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Very quiet around here…

As is wont to occasionally occur, this blog has gone very quiet. I have not stopped writing, my weekly posts have gone up on Cannibal Halfling like clockwork. That said, my life has been very busy and as a result I haven’t had as much time to write. In big news, I have taken a new job, which starts next week. The on-boarding/off-boarding process is the cause of the majority of my additional busyness and stress, meaning my schedule should being reverting to normal in another few weeks.

Beyond that, I also took some time to travel for the LARP my girlfriend is writing, spending last weekend in Pennsylvania. I never thought of myself as a LARP guy, but between the event and Pennsic I’m getting into not only the gaming aspect but also the garb/lifestyle aspect. The campaign has eight more events over the next three years, so I’m reserving judgment as to whether or not I want to pursue a more full schedule (albeit likely at a closer site). There is a LARP post going up on Cannibal Halfling tomorrow, so check it out when it goes live.

That’s about it for now. Once my head stops spinning, I’ll come back here to discuss either a) the new, more moddable car, or b) a longer writing project I’ve been planning.

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World-building, continued: What about maps?

In thinking about my post-apocalyptic fantasy game, the centerpiece of the game would be a massive overworld map with tons of places to go and interesting things to see/do/kill. I still want the game to focus on overworld, but I’m now actually thinking about how to run it. Turns out, I’m not sure I want that map.

To be fair, I still want this to be a hex-crawl game, at least at the overworld level (I read a cool article about hex math and sub-hexing, but the idea of scaling a game from 6 mile hexes down to battlemat scale in three to four levels of sub-hexing makes my head spin). But as I keep reading about hex-crawling and how it’s been done, I realize that the top-down approach may simply not work very well for me.

Back in 2014, I wrote a campaign setting for Fifth Edition D&D, in which I ran about 15 sessions across two partial campaigns. Using a random map generator, I filled in an overworld with all sorts of cool geographic details, geopolitical entities, and historical sites. Then, when I ran the game, all that overworld I had just kind of faded into the background. Even when I ran a travel montage, the map didn’t give me much. I tightened the scale of the map mid-game because the travel times were doing nothing other than being boring.

And I should have remembered this when I decided to start planning this game. My fantasy of this game does involve the incredibly detailed overworld map and the notion that PCs would eventually build settlements and change what the map looked like…but none of that is predicated on me having a full map at the start of the game. And as I look into what I want to emphasize, setting, flavor, and mechanics-wise…I don’t need to know where anything is. My magic/religion ideas around spirits have this beautiful side effect that they’d be very localized, obviating the need for holy sites that characters would know of ahead of time.

I am now planning to randomly generate my world in a very different way: one hex at a time. This is going to produce some very interesting results, as well as some weirdness, but I think it’ll make things a lot of fun. It also has some great thematic tie-in to the notion of a post-apocalyptic game: the Dark Ages in history were about knowledge being lost, and not knowing the full extent of the inhospitable world before you is a wonderful way to emulate that.

I will need to figure out starting characters for whom it makes sense to have never ventured more than a few miles from home. This is a subtle problem…the vast majority of people living in a world with a Dark Ages technology level probably never travelled more than a full day’s trek away from home in their lives, which generously equates to a 25 mile radius (the majority of people in a Dark Ages world couldn’t afford horses). In most hex-scaling regimes that’s about 7 overworld hexes, which is a perfect start. The complication comes from the fact that in fiction and most RPGs, the player characters are adventurers, exactly the minority of people who would be travelling. The post-apocalyptic setting makes this slightly easier; there are a large number of reasons that a group of people would have to pull up roots for the first time. That said, it is writing I need to do beforehand and be deliberate about.

What I realize, after skimming some hex-crawl random tables and bottom-up design articles, is that those first seven hexes give me an incredible palette for a session zero. I use a framework or generator to put the biomes in the seven overworld hexes (and however many sub-hexes are in those), and then the details of the items immediately around the start point can be filled in by the players. Instant connection to the immediate environ, but maintained sense of danger and mystery. And also, the session zero format can give me a chance to get a few far-off places that the PCs have heard of, and then anchor them to distant parts of the map. It’s like Dungeon World’s “Draw Maps, Leave Blanks” on a massive scale.

Speaking of Dungeon World…I’m rethinking my ruleset choice. Again. With magic and the like kind of decided, I feel less wary about using something big and heavy and needing to adapt a lot. At the same time, digging into the overworld stuff makes me realize that I’m going to need a rules backbone that can support some level of detail without collapsing or getting weird on me. I’m not entirely convinced I’d need to give up on Fate, the scalability of it is immensely appealing with the huge range of things I’d want to be possible. That said…GURPS has loads of environmental rules, and I finally have a campaign where I know the level at which I’d want to interact with them. Having the TL be low enough that no one can have guns greatly reduces balance issues, and the sheer number of things I could imagine players wanting to do means that having the rules available for close to all of them would be amazing. I’d still need to  look into Powers and Magic and figure out the whole spirit thing, but I at least know where to start. The settlement issue is also still there, but after I read GURPS Low-Tech I’ll have a better idea of just how much of what I need already exists. There’s also a left-field possibility in the form of Zweihander, a game I kickstarted a while back. It’s dark fantasy and based at least mechanically on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The game looks really interesting for multiple reasons, which is why I kickstarted it. That said…I’ve been playing Dark Heresy (which is mechanically similar to WFRP) with my online group, and dealing with the mechanics up close I’m not sure how I feel about it. The game is percentile-based, and base stats give you around a 30-50% chance to succeed, unmodified. If that sounds whiffy, it’s because it is. This means that to build up to a “typical” task, you’re stacking a handful of modifiers to get to your actual roll. I’m not a huge fan of it in Dark Heresy, and when you ask me to compare it to GURPS, arguably my favorite crunchy system…I doubt that’s a comparison it’ll win. Still, it’s a hefty system with a lot of interesting stuff, so I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand before I get to read it.

I’m very glad that I’ve placed at least one campaign between this one and now. Even without the effort of writing an entire overland map, this game will require a lot of prep. I still need to flesh out the magic/spirit system a bit, write some historical assumptions, and then in lieu of writing a map, write and/or adapt the random hex tables that will generate the sort of map I want to run. And among all that, I need to definitively choose a system to run the game in, and fill in the mechanical blank spots for my setting assumptions. It’s a tall order, but I knew from the beginning this was an ambitious idea. I’m also getting excited about everything I’m reading, which is a very good sign I’m heading in the right direction.

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Review: Prison Architect

I’m way too late to the game (pun intended) to ever be a professional game reviewer, at least as long as I have to buy my own games. I tend to wait until games are deeply discounted regardless of how good they are, but when it comes to the newest crop of Early Access games, I also tend to wait until someone else says they’re good. Prison Architect was an intersection of both of these…it was Early Access for a while, so I was suspicious. And even after it got some degree of critical acclaim, I was still suspicious of paying full price for it.

Well, earlier this month Prison Architect released Build 2.0, and now the game is feature-complete. And as such, I played it all this weekend. It is a solidly done sim, but the thematic material goes a long way to make it compelling and a tad disturbing.

Prison Architect does not have a metaphorical or literary name. You are a Prison Architect, building and running a prison. You start with minimum and medium security inmates, and then build your way up as you can afford better security. Higher security inmates get you more grant money, but require more spending on guards, cameras, and other equipment. Then there are external influencers who will want you to encourage reform, and others who want you to come down hard on your inmates. Beyond that, you have complete control over food, scheduling, work shifts, parole, punishments, and even death row. And the inmates respond in kind.

As a bit of context, The Sims came out over 16 years ago, and was one of the first games to really attempt to use needs-based agents to simulate people. Other management games had done it in the past, but not as comprehensively as The Sims did. Critics and gamers responded, and the game was lavished with praise and gigantic sales. Now, 16 years on, we have enough computing power to perform a simulation on the level of the original “The Sims” for a couple hundred agents…who happen to be prison inmates, in this case.

The simulation of the prisoners is what makes this interesting, and has knock-on effects. You don’t need to fulfill the needs of your prisoners to keep them compliant…that’s what solitary confinement and judicious use of tasers are for. And of course, if you use violence and punishment to keep your prisoners in line, their performance in any educational programs you offer will be terrible, justifying your “law and order” approach.

I’m actually building my second prison in the game now. The first was a kind of ramshackle collection of buildings that I put together while figuring out the game’s systems, while the second is much more planned and highly built, made possible by all the money I earned selling the first prison (the ability to sell property and start over with more money is something I think every simulation game should offer, by the way). In the first, I crammed two and three prisoners to a cell, and kept them compliant by judicious use of armed guards, dogs, and severe punishments. There were still violent fights at meals and in the showers, and a prison murder every few days…not to mention the escape attempts, smuggled weapons, and host of other problems. In the second prison, I put one prisoner where I used to fit three, offered more space to move, but have also constructed the entire complex indoors in a very organized fashion, which makes it easier to deploy security and control movement. So far it’s a lot more peaceful, but it also has one fifth the population currently.

So are you disturbed yet? I’ve talked blithely about tasing prisoners in the shower, the frequency of prison murder, and intentional overcrowding, and haven’t even mentioned the fact that your little inmates can have the “jonesing for a drug fix” status icon above their heads, or the fact that you can hire snipers to watch your yards from guard towers, or the fact that there’s a “free-fire” button you can use that allows your guards to shoot to kill. The game puts out a lot of really hairy ethical decisions and then lets the player make them with no prodding. To make it even more unsettling, the art style gives all the people this kind of cutesy stick figure aesthetic, which is incredibly odd when you mouse over a bloody corpse in the shower and his status indicator says “murdered for being a snitch”. To say the game pulls no punches is kind of an understatement.

That said, the game is remarkably apolitical about the whole thing. Your choices are presented, along with their consequences, but you the player are left to make the decisions. There is a campaign with some more opinionated characters, but it’s second fiddle to the sandbox mode. This is a game all about building things and seeing what happens, and all sorts of interesting things can happen.

We’re on the borderline of being in a management sim golden age. This game, RimWorld, Factorio and others have crafted some very interesting widgets to play with and characters to torment. That said, the genre is fairly fallow outside of the indie scene, other than the occasional new Tropico game and EA continually goosing The Sims for more money. Introversion has shown with Prison Architect that it doesn’t take a AAA studio to make a good people simulator…what I really want to see, though, is someone put up a middle finger to EA’s legal team and make a better life simulator than The Sims. These sorts of virtual dollhouses have so much potential, and the interest game developers have in both procedural generation and deep simulation can only increase the amount of talent out there that wants to take on these design challenges. Prison Architect is very good, but there’s nothing that says only prisons can be simulated in this way.

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Housekeeping

In order to simplify my online presence, today I began consolidating my previous WordPress blogs onto this one. I’m not sure what this means for anyone who subscribed to the previous blogs, but going forward I will try and keep some degree of content flowing, likely content similar to what I wrote before. This will include some of the commentary posts I did on my blog “Amateur Cynic”, though likely not as frequently as the 2-3 times a week I posted there when it was working well. The other blogs (Metablog, Multiple Avocation Disorder, The Modern GM) already overlap with the writing I’ve intended to do here pretty well, so no expansion of mission is necessary there.

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ADD

Of course this was bound to happen.

I’ve been outlining decently for a rewrite of my old novel attempt, Fratricide. I’m tearing at the outline repeatedly, almost like a scab, because I’m not sure how to make the story talk about the things I want it to talk about. So, as I think about either dumping parts of the outline, revising what I have, or throwing out the half I don’t like and just writing because the first 25% is in place, the unthinkable happens:

I get an entirely different story idea.

What’s worse, this one actually seems good…I’ve finally found an angle on this whole dystopian thing I’ve been haphazardly writing around that resonates with me, and may actually not be boring. But…urgh. Hence the title of this post.

Since I’ve been quite young, I’ve had to maintain a degree of focus. I could only read one book at a time, lest the books get confusing and start to blur together. Schoolwork was demarcated by subject, and generally I ticked off one task at a time, in its entirety. The appearance of a second, equally valid writing idea is filling me with dread because I’m not good at balancing, and at the same time even worse with setting things aside.

So what’s the best way forward? Well, this may be a good time to get back to writing as a regular activity, something I do every day. Make a spreadsheet with my active projects, get my 500 (750?) words every day, and split it between whatever I want to write. I’m an engineer who thrives on organization, but not having the mental capacity to will myself to write scraps of ideas, count my gaming material, or just let things spread out has all contributed to making the act of writing feel harder than it needs to be.

I need to get organized. When I’m at work, there are deadlines and tasks and events that allow me to balance 2,3, sometimes 4 workstreams at once. While that technically means that I can do this with my personal writing, it also means that if I just go about it in my typical way it’s going to feel like a job…and if I’m trying to motivate myself to write daily for more than three weeks at a time, that just won’t do.

So yeah, let’s track things. I’m going to try my damndest to write something every day, and after a week we can see how much I wrote and what. Then I’ll make a decision about how to best make this work for me.

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Outlining and process

When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher taught the process of a detailed outline. A detailed outline is the outline of a document which is detailed down to the sentence level. For research reports, which we were using this method for, each paragraph was in the outline and every piece of data/information you wanted to use was included as well. The text:outline ratio was somewhere around 1.5:1…for an 8 page paper, your outline would be around 5 pages long.

This is a useful technique, and in writing reports for work it’s still the ideal method. Often our outlines are longer than the paper as we collect more information than makes it into the final product. But for fiction, it was unclear to me how this method would be productive.

When I wrote the first draft of Fratricide, I went with my gut as to how long the story was, where it went, and when it started to wind down. Now that I’m considering a rewrite, I’m also considering the best process to use to structure the story and make the events flow. I’m running into two opposed problems: first, the ideas that are coming to me tend to be a combination of very broad thoughts and individual scenes, and more high-level structure seems needed to piece them together. Second, though I’ve outlined the story through the main inciting action, I don’t know how it ends or even what is going to happen, and I have a feeling that I won’t until I start writing again.

As I think about it I do get more ideas, and I’m realizing some worldbuilding needs to be done. There are groups in the story dependent on fictional events which have to be explained…and then on the other end of the importance spectrum I’m trying to figure out how to write in a campus dive bar when my favorite one has been closed.

It may be that I have more outlining to do. I have some ideas for how to keep the plot tight, but there will be a certain point where I have to quit it with the high level and start writing something.

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Returning to Fratricide

About six months ago, I performed a reread of my novel (and my NaNoWriMo partial) and decided that the projects were ones I want to return to. Subsequent to that, Boston was hit with one of the largest snowstorms in its history. Then, shortly after that melted (three months later), I decided I was moving. That process wrapped up about a month ago.

Regardless, I’ve now started really thinking about a rewrite of my first novel, knowing full well that I haven’t been able to write something at that scope since. Besides being able to go through the process, there’s something in there I want to save, something I do believe is worth saving.

My plan with rewriting the novel is going to be just that, a rewrite. Though I will refer to the draft and make character considerations based on what I’ve written, this is going to be from the ground up, and a lot of things are going to be quite different. The characters will be mostly the same, though shuffled around- the story will still focus on the interplay between two fraternity brothers at different stages in their lives, Scott Stiles and Lance Deckard. Scott’s romantic misadventures will still play a role. A corrupt Greek System and crimes committed by said system will be central to the plot.

What’s different, at least in my reimagining, is a tad more dramatic:

  • No longer taking place at a fictional school. My plot direction is no longer as compartmentalized as it was in the previous iteration. As such, inventing a school whole cloth gets weird and strains my suspension of disbelief. It was a proxy of CMU anyway, may as well capitalize on my 4-6 years of traumatically ingrained college memories.
  • Less/no murder and/or gunplay. It’s kind of dumb and lazy, isn’t it? Why would the stakes be that high? Not saying there won’t be any murder or gunplay, but it has to make sense.
  • More “Greek”. In some ways, the fraternity backdrop was window dressing in the first draft, though it did provide an organizational impetus for the story to occur. As I’ve read it, reread it, and thought about it, I have way more to say about fraternity life than I thought I did initially.

In some ways, Fratricide evolved as Scott Stiles’s fucked up coming of age story. The thousand foot view of the plot is very simple and will not change in the rewrite: Scott discovers the meaning and importance of brotherhood and male friendship (two separate but related topics), love, and self-worth as he is forced to make difficult decisions about what is most important to him. It’s really no surprise that I wrote this as I was struggling to determine what my life meant, and my struggle was reflected in Scott’s struggle. At my current age, my existential struggles more resemble Lance’s, which may be why this is the point where I try to write this book again.

Ultimately, the characters are the thing from the first draft I want to change the least. Five of the characters (Scott, Lance, Grace, Melissa, Colin) started to evolve and get personalities of their own, and they’re all coming back in this version. But what needs to be added is more about the story. The characters evolved, fairly well, around a clusterfuck of an unbelievable story. And in the intervening years, it was proven again and again that truth is stranger than fiction. This is what we like to call an opportunity.

At CMU, many years after I put this novel draft to bed, the fraternity Beta Theta Pi was kicked off campus for sexual misconduct. While it was not at the level of what was described in my story, it was an astonishing display of disregard for not only another person but also good judgment…and it serves as an indication that this type of shit happens all the time. In seeing that, I not only started to get a plot idea, I also realized there’s a question I’ve been dealing with for a long time, but one brought to the surface in the last year or two in light of many news events.

How do I, a white male alumnus of the Greek system, justify its continued existence?

The “white” and “male” signifiers are important, though not for the needs of any “privilege-checking” I feel I need to do (I have my perspective, and while it’s no more important than anyone else’s, it’s the only one I have). Instead, there is the important consideration that the Greek system a white man gets involved with is, culturally speaking, vastly different than that which a black or Asian man gets involved in, or that which a woman gets involved in. And in some ways, the white male Greek system is probably the most toxic in its current iteration (and yes, I realize the system isn’t segregated anymore, but the roots are important, otherwise there wouldn’t be Black or Asian Fraternities). But this isn’t an expose, hell, it’s not even non-fiction. Instead, I have a vehicle to further explore my thoughts about the Greek system, but also, through my characters, explore the experiences that shaped my time in college and let me still be proud to wear letters at appropriate occasions. I feel like the average outsider doesn’t understand what the fraternity experience brings to a college-aged man other than getting drunk and getting laid. I’m very depressed by that fact. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that my brothers, both in my fraternity and in the Greek community more broadly, have been empowered by their organizations to do some extremely shitty things, most of which fall under the umbrellas of either hazing or sexual assault. I’m depressed by that fact as well.

Though this may bring my own narcissism to the fore, I don’t think there’s been a “Great Fraternity Novel.” I don’t know whether it has to do with the degree to which men who go Greek in college are predisposed to writing, or the cultural biases inherent in the fiction writing community, but this seems to be a topic never covered with any seriousness. That being said, it represents an interesting cultural touchstone, and with the evolving view of higher education today, one that can serve as a microcosm. I’m excited to return to the setting I began to craft, and hopefully will have something interesting to say.