Wednesday, January 10, 2018

DIALECT: a game about language and how it dies

I finally got to play a game of Dialect: a game about language and how it dies, by Thorny Games. As a group we had a both a lot of fun, as well as some very touching moments as the very human generational drama unfolded. Great plot twists, and very cinematic visions of how the 'conversations' that root new words and phrases' genesis abounded.

We played with the initial digital download that was made available to the Kickstarters backers. The hardcover and professionally-produced cards are in development and I can hardly wait to get the final product.


DIALECT feels a lot of a fusion of FATE and FIASCO in the best possible ways. The game's structure is there to give everyone at the table input. Collaboration is absolutely required and highly rewarding. Best played with a group of creative, collaborative-happy people who like world-building.

The game is played in phases that setup your story, create characters in that setting for the players to experience the world through, and over three Acts to describe the lingual drift your group of isolates experience as their world and circumstances change. This culminates in the ending of their isolation (for good or for worse) and defining the legacy they left behind: What impact did this group of isolates have upon the greater culture they were absorbed into?

What we made

Here's some of the words and the meanings we developed during our play, which used "The Outpost" setting about Mars colonists who expected reinforcements only to be cut off from Earth for many years.

  • "NASA" meant something well done, excellence. Based on a conversation when the air-circulation regeneration systems first came online and a high official said: "NASA couldn't have done it better." Often used the way Firefly fans say "Shiny."
  • "Schroom-room" the botanical hydroponics for growing certain types of food.
  • "UN-MET" based on the acronym logo on the sides of the original habitats and structures, this became slang for the concern that people had that they were productive enough and especially for youth worried if they'll have a role in society when they grow up.
  • "The Drift" and "Drifting" those who slept on the long transit from Earth to Mars experienced odd dreams, and referred used this term for their experiences during the drifting between the planets. The youth co-oped the phrase to mean daydreaming, loosing track of time, or sleeping, which annoys the adults who lived thru the original experience.
  • "A Breath" A unit of time, between refreshes of air supplies between the central hub and all the spokes of the colony., typically between 12 days and a fortnight. This spawned related phrases for "Inhale" -the first day of refreshed air supply, and "Exhale" - the latter half of a Breath where air quality slowly and noticeably decays. It also set the tempo for social activities in the colony spokes.
  • "Sparking" - the act of cleaning solar arrays, usually by static discharge.
  • "Tinkerbelles/Tinks/Teebs" - those who specialize in maintaining solar arrays, often performing 'Sparking.'
  • "MET" people who have proven their worth. "Never-MET" outsiders; anyone who hasn't faced the challenges the MET have, and never will. "Well-MET" might be someone who's well known to be competent, skilled, etc.
  • "RED" the red sands outside the crater the colony was established in, the same way one might use the term "outback" to refer to wilderness. This also spawned phrases such as "Going-RED" for getting lost outside, and for committing suicide.
  • "Inflate" the act of establishing a safe, neutral space for meeting. Born from the act of inflating a temporary structure for both sides to meet in. "Lets inflate and talk this out," or "I'm willing to Inflate with them." It also became a euphemism for sex by teenagers.
  • "Same bubble, same air, same spoke, same water. ALL HUB, ALL MET." A 'war song' that made its way into the collective memory, even if the origin of it was lost. The conquering armed forces adopted using "ALL HUB" as a patriotic challenge, to be answered by the chant of "ALL MET", the same way modern day paramilitaries might say "Hoo RAW".
  • "NASA" and "Pops." After discovering that the same NASA that was idealized was also the identity of those who were coming to take the colonist's lives, the use of "NASA" meaning excellence fell out of usage. The bravery and sacrifice of "Grandfather" Kennedy to forestall the war led to the adoption of "Pops" to mean what NASA used to.
  • "UN-MET" With the impending culturecide coming, the use of 'UN-MET' as a pejorative  was heavily discouraged. "We are all MET" became the cultural unifying meme.
  • "Glassmine" an jerry-rigged powercell, used as a kind of defensive weapon. The massive discharge would fry electronics, electrocute humans and result in a circular red glass plate of fused Martian sand.

Suggestions for improvement

After our game ended we discussed what we liked, didn't like, and what we'd like to try next time.

A good supply note cards. Maybe even a set of dry-erase note cards. Games like FATE and FIASCO and now DIALECT burn thru a lot of 3x5's through play.

An open google doc or other digital resource to track the game as we played. I took furious notes in a journal while we played, which is why this post is as detailed as it is (I'm still leaving details out). An online shared format could be seen by all at a later date.

We often found that a word or phrase coined would quickly spawn lots of derivatives and use-examples ("RED" and "Breath" for example, immediately spawned many related words). We found the need to write these down as they added to the setting, but needed to be outside the normal turn structure or else everyone's turns would get eaten up adding Variants to the same word.

Because of the geography of the setting we ended up making maps and diagrams as we played: these helped immensely in both communicating ideas and inspiring new ones.

Each player created a character to follow/embody during the story, and for the most part they all survived to the end, but afterwards we discussed the possibility of much longer periods of isolation and the possibility of playing generations of characters for each Act in those circumstances. Some Settings could do with more options/discussions on generational affects upon play.

Finally: even with five players we found going around the table once per Act felt limiting in terms of what we added to the tableau. We discussed the idea of smaller groups having two or more turns around the table per Act. Especially when a baseline new word/phrase would spawn lots of Variants (as above).


Overall I really enjoyed playing DIALECT and look forward to playing it again, both with the crew I we did this session with, and with new players.


I promised my fellow players that I'd write up all my notes from the play session, and I will. As comments to this main post. Stay Tuned!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fiasco: an actual play experience

So I finally got to play Fiasco this week, with friends Chien, Kit and Ember. Previously I had only watched Fiasco being played on TableTop.

The first step in playing Fiasco is the Setup which starts with choosing a Playset, which is a setting. Then you work your way around the table, defining Relationships, Locations, Needs and Items relevant to that Playset. We chose McMurdo Ice Station for our Playset and immediately I started thinking of films like The Thing, Ice Station Zero, and some classic Dr. Who episodes. 

In going round the table, we established Relationships. You get one with each person to our right and left around the table. There were Professional Rivalries, Mutual Survivors, members of the same Religion, and Criminal enterprises afoot. Needs resulted in Earn Respect, Need to Escape (and I forget the rest). There was a undefined Weapon and a locked room in the Biology wing. 

Then character creation began:

I ended up playing Hope Anderson, a recent grad student, arriving on station after getting hired by Ember/Anke’s husband, the senior researcher on McMurdo. Hope had written Anke, having followed her online for years, and plead to be hired.

Ember created Anke Jornsdotter, a Norwegian leader of a radical feminist sect (our mutual religion). Her husband was the senior researcher on McMurdo. Anke is secretly trying to invoke her goddess, and to that end, she’d convinced her husband to sleep with Dr. Andrea because Anke herself was infertile. In the meantime, Anke works as the schoolmarm for the base, teaching kids from elementary up to high school.

Kit created Dr. Andrea Lorearu, and ambitious bio researcher, gorgeous and not adverse to using her wiles to get what she wanted. She also believed in unspecified extremist of beliefs. She found a kindred and plyable patsy in Thomas Rhys while he was a doctorate student and she her advisor.

Chien created Thomas Rhys, PhD, who had attended university with Hope and they had rivaled for Dr. Andrea’s approval for their Doctorate programs. Thomas had crushed hard on Hope, but Hope only strung him along, until he met Dr.Andrea, who made him her lover and minion and approved his thesis over Hopes’. Once on McMurdo, they were conspiring to develop an exotic lifeforms they’d discovered under the ice as a possible bio-weapon for sale on the black market.

Fiasco is played in a series of Acts and Scenes, each player getting to either open or close a Scene involving their character, going round the table. There is a pool of white and black dice, representing if the scene went well for you or not. However, in the first phase, you give the dice you earn to another player.

Act One:

Kit/Andrea got to go first, and crafted a flashback scene laying out how Andrea and Anke were the sole survivors of a terrible accent during the base’s celebration of the winter solstice. Something with tentacles ate all the other members of the party.

Three months later, Hope arrives on McMurdo, looking forward to proving herself both before Anke and professionally in spite of the setbacks by Thomas and Andrea. Waiting for her was Anke and not Dr. Andrea. Anke informs Hope that Dr. Andrea is now in charge and Hope would be working for her instead of Anke’s husband. Hope is a little downtrodden by the news, but Anke promises to take her under her wing. Anke also gives Hope a list of activities and things she’ll need for her Initiation into the Order. Hope, having studied all she could about their faith online, is suddenly surprised she has a lot of extra homework to do as well to prove her commitment to their religion.

Now Dr.Andrea was the senior researcher, and made it clear on their first meeting (since college) that Thomas was her right-hand man, and that Hope had a long road to proving herself. Dr. Andrea was also six months pregnant by now, father unknown. 

After a few weeks work, Hope discovered that vital supplies are missing, and goes directly to Dr. Andrea. Andrea, who knows Thomas is using the supplies in their secret bio-weapon research, tries to distract Hope from the issue by bringing up Hopes’ proposed thesis project, and offers her a currently unused greenhouse module on the far side of the science sector to continue her research. Hope, excited for the opportunity, agrees. Andrea tells Thomas to let Hope borrow what equipment she needs for her pet project. When Thomas isn’t paying attention, Hope borrows a spectrum analyzer that happens to have some frozen ’Bacteria-X’ samples in it.

What follows is a montage of Hope doing lab work during normal hours, pursuing her old thesis project in the greenhouse and also setting up and practicing initiation rites in the same space; doing triple-shifts, if you will. The greenhouse becomes a messy combination of thesis project and cult initiation paraphernalia.

This was the midpoint of our story, the game mechanics change somewhat. First you determine The Tilt: the mechanisms by how things go so badly wrong. We ended up determining "Something precious is on fire," and "A beast (even metaphorical) is set loose."

Then Act Two begins: You still go around the table, requesting scenes, or dictating them. But when you earn a black or white die in phase two, you keep it. The dice you have (from phase one and two) have a direct effect in the final phase of the game.

When Thomas realizes the spectrum analyzer is missing from his secret project, he tracks it down to Hope’s greenhouse, finding Hope chanting and carving a wooden effigy in the midst of lab equipment. He startles her and she cuts her hand with the carving knife, bleeding onto the incomplete idol. She breaks down, exhausted and crying and wounded, confessing all. Seeing her injured and broken, Thomas takes the opportunity he’d always wanted, takes care of her injury and takes her away to the infirmary, but not before the bloody idol is placed precariously on the analyzer. He looks over his shoulder as they leave the greenhouse, thinking he can come back for the analyzer when Hope is out of the way.

After delivering Hope to the infirmary, Thomas checks in on Andrea, who once learns Hope was cut and bleeding near Bacteria-X, orders the infirmary to put Hope in quarantine. She then nearly faints from stress and seeming to have early labor pains, but not before ordering Thomas to clean up the greenhouse “by any means necessary.

Thomas returns to the greenhouse, but learns that the bloody effigy has fallen on the samples of Bacteria-X, and now some kind of glowing moss is growing on the idol. Afraid to get close, he goes to fetch some gasoline and fire source…
Anke, taking some of her kids on a tour to the medical wing, sees Hope get placed into quarantine. She hears Hope muttering something about her idol and her work, and Anke makes for the greenhouse. She arrives in time to see Thomas dousing everything in gasoline. She interrogates Thomas, learns Anke is having some kind of labor pains, learns about Bacteria-X. About that time, Hope’s idols eyes start glowing. Anke tells Thomas to burn it all. She heads to find Anke, and tells Thomas to get Hope out of quarantine, telling him: “Hope may be the only person who can undo this!

The very second the fire hits the glowing chia-pet idol, Andrea suddenly goes into intense labor pains. It feels like a salamander is slithering in her belly. Anke arrives, finding Andrea delirious and believing she’s back on the ship when the terrible accident happened months ago.

Thomas arrives back in the hospital and distracts the doctor on duty by telling her that Andrea’s having some kind of preclampia and can’t make it to the ER. The doctor sends two paramedics to get Andrea, and rushes off to prepare the maternity wing. Left alone, Thomas then breaks Hope out of quarantine. He reveals that the greenhouse is on fire, Andrea is in pre labor, and Anke said to free Hope because she could stop whatever was happening. 

Hope drags Thomas to the greenhouse, only to find it in ruin, but there’s a very large hole in the ice, laced with purple moss of some kind and apparently dug by either fire or claws. She convinced Thomas to man up to protect the woman he loves. They grab outdoor gear, tranquilizers guns from the biology lab near by, and jump into the hole to follow whatever monster they’ve set loose on the world.

Anke arrives and snaps Andrea out of her fugue, tells her she knows that the child is her husbands, that it was Anke’s intention, and that Andrea is probably carrying a god. But all of Anke’s practices and plans were based on nordic legends and practices, which happen on the other side of the world, and here in the antarctic, who knows what kind of diety she’s invoked on the polar opposite of the planet… Paramedics arrive and take Andrea & Anke to hospital. Anke using her training and rituals to keep Andrea calm and easy the fires caused by the god-child inside her.

Hope and Thomas follow the tunnel, which leads back under the complex and comes up into Andrea’s office space. They follow the path of destruction thru the office spaces, leading outside again, and clearly headed for the hospital wing. They jump on ice bikes and race after it.

Hope and Thomas catch up to the monster just as Andrea has delivered a glowing child in the maternity wing. The monster kills the doctor and the attending nurse, and grabs the child and appears ready to eat it. Hope and Thomas attack with their tranq guns, but they have no effect. 

Thomas charges the beast, bravely throwing himself between it and the woman he loves, trying to save the child he believes may be his.

Hope sees that while most of the monster is mossy tentacles, it still has the incomplete idol as a ‘face.’ She realizes that it was her ritual of making and her blood that brought this monstrosity to life. She tears the bandage off her wounded hand, smears the ritual carving knife with her blood, and while singing the rite of Unmaking, stabs the monster in the idol/mask.

Everything goes white.

At this point we’d spent all our scene dice, which means that it was time to roll the Aftermath, and narrate what happens to our characters. You roll all the dice before you, subtracting the negative ones from the positive, and lookup the resulting value on a table in the book, which gives you a general description of the level of how-screwed-your-character-is. It’s then up to narrate how your character’s story ends:

Thomas is dead. He was used by stronger women, played for a patsy, but he was brave and died trying to do the right thing.

Andrea is emotionally and mentally broken, confided to a psyche ward; breaking into hysterical screaming fits when she sees Anke or her child or any child for that matter. It will take a long time to heal her mind.

Anke leaves McMurdo, godling child in arms, but without a husband or the support network she was hoping for. Just what kind of being has she brought into the world? How will she take care of it?

And finally, there’s Hope, who was burned and unconscious after the battle. I imagine the last scene of the ‘movie’ is looking down at her hospital-bed confined self; one eye covered in bandages. Int he final shot her good eye opens, and a purple glow emanates from under the bandage where her other eye should be. 

Slam to black screen and roll credits.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bumps, Dips and Restarts

Regularly-scheduled campaigns are difficult to maintain. Couples spit; people drop out. Life gets complicated; there are children, jobs, sickness and seasonal activities (summer with kids, holidays,etc). Sometimes games just burn out, which I've somehow managed to do with two campaigns at the same time.

Online games are easier to maintain: someone else is keeping the server's running and patching the client software and usually writing all the 'story' which you and your friends use as a backdrop for your own stories. You (generally) don't have to travel anywhere, just be at your computer or console on time.

Question is: how does one reboot, recover and restart? The quest continues.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Deconstructing design systems

I have a secret confession: I love crunchy design systems. I mean games that have design systems within them for designing and creating things to use in the game. Starships, giant robots, equipment and computers/programs, etc. Mostly this applies to sci-fi games, but also for a bare handful of fantasy settings. They're a game in and of themselves.

I enjoy the intellectual pursuit for systemic elegance and purity. There's a kind of glory in learning and using a design system to achieve what your design goals, which is why games like Mekton Zeta are still on my shelf even though I'll likely never actually play it. Actually playing these kind of games can become a pain, however. (See my previous post on Deconstructing conflict systems for why)

I've already mentioned Mekton Zeta Plus' Technical System. Other examples include GURPS' Vehicles, DGW/FFE's Fire Fusion and Steel, which vary in level of detail from 'lots' to 'absurd.'

I look at the laundry list of things to finish developing and implementing in my TURK Eclipse Phase game and despair over the workload as well as what impact it may have when playing it. Details of weapons, armor, tools, drugs, nano, medicine, mesh and hacking, etc... Eclipse Phase is a setting that cries out for details, crunch and variety: social, morphological and infological freedom being core tenants of the setting. It begs for a way to design things on the fly and implement them in the game. Not just gear but also NPCs and organizations and so on.

The trick then is: How to make playable yet customizable design systems? How do you prevent runaway detail escalation, or loopholes that munchkins can abuse?

I'm toying with the idea of a 'fractal' of game details. Most 'things' get a single stat, representing their overall quality/usefulness/effectiveness; if need be, that rating can be broken down into sub-stats for specific examples. The latest edition of ShadowRun seems to have latched onto this. We shall see where and how it goes.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Deconstructing conflict systems

Conflict is an essential part of any story, let alone role playing, tabletop or board games. Conflict drives change. Stories are about change. Ergo stories are about conflict.

Personally I've experienced a bell-curve of expectations from conflict systems, from simple to complex to simple again. It's been an evolutionary path that mirrors the kind of stories I've liked and like to create: starting with simplistic goals ("wack the bad guy, loot the treasure chest.") have changed to complex explorations on _how_ goals are met, and finally an epiphany that _how_ isn't as important and _why_ and _whats the outcome_ of perusing goals and change.

In my youth, I sought out detailed, complicated and 'crunchy' game systems because I sought understanding how the things worked, even in make believe worlds. The kind of games where a six-second combat round could take half an hour of real time doing math and looking up rules and charts. But in my experience it's only fun when it's warranted. As a GM it's a nightmare to track tons of details and characters and plot.

In other words, I'm becoming and old phart and don't want to consult a ton of charts and use my slide-rule in pursuit of a good story anymore.

To give a board-game example, take Ad Astra Game's Attack Vector Tactical; a richly detailed simulation of hard-science spacecraft combat. It's got charts, math and a strict order-of-operations to playing the game. Players spend their time both planning strategy but also calculating and plotting and measuring all the details of the ships on their side. While I appreciate the detail the developers have crafted into the system, AV:T is exactly the kind of game that's best played on a computer. Let a machine handle all the math and show me the options, limits and choices available to me.

Personally, I'd rather focus on the tactics and strategy and not get overwhelmed by the math. This was no more apparent to me when I heard that AV:T had been licensed as the board game engine for an Honor Harrington game of starship combat. The novels focus on the leadership and tactics of the ship captains, not so much the navigators' working sliderules and working graphing calculators.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum; games like Full Thrust and Battlefleet Gothic, which are almost too simple in their rulesets, but let players concentrate more on tactics and fleet composition than number crunching.

To delve deeper into the separation of player-vs.-character abilities: If my character is a brilliant engineer/programmer/scientist, then I the player shouldn't be limited by my relative lack of ability. The player states their intention, rolls the dice, and the GM and player cooperate to narrate the outcome. Mechanics should determine degree of success or failure, but leave the rest to narration.

Players should focus on choices. Mechanics should support choice.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Game session postmortem #1

So we had our first actual 'play' session for my new campaign. For myself, it felt like a bit of a rocky takeoff but soared after that. Like any book, movie or composition of music, the beginning is the hardest part. To quote one of my favorite novels: "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct."

And it all started with a McGuffin.

One of the players has this artifact. Something that by his own definition was ‘dangerous and incredibly valuable’ and ‘he was keeping it to protect others.’ The “glowing ball of doom” as the other players started calling it and how the PC came into possession of it became the focus of the entire game session.

I had originally planned the first game session to test a number of the conflict systems I had drafted into the system; how to handle chases, fights, arguments, etc. I had 3x5 note cards with roughed out antagonists, numbers to roll for and against, etc. Since the player with the McGuffin had the most immediate character ‘hook,’ we started rolling against his investigative skills to see what he could learn about the doohickey. Two close-shaves later, he realized that he wasn't going to get anywhere without the help of the other characters, and so roped them into a scheme to acquire the materials and tools necessary to safely explore further. The potential for profit based on being the first group to understand and perhaps harness what the McGuffin represented got the rest of the party involved.

I will hand it to the other players: they immediately took to the open-ended challenge. Asking questions, devising their own understanding of how the world worked and what the steps they could take were. The tick on my end was to answer their questions halfway: I’d give them information, but not answers; what they needed to ask more questions, which in turn helped them to decide what actions to take to pursue those answers.

i.e. Q: There were six people who went with that PC on the mission where he found the McGuffin… where are they and why aren't they involved? A: They aren't involved because… they’re all dead or in comas after ‘the incident.’

One of my fears of being out of practice was that I wouldn't be fast enough on my feet to deal with questions and actions taken by the players. Since this game session was almost entirely narrative in its content, there weren't any opportunities where being unprepared with system mechanics to become a problem.

I did, however, learn a few things about being prepared.

One: NPC names. I’m horrible with names. So far the named NPCs are “Dr. Bob” and “Burke”, the company man (yes, after Paul Riser’s character from Aliens, and yes, pretty much the same character). Names have power: who are you going to remember better? “Dr. Bob” or “Alejandro ‘The Spider’ Wing-Chen”? In a massively multicultural setting like Eclipse Phase, names can be real ethnic mashups. Not to mention monikers for AI’s, uplifts and so on. To that end, I updated my copy of Inspiration Pad, and wrote a little script to generate mixed-ethnicity names on the fly for me. Some I will pre-generate and keep in a list. Need a name? Take one and scratch it off. I hope to also keep the generator script on hand next time so I can make more as needed. Also for that end, I’m working on scripts for generating details about habitats, corporations, ‘factions’ and so on.

Two: Have stock challenges prepared. The 3x5 card concept seemed to work well; there’s room to write the particulars of that challenge (dice to roll, numbers to beat, etc), but also space to track progress against that challenge (if it takes multiple rolls, hits and so on). Things like bypassing a door lock, base ‘goons’ should the PC’s get into a fight, etc.

And speaking of mechanical challenges: I will probably have to take a serious look at my conflict systems for TURK. My original concepts had detailed sub-systems for arguments, duels, firefights, chases and ‘projects’ for anything else. However Players generally aren't conscious about the system and are more focused on the context of those conflicts. Thus, simpler is better.

Ideally there should be one dice mechanic and one or two models for adjudicating conflict. FATE has three models: Challenges (character vs fixed obstacles), Contests between actors (debates, chases, races) and Conflicts between actors (arguments, duels, firefights, wars). Perhaps that could work for TURK?

Something to ponder further (and in future posts).

So to sum up: it was a good session. The next session will start from where we left off, so no problems getting the ball rolling, so to speak. I also have several ‘homework’ items to provide the players (information they sent requests for and I said I would get it to them later since what they wanted to know wasn't immediately crucial). The story is afoot, and we will see where it takes us!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Context before mechanics, or "Setting before dice"

So there's this setting idea I've been cooking up for many many years. It's grown, evolved, been scrapped, reincarnated, buried in soft peat for years then redistributed as firestarters, and so on. Part of the problem was that it kept changing based on which game system I was in the mood to play.

Which is nonsense. Setting is setting, story should be divorced from mechanics.

So as I continue to write up this setting, I'm ignoring thoughts about mechanics. The setting is broad enough and deep enough it can be played multiple ways, and the mechanics chosen will help set the mood and style of play.

As mentioned in my previous post about my current game campaign, several game companies are releasing their product under one or another form of a Creative Commons license, meaning that players can take the setting and adapt to other game engines as desired, or write and publish supplementary information without licensing. Posthuman Studio's excellent Eclipse Phase being one example and the Symbiosis art book, by Steven Sanders, is another example of setting without any mechanical context. Which means one day we may see GURPS Symbiosis as well as d20 versions of it and others.

So in a similar vein, and not to drive myself further insane, my development of Empyrean will follow , suit. I will develop it first as a Setting then start writing specific game mechanics for it.