At around age 10, I read the Dragonlance Chronicles, my first real introduction to the world of fantasy fiction. When I discovered they were based on a series of D&D modules, I immediately wanted to run them.

In 2000-2002ish, Nick did just that. I played, along with the usual suspects, and though the game was excellent, it was different to what I expected. For me, the books were emotionally saturated with in-character tension, atmosphere, and tragedy, while the campaign ended up emphasizing combat much more than the intense characters and grand scope I remembered.

Looking back, I think this was just the type of game we wanted to play. I recall the group’s preferred style being fairly humorous and oriented towards tactical combat, with in-character interaction being fairly rare and mostly reserved for critical plot elements. Characterization in such a game still happens, but it tends to focus more on individual characteristics than on relationships, often centering around combat roles or special abilities. Furthermore, D&D 3 had just come out, and we were enthusiastically exploring (and breaking) its rules, and since the bulk of D&D 3′s rules focus on combat, so did we.

None of this is to criticize Nick’s handling of that game – as I said, it was an excellent game, with some fantastic and memorable moments. Nor am I trying to say that there’s something wrong with tactical play (there’s not – it’s a lot of fun). It’s just that it was different to what I thought playing the Dragonlance campaign would be like.

I think this partly stemmed from the way in which the experiences one has when one is young and impressionable are indelibly etched in one’s emotions with a nostalgic perfection, and it’s simply irrational to expect that adult experiences will as easily match up to them. Furthermore, while I think role-playing games as a medium are certainly capable of such emotional saturation, I think D&D is less so, for several reasons:

  1. Its rules focus attention on characters as collections of abilities rather than as people – it’s about what your character can do much more than who they are;
  2. Its rules are robust, rigorous, and all-encompassing, which doesn’t match well with the arbitrary and complex nature of emotional storytelling – time spent worrying about the rules will always detract from flow and the feeling of being in the moment, while rules consistency will often necessarily interfere with the storyteller’s ability to bend reality in the service of creating compelling scenario;
  3. It requires a lot of book-keeping and superstructure that can interrupt and interfere with the flow of play – there’s always spells to keep track of, magic items to identify, treasure to count, maps to draw, and inventory to manage, not to mention hit-points, sundry modifiers and abilities, and all the trappings of a combat character.

One reaction to this, of course, is to do away with a lot of this detail with a low-mechanics system like Savage Worlds, or similar. That works great, but the problem is that there’s a lot of good, fun, things that come out of the complexity and rigor of D&D, and I very much want my games to include the best of both.

I want to be able to run games where the arbitrariness and fast flow of rules-light systems allow me to play fast and loose with details in favor of atmosphere and story, but I also want the rigor and detail of a game like D&D to lend structure to my environments, to create consistent and realistic confrontations, and to more firmly establish the game world as a shared place that the whole group has in common, rather than a set of lightly related games limited to each player’s interpretation and memory of what I told them the weeks previous.

A couple of months ago, I began running the Dragonlance campaign with my current group of players. So far, it’s been an immensely rewarding experience, precisely because I’ve gone into it with the goal of finding ways to fuse these two styles of play. It’s not that I’ve never tried this before, or that it’s a new idea, but that I’m taking such a conscious attitude towards doing so that I’m finding rewarding. It’s like that quote of Socrates, applied to games – ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ – except that I’ve played plenty of games unexamined that were certainly worth playing.

Anyway, I’ve been learning a lot from running this game, and plan to think, and hopefully write, more about it. Here’s a couple of topics that are on my mind:

  • Emotional salience – For me, creating great and memorable moments in gaming is all about creating emotionally salient experiences – experiences that directly change how you feel in some way. This seems to apply to everything from free-form narrative games, to D&D, right down to abstract games like chess and soccer. I want to unpack what I mean by this in the context of my game, and hopefully get some reactions from others, too, as this is, I think, the key question in determining what games are good, and what games are not. Note that I’m pretty much ignoring psychological flow in this concept of good game design (maybe this tension is a topic unto itself).
  • Creating a sense of place – Places act as emotional anchors; like smells, places can evoke an emotional state fully formed and specific to that place. While others have done a much better job than I can at articulating why this is, I want to take a stab at it, but more importantly, I want to talk about the role of maps and other game-aids in creating that sense of place; the ways they detract, and the ways they enhance.
  • Inter-character conflict – Conflict between characters is challenging stuff, mostly because it has the potential to roll over into inter-player conflict, and that’s no fun for anyone. Regardless, I think it can add an awful lot to a game. One interaction, peculiar to tactical combat games, is when the attitudes of characters to one another affects their tactical decision making – real world combat can hardly follow the same near-optimal decision making of players sitting around a battle-map, and furthermore, this adds to the complexity, intrigue, and emotional saliency of encounters. This is an area I’d like to explore more in my play, but it depends a lot on the willingness of my players.
  • Maintaining atmosphere and flow in the face of meta-game interruptions, such as discussion of rules, or getting the pizza, or whatever. This seems to be a common topic in guides for GMs, but the advice usually seems limited to being prepared, minimizing interruptions or doing things like dimming the lights. It seems that there’s more than can be done to make the context switch smoother by making in-game events and material more resilient. Battle maps, for example, help immensely in maintaining tension and atmosphere during combat, because it’s so easy to regain a sense of how everything fits together following an interruption. Can this sort of resilience be created outside combat? How?
  • Table top RPGs as literature – I’ve not taken a serious literature class since high-school, so maybe I’m not the person to talk about this sort of thing, but I’ve found that my reaction and thinking about the games I run and play has taken a very literary bent of late. I spend a lot more time thinking about narrative structure, the negotiation of shared setting and story, the range of GM roles from an disinterested, absolute arbiter, to an active, democratic, story participant, and the things that gaming can teach about what it is to be human. I want to do more reading before diving into this too deeply, but it’s a topic of interest.

I’d very much welcome suggestions and reactions to all of this. Hopefully you’ll see some posts from me getting into it more in the weeks to come.


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I need to plug this site: Skyscraper Page.

Despite its not so imaginative name*, the site is a veritable gold mine of information both awesome and mundane, listing skyscrapers all over the world, with their construction dates, heights, floor count, and other information, along with scale sketches for most. Sadly, though it lists every building in Christchurch over 10 floors, the only one with a sketch is the Hotel Grand Chancellor, but I guess that’s reasonable, seeing as they’re all being shaken to pieces.

Really, though, it’s all about comparing ridiculous mega-engineering projects – check out this diagram of the likely world’s tallest buildings in 2015..

That’s a seriously huge clock-tower (click to zoom).



* I can’t help but think that web pages named with the word page at the end just sound silly, like “Lord of the Rings Book” or “Moby Dick Book”. I guess “The Jungle Book” is a good counter example, but doesn’t “The Page of Skyscrapers!” have more of an impressive ring to it?


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Even though much art is concerned with representing the real, it’s not about photo-realism so much as it is about interpretation and re-presentation. Spotted this lovely quote which captures that:

Drawing is a struggle between nature and the artist, in which the better the artist understands the intentions of nature, the more easily he will triumph over it. For him, it is not a question of copying, but interpreting in a simpler and more luminous language.

– Charles Baudelaire, On the Ideal and the Model, 1846

I like that, and it’s interesting to think about how applies to games as an art form – unlike the overt intentions of painting or sculpture, games are not about representing the visual or tangible features of a thing, but about representing its internal structure – its workings, the interactions within the thing that lend it its essential character. Coupling the game structure itself with the three art forms necessary to make an actual game product – these being writing (literature), visuals (painting/sculpture), and sound (music) – a game designer strives to interpret and re-present real or imaginary thing in a simpler, more luminous language.

NB – you’ll notice I separate design of the game itself from design of its aesthetics and writing. Not everyone likes this distinction, and it’s true that they tend to merge somewhat in practice, but I find it useful for analysis.


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Played Cellcraft this morning, which turned out to be one of the best science education games I’ve seen in a while.

First off, here’s a screenshot of my cell being attacked by viruses (click to zoom). Note the various organelles, as well as the use of ATP, nucleic acids, amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose as game resources.

Screenshot of Cellcraft - My cell under attack by viruses. Note the various organelles as well as the use of ATP, nucleic acids, amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose as resources.

Cute, huh? Here’s what I like about it:

  • Most obviously, it’s fun, and even addictive. This should really be a minimum expectation for educational games, but evidence suggests it’s not.
  • It treats the science being taught as a functioning, interactive system, then leverages that interactivity to build game mechanics. Instead of just using the science as a backdrop (like, say, SpaceChem, which uses chemical elements as the context for a mechanical puzzle solving game), all of the game decisions you make in Cellcraft are directly tied into the science. It maps the necessary elements of cell biology directly onto gameplay in a way that’s simple and elegant. Likewise, it doesn’t trivialize gameplay by making the game all about learning – you’re not forced to work through obviously educational activities – the learning’s there, but it’s part of the game.
  • It employs narrative to make the whole experience more compelling and engaging. Granted, the story is simple (involving an alien race of platypuses attempting to create a colony of amoeba seeded with platypus DNA to be shipped across space to reconstruct their species elsewhere), but it’s humorous and compelling – the characters have all of 3-4 minutes screen time in total (appearing as narrators during play and as actors in short animated cut-scenes), but they’re quirky and odd enough to grab your attention in a way that most educational games fail to.
  • It puts the scientific details in the foreground. All of the modeled cell machinery is exposed, so that, for example, when you choose to have your cell produce lysosomes, you see RNA extruding from the nucleus, being converted into proteins in the rough endoplasmic reticulum, in turn triggering the creation of vesicles from the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, which are finally converted to lysosomes at the Golgi apparatus. The point being that you’re constantly seeing the details happen; they’re not hidden away, but likewise, they don’t interfere with play – they’re like the replacement of progress bars in certain kingdom simulations with the animation of a building being constructed – informative, interesting, but not intrusive.
  • It follows the lessons of tutorial-style play. It’s often said that game tutorials epitomize ideal learning in that they’re narratively led, interactive, direct, and encouraging in the face of failure. While many game tutorials are just awful, some successfully implement mastery learning by constantly challenging the player with small increases in difficulty and knowledge, followed by opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of that knowledge. Every game level teaches something new about cell biology, and each level is divided into smaller chunks that present clear, achievable, if challenging, goals, while avoid the feel of play becoming formulaic. Really, my biggest complaint about the game is that it ran out of new biology to teach me, and so ran out of levels for me to play.
  • It provides access to deeper knowledge throughout. Obvious, the cells in Cellcraft are a toy system – they’re simplified from the real biology, creating an accessible model with sufficient complexity to make play interesting, but not so much that it becomes taxing. Despite this, however, it laces in references and access to the corresponding scientific ideas, much in the same way that Civilization used to in its Civilopedia. Extra knowledge is there, tantalizingly, but it’s not required – it’s an optional extra whose presence suggests that it might offer useful further insight to the advanced player.
  • It’s explicit about its compromises. Obviously, the simplifications necessary for elegant game play will cause the game to diverge somewhat from the science behind it. Instead of just ignoring this problem, Cellcraft clearly states when it’s deviating in this way, partly by including relevant notes in the narrative (such one character’s shock at the idea of implanting chloroplasts in an animal cell), and partly by offering comparisons between game elements and the real science in its in-game help.
  • Finally, it’s a class act. It has a simple yet humorous and strong aesthetic style, an elegant interface, good sound and music, and is well written. I only encountered one minor bug, in which the simulation of the cell’s outer membrane (based on moving splines of some sort) became unstable and spun out of control, shunting the cell’s nucleus into the surrounding fluid. Though this didn’t kill it directly, all of my cell defenses were trapped in the cytoplasm, and so it was quickly co-opted by viruses, quickly overwhelming it.

All in all, a very strong game – if you’re not familiar with basic cell biology, play it; you’ll learn a lot. You can download it to play on your own machine, or you can play it online. For more information, check out the designer’s blog for some interesting discussion including a entertaining piece about how they’re NOT creationists, even though they’ve got platypus “designers” creating cells..


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So, it’s my birthday, again. This is, in fact, a very important one, as I’m 32, which is 25; in binary, I’m 100000, a suitably venerable age, I think. Only 224 more years until you can’t encode my age in a single byte anymore.

A couple of people asked what I’m doing to celebrate…

For a start, Vladimir, a friend of mine who happens to share not just the same birthday, but same birth year with me, has organized a get together of sorts at the Seattle Art Museum’s Remix party. I’ve no idea what to expect, really, but it should be interesting, at the very least.

Then, tomorrow, I’m hosting a six-hour lunch, which, for the uninitiated, is basically an excuse to sit around and drink a lot of port. The story goes that the English owners of port wineries in Portugal would all gather in Oporto every Wednesday to wait for the mail boat to arrive. Unfortunately, the arrival time was always a little uncertain, and so they had to do something else with the time. Like sit around and drink a lot of port. Oh, and eat lunch, talk, and other incidental things like that. Following that, there will be BBQ, board games, and blissful sleep. For an idea of what this is all about, check out Gold’s sequence of blog posts and my photos from a previous event.

Finally, later in the month, I’m treating myself with a trip to Origins, in Columbus, Ohio, where I shall geek out for several days. Following that, I’m off to Cleveland to visit Cat & Dan.

So, yeah, looking to be a good celebratory month for me.


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