The Hard Six Problem in Gaming

Tennis is ruled by the Rule of Three and Five, which states that whenever you try to organize a game of tennis, you will inevitably have three or five people, ie the wrong number. American Doubles (2 vs 3) was invented to try and fix this problem but it’s one of those solutions that instead of solving anything just highlights how prevalent the problem is.

Whist, Bridge, 500 and other four-player card games have the same issue, and similar poor fixes. 3-handed and 5-handed 500 are terrible alternatives. Luckily, there are whole genres of 3 player games using a standard card deck (“solo” games, they are called), and alternatives for 5, too. Board games are much alike. If aliens found nothing of our culture but our board games (or their outside boxes) they would rapidly conclude we gathered in groups of 2-4 players. 2 CAN be problematic but whole genres and classic games exist for such times (the oldest games like draughts, chess, backgammon, go and mahjong are all 2 player). 5 too can be problematic but there are enough entries in that field to keep things going.

And by the time you get to 7, you engage the party game space. 7 is enough so team size difference no longer matters (4 vs 3 works much better than 2 vs 3), and is enough for their to be a good rabble of shouting. 3 people feels like a team, not a partnership. 7 is also enough to split into two games of 3 and 4 without feeling like two people have to play the less attractive 2 player game. 7 is enough for Arkham Horror to feel epic. 7 is enough so even though you probably don’t talk to the other people at the other end of the table, they have enough people to talk to on their own. 7 is a party game, 5 is a board game.

Which means whenever you get people together to play board games you will inevitably have six people. This is the rule of Hard Six.

I’ve spent the last few years gaming every two weeks and the number of times we have hit the Hard Six goes beyond the realms of statistical likelihood and into the suggestion of a cruel and malicious universe. I have moved between cities and states and countries and this issue follows me everywhere. I have, over the years, bought several games precisely because they go to six (and I hit 5 often enough to not buy most euros). Betrayal at House on the Hill, Seven Wonders and recently Colt Express, were all bought because they allow 6 easily without the game suffering, and they get played the most because they work like this. Shadowrift and Yggdrasil and Arabian Nights are also on my shelf not least because they allow six. We even play History of the World more than Clash of Cultures because the former allows 6. I’ve made my own rules adjustments and player materials for Dead of Winter to allow 6 (and for things like Suburbia to allow 5) and will always pick up the extra-player expansions for games that tap out at 4 or 5. I’m also the guy who will offer to “GM” the game for 5.

The Rule of Hard Six is not necessarily a flaw in game design; it is dealing with social and mechanical constraints that are difficult to work around. Human beings have limited abilities to communicate. We run out of social energy around about five other people. We can watch about four things before we run into multi-task issues. It’s difficult to build an engine that allows six players to interact, compete and share mechanical and social space in an equal and interesting way; soon enough somebody will get excluded, or lost in the shuffle, or it will turn into a race. And heck, we run into this limit in racing anyway – there’s a reason most track events only host 8 people – our brains just tap out at that point.

And maybe I’m the only person who runs into the Hard Six. I know many couples or buddies who run into the 2-player doldrums (and me and my gamer buddy do, and I need to marry someone who will fix this, ladies, call me) but I don’t see a lot of people complaining about the Hard Six. Maybe I am under a dark curse to always have five other players. Maybe I have too many friends. Maybe there’s a genre of gaming I don’t know about. Maybe all the Germans are laughing at me because they have 2.1 children or have the lovely couple next door over. Maybe personal devices will help by keeping the sixth person occupied. Maybe we need to get better at dealing with the still somewhat taboo idea of splitting the group up for two separate games. Maybe we should not have rooms with one big gaming table but two smaller tables, as with the old days of Bridge.

Let me know if you run into the Hard Six issue so I know I’m not alone, or what solutions you’ve found to deal with it. Or let me know I’m crazy. Or if you know anything about the dark curse.

The Struggle or the Victory?

I was reminded today that we, as a culture, tend to do our goal-setting all wrong, because we focus on status, achievement and things which are static.

To explain, imagine achieving your goal is something great, which it should be! It fills you up with dopamine and that’s a great way to motivate you to get it, but also nice for your life. The only sensible way to live is to get as much dopamine as possible without killing someone. But if you pick a singular, static goal, you’re screwing yourself. You might choose “get married” or “write a book” or “finish/publish/sell a game”. They are all static, one-time things. Once in your life, you get to eat ice-cream. Yes, it’s a glorious big bowl, but then it’s gone. And your brain is used to wanting things. After all, you’ve spent years getting it to do things on the principle of wanting that ice-cream. So the moment you achieve the thing, it loses its shine. You either feel empty or lost, or you hunt for the next goal to put into your life. Sometimes it can get so bad that you dismiss your actual achievements: that book didn’t count, it was only genre fiction, it was only self-published, it was just a one-off fluke.

A much better idea is to set your goals around experiences. Not “get married” but “be married”. And the more specific the better, like “wake up every morning next to someone who makes me feel loved” (for example). Better than “write a book” is “spend each day making up stuff about fantasy people doing things”. Better than “finish a game” is “always be toying over some aspect of game design”. With goals like that, you get to eat ice-cream every single day. The dopamine is right there for the taking. Yes, goal setting can be useful (although, as mentioned previously, carrots and sticks don’t work) but it is always helpful to think about specific, long-lasting goals, so that you get to live the joy of achieving them every day.

That way you avoid the constant cycle of striving and needing, and you also avoid things like impostor syndrome. When you value “Being Person A”, you will of course feel weird and unchanged when you become person A and realize your life is exactly the same.  You can also avoid bad choices. If you want to “get married”, you might not care who you marry, which could really suck. If you discover you want to specifically “have lots of sex” rather than “have a girlfriend”, you can figure out perhaps alternative ways to achieve the former than just the latter, and discover ways easier and better suited to you. And so on.

There are lots of reasons why we’re addicted to the crappy style of goal-setting. One is evolutionary: get the meat or die is an important way to drive survival. Another is advertising, of course, which seeps into everything. And another, I fear, is story. Stories after all have very common structures, and one very common one of those is the pursuit. We meet a character who has a need. They get a goal which will provide that need. And we know the story ends (or climaxes) when they acquire it, or discover, in their pursuit that they no longer need it – but either way, the need is removed (and thus, ice-cream).

It’s quite taboo to suggest stories could be bad for us but if we accept that stories can change us, of course we must allow that they can change us for the worse. Especially these days when we are drowning in stories. A few hundred years ago tales were much less common and much less varied, and in our early days, when we evolved to work so well with stories we might have only had a few dozen tales of our gods and ancestors. Nowadays we drown in stories, flooding our entertainment-hungry minds with them every second from waking to sleeping, and bearing our story-totems on every item we own. And the most common stories are adventure and genre fiction, and its in those stories where physical, external goals are the most common.

We have become story-addicts, and our bodies no longer need them, and it’s infecting things too much. We turn our lives into stories, knowing that the struggle will end when we acquire the need or let go of the desire for it, but the truth is our stories never end, or rather they do but in a completely random and stupid and non-narrative way that leaves most audiences unsatisfied.

But then there’s games.

Now I know what you’re thinking: surely games are WORSE than stories. They also start and end, and there is a clear and stated victory condition! They couldn’t be worse!

Except games are much more than that, and are changing to bring these particular parts of themselves into the forefront. They are recognizing more and more that experience is better than achievement. And thus could be far better for us than stories.

For examples, we can turn to my game shelf, where there are countless examples because I don’t buy games unless losing them is as fun as winning, if not more so. I specifically select games where the play experience – the fun stuff you get to do on your turn – is not weighed down, and preferably is buoyed up by – trying to, or succeeding in winning. Sometimes, these things can be in opposition – you can ruin a good game of Once Upon A Time by trying to force the rules to your advantage, against their spirit. But perhaps the best example is Dominion, the first deck building game. I’m terrible at Dominion. I lose all the time. But I don’t care because I like what happens in the game. I love the thrill of acquiring a new card, slotting it into your deck and then seeing what happens when it comes out. I also, by the by, love the kinaesthetic pleasure of touching new cards, of shuffling decks, and of dealing hands.  The problem we have with Dominion is the game is just too short. Before you know it it’s over and the fun stops, even if you haven’t finished exploring your combos.

In video games it’s much more obvious: games you can beat can only be played once. The money is in the ongoing experience. That’s why MMOs are so recurrent, and why they can’t get away with making getting levels boring (no grind) or having nothing to do when you hit the level cap (there must be raids). The point is not to win, but to play.

So why not just play with a toy? It certainly is true that the gap between the two is blurring (look at Minecraft, for example, or the ship customisation in Star Citizen) as games more and more emphasize play over winning. But we still want game elements, because gaming adds something to the experience. It gives us goals to reach and rules to limit us which give shape and context to the experience. They give us little niggles of success. What is best in a game, I find, is the moment when you go “oh man, I was having so much fun I never noticed that I won”.

And that is in fact a perfect mirror for how goal setting can work. If you aim to write every day, you might one day look up and have a novel. If you walk every day, you might one day realize you’ve got fitter. That’s a really good way to live your life, and gaming is modelling it beautifully.

Now, I’m not saying that all stories are poison. We will always need and love stories, as ways to learn and teach and share. There are plenty of stories that invert the Magic Key story and tell us to think otherwise. Part of the escapism of escapist literature is their simplicity and focus on external matters. And indeed, there are plenty of stories that may be adopting the same model as games – dealing with running characters and worlds rather than individual episodic plots is far more common these days. And what Lost understood was that the numbers and other “clues” didn’t have to mean anything, what people liked was the ongoing mystery of seeing them – and then enjoying the flashbacks. (On the other hand, our addiction to the NEXT episode is not really helping).

But perhaps because games are more mechanical, or because of how much we lose ourselves in stories, we’re much more game-mechanic-literate than we are narrative-mechanic-literate. And game design is so nicely modular it is easy to put these things front and center. It’s easy to see that even if games aren’t inherently better at this (although I think they might be), they are more aware of how to do it, and it’s much easier to find games that do this, and build games around this.

Which leads me to once again suggest that games are the artform of the new century. And perhaps, this is the century where stories fade away and games run the whole coming millennia…

 

 

WFRP on Storium: The Storium So Far

A few people have asked for the rundown on the WFRP campaign I’m playing in, and also my thoughts on Storium as a system, so here’s both, in that order.

The title of our adventures is “A Mark On the Empire”, and our initial pitch would be us coming together to ferment rebellion against the Powers That Be, in our home town and elsewhere. Our brave protagonists are:

Violet, kicked out of the Roadwardens for being too relentlessly upbeat
Kannter, House of Cards Francis Underwood crossed with a Mummerset pigfarmer (me)
Wilhelm, ex-soldier with a dark past and grim demeanour
Faragast, paranoid prognosticating Wizard who cannot tell a lie

Violet, Wilhelm and Faragast are all relative strangers to our town of Schoppendorf but no strangers to rebellion and a sense that the Powers that Be shouldn’t. Getting a tip off about a secret society dedicated to ousting the Emperor and his fellow travellers, we met at a farm one morning only to find a dead man and an assassin waiting for us. Killing the assassin in cold blood to cover our tracks let the conspirators believe we hadn’t killed the corpse of their members so they told us their plan: infiltrate a nearby Nurgle cult to steal talismans that spread disease, then use them to poison the highest of the high during an Imperial retreat. We had little choice but to accept and take up rooms the society provided at the inn. Unfortunately we were rumbled there by our local Witchhunter and had to kill him too, then hide the body. Without doing anything revolutionary at all we were up to our necks in it.

The plan was sound but we quickly realized things were far worse in Schoppendorf than just being run by bastard guildsmen who took all the money: there was a cult of Bauseele that had sprung up and was making everyone super-healthy, due no doubt to their being a front for the Nurglites in the forest. But that was also our way in: by pretending to be innocent Boesee cultists from the next town over we could find their contacts with Nurgle. Meeting the head cultist, Tim Berr and some of his young acolytes Andric and Tamla, we went the latter two into the forest to scatter the ashes (Bauseele worships wood and fire, life and death symbolized, we burn wood then we scatter the ashes). There the two young-uns were greeted joyfully by a cellar full of maniacs: Nurgle cultists raging with disease and having the most disturbing birthday party ever. After a hearty game of Pass The Balloon of Diseased-Pus they ripped off Tamla’s skin and applied some hideous goo which caused her to start screaming and sicken. We decided to leave and lock the cultists’ hideout behind us, hoping to come back later with reinforcements. Unfortuntely when we got back to town Witch Hunter Captain Slovane was setting up camp and arresting everyone and we knew we were likely to be burned or hanged by association.

We took cover in the house of one of Vi’s ex-lovers, who wasn’t impressed despite his awesome hat and our adorable piglet companion, but when Tamla worsened we had Andric take her straight to the Sisters of Shallya and went back to Kannter’s to plan. But before we could do much of that the guard was heard in the streets painting doors with plague signs and shutting down the city. We hid in a pigpen until dawn then scampered back to the Sisters only to find Tamla dead and Andric heartbroken. The Sisters thought us suspect so decided to boil us alive as a test of our fervour but around 80 degrees we convinced them we were legit. Finally having the assistance of a group that doesn’t want to murder us (for now) we were granted access to the library to research our enemy…..

As for Storium: I like it. It’s not the second coming but it makes a lot of things easier for online gaming. Since you can ignore the system entirely, I would never play-by-post without it, because it helps you organize EVERYTHING. The only problem is, as its set up, it’s weirdly blurring the role of GM and game designer compared to traditional games. Basically you tend to get rules and world and even adventure-skeleton in one inseparable bundle, so you can’t use like the Warhammer world to do your story the way you can in traditional RPGs. I’m not sure what that does to gaming, but it’s interesting, and I’m interested to see where it goes now the KS is over and they can develop it from beta.

It also has some issue with the formality of it – it’s harder to chat casually in character – but that’s an artifact of all play-by-post, I think. I have some personal issues with the system, but that’s just taste, so I won’t get into them here.

Gaming And Its Future

There is no greater stroke for the ego than an interview. A lovely PhD student from France found my website and sent me some EXCELLENT questions about roleplaying, designing and the industry. Questions I really had to go away and think about. It’ll be great to see what her dissertation becomes but until then here are my answers.

How would you define your work? Do you define yourself as a writer, a game designer, a developer?

It’s a curious mix of all those things. I describe myself as a writer and a game designer. I think in writing RPGs I am thinking like a game designer but in a very specific way that only applies to RPGs.

In your opinion, what can you do with RPGs you cannot do with any other media?

One thing that RPGs do is they really let you get very close to the rules of settings and narratives. Even if you don’t notice them, there are rules in these games that determine the reality of the world you inhabit and the stories that emerge from that, and they are much more present than they are in video games or board games where more abstract rules hold sway.

When you work on a RPG, like Warhammer or Doctor Who, what is your main inspiration? A specific background, the kind of characters players can play, the type of scenarios you can imagine in this universe?

My main inspiration is the players reading the book or using the rules, I try to always focus on communicating to them what’s interesting or cool or scary or amazing about whatever I am writing. In a sense I am a salesman, and I am selling them the world, the character and the scenarios, and I want to make that sale.

How would you define a game system, its purpose, its function, its role?

A game system exists for a lot of reasons. It makes explicit certain social roles and assumptions, it exists as a toy to play with and explore, as a puzzle to unlock, as an inspiration and guide to creative flights of fancy.

How would you define roleplay?

Roleplay involves engaging with a fictitious reality as a participant of that reality.

In your opinion, what are the best RPG(s), in substance and in form? Why?

Hard to pick a few, there are so many excellent ones. Also there are so many genres and tastes, there is the best game for a person but many many best games. I do think the Buffy RPG is extremely close to perfection in every aspect, though.

What are your favorite game systems? Why?

What are your favorite campaigns? Why?

What are your favorite backgrounds? Why?

I don’t really split these up, I think the games are a combination of these things. Rules implement backgrounds and campaigns implement both. Warhammer and Buffy have always had all three working together, and are two of my favourites.

What do you think of the distinction between story games and RPGs?

I think it might be a better name for explaining that not all things under that banner require a total “immersion” into character, and to be a more inclusive term of a whole variety of activities that are part of the same concept. And it wouldn’t sound like the psychological term of roleplaying, which is different. But I don’t think they are two different things, I think we should think of the term as an evolution, not a separation.

What do you think of the RPGs market today?

I think crowdfunding has totally changed the RPG market although it was also in flux for other reasons; the growth of PDFs and PDF-theft hurt the bottom line a lot before crowdfunding came along to help shore that up. I think every time the market has changed, RPGs have changed as well: for example when indie games sprang up as a response to direct marketing through the internet, and I think we’re beginning to see RPGs changing to suit crowdfunding. Part of that is I think we’ll see games being more portable (to other systems) and expandable (to new worlds) because those make good stretch goals.

How do you see the future of RPGs, in substance and in form, economically speaking? (new funding plans like crowdfunding, distribution, Internet, magazines, conventions, etc.)

I mentioned crowdfunding above because I think that’s already here in the present. I think there’s this great hunger to unlock ways to synthesize technology but I’m not sure anyone’s cracked it yet. We have tablet/pad tools to use at the game table, and ways to synthesize as much of the tabletop online, or on the pad, and ways to combine traditional system stuff with the huge field of online roleplaying which we’ve never touched before (the thing where people do shared, in-character fan-fic, basically, that grew up independently of our hobby) – storium.com is one example of that last kind. It feels to me like everyone is coming at this idea from all sorts of directions – another one is making video games more story based and more focused on story than shooting things – and what’s going to happen in the next ten years are all sorts of new pinpoints on a graph in this intersection of ideas. Which pinpoints will coalesce into a future is impossible to tell and that’s a good thing, because what’s interesting right now is all the awesome new pinpoints we will get.

 

 

Six Things to Remember When Writing a LARP

Back in 2009 I wrote a Warhammer LARP (aka freeform, although it had a few simple rules) for GenCon Oz called Sunset Claws. You can download a zipfile with all the documents to run it yourself here. Participants continue to rave about it as the best LARP they have ever done, and I’ve run it twice since and there is demand to run it again at another local con. Recently word reached my ear that it has been translated into French and run at the Croisades d’Unnor convention in Lille, France. All of this has prompted me to start work on a sequel, and as I have done so I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons I think the last one was so successful.

1. Give Everyone Something To Do

Socializing isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you’ve just stumbled in from a four hours session of Warmachine and don’t know anyone around you. Yet LARPs thrive on socializing as much as possible. You have to grease those wheels. Costumes help add to the mood as does setting but people socialize easiest when they have something to do. Drinking and eating are two simple examples. I had a game of Pass the Pigs going on (in setting) as well. It was a small thing, but it helped. I also had one character make a speech, so everyone had to gather and listen. Thinking of good things for this example is hard, though, so if you have any ideas or examples of your own, put them in the comments!

2. Give Everyone Something to Talk About

Again, socializing is hard to do, and one easy way to break the ice is to give people things to talk about. That’s what the things to do are of course there for, but barring them, everyone should have big things on their mind. It’s not just another party, or even the highlight of the season, the room should be abuzz with the tempora and the mores going on outside. In Sunset Claws we had the annual pig tossing competition, a serial killer amongst the tavern guests, a masked vigilante causing chaos and a gigantic undead army massed outside the city waiting to kill everyone at dawn. Oh, and the hostess was someone everyone liked to gossip about, because her place was like Ric’s Bar in Casablanca, and word was she had the escape route from the army. Nobody had trouble finding a topic of conversation.

3. Give Everyone Shared Goals

LARPs depend a lot on secrecy which inevitably means a narrow focus. You know what you’re doing but you have no idea what anyone else is, and you miss out on a lot of the story as a result. Yes you can imagine the Scarlett Pimpernell is up to something and some are charged to stop him but it doesn’t effect you that much. In Sunset Claws, with the army outside and the serial killer being hunted down, everyone had an idea of what most people at the tavern that night was after, and almost everyone was involved in those things. In the sequel, a battle has just finished and everyone wants history to remember that they were the one who won it. This makes the game feel like a race, and everyone’s working for the finish line. It engages them with each other and with the over-arching plot. It also makes it easier to find allies because everyone needs one and is on the same page. And you can’t do anything without allies, which brings us too:

4. Give Everyone A Sense of Who Might Be Their Allies and Who Might Be Their Enemies

Everyone knows characters need lots of goals to achieve to keep them busy but too many LARPs devolve into desperately trying to figure out whom, if anyone, might even know what your side is, let alone be on it. Eventually you randomly trust someone and hope it involves only a moderate amount of betrayal. You can’t outright tell people who is on their side or it gets dull (indeed, nobody should be entirely on anyone’s side!) but you should give everyone a road map. Here are people you know you can trust (or so the GM has told you, anyway), here are people you know are likely to be set against you, here are people, based on your best information, that will be able or predisposed to help. A lot of LARPs give people goals with no idea how to complete those goals. Players, I think, like a mud map of how to get there.

5. Give Everyone A Reason To Talk To Everyone, and an Understanding of How They Would Talk To Them

Our LARPs are often filled with people who would naturally group together and some they would exclude, but that makes for terrible game play and it ignores the reality. LARPs start with everyone just standing around and it is literally completely random which PC you will be standing next to. Sometimes you may have a superior or an ally to go and seek out but that player might have arrived late or still be talking to his buddy or any of a million things. Staring at you right now is a guy is a stranger. You need to find something to talk about. You’ve got the tempora and the mores for small talk, and the shared goals. He might be a potential ally. He might be an enemy. He might be neither. But whichever one he is, your character sheet needs to tell you who he is and what you think of him, and how he might be remotely connected to your plans, in even the slightest way. Maybe you have a common bond or a shared enemy. Maybe you hate/respect/fear/love/are easily seduced by people of their class/profession/race/gender. A good character sheet will tell you. Nobody should be uninteresting to you.

6. Give Everything Character

One thing players keep complimenting me on is how their character sheet gave them their character’s eyes. As I said in number five, the sheet should tell you enough information about who you are and how you see others so you know how to react to everyone. All of that information should be coloured with character. Sometimes you want to talk directly to the reader, out of character, when you want to give them directions on how to play something or what kind of role they play in the narrative, but wherever possible, you want to avoid that and speak in their character’s voice. You want to tell them what they think is true as if it is true, because of course they believe it. Your choice of language and style provides them the goggles through which they see the universe and that not only helps them keep and stay in character it helps you write interesting interactions. You don’t say “Your relationship with your husband is failing so you are having an affair”, you say “Your husband ignores you and you’re worth more than that, so you are seeking a new lover, one you deserve.”. And on the husband’s sheet, you write “You love your wife more than anything but can’t find the words to tell her, but deep down, you know she knows – or you really hope she does.” Both players got the same kind of information (the marriage is in trouble) and they have a shared value at stake…but both of them operate in completely different universes with completely different truths.

That for me is the heart of LARPs and indeed non live-action scenario design, or at least, how I do it. Everyone shares goals and stakes, but everyone sees those shared things completely differently. That’s where the friction comes from.

 

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.

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!

Immersion vs Submersion or why First-Person is Not The Only Way To Make Me Care

Immersion gets talked about a lot in gaming but without being talked about well. There are a great deal of nuances in the kinds of emotional experiences we can get from games (and, of course, from stories) but in a drive to simplify the language we’ve squished them all into one.

I’m the guy who cries in movies. All the time. And not always for the same reason. For example, in Les Mis I cried for Fantine in I Dreamed A Dream because her plight moved me to tears, but I cried for Marius in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables because it recalled the survivor guilt I felt myself. The difference in many cases may be too subtle to be teased out, or to matter, but they are different, and if we head further apart we can certainly conceptualize the two extremes. On one hand, there is the sense of deep emotional connection to a fiction, on the other, the reminiscence or even reliving of a real experience.

It is important to note that the former is nothing silly or foolish: to share the joy and sadness of an emotional experience to an intensity equal to or beyond that of real life experiences despite (or, as always, perhaps because of) the fictional nature of the characters and the situation is not something everyone can do but is something widely and deeply human, and part of why we engage with stories as a species. It is also important to stress that at no point does the fiction become real. We are never confused about the line between fiction and reality, yet our emotions are as strong as and even perhaps identical to real emotions, despite whatever knowledge we simultaneously maintain about the fictional nature of the information. When we use the phrase “the sensations become so real to us” we’re not talking about mental illness (hello, idiots on the internet) but rather the joy of mutual frames of reference. I can at once be sitting in my seat in a theatre seeing paid actors in costumes on a wooden stage and AT THE VERY SAME TIME be on the streets of Paris feeling an army coming towards me, and watching my friends die around me, with no trace of mental illness in play (indeed, mental illness often impedes this process).

And the conversion can be so strong we take on the physical sensations of being there – jump with fear, ache with love, thrash with rage. But it’s still not the same thing as an instinctual reaction that comes from what I’ll call submersion, which is the sense of actual being there, and being caught up not so much in a character but in oneself. This is the immersion of dreams, where things are indistinct from reality, and it can, indeed, happen in fiction but is most common in acting, and in roleplaying (in both senses), where we become so invested in the fictional reality we take on its forms unconsciously and think and act as if they were real. Again, this implies no mental illness or actual confusion, as it were, but a crossing of wires, a sense of what I believe is called cognitive dissonance, as what we know and what we believe swap places.

What’s important is that submersion is commonly talked about for actors and for Live Action roleplayers, whereas immersion is commonly talked about among an audience. What makes roleplaying so interesting is it is an experience that simultaneously bestrides the fourth wall, allowing the player to be at once both audience and actor, and thus become the participant in two different ways, through immersion and submersion.

And this is also true of all games with a story. We engage with such things on at least two levels, with the primal idea of meeting the game’s goals, which causes submersion, and with feeling connected to the story with immersion. When I play the Firefly board game and I see my income running low and my ship running out of fuel tokens I have an instinctual gamer reaction to the in-game difficulty of being stranded low on fuel and cash, which connects me submersively to the same emotion in Mal Reynolds in the same position, while the art and pieces help conjure in my head what such a moment would look like for my crew, and immerse me in that moment in my head.

As I say though, we kind of miss the difference between the two and that they work very differently, and that causes problems. A scene of rape or torture, for example, can be done realistically with the goal of immersing the audience in the horror of the experience, yet for some be too realistic and become submersive. I don’t watch horror because I inevitably get submersed far too far, particularly with the insistence on point of view shots and communicating horror through playing on the watcher’s visceral reactions, as opposed to imagined shared sensation. It’s a kind of synesthesia, in fact: I can’t watch an injury without feeling it in my body….unless, that is, I’m very immersed in the story so I feel it only through the character.

And that’s the important distinction. Many roleplayers argue that anything that distances oneself from the immediacy of the experience inherently blocks immersion and prevents people from connecting emotionally but that’s like saying the need to turn pages and convert words into images in our heads stops us weeping at Wuthering Heights. But immediacy DOES tend to be a big part of submersion, and when people say that LARPs and what are being called “connected mechanics” bring them into that world, that’s what they’re talking about. But they don’t realize that narrative, “disconnected” mechanics can, by heightening a sense of story, create a great sense of immersion which has its own wonderful power and connection.

And I think too often we try to get submersion with game stories, particularly in computer games. Things like Going Home and the Walking Dead and the Last of Us even though they give you a character, use first person views to heighten immediacy. But for me, this makes the sensation so realistic I instantly withdraw, from the experience and the story. The very fact that it asks me to be in the situation is what tells me it is false. Whereas I have wept for (and cheered and laughed with) Guybrush Threepwood, because his character touches my heart and is a mirror for myself. Without a trace of character generation or being forced, as a player, to make moral choices.

We are at a point in history where literally thousands of game designers have realized that games have this incredible power to share experiences with people through submersion but I don’t want to play any of them because I’d much, much rather be moved through immersion. And I think games can do immersion in beautiful and powerful and important ways, ways that can move hearts and change lives. And we forget that at our peril.

The Pain Behind The Dice

Over the weekend, the esteemed Mr James Wallis posted another update for his kickstarted RPG Alas Vegas. Although funded in Feburary, the game has not yet been finished, and James took another moment to address that, and he did so with his characteristic frankness. Indeed, one of the reasons I like and respect Mr Wallis so much is because he wears his heart on his chest, and lets us see inside the project, sometimes down to the bone. I wish him a speedy recovery from the pains he’s experiencing, but I also want to salute the gesture of opening that door.

He’s not in a wonderful situation: for reasons both personal and artistic, his RPG has failed to appear despite not only a promise of a release date but taking people’s money. Some would suggest his funders are in a worse situation. Commercially speaking, they have given cash for a promise and it has not arisen. And up to a point, I have sympathy for those who feel some sense of entitlement in these days of instant entertainment and total communication. Especially as many production companies treat their fans like a drug dealer treats a junkie – and many fans love being treated like that, and worship the crumbs thrown to them to keep their addictions pumping. When you feed a monster like that, you have to expect it to grow crazed for a fix.

But if you’re not a drooling capitalist zombie or fanboy (ie the same thing), if you’re a human being of anything worth the stripe, then the total communication of the internet and the relative intimacy of the gaming industry offers us a chance to be a lot better than that. We can see – because he’s let us – that James is aggrieved both by his personal situation and by his failure to fulfill the deal. We can use that information to make a judgement as something other than just consumers. We all want to get return for our hard-earned money, but not at the cost of our humanity – and that sounds florid, but when Chris Pramas had to push back a book or two in the Green Ronin schedule because he desperately needed expensive spinal surgery, he was vilified by some not-so-valued customers.

Even without financial and social consequences, it takes guts for a designer or a company to do this sort of thing, even in the smaller world of game design. It’s offering up intimacy to those who have no reason to offer it in return, and can easily slap the hand away. And it’s something that we should encourage, I think, and see a lot more of in the game industry. We can use this era of total communication to do more than just keep us up to date, but allow us into each other’s worlds a bit more. In business and in design.

We’re conditioned not to get too personal, but we’re building art here; nothing is more personal. We take the personal out because we feel people won’t be interested, but again, that reduces the relationship to artist and audience (or worse, producer and customer). I don’t need to know you’re life story if I’m buying your game, no. But if I’m looking for information on you and your game, you shouldn’t feel that I’m not interested in all sides of that conversation. The elephant in the room in conversations about art and design is the personal – and the pain.

Art critics talk about it – my English teacher told me that Polanski’s violent Macbeth came shortly after his wife was violently murdered. And Roy Orbison’s work is enriched by knowing about his terrible stage fright. But I don’t see too much of this in game design. I mean, we’re not always making Macbeth, of course, and the self-doubt of the artist can be excruciatingly dull, but as I wrestle with my self-doubt, I feel enriched and empowered to hear the same kinds of words coming from a luminary like Mr Wallis. Maybe if we talked about it more, we’d find it more of a part of the design process than we thought. Maybe all the people making it look easy would show us just how hard it is.

I’ve talked before about how working on Daughters of Exile literally almost killed me. Right now, my brain also literally will not let me work on personal projects, only those that emulate existing settings, because I cannot let myself create on a blank page, my brain violently rejects that kind of ambition. That’s how my mental illness is operating right now, and that’s part of my design and writing life. Mr Wallis isn’t sick, but he’s dealing with grief and self-doubt and that is part of his writing life. Some others I follow on Twitter – David Pidgeon, Charles Valentine, Philipe-Antoine Menard – talk about their struggles, and that helps me a lot. As long as it’s not defeatist, we can help each other.

As I’ve said before, we get so obsessed with art being the finished product we lose sight of the wonder of practice, which in the long run, is the only thing that matters. Writing a great book is a terrible thing if you hated writing it. The more we look into the process, the more we can separate these two things out, and thus better understand the process that produces the outcome. If we talk more about the path and less about the destination, we can make the path easier to walk. And part of talking about the path is talking about how, sometimes, it is agony to walk it. And indeed, how sometimes the best thing we can do is wait and go another day, or another way. Or even stay home altogether.

Richard Simmons’ exercise programs were never about showing thin people with big smiles showing off their abs. They were about showing people who were so fat they couldn’t walk and how they made their choices and faced their demons and fell down half the time. I think we could use more of that in other fields. In the world in general.