Tabletop RPGs, There and Back Again, part 2

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7

I was supposed to add a part where I was going to explain that nothing really begins anywhere.

The FPS didn’t begin with Doom, RPGs didn’t begin with D&D, and the fantasy genre didn’t begin with Tolkien. What’s fun is to dig out what came before, and then see if things could have also gone in a different direction. And so the time warp.

The problem is I already outpaced my train of thoughts and gone in a different sidetracks.

Here above I was commenting on Valkenburg Castle and how it’s a completely unknown little game that blends wargames and RPGs, in those chaotic and creative years when the classic historical wargames started to hybridize with fantasy and sci-fi.

So I thought, am I the only one seeing the huge potential in that small game? How it could be the gate to something bigger that didn’t happen?

Not really, because it did happen.

Weeks later after looking into Valkenburg Castle I realized the designer, Stephen V. Cole, is not some unknown dude who made that game and then disappeared from the scene, but he was the creator of a much bigger thing: Star Fleet Battles.

That’s a giant tactical game in space that continued to be relevant, despite its substantial grognard-ness, from 1979 to 1999, pretty much. That also spawned its supporting ecosystem of magazines like Nexus and Captain’s Log, while going though various versions of rules compilations and endless erratas. Pretty much like Advanced Squad Leader. But in Spaaace.

It also lead to the development of a new language that looks incredibly close to a cat walking on a keyboard:

Or, at other times, almost machine code:

Yes, we are grognard, but are we grognard enough?

I also found out that the format of Valkenburg Castle was actually copied from the “MicroGames” done by Metagaming (that also published the magazine The Space Gamer), that I also mentioned above because two of those microgames were “Melee” and “Wizard” designed by Steve Jackson that would then be joined to make their D&D rival called The Fantasy Trip.

These MicroGame games have all a similar format. A few pages of rules, an handful of counters and a game board themed around a concept.

Those were times of wild experimentation and hybridization, and it’s from there that D&D came out. What I absolutely didn’t know is that a whole lot more came out, and now I’m discovering it first-hard, as it happened back then. I’m finding that past that was overwritten and hidden away.

Going through all those loops made me find this:

And look more closely:

This guy that, if I’m not wrong, I heard about on this forum back then when I first found it. But I don’t remember what it was about. I think he had a blog where he ranted about stuff, those years when we all had a blog where to rant about stuff.

But Greg Costikyan made a lot of games, in the styles of these above.

One of them looks very closely to this idea of the solo dungeon crawler, where the dungeon is generated and assembled with some basic board pieces.

It too had the foundation for a “campaign”:

And so we are back to this idea of the unknown (forgotten) fantasy board game.

I wonder how much stuff does exist that indeed did happen but I simply know nothing about. I connected a whole lot of dots, but I really don’t know if the fantasy genre really mixed with the wargaming one. I knew about Star Fleet Battles, and all those variations of 4X and tactical battles (Starmada is another), but it all relatively blank when it comes to the fantasy side of things.

I wonder if there was an equally expansive fantasy cousin to those deep tactical sci-fi games. And probably it might be that Blackmoor that was then overwritten and erased by D&D, but I’m not sure. It might be once again that it exists and I know nothing about it.

In any case, to link back to the starting point, not even Star Fleet Battles was a beginning, of course.

That’s a real boat, from a different game called Battlewagon, also by Task Force. Wasn’t Star Fleet Battles about boats in space anyway?

But maybe not, because Battlewagon came out later that SFB… So who knows what came before SFB?

In any case, those years going from early 70s (or even before) to early 80s are a goldmine, if a little hard to dig.

I have to go back.

Oh, and I was forgetting. Sometime you have those widgets that give information about the “complexity” of a game.

I’m looking for the stuff in the “impossible” tier. that one step beyond the absolute grognard. The mind-bending, soul shattering bookkeeping.


They are all pansy “intermediate”, at best.

Now these days a game like Star Fleet Battles is up there with the absolute grognards, as I said.

…But back then?

Look at this shit:

Back then SFB was considered “introductory”!

Before everything got watered down into nothingness, those grandfathers of games didn’t cower in front of an handful of charts and tables. They knew their stuff.

But where the hell are the HARD games?! Have they transcended reality and left no trace?

(not everything written here is True, but a slight divergence of perception is in the nature of a time warp)

loses some of the essential ambition of the game in its presentation.

I rage at this. It’s always the same…

Anyway, I vaguely mentioned above Starfire, a close relative of SFB. That too got greatly expanded… and then dumbed down in the most current versions.

But it is interesting because Starfire was the foundation that lead to “Dwarf Fortress in space”. That grognard computer game known as Aurora.

Sadly the author decided to go through endless rewrites of the game, so it has stalled for years. But it’s probably the most ambitious 4X out there:

??? current version of Starfire (SOLAR Starfire) is pretty much unplayable due to the complexity (429 pages of text and more text…). It’s also poorly organized and you need to have played SF 2 or 3 (which are the playable but expansive versions) to be able to understand what the hell theya re talking about.

You might like looking into Victory by Any Means (VBAM). It’s much more simple, but still complex enough (especially if you use the first edition with expansions and optional rules) but much more playable. It is a campaign system with no tactical combat rules (you are supossed to either use the fast combat resolution included -works well for the scale- or plug in your favorite starship tactical combat system to resolve battles).

For fantasy I don’t think you have mentioned Dragon Pass yet (or White Bear and Red Moon if you want the very original). Cool wargame, average complexity on the basic, but loads of special rules and lots of flavor. Also, Heroquest’s setting comes from this game, so definitely another tie between wargames and RPGs.

Yes, from what I read the “good” version of Starfire was the third. The maximum “reach” of the game was between the third and fourth, but the fourth was a mess of its own and didn’t establish itself.

The fifth was an attempt to reorganize again the fourth, but it says right on their site:
“Updated over the next 5 years, the goal of ULTRA STARFIRE was to produce a set of rules that were streamlined, had reduced paperwork”

Of course that sounds good, but not in my peculiar book.

Then the sixth version continues pretty much the same.

In their own internal complexity chart Task Force, even the third version of the game, considered Starfire a “moderately” complex game. Only when you add the campaigns then it moves to “advanced”.

There’s a thread on Aurora forums where they discuss a bit the various versions:

I’ve also looked at other Task Force games and they are all usually “moderate” at best.

There’s also this thing about the YEARS. I pretty much can write off everything that comes after 1999 (at least through this retro perspective). It’s the whole mindset that got warped. That’s why it’s so hard to truly go back, because most current resources on the internet filter the old stuff through the modern point of view, rather than letting you FEEL the ways these games were perceived during their time.

So for example Starfire develops between 1975-80, then the second edition in 1984-85, and the third in 1992-93. The 90s is when everything IMPLODES. It’s when things start to get muddled. There’s some good stuff because it comes in the wake of some big games that still drag their origin with them, and those don’t simply vanish, but when something goes past early-90s then it means it most likely lost all its flavor. It’s game over.

Hence my reticence to consider Starfire in all its incarnations past the fourth. These are new species of gamers, even when they are old-schoolers and grognards.

Some info on that chimeric Sword Path Glory melee system:

“The rest of the combat system is also fairly complex. For example, combat takes place using a 1/12th of a second time scale. Weapon, shield, and movement speed are all tracked separately. When moving, you track acceleration, deceleration, and turn radius. There are specific rules for how armor affects damage — both inflicted and taken — and much more.”

SP:G is what you get when five off-duty engineers lock themselves in a room and they want some realism. It models able-bodied, right-handed humanoids *(he said it scaled down to dwarves really well, 4’2″ guys with 40″ vertical leaps in armor)* down to 1/10 second impulses, with linear and rotational acceleration rates, and every single swing. For damage, they modeled weapon tip shapes, body target areas, and the volumetric intersections thereof, and assigned hit point density values based on things like muscles/nerves/brains.

The designer of the game now works on slightly less complex stuff:

Tabletop RPGs, There and Back Again, part 1

The widening links of my projects’ chains are becoming galaxies. Come along for an impossible, pointless journey through time and theme.

Back in April 2019 I wrote that I was going to archive some rambly posts, so I will now.

This will be a flood on tabletop RPGs. I’m going to move here what I wrote at the time across a couple of forums. Then maybe I’ll move to an analysis about the various iterations of Chivalry & Sorcery. One of the most significant destinations is the 70s.

(This is how long? 6000 words? Just the first part? Ok.)

Part 1 – Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7

“The only way forward is going back.”

But I’m not going forward here, I’m crossing the streams. I’m doing a time warp by stepping sideways, to a different timeline.

It’s because I enjoy completely owning, solely driving, and wholly understanding the narrative and mechanics in these self-contained story/challenge machines. They’re like computer games but without any graphics to shove my imagination aside and without any rules running unseen under the hood and without any hardware conflicts or bugs or framerate issues. They’re tactile and complete, played at my own pace, saved anywhere. I can mull over a turn for an hour while I do something else, or just charge ahead to see what happens, because if it all falls apart, I can just start again.

But I know it looks weird to a lot of people who have no compunction about playing a computer game solitaire, or boardgaming with a group of friends. Why doesn’t it make perfect sense that just as someone might play a computer game with friends, someone also might play a boardgame solitaire? To me, they’re all of a piece.



I thought it was better to splinter this from the thread where we discussed Pen and Paper RPG rules and progression systems, because it was about to go way off the rails. Usually I would write this and tuck it away on some blog, but I decided otherwise for the following two reasons:

1 – It’s overly ambitious in depth and scope. No hope nor plan to ever make it concrete, so the goal is to inspire someone else with ideas that are cool, on their own. “Passing the torch”, so to speak (if someone won’t mind getting burnt).
2- Maybe eventually get some feedback or suggestions about those ideas, furthering the rabbit hole, solve problems and all that.

But due to the extremely niche nature of the endeavor I doubt people will engage, beside some superficial curiosity about the breadth and mess of such project(s).


Anyway, all things have origins that are treacherous and misleading (the theme of origin will be discussed later, it’s the prerequisite for creating new timelines and changing the world through syzygies and timegates, hint: they are the same, but we won’t go there, here). Because no-thing has an origin, only a flux in a system of complexity. The more you see, the more you see (especially the redundancies). The “origin” of this project was (quite) a few years go. I spent some time in a time machine, living again the medieval age of computers. It’s something extremely absorbing to do because now you can find on the internet those old magazines like BYTE, “Creative Computing” and so on, while also watching “Halt and Catch Fire” for flavor. The stuff that is the most important is the stuff that you’d ignore, like ads and readers’ mails.

At the same time I launched myself on a journey through the early (well early for me, I started there as a kid) computer games, on the Commodore 64 and the Amiga. All sort of stuff, but especially RPGs. And especially dungeon crawlers. Dungeon Master, Black Crypt, Captive, Fate Gates of Dawn, and so on and so on (insert Zizek meme). But with my style, that is about analyzing and abstracting. All games have universal mechanics after you abstract them enough, and then you can re-base them, and create something new (more on this later… and before).

I was fully immersed, with the game magazines as companions, of course, or it would never work. You cannot go back without context. And so reading Zzap!, Aholy!, Compute Gazette, and all that. I went through the whole lifetime of the Amiga, looking up games in the emulator and then reading reviews and the excitement of those years. (the work of The CRPG Addict was also invaluable… who’s now on Patreon and for just $1 you should support him!) I remember the last game was “Liberator”, a really weird and overly ambitious sequel to Captive on the Amiga CD32 (and a mess to set up properly). Right after that I went for a different journey, through the breadth of the “roguelikes.” Not really following a timeline, and more jumping around to see the most interesting ones. To get a whiff of that absolute freedom. (those that are important for me: Cataclysm:DDA, Legerdemain, Incursion, Tome 2.3)

(at this point I wrote many more paragraphs describing the history of this project, but I’ll cut to get faster to the point)

Through all that I started building on an idea (or rather, an unending stream of ideas, that continue to this day): I would try to code a roguelike-like based on a few parallel paths: the history of computer RPGs, the history of Pen & Paper RP systems, and my own learning how to code, starting from scratch. It was an ideal trajectory, where my project would work like a time machine, from the early simple days to the maturity of the genre, with much deeper mechanics and broadening of the scope. I’d use my game-project as a vehicle to move through time.

(Consider this: the simplicity of the first RPGs wasn’t for a lack of ambition, but it was shaped by hardware constraints. Those programmers and designers had to worry about exhausting memory and speed. Here instead I have INFINITE POWER. That enables me to slipstream through time, and express what couldn’t be expressed.)

I wasn’t trying to learn how “to code”, but just getting to a serviceable point where I could then do what I wanted to do, so that I could experiment with the core “content”, the design of the game itself. An ideal “plateau.” With also another purpose: to rediscover what made those old games truly special and that is now lost. Because yes, progress is transformative and things get better. But with that process there’s something that always gets lost, and that still maintains its potential if you know how to find it and express it. There’s so much value that is NOT nostalgia, the lifeforce wanes with time, and you have to go back to discover how it works (this will then lead to the principle behind this new project).

I was actually able to achieve a lot of what I wanted to, but I also got severely bogged down every time I had to deal with the UI. Even coding a tiny menu with mouse controls would require me many, many hours if not days. I didn’t get stuck, but I was moving so slowly that it felt like trying to paint a wallpaper in 4k, pixel by pixel.

It got especially worse when I tried to code the primitives of what would become both an event and dialogue system. It was way too much code “busywork” and not enough the core I wanted to spend time on. And this is the important part. My roguelike project was built on the idea of building a “full” Pen & Paper system. I didn’t want the feel of a computer RPG, I wanted the PnP RPG feel. All mechanics being explicit, all classic dice rolls and no shady computer calculations. The idea was to meticulously study ALL the existing systems and make one GIANT FRANKENSTEIN HYBRID. I was going to fuse the history of PnP systems into one. The one ring to rule them all. (I know it all sounds bullshit, and I was fully aware of this bullshittery already when I started, the Vision is lucid)

The basis of the system was going to be Harnmaster, a game that aimed for a quite in-depth, tactical combat based on the percentile dice, so not much different from Chaosium games like Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest. It’s the most straightforward mechanic to grasp, you have like a 75% to succeed and that’s immediately intuitive. Then I started to layer more and more systems on top of it, taking the turn phases from Combat & Tactics supplement for AD&D 2nd, integrating some ideas from the less known and fidgety Gygaxian Dangerous Journey, trying to make sense of RoleMaster… Until I really discovered the entrance to the rabbit hole of complex combat mechanics: The Riddle of the Steel, leading then to its spawn of three, Band of Bastards (Sword and Scoundrel), Blade of the Iron Throne, and the better known Song of Swords. Hunting down their respective alpha versions so that I could study not only the shape of those games, but they way they evolved through their design. But these are just a few examples because in just the last three months my knowledge increased tenfolds, until I dug deep and struck an ancient vein of true gold: Chivalry and Tactics, Aftermath!

…and then the deepest cavern, the Leading Edge games:

Sword’s Path Glory, Phoenix Command and Living Steel.

It sounds like a joke but the game design of these games was made by a guy who’s, literally, a rocket scientist working for NASA. And if you read some comments on the internet you’d learn (if they are to be trusted) that all the games produced across a decade were a way to “dumb down” the original concept in a way that it could have been at least accessible for the most hardcore of the grognards. From the original Sword’s Path Glory, to its first dumbed down public release with a red cover, to another simplified version in two volumes, this one the only one that still survives today. Its advanced book, though, was never completed:

The story, and simplification of rules continues with Rhand – Morning Star Missions, this time offering a fantasy setting along with the simpler rules. A setting that then would be kicked in the far future with Living Steel, that is sci-fi with power armors. But before getting to that point there were another couple of games, Spectrum Small Arms (some people claim having it, but it’s like the Grail) and the most famous of all: Phoenix Command.

The funny thing is that Phoenix Command, the system that was the result of many phases of rules’ simplification, is considered today the game that still defies the most grognards:

“Any game system needs to balance complexity against “realism”. Modeling reality is can be complicated – super-complexity doesn’t make for enjoyable gaming. Designers have to draw the line at some point in the spectrum. This game has no line.”

“There are plenty of reviews/play sessions around the internet that try to play out a single round of combat (sub-second in game time). Most of these conclude it takes about twenty to thirty minutes to execute a simple round with a few combatants. I’ll note that I’ve yet to see this done for the Advanced Game. I’ve never seen it done with mounted combat, mechanized vehicles, artillery, hand-to-hand, or engagements with more than a handful of combatants (usually it’s with two). I’ll note also that most of the summaries you do find have various disclaimers like “we didn’t use the drop radius rules”, or “we didn’t use the impact location rules”, etc. That’s because in reality the game is too complicated actually to be played. You just can’t follow the rules because there are too many rules, too many formula, and too many variables to actually track. You can muddle through it and give it a college try. But you really can’t just play it.”

And of course I absolutely relish this stuff. And SUFFER because I really want to lay hands on that 300 pages fantasy supplement that was never published. It’s one of my most sought human artifacts. My precioussss.

But hey, these guys also made a really cool Aliens boardgame, also produced by further phases of simplification, and even a really cool Aliens RPG, both “regressing” in complexity to the point of being ALMOST playable and fun.

This to show the path I was following. Studying these complex systems to learn their cores, abstracting them and see if I could use those ideas into my own hybrid thing. I knew it could work because what players hate the most in complex systems is the bookkeeping, and the bookkeeping is what computers do best. I could get away with lots of complexity that would bog down a true PnP session. As long those rules were coherent, they would only broaden the tactical possibilities. They “would make sense.”

In the process of doing this I was also not avoiding the possibility of stepping back from time to time and appreciate the elegance of simple systems. There is no perfect game, only games with different goals and strengths. Pathfinder is good for what it does, same as those systems that inverted the path and went back (known as “OSR”, Old School Renaissance in the form of Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, Lamentation of the Flame Princess, Dark Dungeons, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Champions of Zed, Adventurer Conqueror King, Dungeon Crawl Classics… and I could go on for a while. Until the quirky but ingenious progressive systems like Torchbearer and Dungeon World.

But my attention was caught by a different sidetrack: the solo RPGs.

Now I need to step back a moment. Another foundation of my roguelike project was that it was meant to miss two of the most important core features of a roguelike, the way the term is meant in modern times: all content was going to be static and handcrafted, and death that was harsh but not permanent. Again, I wanted the old-school feel of dungeon exploration. And this was the antithesis of a roguelike, where you run through samey looking, mostly empty rooms to kill dozen and dozen of monsters in a few hits. From Nethack to Moria/Angband and all their spawn, the formula is to move and kill, with very little flavor that wasn’t coming from the intricacy of the tactical scope. Instead I wanted room descriptions, interaction with objects, clever traps. And when it came to combat I wanted much, much rarer fights, but that played with the complexity of a turn based game. Like a Final Fantasy Tactics, but with PnP rules that came from Harnmaster, Runequest, RoleMaster… and now Phoenix Command.

(…but a few years later…)

(Steve Jackson would then move on to make GURPS, even if that took a few more years)

Maybe you can now have a glimpse at the Big Picture. Not only my project was aiming at this huge systemic complexity, but it also wanted to recreate the old-school feel through those specific room descriptions and interaction, let’s say a retro-evolution of the Gold Box games, unlocking that potential that no one saw. A fully handcrafted dungeon that offered A LOT more than monsters to kill. But that also meant that not only I need to create “a game”, but also the “content” of the game. Room by room, drawing and writing the dungeon, reading old RPG modules like Temple of Elemental Evil, and warp, fuse with everything else. Creating new shapes from the old. And, again, of course I knew all of this was absurd, and I kept joking I had a project that I absolutely could complete, give or take 700 years, working full time. I knew exactly what I was doing, I had a clear Vision, no groping around blindly to find out what works or doesn’t, it was all precisely directed and no roadblock in sight. Only the flimsy transience of existence, but who cares.

That duplicity, of the game as a system, and the game as content, was a problem that was unsolvable by its nature. A dungeon had to be created room by room, no shortcut. I was deliberately moving away from the generative, dynamic structure of classic roguelikes. The stuff I wanted to avoid the most, if you again look at how strongly I wanted to adhere to PnP material, “no computer stuff.” I didn’t want to get swamped with algorithms to generate dungeons and other non-boardgame mechanics. Including pathfinding and enemy AI, that were mandatory and unavoidable anyway.

And that’s the whole point.

I realized there was this subset of games that DID AWAY WITH ALL COMPUTER COMPLEXITY. That removed everything that was “technical.” A miracle. All that baggage that seemed embedded in the thing… completely gone. There’s a subset of systems whose main purpose is to be played alone:

D100 Dungeon, Four Against Darkness and the more recent Rangers of Shadow Keep.

(and along those I also found a cool youtube channel where grandma teaches you all the secrets of the solo RPGs, I love this channel now)

The “mechanics” that build these games are essentially nothing more than a bunch of tables that are put together in a clever way. And what’s one of the easiest data structure in a program? A table. I realized that it would be rather simple to “convert” a game like D100 Dungeon in a computer game. Once you know how to print text on screen the rest is straightforward. And it’s a wholly contained, replayable system. It needs “content”, but it’s systemic content. It’s built on moving parts that stay in the game.

So I started to have a vision of a much different “roguelike” hybrid, one that was the antithesis of my other project. With simple rules and generated content. But not “generated” through complex computer algorithms like Dwarf Fortress or Caves of Qud. Generated instead in the sense of a boardgame hybridized with a RPG. A (solo) boardgame-style computer RPG. Something that could actually be made whole and COMPLETE in a (almost) realistic timeframe. Not a project that defied humanity as a scale, but something humanely possible. Even by myself (although not really).

This new project would start by deconstructing and analyzing the moving parts of those solo games. The prepping before an adventure, for example, creating the character, equipping it, choosing a quest. Then moving to the dungeon itself, the mechanics of the player’s choice, until the end of the quest, so the reward and character progress. With the idea then of chaining these small adventures into a bigger “campaign”, that could open up and scale to new levels. Once again I would study the mechanics of these three systems, and then fuse the best parts. One game, with a bigger scope.

Now… You probably start having the feel you’ve already seen this. For example Darkest Dungeon is doing exactly this. But it isn’t. Darkest Dungeon follows a similar structure, but again it is deeply ingrained as a “computer game”. It’s full of fiddly bits and it’s a game of attrition where all the focus is about the tactical combat and the way you build and develop your party. Those fiddly bits move it very far away from the feeling of a RPG. It’s a great game for what it does, but the focus I want is instead on the adventure. On the exploration.

To find that flavor, again, you have to go back.

Let’s call this initial analysis and fusion of those three solo games I mentioned as “Phase One.” When that’s done I’d have a self-contained system that’s relatively simple and straightforward. That “just works.” It wouldn’t be all that interesting, though, because the success of those game comes from the physical aspects, holding the dice in your hands, drawing the maps with real paper and pencil. Once you erase that layer it would probably feel playable, but shallow. And when I strike a vein, then I don’t stop.

The idea that followed was that if I was making a boardgame-like roguelike, then I could go ALL THE WAY, and embrace the vision. I needed more breadth and complexity, and I went where it can be found: Gloomhaven and Kingdom Death Monster.

Phase Two would be to hybridize the conglomerate of solo games coming from Phase One, with the most loved boardgames in this subgenre.

Does it stop here? Nope. We have a Phase Three, and then a final wrap up. Now, I haven’t really started anything at this point, beside making up this general outline. I have a very, very vague idea of the inner mechanics of both Gloomhaven and Kingdom Death Monster. I don’t know how much they can be brought together in a useful and pragmatic way. But I know the more the task looks impossible, and the more it leaves space for something entirely new. So here we get to the philosophical point (a little more patience).

Phase Three would be taking the conglomerate that comes out of Phase One and Two, and hybridize it with a new set. This new set is the timegate. It is where we (I) (no one) will attempt the time warp.

While exploring all this stuff I found an old, small and generally unknown game. It’s called “Valkenburg Castle.” This game is the result of its own hybridization, but it targets exactly that “history that never was.” OD&D (Original D&D) was created by Dave Arneson from its wargaming roots. From some Grand Campaigns so broad in scope that it was necessary to model the single generals. These games would then be linked together so that different groups of players would participate and contribute to an enormous Big Picture. Because that was the ambition of those days. The golden age didn’t start with D&D, it DIED with it.

These roots were still visible in that OD&D:

And especially in the Blackmoor campaign that preceded it, and that is mostly lost now:

(this type of combat actually does appear in the form of optional rules to D&D, in the first published Blackmoor module)

We got all the the beautiful maps and tunnels of the Blackmoor dungeon, but sadly not much of the actual content like room descriptions. In more recent years it was made into updated sourcebooks, but it’s really just a remake that erases all that made the dungeon so distant from what we then got in the shape of RPGs.

Without even considering the level, what kind of party can face a THOUSAND of monsters, all preparing an ambush? It wasn’t much better even for the first level of the dungeon:

Your newly assembled party opens the door to the first room of the dungeon. What do they find? THIRTYTWO Kobolds. Or look at room 9D, FORTY Goblins! Will it take the rest of the evening to clear that room? It sounds more like the dungeon was meant to be stormed by a full army.

But the stuff that is most interesting is again the wargaming roots. The game space was an area meant to be conquered and fought over by players, the rules that would then be plugged into the OD&D by allowing characters at the high levels to build strongholds. But the game was never going back again to its Darkmoor roots. There were detailed rules to make roads, and even keep their maintenance as time passed:

Pre-Original D&D, in the form of Blackmoor was a full featured, extremely complex grognard wargame with a dungeon crawl embedded in its structure. With the release of D&D we got the dungeon part severely dumbed down, and the wargame layer completely removed. A turn of history. Here and there you can read hints about that original Blackmoor. It was more like a modern MMORPG, it was a game space, populated by multiple parties of players, all coordinated at a general level by the referee, or more than one referee. It was a GIANT thing. A simulation of a fantasy world. It was essentially an Eve-Online prototype in a fantasy form.

Here we have implied rules just in case you wanted to make an harem. See the asterisk? You can buy slaves either for pleasure or for labor. If male they can do both, if female it’s only for pleasure. But you see, there’s a distinction, because female slaves that wear white silk cost quite a bit more than those who wear red. And you can buy a single one, or get a discount if you order in bulk. Even then you need to be wary, because those precious white silk ladies come with a 50% failure to arrive. I suppose brigands. So I’m not so sure it’s a good deal, as the red silk clad ladies instead only take a 16% risk. Unless, I guess, you send an escort to make sure your purchase is secured.

All this stuff in a table. And through the 40+ years of RPGs I haven’t seen anything that compares to the intricacy of that system. These are “systemic” rules, they aren’t part of a linear story. They structure the way this virtual world operates, and players will be just travelers, deciding freely how to interact. The focus is moved outside, to the world, not a bubble of personal story.

I’m sure most people, if not simply everyone, would think that it was only good if RPGs found their own space and shrugged away those grognard roots. And that’s fine, but here we jump back to Valkenburg Castle. This mostly forgotten game was considered somewhat mediocre, yet when I found it I thought I had struck a whole new vein of greatness.

It’s an odd sort of dungeon crawler boardgame. It’s two players, one “good”, the other “evil”. You get to set up multiple parties, decide how to distribute you men, but considering that you can’t have more than 12 men in a single square, then choose what kind of armor they wear, because if they wear heavy armor they are more resistant, but move slower, and if they wear light armor they are squishy, but move faster. The combat is very simple, you roll a d6 and depending on a few factors you look on a table how many wounds or hits you delivered. For every hit, one kill. But despite this, there’s a level of intricacy below. Doors can be smashed open, chopped down, or lock-picked. If the lockpicking fails there’s a chance they are stuck permanently. There are some elaborate maneuver rules in combat, that consider flanking and wide open or closed spaces. You can hold a door open with one unit while another goes through it, sparing a movement point. It’s all interesting stuff because it’s all flavor and mechanical interaction you don’t expect to find. You’d expect something far more abstracted, streamlined. You an play a number of scenarios, or a campaign where those scenarios are linked together, tracking your progress from game to game. See how it takes a new shape? It’s just a small dungeon with five levels, some orcs, and a dragon at the bottom, but it starts to feel like a small world with all the options it offers. In the “designer’s notes” the author writes:

Now tell me, what kind of game makes its focus not the killing of the dragon, but in the transportation of the loot, that thanks to an encumbrance system will slow down the “good” player units, making them easier to reach by the orc reinforcements? And of course you NEED that gold, here, because in the campaign you use it to assemble new units to send in the dungeon. Successes and failures carry over from game to game.

In just a few pages of rules, some dungeon levels and an handful of ugly counters, there’s a game with an incredible depth and significant replayability. The idea of the campaign makes it “matter”, shaping up like a little contained world, even if you don’t get to see the locales outside the dungeon. I see this game as a symbol of a history that never was.

What is the difference between a boardgame like Kingdom Death Monster, and a PnP RPG? The absence of a master. My project is about removing the computer as a master. Imagine a game that offers “tools” for the player to use, and build a story. It would be about giving shape to that history that wasn’t. A bit like how Cultist Simulator uses cards to shape a story. A simulation without a simulation. Without any computer trickery moving behind the scene.

Here we arrive to the final layer. It comes at the end, but it was immediately part of the concept: The Binding of Isaac. My idea to wrap this thing together is that the first time you launch the game all you should have is a very linear, very simple story. An immediate, easy to reach goal. In the tradition of roguelikes, you’ll likely die a lot. Roguelikes are built on the concept that, even if with each character death you reset the whole thing, the “progress” is instead all focused on the player, as the real character. You learn by dying. Over and over. Learning new tricks and avoiding old traps. Every time you go a little deeper, make a little progress. But in the eventuality you win the game you’d have seen most it has to offer. The dungeon is more or less always the same. My idea was instead to rely on a “combo.” On one side the player learns, but on the other the game world grows too. It takes its shape piece by piece. Every small progress unlocks a new chunk, and that chunk joins the bigger game in a “systemic” way, so that from that point onward it will be available at all times. It opens up, offers alternative paths, new trajectories. With this party you’ll go that way, with this other party you might decide for a completely different journey. Or go back and forth. It’s the idea of a sandbox, opposed to a game with a linear flow. And here we get to the last idea.

While doing all this, reading PnP rulesets and all that stuff, I also spent some time having a look at the “gamebooks.” That stuff you’d consider completely obsolete these days, something you’d bet can ONLY be fueled by nostalgia and nothing else of worth. But I found some interesting stuff. I bought a few gamebooks when I was a kid, and no access to Dungeons & Dragons beside a couple of episodes of the animated series. But even at that time I thought those gamebooks were extremely disappointing. They were shallow and felt like poor power fantasy fanfiction. Besides a few volumes of Lone Wolf, I had another two series. That I’ve now looked up.

The first is a series titled “Fatemaster.” It doesn’t seem to be remembered too fondly nowadays (by the way, all the Lone Wolf books are online and available for free) but it’s interesting because it offered a little more in the way of an RPG. Instead of presenting a mostly linear path, it allowed a small amount of free exploration, and it even included a little hex-crawl! Along with the usual dungeon. You were meant to draw your maps while exploring that world.

Another I had is instead far more popular and probably the apex of the whole genre: Blood Sword. This was a series of five books, but they were much bigger in scope, and included dungeons with at least some weak tactical combat. If Lone Wolf is mostly built by 350 entries for every book, Blood Sword goes above 800. It was somewhat more serious and interesting to read, although it was meant to be played with other “players” and so you’d have to take turns reading aloud, and in the end I don’t remember the experience all that fondly because it gets tiring when your school friend drones on and on. Attention wanes and so goes the appreciation of the story. You wake up from stupor only when it’s time to fight again.

And finally we come to the one that gets the crown along with Blood Sword, and that brought new ideas: Fabled Lands. This was also a series. Can you see that, even here, I have no interest what so ever for one-shots? But this is truly generally considered the best the gamebooks had to offer along with Blood Sword. Sadly the series came out too late in the cycle, when the vein of gamebooks already started to dry. The Lone Wolf books came out, the main series of the first 20, between 1984 and 1993. Blood Sword was 1987-1988. Fabled Lands only started to appear in 1995 and it was an overly ambitious series with 12 big books planned. Only six were published, with the seventh Kickstarted and released just a year ago. Because we live in post-modernity when all time is contemporary. So why not gamebooks.

The Fabled Lands was a truly interesting series because it greatly expanded on the Fatemaster concept of an explorable “world”. But it didn’t stop there. It wasn’t just one adventure/quest turned non-linear and allowing free exploration. It instead CHAINED all the books together, non-linearly. You can start at any point, with any volume of those six that where released, and then travel back and forth BETWEEN BOOKS, exploring how you please. The “game” uses a clever system of keywords that you write down, so that every time you revisit an old location you skip some events that were meant to happen only once, or trigger new ones. (the Fabled Lands, with the exclusion of the seventh recent book, are also freely available, with a nifty Java app that tracks all progress for you)

I found online some diagrams for the Lone Wolf book. They all look pretty much like this:

What Lost Lands offered, and the concept I want to retrieve, is that instead of a linear path with a few branches, you got a “system.” It can be visualized like a “cloud”, (sadly I couldn’t find similar diagrams for Lost Lands). Every path is non-linear, or at least only linear in segments. But you find your own path through that system. You draw your lines, your trajectories. You build your story.

With this Grand Plan came more ideas: for example your character could get hopelessly lost and in danger in a dungeon, but you could create a brand new party and send it to the rescue. Or you could, if you wanted, send and suspend different parties out in the world in a static way, going back and forth. The game world would never reset, it would take its shape as it is randomly built. Shuffling the dungeons themselves on demand for replayability. (something like Adom, for example)

Now join all the blocks.

You take this Lost Lands cloud-world structure of systemic possibilities, but mixed with the inspiration I took from The Binding of Isaac. Instead of having this game-world all open the first time you boot the game, you’d have it slowly taking shape and expanding, through deaths and victories. Growing with the player.

It would have dungeon crawls when you go deep, and hex-crawl when you explore outside. You could go on your own, aimlessly, or get a quest for a reward. With straightforward and simple combat rules, but with some tactical wargame combat sprinkled over. Some depth of interaction as seen in the Valkenburg game.

All built through the explicit mechanics of a boardgame. No hidden computery stuff, and no game master. No behind the curtain stuff. Just a box of tools, a sandbox, to explore.

I’m jumping onto a different timeline, by going BACK to obsolete game books and those intense golden years that PRECEDED the origin of RPGs. Before everything was funneled into one path. This is the hidden history. It’s as if we only remember as far back as Doom and Ultima, as if nothing that came before is relevant now. Our histories have fake starting points, they start with us instead of before us. In the same (blind) way we might consider Tolkien as the origin of Fantasy.

With the Original D&D Arneson and Gygax gave shape to only one of the possible worlds. The one we live in. But the seeds that delivered it weren’t planted by them. They were planted BEFORE them. And they could have grown in much different ways, create different worlds. In at least one of them Trump is not the president (now you know who to blame).

Games are a way to explore retro-futures that didn’t happen, in the same way you can explore a what-if scenario in a WW2 wargame.

Phase One: hybridize Four Against Darkness, D100 Dungeon and Rangers of Shadow Keep into one conglomerate.
Phase Two: hybridize what comes out of Phase One, with boardgame depth and flavor in Gloomhaven and Kingdom Death Monster.
Phase Three: hybridize what comes out of Phase Two with old-school fantasy board-wargames. With some tactical combat and also more focus on adventure and exploration.
Wrap it all in a super-structure: starts small, linear, simple, but expands through a stacking of plug-in modules into a systemic CLUSTERFUCK. (no Stadia or AIs needed)

The end of Black Desert Online

Black Desert Online was the only survivor of the classic, sandbox-y core concept of MMORPG. Even its existence was singular, and it’s curious that the game that got closer to that ideal was a Korean-made game, since that ideal was born and developed (and then killed) in the West. Now it is going to be corrected.

Pearl Abyss, the company that develops BDO in Korea, and that ironically bought Eve-Online recently, announced a sequel-inspired new MMO titled “Crimson Desert.” Players have already noticed that in the past year development on BDO slowed dramatically, an obvious sign that developers resources are being moved to new projects (PA announced more than one new game).

And it’s more than irony that Crimson Desert is built on the basis of what they learned from BDO, and they decided to develop Crimson Desert… as a single-player game shoved clumsily into a MMORPG.

Doing more things, all of them poorly (nothing in a single-player game benefits from a MMORPG, nothing in a MMORPG benefits from single-player, they are antithetic in pure game design).

So, the reason why these days the mmorpg genre is in the shape you all can see is that it FAILED. These days we can see that the most successful are those with a very conservative design, like Destiny and similar structured games, where only the general context is shared and there’s nothing “massive” going on.

The genre died because it faced significant technical and design problems, and the industry as a whole eventually embraced the path it always embraced historically: the one of least resistance.

The reason for this is that a mmorpg is the most complex game software you can make. It’s the culmination. And for these reasons making a mmorpg COSTS A LOT. Maximum costs are then matched with maximum risks, exactly because there are plenty of things that can go wrong and make you ambitious project (and invested money) collapse into nothing.

Maximum costs + maximum risks = lots of failures in so many years. Eventually all game companies decided to take the easy, safer road. The easy road was making copies of World of Warcraft, and for many, many years that’s all we got. Simply going for that recipe made by others that was proven successful. WoW that itself was rather conservative and very simple in its design. And yet none of those thousands of copycats even got half as good as WoW. Because they were just that, pale imitations without insight or competence. Even “copying” is an art that requires skill, diligence, study, at least a little bit of passion for what you are closely observing to steal its secrets. And those were instead just greedy attempts at stealing some golden eggs that WoW left unattended, since its hoard was so immense.

The mmorpg industry as a whole fed on WoW’s scraps. Like hyenas.

Crimson Desert comes from the same philosophy of trying to copy those paths of least resistance. In this case the lure of a simpler, more directed single-player experience whose recipe appears so much easier to get. It’s a mmorpg that goes to copy the proven recipe, the safe success. The path of least resistance.

That’s why it’s not a mmorpg, even if it will eventually use the genre to excuse its shortcomings. You don’t make mmorpg sequels because mmorpgs exist as if they are gardens, organic environments, alive, that need to be taken care of with dedication and devotion, and then slowly grow and improve. It’s a long journey of hard work and learning, that the developer has to do hand in hand with the player, and that is the very opposite from the ivory tower of superiority and privilege where most developers in leading positions prefer to live in. If you instead destroy everything every few years, you end up with nothing, because things take time and dedication to grow properly (and these games simply aren’t very suitable for an industry that devours and wastes).

We can go all the way back to Tolkien, who also tried to build a world, and still is today the most successful attempt. Tolkien spent all his life building and precisely refining his world. He never restarted from scratch every time he decided that he learned a valuable lesson.

The mmorpg “industry” is dead because it failed. We now have a former, consolidated game industry that “adopts” some mmorpg-light concepts and integrates them into classic games. The carcass of mmorpg has been torn apart and scattered. It is unlikely it will show up whole again. It’s done. It’s dead.

Back to mmorpgs, we continue to see mmorpg-sequels solely because mmorpgs are still being built as linear games. And the industry still today prefers to copy the conservative recipes. Even BDO, as a clumsy attempt of trying a sandbox, is now being sacrificed to go back to the recipe of tacked on single player linear game. And that’s why, being greedy and jealous of what other companies do better, they’ll end up loosing what they had, and obtain nothing else either.

Maybe this time PA isn’t copying WoW, it’s copying The Witcher. The result is just the same. Wait and see.

Destiny 2 has taken a wrong direction, I suggest a few quick and simple fixes to have it back on track


I’m adding at the end of this post a quick summary of the changes I’m proposing, both major and small nitpicks. The rest of this post has the purpose of motivating those suggestions.

Or: **the main game content is way too easy**, fixing it and significantly improve the experience for new players is very simple and doesn’t requite retouching that content.

TL;DR = scroll to the bottom for the solutions I propose

I’ll do my best to explain my reasons, but since most of everyone around here is a veteran, their attention is focused entirely elsewhere, on the new content, and so I doubt this will spark any interest, even if I feel it’s instead crucial to the success of the game. I’ll try anyway. (and I’ve seen it happen many times, see the high demand in World of Warcraft for classic servers after the “live” game has made bad choices after bad choices, only to realize it’s too late to fix)

The two main reasons that make me say D2 has taken a wrong direction are:
– The decision to make the immediate level up to 750 obligatory.
– The decision to have seasonal content temporary, so that it is not playable anymore after the end of its season.

Right now I’ve bought the old annual pass, but haven’t played directly any of its content. But I can still access all of it, if I decide so. If instead I buy the current annual pass and wait a year, then that money would be simply spent on nothing. While this only affects a small groups of players, it still plays a role when it comes to decide whether to purchase a piece of content or not. If I’m not sure I have a big chunk of time to dedicate to the game in the short term, then I’ll have qualms even making an impulsive purchase. In the previous system players were always encouraged to come back after a few months and “catch up” with all the content that piled up while they were away (which also gives a pleasant feeling, knowing there’s so much to do when you return), in the new system that content is gone, and there’s no catch up at all. The more you lose that time and content, the more you feel detached from the game and more and more less likely to return. The result is that players are actually encouraged to leave the game without looking back, because they will feel like they lost that train and the game moved on without them.

But this post will focus on the new player’s experience, and why I think Shadowkeep will destroy it, at a time when it was needed the most to bring fresh blood into the game. My point is that the new release will bring many new players, but they will abandon it because of some bad choices that make the game feel dull and too watered down.

I’ll go to the point: all current story missions (base, Osiris, Warmind and Forsaken) are way, way, WAY too easy. They aren’t unfun because they are badly designed, but because they require no effort and simply end up feeling pointless and boring. Shadowkeep will make this problem even WORSE by forcing a level up to 750. When already most players will tell you that “the main game is not the real game”. And yet that’s the part of the game that most players will see and use that decide whether or not they will stick with this game or abandon it. What you think is unimportant is instead crucial.

The beginning of the game has to be good, because it’s what required to spark the interest and cement the desire to play and be part of the experience.

I’ll tell you that the most fun I’ve had with D2 was this past week, doing for the first time story missions in Osiris, Warmind and Forsaken. What made the experience immensely fun was that I had the possibility to go into those missions underleveled, 3-4 levels below requirement. The first time I started the first mission of Warmind all the enemies were invulnerable. So I went out, came back after gaining a level, and then all those enemies at the beginning of the mission were going down in two hits.

I was still severely underleveled and to complete that first mission I died more than twenty times, since there’s a part at the end that is “no respawn”, and it has waves and waves of enemies. It was HARD, but it was never impossible, and I pretty much felt always in control. I died a lot, but made progress, refined my strategy, got close to succeed many times, and eventually won. When I made it through the feeling was glorious, immensely satisfying, and my hands were even shaking a little bit, as the fight was intense. That’s the kind of stuff that you get only from games like Dark Souls.

Now… none of that is possible anymore. It was already impossible doing the main game missions underleveled, but it was possible for Osiris, Warmind and Forsaken (though you had to go way out of your way to stay under level, and most players wouldn’t normally be able to see this). That’s why this week was incredible for me, and why it’s gone. Starting tomorrow, all that content will be instead significantly over-leveled. New players that now come to the game in the post-Shadowkeep era will see that significant amount of content at its worst. That then will contribute to the feeling of blandness and pointlessness that eventually drives many of them away.

Let’s go to the core of the “looter” game design that Destiny is built on: the loot is only meaningful and fun when it’s matched with challenging content. It’s when you’re squeezing all you have to try to push past a difficulty wall that you feel the real thrill of a new piece of loot. Because that loot gives you that bit of help that you absolutely need to push through. That gives you a necessary nudge.

But if instead there is no wall to climb, and you rush through the content effortlessly, then the loot becomes perfunctory. An end to itself without a function. It will feel like a grindy, repetitive and boring experience.

I made through all the missions of the base game without even using my class power. Because enemies and bosses would die effortlessly anyway. If I used my power I could have killed those bosses so quickly that I wouldn’t even been able to experience the mechanics of their encounter. When instead I went through Osiris and Warmind while under-leveled, I had to throw EVERYTHING and the kitchen sink to survive and win.

Whenever the class power came up, it felt like a boon. It felt exciting.

So the deal is:
1- The game needs challenging content to motivate the existence and fun of looting mechanics. Otherwise it feels bland and soulless.
2- You cannot only shove challenging content to the end game and raids. As most players have already left bored before reaching that point.

At the same time, you cannot have a new player start, say, from Forsaken 1st mission. That mission is awesome, but a new player needs to be eased slowly in, get comfortable with the mechanics. The main campaign is *good*, but it’s just way, way too easy, all the way through. It’s extremely boring and pointless because of that.

This part is about solutions. As I said, I got the most fun in the game when I finally had the possibility to run story missions while underleveled (and heroic missions and vanguard strikes, still underleveled and solo).

We don’t just need *new* challenging solo content. We need ALL the game content be like that. Throwing that out is an immense mistake, and the forced jump to 750 will destroy that content.

And yet it’s very, very easy to fix this.

So… what we need is essentially a way to manually de-level characters, in order to play those legacy missions as I was doing this week with Osiris, Warmind and Forsaken. Extended to the main game missions too. Nothing in the content needs to be redesigned and touched, we just need a way to manually level down characters. There’s already a system in place that does it, but it only caps your character at the content level, not lower. What we need is a system to push it further down (manually, optionally), so that the content becomes challenging.

There are essentially four variables in play: your character overall level, your active weapon, your active slots, the overall light level for all equipment. Those are the numbers that, at the start of a legacy story mission, should be manually brought down, as desired by the player, and then pushed back to their standard values when the mission is over and the player returns to the main game.

There are also two aspects, in my experience playing under level, that should be addressed and that I’ll add to the list. One is that sometimes some attacks deal way too much damage, and you can occasionally get killed in just one or two hits. This in never fair nor fun, and should be mitigated. The other aspect is that you generally use more ammo to kill enemies when you’re under level, and run out of ammo quite often. The worst aspect to this is that in those “no-respawn” zones it happened quite often that I died and respawned with zero heavy and special ammo, and sometimes low on main ammo too. So I also think that for those hard respawns (those where enemies respawn too), the ammo on your character should be reset to standard values every time. To have every time a fair fighting chance.

Consider that allowing players to de-level their character only fixes one half of the problem. The content would be challenging, but the loot you obtain would still be pointless. So my proposed solutions below will also address this other aspect.

Here’s everything I suggest:

– At the start of a legacy story mission (main game, Osiris, Warmind, Forsaken, plus whatever you want to include) you give the player a menu option where the player can decide the overall character level to start the mission. This allows players to go in a mission under level, and have that content properly challenging, and so FUN to play. All the content, from hour 1.

– Linked to the first point. The de-level choice should not only set the character to that lower level, but all items in the inventory should be also reset to the same light level, for the duration of the mission. Then they would be reset back to their standard values when the player exits the mission. All the new drops acquired during the mission would be slightly above the de-level (following current standard rules), so that they still provide upgrades (at least temporary). Those new drops should also then be bumped up to standard levels, after the mission is over.

– For ease of use and to encourage players new and old to experience the content in this way, you can hide the de-level mechanics behind intuitive difficulty labels. So you get “very easy” and the more you go lower in level the more the label flags an higher difficulty. Something like: very easy (the game right now post-Shadowkeep), easy, normal, hard, very hard. You can make it granular since it just hides character level tiers. So it’s just one number changing and nothing else in the content. Then encourage players to increase the difficulty to have better chances at drops (for example).

– An hard cap to the damage the player receives, so that no matter the condition, a single hit can never do more than 30-40% the total player health pool. (if done through an algorithm based on damage velocity within a small time frame, even better)

– In “no respawn zones” if the player dies and respawns, a standard amount of ammo should be restored, including heavy and special ammo.

The bottom line is: please make Destiny 2 challenging and fun also for ALL story missions, and not only for a remote endgame. Don’t overlook legacy story content just because you want to sell new stuff. The solutions are easy to implement, and can massively impact the success of the game with minimal effort.

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The planning of plans

Just a note to myself.

I think I’m going to archive here what I wrote and plan to write around a certain couple of projects.

The first project is my old one, about trying to plan and build a computer roguelike RPG hybrid I mentioned before. The coding side of that project is on hold, and I’m focusing on the groundwork for the ruleset. But this has become its own rabbit hole and I keep getting deeper and deeper, and further away from the goal. That’s part of the fun.

The second project is a new one, as a kind of branching off from the first, and is about planning and building a computer roguelike hybrid built on simplified rules and directly inspired by solitaire boardgames. Including both dungeon-crawl and hex-crawl and exploring a world that is part static and part randomly generating, but again with no computer algorithms involved, only boardgame type rules made of basic algebra, tables and simpler dice rolls. To be explored non-linearly and even with multiple characters active at the same time in the same world. The idea is that it’s a computer game that removes the computer as an actor in the game. The game only offers a set of tools through which the player explores and builds the fictional world, and the computer is used to facilitate bookkeeping and similar chores.

I stated writing about both in a thread on QT3, but I think I’ll splinter that too so that I keep there the analysis of all old stuff like PnP RPGs and wargame-boardgames, while I’ll need to find a specialized forum to write down the experiments about the rules…

Metaphysics of “subscribe to Pewdiepie”

Yes, this is a funny title for a very, very, unfunny topic, in light of recent events. But I always disliked rhetoric and the metaphysics are indirectly pertinent here, providing the structure and patterns I use for analysis. So it’s more like a subtle hint.

While in most other cases I didn’t consider Pewdiepie responsible of what he was being accused, this time it’s different. Things are more complex than how they appear and you can’t simply distance yourself from the act. Saying you have nothing to do with it, on one side it’s obvious, on the other it’s myopic.

So let’s talk about this myopia, and why it’s so widespread.

When there’s some controversial topic it’s always hard to discuss it and analyze for what it is, because people get irritated, come with prejudices and the end result is that instead of a better understanding of a problem you end up exacerbating it. One strategy I use, both when I think by myself or when I discuss this with other people, is to cut away the topic from its context and explain the pattern I see using a completely different example that won’t have “strings attached”. A different example that retains the same characteristics but that doesn’t come with the same set of prejudices, and so can offer a more neutral basis of understanding, if it’s true that you aren’t anymore directly emotionally attached to it. Otherwise it’s those emotions that take control and that’s the opposite of a clear sight.

So, in order to analyze the mechanics of “subscribe to Pewdiepie” I’ll use a completely different topic that I think retains all the features. It too comes with its own set of strings attached, but the change will be enough to neutralize it: “not all men.”

When I first heard it, years ago, I also didn’t understand the message. I was one of those “men” who couldn’t understand what was wrong in the typical defense of “not all men.” It was legitimate, it felt legitimate to me, and yet it was used as a “here we go again with that stupid defense men will use.” Why was it considered stupid, “by women”, if I couldn’t see the problem in it? Because I was “a man”, and so of course “I wouldn’t understand.” And when you hear “you won’t understand, you are a man” you feel irritated, because it sounds patronizing. So we are caught in that struggle, and instead of a better understanding of each other we only end up with deeper divisions.

Why couldn’t I understand what was wrong in the use of “not all men” as a defense used by men? Because I was myopic. “Not all men are rapists.” I know I’m not I’m a rapist, so why I cannot claim that? While I should take that blame when I am *certain* I’m not guilty? Again, because I was myopic.

Let’s work with an example then. Let’s say I’m a guy and there’s a pretty woman walking along the other side of the road. I decide to whistle aloud at her, a typical “catcall”, because I see she’s pretty, I’m interested, and I want her attention. Now this is a simple typical case that can make people debate whether this is can be counted as harassment or not. From the mentality of a man, this is not harassment. Because if I’m there, this interaction is meant as a way to be playful. I know the boundaries, I know I’m not going to start chasing that woman, try to grope her or anything like that. I whistled to get her attention, see how she reacts, but it stops there unless she gives a clear consent of moving it forward. It’s not harassment because it stops long before it gets serious. It stays this side of the line, so if that woman wants to play along fine, if she ignores it that’s fine too. So in this example I haven’t harassed anyone, right? Nope, this is again myopic, and it’s directly tied to the idea “not all men.”

From the point of view of a man, in that situation, the whole thing is a closed system. The guy “did nothing wrong.” It was just a whistle to get some attention, but it stopped there. It was fair because there wasn’t an intention to harass, but just to be playful, like a game. It was meant as a positive interaction and even within the hope that the woman would show interest. Everything consensual. But of course that man doesn’t know what’s in the head of that woman, so he cannot know beforehand whether this approach will be positively or negatively received. The whistle is a way to sample a reaction, see if it can lead to something else, again with consent. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. It’s linear, it works. Not all men are rapists, a whistle is not harassment.

Again, this only works, linearly, because you are thinking about it from the confines of your own head. You know your intentions, you know what you are doing and why you are doing it. So it’s true you are doing nothing wrong. But you are still being myopic. You are ignoring the fact this isn’t a closed system, and can’t be judged in separation.

The problem with “not all men” is that its MESSAGE is valid, but it is GARBLED. So the ultimate outcome is that the rift is exacerbated instead of solved. I guess the inner mechanics are actually working properly, as this is a tool meant for a fight. It’s doing exactly what it was meant to do. But let’s instead be naive, and try to take it apart anyway. The theme of “not all men (are rapists, for example)” is that it unpacks more eloquently as “it takes just one”, to ruin the life of everyone. THAT’s the valid theme. Not all men are rapists, yes, but it takes JUST ONE to feel threatened. Why can’t a woman go for a walk without the fear of being assaulted? Why can’t she dress sexily, for whatever reason, and still feel safe? Because not all men are sexists and rapists, but it still takes just one to feel that threat on your skin, and that’s not tolerable.

The whole deal is that, the example above, the guy whistling to the woman on the other side of the road knows the content of his own head (relatively), he knows his intentions, he might know he isn’t a rapists and that he will never cross that line. BUT, on the other side of the road that woman has no such “in-sight.” She has no information to work with. It’s just a stranger over there. Not all men are rapists but it’s something that happens with such a frequency that YOUR LIFE IS AT STAKE if you ignore that possibility. That woman doesn’t know what is going on, she has no control and that loss of control is a form of abuse. It is INDEED harassment. Because, as a whole, we don’t live in a sane society where you can EXPECT to be safe. You have to worry, or gamble and then suffer the consequences.

So no, that woman doesn’t have the freedom of “feeling safe”, or maybe even answer the catcall with a wink and play along, because she would take a risk. And women do live in this toxic environment where they are forced to feel unsafe to preserve their safety, where they have to deal with this moment to moment, all their life. This is what it is, and it is unacceptable. It’s a disgrace and it shouldn’t be tolerated even for a moment. It’s a problem that should have the utmost priority.

Not all men you’ll meet in the course of your life are misogynist, sexist, rapists, but it takes JUST ONE to ruin the rest of your life.

Human beings, in general, are myopic. When you judge yourself from the confines of your head you might see it as an open book, understand your intentions clearly and so judge that a catcall to a woman is all fair game, knowing it won’t cross some definite line. You will think it’s how things should be. But that means you would see your “system” as if it was closed, and blind to what’s outside that you’re also part of. You would ignore that you live in a sexist society where women AREN’T safe. And, because so, because of this wider system you are myopically ignoring, a catcall IS harassment. Because while you can play innocent, a woman instead is forced to learn the environment where she lives, in order to stay alive. There’s no freedom in that, only the real, tangible threat of not learning that lesson. A woman cannot afford being myopic in the same way a man can.

We live far, far, far away from an ideal world. And we cannot pretend it is what it isn’t.

How does “subscribe to Pewdiepie” fit in all this? It’s the whole theme of “i’m not guilty” and “not all men” rhetoric. Yes, as in the example above, a catcall isn’t harassment when judged from the confines of your own head. When you know your intentions and when you know what you’re doing and why. But the system isn’t closed, you live in a wider, more complex environment. Women learned their own lesson the hard way, because they had no freedom not to take it. Now it’s also time that men stop playing naive and start seeing the world for what it is. Instead of constantly washing hands of responsibility.

Stop being defensive, and be more proactive. And don’t be blind (wherever possible).

Wow, that’s smart

I was scrolling through tweets and then couldn’t not notice this one comment below. I was there gawking because it’s truly amazing:

1st, logic:
if the top 10 “influencers” aren’t featuring your indie game because they are featuring Fortnite, then who are you ‘bye-ing’ to? They did that to you, that’s the problem the article is supposedly bringing up.

They DON’T WANT your game.

Influencers aren’t charities whose job is to help a struggling indie developer. They are caught in the same cynical machine where they need the money to justify their work. And they have to build and please their public, otherwise they’re done. But then, I (maybe wrongly) assume that the tweet is so full with spite that you probably don’t consider that a legitimate “job.” That would be curious, because you can then easily find other groups of people that likely won’t consider *yours* a serious “job.” So that would be at least hypocritical, but also presumptuous on my side, since it’s just an interpretation of what was written in that tweet.

But what I find irritating in that tweet is that implicit self-assigned role as a spokesperson. She’s inciting other developers to rebel from the tyranny of these influences. A call for independence from these pathetic kids who get paid for playing games, so speculating on work done by others, and then even betraying the indie hand that gave them their status. That’s of course the rhetoric.

It’s because it’s an emphatic “we” that the message is political in the WORST way. And that’s also why games in general are being flooded by politics. Not real, deep political meaning, that absolutely belongs to gaming as every other field, since politics is important and pervasive, but its worst part that already infects the main political field: shallow rhetoric, meant to be abrasive toward some out-group, while grooming for consensus.

That one message is filled with resentment and rhetoric. It tries to rile the public and find consensus from its side. It’s purely leverage, tactics, posture.

Because what are you gonna do?

Those top 10 influencers don’t care about your game. Buh-bye. Go cry somewhere else.

Let’s say instead there’s a top-80 one that actually asks you the game. He does want to feature your game, and he might still have some significant numbers to give your $10 game a not so irrelevant publicity. But nope. You said fuck them, right? Burn those bridges out of immature resentment.

Who cares, right? You aren’t the “we” who do make games and live or die by the success of that endeavor. You are the “you” who profits on riling the public through rhetoric and pretends to teach how it’s done. You are posturing. A (pretend) Pied Piper of the indie industry that drives them to drown, and then comes back to get paid.

We have on one side the big AAA publishers who administer their business so that only who’s obsequious is allowed review copies. Tending their garden through an elegant blackmailing practice. And how are indie developers instructed to behave? *Exactly the same*.

Oh, that will surely work so well.

It’s so disingenuous.

ResetEra versus NeoGAF: the pattern of future collapse

I wrote a thing, not because these forum wars are important in themselves, but because they represent our future at the broadest level. They are like crystal balls, you peer inside and can see the future.

I use here the term “truth” as a form of ontology, whatever its form. (but you don’t need to know)

GAF shits on Era, Era shits on GAF. So, in this symmetrical warfare, where’s the truth? Is it then in the middle?

Nope, it doesn’t work like that.

Truth can be on the far left, it can be on the far right, and it can be at any point across that spectrum. Truth is just where it is, for any particular issue. When you think you got it, it jumps somewhere else and proves you wrong. You cannot “box” it heuristically so that you already know where to find it every time. To find it for any particular problem requires very, very hard, meticulous work. (cue flat-earthers, another symbolic pattern)

ResetEra is “manufacturing” a very specific kind of truth, that you know you can find when you go there.

That’s how an echo-chamber works: it’s a manufactured consensus that you know is built accordingly to a canon.

And when you’ve built this consensus you’ve also built the prerequisite for war (any war), because that consensus implies the culling of every possible mediation, of all doubts. Replaced by the bright-white purity of righteousness and certainty: the strongest deep feeling you’re right, fighting the good fight. And you feel good as consequence, in a self-serving endless loop of reinforcement.

In our history, religion has served the same purpose. It was a powerful tool to orient and focus precisely the will of people, like the point of a sword or a lance. A weapon. And that’s why historically religion has been the cause of many wars. In this case Era is using politics exactly as a form of religion, and that’s why the behavior of their moderation is very similar in the patterns of the “Inquisition”, false accusations, censorship and all that.

Curiously, as with religion, the focus is never *what*, but who (“us” or “them”, friend or foe). Because religion is always epistemically wrong. It’s always subjectivity without any objectivity. Are Christians more right or “truer” than Muslims? Nope, it’s all arbitrary. Just men going against other men, and finding an arbitrary cause to do so. Today we mimic that with sport (are Lakers truer than Warriors?).

If you remove the “who” and replace it with “what” then you have at least a shot at truth. Otherwise nope, just a victim of heuristics.

Technically it is heuristics all the way down, but without going down the rabbit hole you could say heuristics are the tools we use to simplify and reduce the world to pieces that make sense, that have meaning, that we can at least manipulate and use. This is an obligation (I play with words here, what I mean is that another way doesn’t exist), because you cannot use what you cannot use. But you have to remember that this compression and reduction through tools isn’t the real thing, and quite frequently it leads us astray.

D-Day: three monster wargames

(most of the links scattered around this post are images, because I like the aesthetic of the monster wargames, many of these come from boardgamegeek, but that I’ve mirrored here because the links get constantly changed/broken)

I was reading an article about simulators and wargames on RPS and the mention of “Panzer Battles: Battles of North Africa” got my attention. I’ve looked before into John Tiller’s games, but usually on the higher scale, larger breath of the “Panzer Campaigns” series.

I’m always intrigued by impossible games whose ambition transcends common sense, those human endeavors that motivate some people to go beyond. And while I’m not really a “player” of these things, I keep being fascinated by them and spending lots of time digging information, reading rules and whatnot. In the past I’ve “compared” a game like War in the East, a computer game, and Case Blue and other OCS games, for classic tabletop experience (all rules are usually available for free officially as .pdf files, and the games themselves can be played with also free Vassal modules, if one wants to fiddle directly with them). So once in a while something catches my attention and sends me on another round. For example CMANO, the modern “Harpoon”. But this is not the time to talk about it.

Last time I looked into Panzer Campaigns I was awed by this. Even if not clearly visible, those are all hexes, and that twisty line made by darker dots shows the actual counters. Those pieces you are supposed to move individually every turn… The scale and the detail are staggering, and they dwarf monster games like War in the East.

At the time I wrote down this silly comparison (and looking into it I also found mention of another of these monster games but of a different kind, Starfleet Battles):

Some stats?

Moscow ’42:
244,620 hexes
8,000/9,000 counters total
1 turn = 2 hours
Biggest campaign is 544 turns long

versus War in the East:
26,000 hexes
4.000 counters
1 turn = 1 week
Biggest campaign is 224 turns long

The bottom line of all this is that, these days, something like Hearts of Iron IV doesn’t even get a passing glance from me, it’s like what’s Skyrim for RPGs.

But that’s just me because it looks like these mad experiments and extremely complex rules are on the way out, so we are looking at something that maybe will never be matched again. It’s like some treasure that soon might be completely forgotten…

This time the RPS article sent me looking at the Panzer Battles, instead. And in particular to Battles of Normandy. This is less of a monster game like Moscow ’42 because it doesn’t have a super huge campaign. It’s more like a collection of scenarios across smaller maps. But this didn’t stop them to outreach in a few areas…

This is the big map (source, it’s a png almost 200Mb big)

You can’t really see the hexes there, the map is 398,000 hexes, almost twice the map of Moscow ’42. Sadly I don’t think it’s playable as there’s no campaign that follows the whole thing and the two bigger scenarios seem still to use only smaller sections of that map. But if you are looking at D-Day then you want to play “the longest day”, the first day of the landings, and that’s one of the scenarios.

(open in a new window for a slightly bigger version)

If you compare this with the image above you can see it’s only like 1/7 of the whole map, yet it’s still HUGE. This is a few turns into the scenario, in the morning when a few landings are already happening on Utah and Omaha, as you can see by the vague green blobs on those two beaches. Then there are also some faint light blue dots scattered around the whole map, those represent the Nazi troops defending the territory, and if you squint some more, on the left side of the map in particular, you could also spot some yellow dots (they blend with the green map), and those are again the allied forces, but that didn’t land like the others because they were parachuted there during the night and previous turns. It was quite beautiful to set the AI controlling both sides and just watch it happen.

This huge scenario is 40 turns long, and covers just one single day. During the night you get 1 turn every hour, then in the morning it gets broken down with one turn every half an hour.

All this ended up making me check another two games, both covering the same overall scenario, but this time not as computer games but as monster tabletop wargames. Both are again available on Vassal with free .pdf rules on their sites (links below).

The first is Atlantic Wall and that I already knew as one of those impossibly huge monster games.

The info page mentions one grand campaign made of 234 turns. This is the whole thing, it covers two months and a half. So with a quick calculation it’s three turns a day, two during the day and one for the night (confirmed by the rules).

The map is freaking huge, of course (here for more). On Vassal the whole thing zoomed out looks like this, or a closer look. (and a description of a game being played)

It seems to greatly surpass in detail one of the previous games in the same breadth (but here it looks impressive too, probably because it was scanned and printed in a bigger format). In fact that one had one turn covering a whole day. It is interesting how you can “slice” these historical situations in various ways, depending on what’s the focus. Of course the more you zoom in, adding detail, the more you lose the big picture, so you have that scenario from the computer game that gives 40 turns for just one day, then Atlantic Wall that covers almost three months, but that doesn’t go deeper than three turns a day… and this leads us to the third one, that bridges the two.

I found it by looking at a forum post, written by the designer of this other game while he was still developing it:

my game and Joe’s are of different scope. You can fit all of my four maps on one of Joe’s maps in Atlantic Wall. The distance from Sword to Caen in Joe’s game is 12 hexes or so. It’s 40 hexes or so in my game.

Mine is just on the Commonwealth Beaches and covers just the first week. Joe’s covers the entire Normandy campaign. Which you prefer depends on what you like. I happen to think the first week is very mobile and tense, and the remainder of the campaign is pretty static… so it’s not for me to play or design. Joe’s offers the completeness of the entire theater – and I know that is great for many gamers.

I actually already knew this guy because he also designed The Devil’s Cauldron and Where the Eagles Dare. These also being monster wargames but of the kind still kept on a level (somewhat) manageable. The fun thing of these two is that they can be JOINED into one bigger campaign that covers the whole thing across both games.

See this. Here’s The Devil’s Cauldron. It’s pretty big, right? And here’s Where the Eagles Dare, and that’s again huge. But then we have to JOIN them. Here’s from an angle, and here’s from the opposite. Even on the Vassal module the two can be joined, but the maps are kept separate because of the odd tiling, so I cut it up and joined it all together in a picture just to show the whole thing without the perspective.

These two games, combined, simulate Operation Market Garden (this operation is also covered in one of the modules for the computer game “Command Ops 2”, but I’ll make that comparison at another time). So let’s see this other game, by the same designer, but done to reproduce D-Day. It’s titled “The Greatest Day”, and the subtitle explains it all better: “Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches, Battle for Normandy: Volume One”. This is just the eastern side of the landings, and once again it’s ultimately meant to be joined with another TWO games, all three together representing the whole front. But this one was released in 2015 and I found no mention at all the the other two games are actually being developed, so it’s possible they’ll never be made and the whole thing will remain a crazy dream.

It’s interesting to compare this one with the other two because it creates a sort of bridge between them. The computer scenario from the first game covered in detail just the first day, through 40 turns (but being a computer game it doesn’t have the intricacy and explicit complexity of the boardgames). Atlantic Wall instead is the 234 turn monster campaign, covering the whole thing from early June to 22 August. And to keep it playable they shrank the detail to 3 turns for a single day and a map that while being huge is still more zoomed out. And here we have The Greatest Day that covers the first week, with a day divided into 8 turns, two hours each, and then one single turn for the night, so 9 turns for a complete day.

(Rules for The Devil’s Cauldron, Where Eagles Dare and The Greatest Day are available here, all three part of the Grand Tactical Series. The vassal modules are here and here)
(Rules for Atlantic Wall are available here (under GOSS), and the Vassal module is here, but even if free you have to register. A current direct link is likely to stop working whenever they update it. This version also has the scenarios set up and is supposed to fix bugs, but it loads many times slower than the previous and has blurry counters for some reason…)

While it’s just 1/3 of the whole, it’s once again a monster game (complete). The full campaign goes from the night of 5 June, to 21:00 of 13 June. That should be 73 turns total. The designer says it’s not a small feat to play it all (the estimation is 20 hours for the single-day campaign, and 150 hours for the whole thing). On the surface the map of operation Market Garden looks way bigger despite the developer claiming this being twice as big, but I suppose The Greatest Day has a much higher counters density. That Market Garden campaign went from 15:00 of 17 September to the night turn of 24 September. The total is 60 turns, because this game has one less turn for each day, making the single night turn two hours longer and removing the 19:00 day turn.

A quick comparison on the surface:

Atlantic Wall
2.5 months full theater campaign, 234 turns total, 3 turns/day.

The Greatest Day
8 days campaign, only eastern landings, 73 turns total, 9 turns/day.

The Longest Day scenario in “Battles in Normandy”
1 day campaign, all the landings, 40 turns total, 40 turns/day.

Looking closer at the map representations I can deduce that, roughly, every step reduces the size of one hex by half:

(Atlantic Wall)

(The Greatest Day)

(The Longest Day)

To add some more detail and compensate the abstraction during the landings, Atlantic Wall uses some separate boards for the beaches, that are then funneled into the big map, for example (or here for the real thing):

And here a wider comparison of The Greatest Day main area and the respective section in Atlantic Wall:
Atlantic Wall
The Greatest Day

I suppose it’s possible to go deeper. I’m pretty sure Advanced Squad Leader has some scenarios covering D-Day but that, too, will have to wait for another time.

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