grid level (breaking down cognitive processes and reversing them) and at the vocabulary level (learning new words to go into the grid by building up loving relationships and memories).
As metaphors go, it is perfect – assuming you know your crosswords, that is. If you don’t, it may be lost on you, but that’s okay because epistemology and psychology alike have all sorts of metaphors describing the same thing. And as I’ve mentioned before, understanding mental health is a great way to help improve your roleplaying – to bring this back to the theoretical subject of this blog.
Characters are, like us, ruled by words in their heads. They have their grids shaped by their experiences and their background and their beliefs. One challenge with RPGs is to do a pencil sketch in session one that gives you something to hang onto, which allows you to react to whatever the game throws at you – and in RPGs, that can be anything. By thinking of things in the clue and grid metaphor, you can see how a few simple grid-structures can be applied to any situation. I like to come up with a few phrases that create my interior monologue, or a few images, or something I’m stealing or being inspired by. Usually two, three at most because humans are simple to begin with and characters even more so. And then everything can be filtered through those things. No matter what the clue, brute force takes over. And that isn’t just realistic, it’s narratively satisfying – and easy to play. We like characters who quickly feel familiar, whom we can predict – and we love it when, for very, very special reasons – they break that mould and surprise us. But that only works once they’ve established the pattern.
Pick a few words, set up your grid, and you can handle any clue and produce a rich, believable and surprisingly still deep character. And you’ll also learn more about how your own brains work.
Since it’s free this weekend, a few helpful tips from someone who has won the game once on the easiest setting. Two important things before we get to the official list. One, remember that on your Steam library it’s listed as Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. It’s not under C, or B, it’s under S. Two, watch the opening cinematic, it’s great.
One: This Is A Civ 5 Mod
Beyond Earth is specifically a mod for Civ 5. It’s Civ 5 in space. It is NOT Alpha Centauri, although it has a few nods in that direction. It helps a lot if you have played Civ 5, or Civ 3 or 4 or even Civ 2, but Civ 5 in particular really helps. The hex movement, the lack of stackable units, the philosophy of balancing expansion with happiness, all of these things carry over. It’s also really easy to understand the energy economy and the health economy if you map them to gold and happiness in Civ 5. You should play Civ 5 before playing BE if possible because Civ 5 is easier to understand, I think, and has less bugs and is easier to beat (hint: airports.) And it’s a great game.
But probably the most important difference between the two games, besides how science works, is to do with food: food and population growth was the wonder drug in Civ 5, and it was relatively easy to keep your growing population happy. Not the case in BE: health drops like a stone and is much harder to maintain. And everything pulls it down, and it pulls down everything. In Civ 5 you could easily trade things off, in various ways: one big city is easier to keep happy and healthy, but crap for science. In BE, every new city counts against your culture AND your science acquisition AND your health…but new cities are the only way to gain precious resources to keep up with the curve.
Two: Don’t Sweat Your Nation
Faction choice and other start-up questions don’t make a huge difference in your strategy choices. Yes, Pan Asia is the best because they build the fastest. Brasillia is good for war. But BE is a game that rewards generalism for the most part (except see below). You cannot ignore any part of the game, and confluence is your friend. What can make a huge difference though are the last two: Spacecraft in particular. Putting out new bases is vital to controlling resources, and the Tectonic Scanner lets you find resources before you research them. For me that is a huge relief and makes planning much easier. So much better than seeing the coastline or alien nests. Start up bonuses are all good, choose here based on what you like to do in your first few turns. I prefer a worker or a soldier, but because of the health issues, a Clinic can be a big deal. If in doubt, go energy – and that’s a good rule always. Energy in BE is like money in Civ: it buys things. And thus an excess of energy can save you from a lack of anything else.
All the personalities are annoying and poorly written, it’s not just you.
Three: There Are Four Kinds of Science Now
One of the major differences in BE is the tech web. The biggest impact you can have on the game – on winning, not just how it plays out – is choosing which techs to get when. Some of this only comes from experience. Be wary of going down leaf techs. Almost all of them are unnecessary in certain situations, some are hardly ever needed. Do not chase down Wonders, either. Unlike Civ, they are no longer the game winners. Look out for Genetics (1st circle) and Bionics (2nd circle), they lead to health buildings which you will need a LOT. Computers allows you to get city-breaking artillery and spies AND boats, so is a hugely useful get. Let the circles be your guide – don’t pick one direction and go that way, but get almost everything on tier one, most things on tier 2, etc.
Most importantly, understand the “four kinds of science”. In Civ 5, science generally led to good things in one of the areas – it would give you culture, or happiness, or money, or warfare. Science in BE is much more specific – once you have the basics, it’s very much about what victory path you want to go down, which is based on which philosophy you pick. The only way to ensure military victory (or not military loss) is to constantly get upgrades to your troops and the only way to do that is to chase down your Affinity of choice (and that is when you buy leaf tech). It is entirely possible, especially when chasing the victory of contacting aliens to get heaps and heaps of technology and still have a military stuck in the stone age because none of your tech gave you an Affinity bonus.
Four: Affinities Are Fun and Powerful
Everything in the game comes down to pursuing an affinity. You ignore them at your peril for both winning and having fun. If you want a lobster the size of the Chrysler Building, you need to go down Harmony. That said, like the tech web, level one for all of them are very useful and level 3 for all of them are handy. Lvl 1 for Purity and Harmony are almost must-haves because Exploring is so important. Watch your quests, these are good ways to pick up points in affinities without having to do slow research. If a quest is vague on its completion, check the net – a LOT of them are vague as hell. That said, chasing a quest that seems to have no value is an easy trap to fall into. Just because it says to do it doesn’t mean you should do it. Do NOT hunt worms until you are in the mid-game.
One big change between Civ and BE is the need for specific resources has been ramped up. As you chase your affinity you will use stacks of your signature resource (Harmony uses Biomass, Purity Floatstone and Supremacy Firaxite) but you’ll also need the other two and you will need Petroleum for almost anything orbital. For my money Titanium is the least useful, in the sense that it just improves things. Guard your resources well, and only trade for good deals for the things you need.
in case it’s unclear (and it can be): Harmony is believing that humanity should become like the planet (alien-human hybrid sexy times), Purity is making the planet suit humanity (mech-suits and hover tanks) and Supremacy is going “fuck biology we’re going to put our brains in giant robots”. You can think of Harmony like the Zerg, Purity like the Humans and Supremacy like the Protoss if you are a Starcraft nerd.
Five: Explore and Make Friends
You can win Civ 5 with one city, and only trading for cash. You can win without talking to anyone else, even. BE thrives on trade and that means exploring. Trade is a massive source of money, tech and (between your own cities) food and production. Get Pioneering up fast (it’s a tech), build trade houses everywhere, build trade ships everywhere. Make sure after you build the Ultrasonic Fence you select the choice that protects your trade vessels from alien attack. You cannot afford not to trade as much as possible. That said, that’s different from making diplomatic deals. This now works a bit better than in Civ because with favour trading you can force people to come to your aid in a war and such, but the AI doesn’t make any deals that don’t heavily screw you over. Don’t give in to them, they can shove it.
But DO consider trading for open borders because exploration is also really important. Not only are heaps of quests attached to exploration, it also has huge bonuses from finding satellites and buried tech. A dip into Supremacy to get extra expeditions is handy. Exploration will also help you quickly find those precious resources I mentioned, so you can nab them with new cities. You could win Civ without oil or uranium or iron if needed, you need almost everything here, and sometimes lots of it: some of your favourite warmachines will eat up 4 resources PER UNIT. Because more cities make everything harder, there are lots of reasons to get more cities, and all of them are resources. The expansionistic Civ gets the worm.
That should get you started. Watch out for aliens, they’re tough as hell, and miasma will kill you quicker than you think. Good luck.
Yes it’s that time once again, a tradition as old as quite-young dirt: the best and brightest of 2014, which is to say of the things I saw, read and encountered in 2014, regardless of when they came out although usually fairly close. Got it? BECAUSE WE WILL BE TESTING YOU.
Best Table Top Game
Lot of great games joined the stable this year as I finally had more cash to spend on my main passion, but as always it’s the dark horse that rides supreme. I bought Suburbia because the slack bastards at Golden Egg Games dropped the ball on sending me City Council. At first I found it kind of cold and uninspiring, but it kept being pulled out and the restrained snacking became full-fledged pig-gorging. This game has DEPTH, and it keeps surprising; never plays the same way twice. And it’s great to pull people into gaming. The cheap expansion adds more meat in again, unexpected ways. I like it so much I’m building bits so we can play it with five. We also had a lot of fun with Shadowrift and Yggdrasil; and along with Suburbia they were all in the $60 region instead of the $90-$100 of most games these days. Bang for buck matters. I could get Fortune and Glory, but is it really worth two other games?
You know what, screw RPGs. I need a break, instead of trying to keep up with a hobby I’ve drifted from. The winner, therefore, is me, for being awesome. I accept.
Best Computer Game
Does it go to Beyond Earth? Just as my love with Civ 5 was waning from over use (it won the Stevie for 2013), Beyond appeared to salve the wounds. But this was also a year I got back into computer games on a wider level. I saw how exquisitely written the prose of Shadowrun Returns is, and how elegantly Divinity: Original Sin wired exposition into gameplay. The Goat Simulator came out and was everything it needed to be, and the simple majesty of Banished ate my mind. But the stand out, stand-up and applaud forever was that I finally played the masterpiece they call Gone Home. The mechanics were a bit forced but the WRITING in the game is amazing. Strong characters drawn from different angles and illustrated with subtlety, nuance and above all, cadence. Computer games have grown up not because they’re about “big things” but because they’re written like poetry. They understand that words matter.
Predestination. Hopefully getting a wider release in the US over summer, this is a SF thriller that flew far too low under the radar. Yes, you’re all very clever and figured out the “twist” (both of them/all three?) but that’s not the point. Not everything is cool suits, violin cases and awesome time travel plots, combining the slick visual style of The Matrix with the cleverness of The Usual Suspects. No, Predestination is MORE than that. It’s got a cool alternative universe setting that are ever so subtle, perfect performances from the three leads and a compactness that means it can deliver its message like a bullet to the head. And WHAT a message. One of the most complex psychological commentaries to ever come out of Hollywood, and nobody fucking noticed because it looked like a time travel film. Five months later, I still can’t get it out of my head.
2014 is the year of Parks and Recreation. Been watching all six series since about June and it has been a beacon in the darkness. Yes, the show is now ending, which means you can watch the whole thing unfold without interruption. And what a story it is. After a shaky start when it tried to be a wry, cynical show about good people failing to achieve anything in the face of crippling bureaucracy and apathy it suddenly found its heart and became a show about good people achieving moments of glory despite the bureaucracy and apathy and negativity around them. The apathy and negativity grounds the show so the moments of love and triumph and beauty don’t become schmaltz – yet shine forth with the goodness of the world. Pawnee is the new Cheers Bar; everyone wants to live there because that world is a better, kinder, more loving world. Despite the racoon problem and the high obesity rates and the occurrences of Lou Gherig’s Other Disease.
No contest: Rat Queens. Look, Saga is good, but Rat Queens is SEXY. Page one, panel one, these people are ICONS. This shit is bananas.
New hope on big cures, and a robot on a comet stealing the headlines but I gotta give this to the Indian space launch, for reminding the world that science ain’t done, but it may be done with white guys in suits. Asian women in saris are running mission control and the Chinese are putting robots on the moon. That’s your future, right there: the US century is over, and nowhere is that more clear than in space.
The dik-dik continues to have a lock on this category. Adorable, great name, big eyes, fits in your pocket. The tea-cup giraffe is science fiction but a domestic dik-dik in every driveway is a future I can believe in.
A game for 8+ players and a GM.
The GM makes a series of cards, which describe who you are AND the situation you’re in. He makes one for all players minus two.
One card simply reads “You’re the Doctor”
He also makes a card for each player that reads “You’re the villain”. If the GM prefers, he can pick a pre-existing villain, or come up with his own. One of these cards is shuffled into the deck, so that there is one card for each player.
Each player is then dealt a card face down, and does not reveal what it says. Then everyone closes their eyes and the villain raises their hand. The GM gives him the rest of the “I’m the Villain” cards.
The other cards give you an idea of who you are, which might be specific (“A catperson space hitchhiker”, “Napoleon”) or general (“one of the elite mining crew”, “one of the rebel street gang”). There should also be a scenario with a problem to be solved. It might be something like “Ancient Egypt has collided with rogue Silurians and Snake Cults threaten to destroy the Fifteenth Dynasty” or “The first woman on Mars is dead and nobody knows who killed her because she was alone out there – or was she?”. Each card might have slightly different information on it, if your GM is feeling malicious.
The GM sets the scene slightly, giving a few hints about perhaps where everyone is or what they can see. Then everyone has thirty seconds to roleplay. Importantly, the Doctor and the Villain have no idea what is going on. However, the rules of Theatresports are in play which is to say: anything anyone declares to be true is true. Because the people in the scenario know what they’re talking about, and because the Doctor is always right, and because the Villain planned it that way.
After one minute, each player MAY show their card to one other person. Based on the roleplaying, they may have an idea who is the Doctor or the Villain. If someone shows you their card, you show them yours.
If you see a card with a scenario on it, you learn who the person is playing so you can sound more authoritative in the next round.
If you see a card that says “I’m the Doctor”, you know who the Doctor is. From now on, your hopes are higher. Do what he says, he can save you! Agree with what he says because he’s right!
If you see a card that says “I’m the Villain”, you are now one of the villains minions, either willingly or unwillingly (or perhaps even unknowingly). Do everything he says. Agree with what he says. Also take a Villain card from the Villain – and in subsequent rounds, that is what you show people, not your original card.
If the Doctor sees a card that says “I’m the Villain” the game is over, and you move to the finale stage. If the Doctor doesn’t see such a card, repeat the round as above: thirty seconds of roleplaying, then a show of cards. The GM may introduce another fact to the scene, or change things slightly (“Another crew member has been killed!”, “you’ve reached the bridge”). Keep going through rounds until the Doctor encounters a Villain. When he does, he should shout “OF COURSE!” or something similar. Then he should introduce himself.
When the finale is triggered, all Villains raise their hands. Count up how many people are villains. Then everyone who is not a Villain raises their hand if they have met the Doctor. If there are more in the first group, the Villains have won! The Doctor is then forced to explain that he arrived too late, and a lot of people are going to die but maybe, just maybe, he save the universe at great personal cost.
If there are more in the second group (non Villains who have met the Doctor), the Doctor has solved the problem in time. A tie goes to the Doctor’s side. There may be some loss, but he can redeem them somehow – cure the infected, counsel the evil. The Doctor and his allies explains how he solved things, with the help of timey-wimey effects and a sonic screwdriver.
Then the GM should hand out some new cards and play again. This time, there’ll be a new Doctor and a new Villain to unmask!
Remember that both the Doctor and the Villain want to be found, but not too quickly. Spread your guesses around, and act clueless to help protect the Doctor at the start. This will of course also protect the Villain….
Post it on your tumblrs, yeah?
I don’t really care that much what Ms Sarkeesian says or her critics say about what she says. The MESSAGE was set up because of what happened to Ms Sarkeesian after she said it. And what happened to Zoe Quinn. And what happened to Jennifer Helper. And what happened to Brianna Wu. And what happened to Sarah Darkmagic. And what happened to Leigh Alexander and what happened to Mattie Brice and what happened to Jenn Frank and what has happened to every single woman I’ve ever met who has ever played a board game or a card game or a roleplaying game or a computer game, at least once if not a thousand times. Men have been taught that gaming is theirs, and that boorishness is the default to anyone, and darkly sexualized savagery is the default response to women. And the MESSSAGE says, fuck that shit. Is that enough?
So most RPGs kind of focus on players playing one character at a time. But most comics these days are ensemble affairs, where half a hundred guys criss-cross continuity in continuity-shattering events. About time we simulated that. And thus: SUPER SHOWDOWN (with a foreword by Ilan Muskat)
Foreword by Sexy Game Designer Ilan Muskat:
I’m ruggedly handsome, but I don’t have any design credits. I’d better design some games in time to write a foreword for your next one! – Ilan
Everyone makes up a team of superheroes. The team can be just one person (The Hulk, Spidey) or a big team of guys (The Avengers, the X-Men). Say no more than six characters each though. Each hero in your team is represented by a single die: a d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The smaller the dice, the less subtle you are. Someone who just pours out power like Cyclops would be a d4, someone who has a lot of little tricks and is hard to pin down, like Nightcrawler, is a d12. The number of dice represents endurance, how much you can bring that power to bear. Cyclops might have like 4d4 because his visor gets knocked off all the time, but the Hulk might be 20d4. Write down on a piece of paper (A4 or foolscap in size) who is in your team and which die represents them. So you might have something like this:
Iron Fist (4)d10
Power Man (10)d4
Put the die for each character next to that character. Just one! That die itself is a stand in for that character. IMPORTANT: each player should use dice all of one colour, different to colours/designs used by others at the table.
Come up with a name and an ethos and a niche for your team. Eg Heroes For Hire: They are mercenaries on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Now take all the dice from all the players and throw them from one of the table so they roll hard across the whole thing. Any dice that end up on your piece of paper are in your comic during this event. You may claim one character of your team that didn’t end up on anyone’s sheet back onto your sheet as well, but you could totally get a whole new team. So why is Daredevil and the Wasp in Heroes For Hire? That’s what you have to figure out. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the Avengers has to figure out why Power Man is working with Herbie in Stark Tower.
Two options here:
1) Hero v Hero. All heroes not on pieces of paper have gone rogue. Divide them equally and randomly among the players. The team possessed by the player to your left is who your team will be fighting this issue.
2) Hero and Villains unite. Everyone makes up a small rogues gallery for their team using the rules above (at least one fewer villains than they have heroes). Then everyone draws a line down the middle of their paper. Then all the villain dice are rolled again, across the table. Any villains on the left side of your sheet have teamed up with the heroes for this story. You get to decide why! Ask the people who invented the villains for tips. Villains not on paper become the enemy of your team using the method above: collect them up, divide them equally and randomly between players, fight the villains on your left.
In this case, heroes in the first big roll that don’t land on anyone’s sheet are Not Appearing In This Story. The same goes for villains on the right side of your paper. Maybe they’ll be killed in a big fight. Maybe they’ve been captured. Maybe they’re off in their own storyline having a Secret War or Annihilation or somesuch. Put them aside for the NEXT event!
IMPORTANT: for a good, balanced game, you want about equal numbers of heroes and villains, so when you roll the dice, try to make sure the area covered by everyone’s pieces of paper is about half the area where the dice will fly.
“Villains” (aka the guy on your left) always roll their dice first, and announces some kind of scheme to destroy the world. Then heroes roll to respond. Here, both you roll all your dice for that character ie, roll ten d4s for Power Man. Or roll one d4 ten times and note the results.
Compare all your dice to all their dice.
Matched results: If one of your results exactly equals a villain dice, that’s confrontation! KATHOOM! POW! The die you matched with yours is knocked out of play! Yours isn’t!
Villain dice lower than yours: You get in their way somehow, but don’t slow them down. They don’t do evil. Nobody loses a die. The battle looked awesome though!
Villain die is HIGHER than yours: Choose: either you get beaten up (lose a die) or something bad happens. The evil plan takes shape. Aunt May marries Dr Octopus. Dr Doom kills a puppy. Something like that.
Flexible villains are more likely to succeed but generally don’t do quite as much damage. Abomination with his chunk of d4s hardly ever rolls higher but when he does he totals a city block, kills hundreds. Mystique (1d12) gets the better of heroes all the time but just runs off and does more planny plans stuff, or sleeps with Wolverine or whatnot.
After all dice are assigned, any dice left get rerolled, for act 2! Keep going until one side runs out of dice. If it’s the Heroes, the villains win, or at least conquer the heroes (but perhaps their plans to murder innocents is foiled, so it’s not bad. The heroes may teeechnically win, maybe retreating to their hide-outs all banged up – but villains aren’t punished. If the villains run out of dice first, they are totes foiled and all either killed or arrested (genre-permitting). If a character has no dice left for themselves, they don’t make it to round 2 or the end of the story. Decide what happened to them! Peeps with lots of dice hang around longer! But cost more to build (just work out what feels right for point buy, I trust you).
Of course, you can duck the hit and pass it on. The question is, how many times will they let Bad Things Happen to keep their dice around to go the distance?
If you’re getting hammered, ask for help from another team! CROSSOVER EVENT! Problem is, if you do, then their villains come into play as well! Doh! Or, swap one of your characters for one of theirs! If you do this, you MUST invent a love story to explain why! (“Kittie Pride come and help Spiderman instead of Thor! Because THOR LOVES IRON MAN! and Iron Man is DRINKING AGAIN!”)
When you (and any of your buddies) have done your event, someone else does theirs! While Daredevil and Wasp were fighting Giant Man and Magneto, what were the X-Men doing? And why? When everyone’s done, retrieve the other dice and play with them, or start from scratch!
If at any time, a die falls on the floor, that character permanently dies or is massively depowered or something. CONTINUITY IS SHAKEN FOREVER! Everything else is resettable.
And that’s how you play the game.