bottom wibbles
a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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Mappa Mundi Dissected 2

Mappa Mundi is not a card game. It is most definitely a board game; look upon it (you can’t, yet), it has a board. The randomly-generated board (accomplished, I suppose, through the drawing of cards) is a mechanic I am proud of, as its incubator. However, the game does use cards – and a lot of them. At the moment, with intense whittling, I have managed to reduce the number of decks to four. If this sounds like a lot of cards for one game about sociopathic late-medievals, you would be entirely correct. But keep in mind that at one point I was considering seven separate decks of cards, each with an entirely different function. I quickly realised that I was descending into a faeces-on-the-walls cartopathy, and reined in my love of the mechanic.

I think one of my favourite things such a mechanic is its nature of compression. The best games in history have few rules and almost-infinite permutations; other games, have rules. Lots of rules. I have managed to keep Mappa Mundi somewhere between Dungeons and Dragons and 52-Card Pickup in terms of regulatory material, but at its heart is something to which brevity is anathema; established setting. Most people will come to this game with a preconception of what the Age of Discovery was like. The life of an explorer was often violent, and short, and full of floppy hats, but most of all it was varied. With half the globe to discover, there were far too many wondrous things out there to create succinct mechanics that cover every single one.

Cards! Cards are the solution (the poop dries hard). They are a modular system with little compare. Each card can contain a wealth of mechanical information, background and dispositions, but due to their inherently unknown nature, and the rate of slow revelation through drawing them, a player often only has to handle the information of a handful at a time. They are a universally-recognised veil that you draw across the gears, teasing only what is necessary for the player’s comprehension. Almost everyone on the globe knows what a card is, and what it represents. The drawing of a card is a preparation of the mind for new eventualities, and so the decks of cards in Mappa Mundi complement the relatively sparse ruleset by lurking at the edge of the board and puffing out their mantra:

You will have to draw us at some point. Don’t worry about us yet. Just remember that we are here.

There are plenty of games that use this philosophy; Magic: The Gathering takes a complex ruleset and distributes it across hundreds of cards, each relating to the core mechanics in wildly different ways. Carcassonne has a random terrain system technique similar to Mappa Mundi, and decision-making is drip-fed to the player a tile at a time. Even in Tarot, each card has a separate meaning and designation, that changes in comparison to other cards dealt. Only the cards drawn matter, and in most circumstances, are forgotten as soon as the mechanic is dealt with.

This gradual revelation and discard of mechanic has a drawback, though; it makes strategy very difficult. That last paragraph, despite its informative links and succinct, slender profile, contained a few factual voids. Plans lain by players in Magic: The Gathering are only possible because the player can see their own hand (of multiple cards) at all times, and so mechanics actually have to be compared and contrasted before play. In Mappa Mundi, the reason I pared down the number of decks was so that some things in each game were predictable, and could be used as anchors for a strategy. Otherwise, if everything was left to a literal luck of the draw, players would quickly become frustrated when their schemes had no weight.

For example, originally the traits of each character were drawn randomly from a deck at the start of each game, so that each character was different with every play. However, I found that this made it harder to give the characters any personality whatsoever, as well as not allowing players to focus on a particular style of play. An aggressive player will naturally gravitate towards the monk or the general, for example, while a player who prefers subterfuge the pirate or the spy. If their attributes are randomised, it does not matter which character they pick, and giving them any characteristics whatsoever becomes pointless. The power of choice is instantly negated, and players, obviously, do not wish to concede that the universe is a random collection of swamp gas and pain. By making the traits fixed, the characters now have very visible personalities, and the choosing of them becomes an act of strategy.

Cards do have their place in Mappa Mundi, however. If a player decides to make landfall on a foreign shore, they are at the mercy of the Deck of Wonders.

This deck is a lot of fun for me to devise. It gobbles chance as a fuel, a hodgepodge of blessings, beasts, peoples, artefacts, geography, psychology, and more, that represent pretty much anything that a European sailor in the 15th century believed lay for them out across the mare. Every card is different, and each has an action or effect that the player must invoke. A timely Wonder Card can destroy the best-laid plans, bolster an ailing defence, or take the player in an entirely new direction. They are an element of fate that a good player will use to their advantage, and in which an unlucky player will flounder.

For example, a player’s scouting party may encounter a hyaena that eats ten of them, or one’s character may catch a fever that makes their legs go black, or they may be called back to Europe to answer charges of witchcraft, or they may find the Fountain of Youth, or discover that they are the bastard son of the King Of Portugal, or impregnate a local, or merely lose at dice. The variety of pitfalls and ascensions is almost endless. Each card drawn changes their fortunes, for better or worse, and sometimes not in the most expected way. Some require revelation to the other players, others are kept secret for a time. I think that I have achieved the goal I set out to achieve with this mechanic; to invoke a sense of dread and excitement every time a player is required to draw a card, not just for the drawer, but for everyone around the table. They are drawn every time a player makes anchor on a foreign shore, and I hope that it will encourage the gamblers to ground themselves at every opportunity, just to see what they can find.

The other decks I have created fulfil similar functions; the Deck of Oceans is more dangerous perhaps, containing all the mutability and mythos of the ancient sea with its storms, gyres and leviathans; the Deck of Shores is slotted neatly into my favourite mechanic, the aforementioned random terrain generation. The fourth deck should not really be a deck at all; it is the Equipment Deck, with visible items that the players may purchase to help them on their voyages. I cannot work out how best to present this information at the moment, but cards are certainly not the way; as I said above, cards excel at gradual revelation, and when looking at available equipment, one needs to see every item at once for one’s decision to be informed.

I think there may be a neat dichotomy emerging here. Everything relating to foreign lands, in Mappa Mundi is mutable and wild, both cosmetically and mechanically, whereas everything relating to Europe is fixed, from the printed starting board to the characters and the patrons. This is an example, I believe, of embedding one’s story in one’s mechanics, and I am very pleased with it.

Guernsey

guernsey

‘La Gran’mère du Chimquière’,  a statue menhir outside St. Martin’s parish church on Guernsey. It was perhaps first carved in 2500 BC, and has since been split in half by huffy priests and draped in garlands every year. I wasn’t anywhere near as observant.

You take a gamble walking a coastline. I always feel sure that gravity works differently there, that my feet are biased down the gentle shelf that forms everywhere that creatures do not have legs to fight it. The wind blows inland, making of you a billow, but you feel that it is only a clumsy old thing, and will soon remember itself and with a little ah! it will suck you out and lose you. I suppose that we all have family in the sea, but that’s no consolation; I am worried that I won’t recognise them.

Your health is uncertain too. Even though that philtre they called “sea air” made stencils under the hats of all those Victorian smokers, you are not sure that it will revitalise you. It certainly did not me. It gave me a chest infection that it had sharpened on Guernsey’s hundreds of drowning-rocks. I am not one for souvenirs, and I have certainly had better.

Visitors to the Channel Islands, spat out by Europe when it still blew its nose on the ice sheets and then pocketed them embarrassed, often say that it feels lost in time, just a half-step out of sync with the rest of us. Ignoring the ecstatic choirs of web servers buried like long-ago tenors all over the island, the preys of nodding lawyers in St. Peter’s Port whittled clever by tax cuts, and the airport built ten years ago with more charm than Gatwick has miles of filthy corridor, you could still say that it is a little… … … slower than other places. I spent a day walking covering more than a third of the coast, and I saw the same three bus drivers a dozen times, swapping routes like actors out of beloved roles. One of them certainly knew that he was famous for his shrill manner, cajoling passengers and traffic as if he was jousting. I have also read that people on the mainland are baffled by the island tradition of setting up roadside stalls full of vegetables without any attendants, relying on honesty boxes and an earnestness which that sea wind cannot dig out. How can you trust people to just pay without anyone watching them? What a simple life! They’re lucky that they do not know what it is really like!

What simple life? There’s nothing simple about it. You quickly realise that, if you were to steal some tomatoes or a pot of chutney (and I certainly did not), that nobody would chase you, or take your name. You would walk away, looking up at that sky which cannot decide whether this surprise birthday cake of fields and rock wants to be a paradise or a crag, and feel very stupid.

It’s the sea that sets things back a little. There’s only so much that progress can do to an ocean. We can go beneath it, or on it, or forsake it all together and just watch it twinkle dangerously as we come into land. The ferry is a curmudgeonly way to get to the south of France, and I stood and watched it heft itself up and out of the shallow harbour as if it were rising out of an armchair, trying not to spill the cold mugs of tea gathered on its arms. Guernsey faces two smaller islands on its southern side, Herm and Sark, and the former is so close to that harbour that I thought I could see people, mirroring myself, walking its mantling paths. I never really lost this perspective, in all my walking; the two islands, the sea cushioned between them, and then the hundreds of drowning-rocks, blotting that sea into something more like a dropped glass. On the other side of the island, near Vazon Bay and the Nazi concrete, they come before the tideline in a great jumble of ellipsis, tempting you to find out what comes next. Let me spoil it for you… it is Canada.

While the sea might keep some things ancient, or just dated, other things blow over it with the speed of sunlight. A whole drift of undesirables have come to Guernsey to pave this broad avenue that leads out into the world; Germans, French, and especially the English. The delicious bistros is which we ate gaze past those heavy little islands back towards the gargantuan shadow of France, proud of how far they have come. They are the product of striking out, as are the road-signs, the churches that sit a little squatter than those in Kent or Wiltshire, and the argot that only a few of the islanders still speak. People sailed here, thousands of years ago, in little boats that we cannot even begin to diagram. They found an island bouncy with sweet grass and wheat, squeezed by a belt of fish so thick that each swim was maybe a crunchy affair, tipped with creamy waves chubby with krill. On my walk I found two of these glutton’s tombs, seven thousand years old apiece.

At the first I met two Americans, who kindly told me where to find the council-installed light switch inside, as if we were queuing for a toilet. I certainly wasn’t, though I can’t say what they did in there. The space inside was low so that I had to crawl, and when I stepped out of the wind things got old once more. There was a spicy smell of earth that slipped into every sense. One of the vast boulders which formed the ceiling had a man’s face carved into it, mouth pursed, surprised to find himself hauled up from where he had used to stand as a god of small realms by the door. When I climbed back out into the sharp sunlight, the Americans were standing on the grass dome of the tomb, twirling bronze aerials as lazily as I would look for phone signal. I left them to it, and walked on.

The second tomb had grown a golf course around itself like a pringled beard. Two bank managers ignored me as I trod across the green up to the Millennium Stone, a far more modern attempt at lithomancy. The tomb, entrance overgrown, again forced me to bend and smell the soil, and as I climbed in I almost bottled it; there was only a rent of light from an opening above me, and one of the two pillars holding up the ceiling had the year “1898” chiseled proudly across it. It was certainly very impressive, but venerability is not what I look for in something holding up several tons of rock.

I clumped across the bowl of L’Ancresse Bay, in the very north of the island, buffeting across the leavings of low tide in Ladies Bay, letting the water spill over the top of my boots and keeping an eye out for ormer, that little ocarina of a mollusc that you will not find in England. The weather just tripped across the whole island and I think only one night passed without a storm. Guernsey changes all the time, and stays the same as well. My body cannot handle it, and I’m still sipping Benylin as I write this.

I think the moment when it really got into me, right down into my lungs, was at Fort Doyle. Originally a defense against the French navy, the raw brick, mimicking the lining of my throat, was pebbledashed by the Third Reich. It strikes out to the north, into the Channel, and I approached it as would many of the men who had worked there, from inland, though in my age I emerged from amongst tomato hothouses and mussel restaurants serving hot, limp dill to tourists.

I could feel my trachea narrow with the land. The rain came as I approached the redoubt of the front entrance. I climbed breeze block stairs to a roof which will celebrate its hundredth birthday very soon, still held up by the tricentennial clay that will scoff at kids these days. The rain worsened, and a cloud larger than the island itself, stretching up into space, shouldered its way to us, having finished with England. It hit me so hard I nearly sailed off that roof, and it put something into my lungs that has stayed with me, even though I am now many miles from that sea, and that wind.

Mappa Mundi Dissected

mappa mundi

So.

Writing and designing a boardgame is hard if you are very intelligent. I am such a person.

I cannot speak for the experience from the perspective of a stupid person, but I imagine that it would present its own problems.

I started designing Mappa Mundi,  a boardgame set during the European Age of Discovery in the 15th century, for several reasons:

1) There was a gap in the market for story-led, complex strategy games with a strong roleplaying element, which also provide a rich bedrock of mechanics and world-building to encourage divergence and replay;

2) It was a game that, if I described it to myself whilst pacing around my living room (an activity that quadruples as mopping, hoovering and exercise), I very much wanted to play;

3) There was a story that I wanted to tell, and I felt that it would be told best in this format;

4) By telling this story, I wished to teach people (secretly) about something for which they had cultural awareness, but perhaps less actual knowledge.

The story of the European explorers, almost all of them retrospectively diagnosable with severe personality disorders, and their frankly absurd drive to cross the sea in the rotting dandruff of the waves, haunted by mutiny, disease, loss, bankruptcy, loneliness, scurvy, religious extremism, not to mention the entirely fictional bestiaries of the day, is a very long and complex one. It involves so many different subjects that I scarcely knew where to start in terms of a traditional script or novel. What would emerge from such a process would be a runtish chimaera of influences, a book about the thickness of one American sandwich or three British sandwiches, and a horrid mess.

A game, whether board or otherwise, provides an excellent way to solve this very basic problem. Games thrive at the thinner end of the wedge. They offer ways to develop relatively few mechanics and allow the squelchy old human bonce to extrapolate out a theoretically endless number of permutations. This means that the story can be told again and again, each time slightly differently. However, though the world stays the same throughout each game – the world here being the “possibility space” of every conceivable game – the narrative, the specific game played, changes every time. As long as the gameplay itself is compelling, a player can experience as many narratives as they like. This is unfortunately less possible in a traditional narrative, such as a novel or a film, where the gameplay is, while slightly more involved than many game designers would have you believe, still restrictively linear.

I even considered turning Mappa Mundi into a stageplay for a while, but the last thing the London stage needs is more men in tights sighing or cackling.

I decided, then, that Mappa Mundi would work as a game. However, unlike other games, such as chess or chequers or, now I come to think of it, any that have endured, I would be guiding the narrative a little more than usual. Chess is eternally popular, not just because of its mechanics, but because the pieces, their movement, and their opposition, are so atavistic that they may substitute themselves for anything weighing on the player’s mind. Outside the obvious realms of war and conflict, chess may be a contest between lovers, a map of a realm, or political machinations between sons of some decaying fiefdom.

My effort is a little more focussed than that. It is set in the 15th century in Europe. It involves sailing ships, courting politicians and staking claim to new land, very explicitly. Metaphors have their place when playing Mappa Mundi, but nowhere near as broadly as its elemental brothers. Right away, we have an immediate problem; there is a channel already cut for the story. Hire a politician, sail across the world, gather gold, come back. There’s not much of a choice, on the face of it, past the first game. Not much room for imagination, or the unconscious pollination that players commit.

At this point, it’s probably best if I give you a quick overview of the game so far:

Players choose their characters (with differing attributes and wealths) from a limited pool, and choose a positive and negative personality attribute (randomly) along with it. They then enter into a bidding war, partially randomized with a dice, to secure the best patron in Europe, each of whom has differing motives and available funds. Each patron will give them more money for ships and equipment, in return for completing missions. These missions are secret from the other players.

After this the main game begins. Players strike out from the printed map of Europe onto blank sheets of paper, forming an unmarked map of the world. As their fleet progresses, they draw cards (containing both boons and obstacles) from the Deck of Oceans. If they receive a “Landfall” card, they start drawing from the Deck of Shores, sketching out sections of coastline on the paper according to the instructions on the card. They will find civilizations and other wonders, drawn from, appropriately the Deck of Wonders. Through trade, sabotage, conquest, subterfuge and exploration, as well as completing their patron’s missions, a player may win the game.

You see, therefore, that it is a complex game. This is unavoidable, as the mechanics needed to be broad and varied enough to provide variation within the sandbox. The setting defines many of the mechanics (the travel by sea, trade, the patrons etc.), but the player’s behaviour is an entirely unknown quality, at least until playtest. I knew from the outset that I needed to create mechanics that were both novel and at the thin end of that wedge I mentioned.

These are the mechanics of which, amongst the over-complicated mess that is the game after several sessions of brainstorming, I am still proud:

  • Apart from the small, printed map of Europe, the game map is generated by the players, on blank pages that they attach to the original board . This uses a random mechanic (which I explained above) to ensure that the landscape, and therefore the tactical possibilities, will always be different in every game. This serves an anthropological as well as ludographical purpose; it correctly symbolizes the lack of navigational knowledge that these explorers had, as well as generating unique mementos from every game; a literal “New World”, created by luck, and the player’s choices.
  • The deck system is still a good one, and I have whittled it down to the three main ones. Cards, as well as being instantly recognizable as a symbol of uncertainty and gamble, allow me to compartmentalize the learning of mechanics; after the players have learnt the basic rules (many of which are simply “draw a card from the appropriate deck”), they then learn more only when a card calls for it, and even then in small, digestible boli. This substitutes a much more complex basic rules system. Simply put, having many of the game rules on randomly-drawn cards staggers the rate at which a player needs to learn them. A card is also the best random mechanic for telling a specific story; I can put flavour text, specific encounters, and interesting narrative on each one, and at no point does the player feel that they are having the story told for them; they have chosen to initiate the card mechanic, and so the richness of the responses enhance, instead of diminish, their sense of agency.
  • The roleplaying element is really important to me. As a player and Dungeon Master of D&D, I feel sure that players enjoy associating with a strong personality, good or bad. A feature of Mappa Mundi is that all of the characters have something wrong with them, as do the patrons; indeed, they could be characters in their own right. These faults are randomly chosen each game, which does add another deck of cards to the game, but ensures that each character is different every time one plays.

I think that it all comes down to a wish to have as many variables as possible. When someone recounts a game of Mappa Mundi, there will be quite a few [either/or] situations which their play will resolve. For example:

“Oh billy-ho, what a great game! I played as the French Monk Jacques du Gris! I had the Confidence card, but also the Moor Hater card, which meant that I wasted some time kicking about North Africa. I missed my first patron, King Joao, who had more gold than Burgher Avalao, but he wanted me to complete more missions, so I was lucky to get the Burgher, really. I had to find the Fountain of Youth, and spy on the player who had Al-Andalus, the Moorish philosopher, as his patron. And don’t get me started on what I spent my  cruzados on…

Every coloured phrase indicates a variable, and there are many more generated by the decks in the main part of the game. These points of change string together to form something truly emergent. I am still pretty proud of that.

However, I do need to work on paring down the number of decks. I think there are just too many, and it shows inelegance on the part of the design. I am certainly a “kitchen-sink” writer, and I need to figure out how to cut any flab that may be forming. Is it a case of cutting some of those variables for simplicity, or amalgamating them into a smaller total number? With the Ocean Deck, Shore Deck, Wonder Deck, Arrogance and Disaster Decks and Mission Deck, things are getting complicated very quickly. However, as mentioned above, many of these cards lie dormant for most of the game, and a player may only ever draw a fraction of them. I’m still not sure. I’m also getting writer’s block from the sheer number of ships, special cards, wonders, pieces of shoreline, and oceanic ephemera that I have to get down.

I have a lot of other work on at the moment, but I want to have a second draft (hopefully playable) together soon. I will also be Kickstarting (or the UK equivalent, if it has not made it over here yet) this project, with all sorts of incentives and stretch goals and more work for myself.

I am looking for a graphic artist/designer to help me with the art for this project, and am willing to split profits pretty generously. I have little talent for it myself, but I think this could benefit from really sumptuous design, a real evocation of the period. Please email me if you think that you would fit the bill.

Headdress

The buzzard washed the deer of its head
Its beak a tap.
Which of the three thousand badgers
That are watching us
Set the airpump going?
Who brought the smell of fish into these woods?
And the mudskippers
That once were flies
They share the same shoulders
Ill-designed
For carrying off eyelashes by the bundle.

Firewood and headdress
The deer is dead
Tell the others
What an insult
To leave the eyes
To watch itself be amphibianed.
Made into water

Not much left
But my mum made a child
By how silly it all is

Shinkansen

Sarah Ogilvie’s artwork for my short story, ‘Merry Christmas, All You Gods’.

Habitition of the Stone Lord

I hope you all remember PlaGMaDA. I thought that we had an understanding.

I would draw you attention to important elements of our existence, and you would remember them, and shower currency upon them as if it were the last days in Karakorum. Luckily, I’m here to remind you that you can now give money to <http://www.timhutchings.org”>Tim Hutchings and his tactile accomplishments.

Much like his dolphin-themed psychedelic tabletop RPG, Tim is Kickstarting is next project, “The Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord and Other Adventures”. I didn’t feel the need to insert a snide little [sic] there, as this project is knowingly, encompassingly innocent; a playable collection of homegrown D&D modules from the 1980s, produced by adolescents. Most of them are meticulously copied onto graph paper, the D&D logo traced with the care of growing bones, and even though the project is now funded (with a fortnight to go) there are still stretch goals, which are now a very welcome constant in crowdfunding.

So, go and give him some sukhe, please.

Screws

A few days ago, it was the birthday of German minimalist musician Nils Frahm. Though I am sure something beautiful happened in his physical presence, he chose to mark it digitally by releasing Screws, an elvish piece recorded in little over a week. The record is free, and is as blasted and delicate as the rest of Frahm’s work; it limps along in sensitive shoes.

For once, Frahm matches the wounded nature of his music. He broke his thumb, a black moment for any pianist, and settled in for nearly a fortnight of casted inaction. But, being a superb example of humanity, he decided instead to record an album, without his thumb. Every day he recorded a new song, and went to sleep to recuperate. The day that his cast came off, and his physiotherapy began, he had a new album, conducted to him in a haze of pain and cold worry.

I can’t tell from listening that the digit is missing, but that novelty was never going to be a big part of this record. He jumped on the opportunity as a way to help himself recover, not to desperately elevate himself as a tragic interest. The album is more delicate than “The Bells”, which is almost jolly, and little lighter than “Wintermusik”, a three-track work that is heavy on held bass notes and a mealy, wooly sense of freeze. I love it.

That Lashed Moon

My father has had a telescope for many years. It’s an intimidating limb of utter precision, and I think he is terrified by it. Within it are more complex sciences than he, a former organic chemist doctor, has ever performed in his life. A zen machine, it is powered by light, and remains useless without an eye to witness it. The aperture through which you can view the stars is so small, you feel that you are on a spaceship in the 1960s, where the windows are so small because of the weakness of glass, and all of our primitiveness.

Those are my fears. Perhaps his were more concerned with a Galilean loneliness; nobody else in the family wanted to work out how to use the thing, least of all myself. Then, as with all people, I grew up and realised that absolutely everything in existence was interesting. This, indirectly, led to me clearing out my parent’s loft, discovering the telescope, and spiriting it off to my flat.

It’s not a powerful telescope, in a global sense; 600mm, with a 6mm and 20mm lens. I took it with me on recent trip to Devon, where you can make out the Battenburg of Milky Way into which we are baked in the night sky. But I was impatient, and couldn’t get it to focus. Luckily, when I returned home, autumn was setting in, and in between bouts of rain it was minty clear, with few clouds and a waxing moon.

The picture above was taken by my flatmate, with a 6 megapixel camera. The image is hazy, but no less wonderful for it. He has a 36 megapixel Canon, the adaptor for which is in the post from China, so I am very excited about the ensuing images.

The 6mm lens, when you have cleared the tears from your eyes and willed your eyelashes to stop drawing down over everything, brings the moon into such a relief. It is amazing that something so acned and repugnant should glow like that.

The craters seem to hang over its underside like dugs. The surface, where it meets that complete black, shimmers noticeably. We even thought that we could track it across the sky, but that may have been the soil underneath the tripod’s feet shifting.

When that adaptor arrives, and the forecast is clear and the moon haloes again, we are jumping in the car and going somewhere very dark, to take some pictures.

A Bumblebee

My good friend Nick Henderson, who is discovering, beneath his romboid, flaky frame, the heart of a filmmaker, is currently unemployed. This is a tragedy, until you watch this video, and decide that you can spare a few pounds a month to keep him physically, if not spiritually, alive; it pulls some excellent things from him.

Mappa Mundi

mappa mundi large

This is the first in a series, where I painfully and hatefully analyse concepts and portions of the boardgame that I am currently developing, and will no doubt be developing in fits and starts for some time. Expect my prose to become hairier and more rage-filled every time I write an entry.

I’m part of a thick wedge of society who love boardgames. As a Western person of means, they have always been a large part of familial and general social life, part of an infinitesimal ritual conducted on holy days in lieu of actual worship. I am sure that many of you know the stations of this journey:

  • All of the food has been eaten. This is the most spiritually dangerous time of the day.
  • Awkward yet homely bigotry commences amongst the ancient of the clan.
  • Sensing a descent into violence due to hunger and disagreement between the more idealistic of the youth and the “venerables”, the beatific sound of the creaking cupboard door is heard, and, with solemn procession, the play is enacted.

Many of my special memories revolve around screaming at my grandma that she can’t have any more wheat (both in her diet and fictious feudal economy), or my mother taking on the role of Victorian mill-owner, shrugging benignly as her entire workforce develop shadowy lungs in the name of progress. I remember once, whilst playing Monopoly, that she constructed a deviously complex loans system to aid struggling opponents, opponents such as her young son who were still coming to grips with economic responsibility. We were around five turns in, and she had already won, but delighted in turning the rack for as long as she could.

I believe that it was from her that I received my “get-up-and-go” attitude. As well as my flinch.

It is now one of my jobs to write games. The emphasis is still on “writing”, but I am learning to structure that writing in many different ways. One of the most important things I have learnt is that some people, deep down, don’t really like reading. This may not strike you as a revelation, but I do find it difficult to accomodate. They do like the content, and the delivery, and the style, and all those myriad parts of writing, but the act of sifting through it in a linear fashion; well, it’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not the only way I like to see a story told.

I have always wanted to write a board game, and I am surprised that it took me this long to realise that there is no license that I require to do so. I can just, well, do it. So that is what I am doing. And while I will be levering in mechanics like an elderly farmer trying to reset his cow’s gently steaming innards after a winter birth, I am really here, inside this head, to tell a story.

hieroglyphica-cynocephali

 

I had been kneading a little idea for a while on the “Age of Discovery”, that incredibly febrile and astoundingly violent period when Spain and Portugal (limped after by England and some other naval underachievers) beheaded captains and set fire to pilgrim ships across much of the world’s oceans. Men like Colombus, Giovanni Caboto and Amerigo Vespucci had their names printed upon much of the world’s globes (novelty, light-up, regular and inflatable) as well as on some distinctive features of the moon. I have always been fascinated with exploration, with the idea that these men, coming from a time when the next village may as well have been populated with Mohammedan blemmyes or worse, had the maniacal ambition and arrogance to take ships not much bigger than a medium-city McDonald’s into open ocean. I struggle to see them as heroes. As I read more about them, the hideous mistakes they made, the murders they committed, the ludicrous titles which were bestowed upon them, and the innumerable new avenues for suffering that their travels opened up (avenues which, granted, ushered in the Renaissance), they strike me as very unpleasant and very interesting characters. Precisely the sort of character that many people like to pretend to be, in their private moments with friends and family. Like my mother, Bob Diamond with leathery wings, whipping the Monopoly Man into a lead mine to carve out shingles for her new Park Lane Mammonopolis.

So, Mappa Mundi is now in development. I won’t reveal too much about the mechanics yet, but I will lay out what I wish to evoke. Really, I can’t tell a single story with this project; a game where the outcome is fixed is not a game, but rather a long and pointless cleverness that I am too prone to. What is vital, before I fix any rules in place, is to work out what sort of stories I want to be told within the mechanics. I made a short list below:

  • The fact that, as an explorer, one’s livelihood, continued existence and future glory rested upon men and women more hopelessly inbred and insane than you were. Kings, queens, merchants and patrons had to have their (very idiosyncratic) egos tickled before there was even a breath of bagayo.
  • The fact that these men had very little qualification, at times, to be leading such voyages, and that maritime knowledge at the time consisted of the pictoral equivalent of a shrug and a witch-drowning.
  • The ludicrous percentage of national wealth that these expeditions required, and the mentals that I mentioned above that freely gave such wealth.
  • The tendencies of mentals to decide that you aren’t so useful after all, and to ask you back to Portugal to be dipped in pitch like a doubletted sundae.
  • The constant and terrifying boredom and danger of the open ocean without an on-board wave machine and karaoke buffet.
  • The aforementioned wankerosity of these men.
  • Pirates.

Anyway, I will keep you updated on my progress, and will provide early versions of the game for playtesting. Fair winds!

Helmet

sutton hoo

Panel detail from the Sutton Hoo helmet.

I can hear gulls, or rocks, or one or five machine-guns, or the breathing of twelve men, or one hundred.

I am souped, a bowl for this idiot’s head. There is a last clutch of aftershave about his hair, and the hooting noise of sweat. It irritates me, awfully, when his hair grows. It seems to grow in fits, at night when he is asleep so as not to distress him.

What about me? Why won’t he take me off when he sleeps? Is he afraid of the rocks falling? Will the gulls shit on him, and so instead he uses me as shelter? I hope I have a rim that cuts into him and gives him a blood disease.

Pan Troglodytes Troglodytes

I have been tucking into Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun In Game Design, and realise that my own writing, whilst dense and perhaps texturally sound, is particularly bad at expressing complex pieces of information. Koster has no such limitation. The first few chapters of A Theory… plunge the tent pegs in rather hard, laying down a base of cognitive neuroscience to explain, at a biomedical level, why we enjoy playing games. The reasons are broadly similar to the reasons why we enjoy anything, but differ in some major elements. The main point, that I can seem to find, is that games encourage replication of pleasure, in the form of repeating patterns discovered by the player. This may sound like the player is little more than a furred associate of Glaxo-Smith-Kline2, harnessed onto a pseudo-spine rigid with dull liquids, not potions but real chemicals, and fed occasionally from a tube. This is not far from the truth, and as the truth it loses a little bit of the fear we feel for it. I am happy to be a dumb ape.

My reading brought up several questions, not all necessarily criticisms of Mr. Koster’s approach to storytelling, games, and their place in our lives:

1 – The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle is a concept put forward by Johan Huizinga in his 1938 book Homo Ludens. I have not read it yet, but from what I can gather it is a rather anthropological study of play and games in human society. The Magic Circle is the protected (a word I think is more useful than Koster’s other word, “sacred”) space in which games take place. They are rhetorical, hypothetical spaces, a sandbox in a philosophical sense where the consequences of that which play emulates are not apparent; to give a recent corollary, Skyrim’s world of experimentation, casual murder and alchemical strategy. For Huizinga, the Magic Circle is something that cannot be transgressed; to do so would be to “break” the game, and introduce the real world into the gamespace.

Now, having not read Homo Ludens I cannot say whether these transgressions Huizinga mentions are moral or not, but this is the strata that makes the most sense for many modern games. To transgress and introduce the real world would be to introduce real consequences of morality, real questions of how the actions taken in the game affect the real world. Whilst they are stored in the gamespace, these consequences are severely neutered. The Magic Circle, to me, is what is transgressed when organisations attempt to boycott games following actual crimes by their players. I imagine that they would not deem it the Magic Circle. A certain degree of disgust would be apparent; the Sticky Circle, perhaps.

It is also interesting to note that these gamespaces are not “consequence-free”, as we may imagine; a digital consequence, such as a city guard detaining your character, still affects your brain even though it is comprised of visual and aural data removed from physical harm. When you are invested in a gamespace, your brain still distinguishes consequences as threats or rewards. The intensity is dulled, yes, but a digital punishment is still a punishment, and to be avoided. If they were not, games would be an infinite plain of no significance, each decision as pointless as the next.

I don’t believe that the Magic Circle cannot inhabit physical spaces. The real world is not the great destroyer of the game. Games take place in the real world all the time, especially in the arena of sports, and therefore transgressions of the Circle can be harder to notice. When one breaks the “rules” of the game, it is usually obvious that one has done so, but if, say, a person’s real-life emotions and worries began to affect their performance in a football game, and affected the other players, this transgression is less easy to spot. It is in this notch that ARGs and other real-world games (as opposed to sports) sit, and they still prove interesting. However, this ambiguity as to transgression means that they are harder to make well, and maintain successfully. We’ll keep trying, I’m sure.

2 – The Problem Of Climax

This is as big a problem as the title suggests, but in the realm of games it is one of pacing and tempo. If a game is the replication of successful patterns, how can story sit alongside this? A story, the trapping of the world laid over hidden patterns, does not necessarily encourage repetition; exposition can only really happen once, at least in my experience. After a revelation, it cannot be repeated with the same emotional weight. Games, it seems, squirt different glands, and a story is planed down by repeated iterations. One could argue against this, citing folktale and the endless reinvention of myth, and I would take that point. This is more of an open question. There seems to be a large gap between story and game that I cannot define yet. I believe that it can be defined and healed, but the difference in mechanics is one that causes many games to either reject story or practice it badly.

I do not think that all games need a climax, or need a story at all. For many the story is only a handhold for conscious brains to latch onto whilst the subconscious or the “grok” brain does its work. But something that Koster writes troubles me. He states that a game “[needs to] teach… everything it has to offer before a player stops playing.” This seems difficult to me. If one is taught everything before one stops playing, there will be no climax, or satisfaction. There will only be a decline into non-playing, and for many games this seems a shame. I am of course looking at games in a traditional narrative sense, and one could argue that satisfaction is spread more thinly in a game, and more regularly, as opposed to the linear, crescendoing satisfaction of another mediums. Many games in fact teach new mechanics until near the end of the game, at which point the narrative takes over and concludes with the aid of the tools the player has acquired. I do think, however, that a climactic conclusion to a game, at least in terms of its playability rather than its narrative, could be useful. However, would this mean that the player would wish to continue playing, and instead could not? I am not sure. This is something that a lot of people are wrestling with, myself included.

Related to this is the problem of learning. With the linear progression of content revelation in a narrative, without permutation, can anything be learned from repeated visitations? Obviously some games have branching storylines, but if they all function in the same way with the exception of content, can we really say we are learning anything new? Does content stand on its own as a tool of learning? Is the game element pointless, in this case, as the mechanics only serve to advance the story, something that could already be attempted lineally? And can story become a mechanic in and of itself, rather than a dressing? I was going to delete this paragraph, as it is a mess, but I will leave it in place because I think that the questions are valid ones. It also leads nicely on to the next title:

3 – Attention Span

Koster mentions attention span from a biological rather than a social perspective, but the social ramifications of perceived degradation of attention span are regularly debated publicly. I do believe that this is generally a bad thing, but I also have begun to question whether it is a product of advancement rather than decay. As our brains crave more and more patterns to learn (to use Koster’s metaphor), traditional patterns (such as reading) are not satisfactory. When we work as a society on new ways of disseminating information and teaching our brains, we may find that reading is hopelessly inefficient, and other forms, such as games, are better ways of learning pretty much anything. I’m not convinced in any way, and owe most of my education to books, but is an interesting topic to watch, nonetheless.

4 – Chunking

“Chunking”, the approximation of the sensory world by the brain, is central to Koster’s writing, and is generally portrayed as biologically inevitable, and therefore entirely neutral qualitatively. Games rely on the deletion of erroneous information. This is why games with overly complicated plots, narratives, or even mechanics such as mini-games or side-missions, can wear thin quite quickly; the brain recognises these elements as inessential to the completion of the game, and attempts to discard them. A player may consciously wish to play them, and may create a smaller “Magic Circle” within their own minds in order to enjoy them fully as games on their own merit, but chunking usually prevents this.

I am questioning whether chunking can be considered “bad”, and whether anything could ever be done about it. It seems that there is no way to train the brain to see what is actually there, hear what can actually be heard, and relate to a complicated game fully. I have a feeling that “chunking” is the basis for those erroneous claims that humans only use five percent of their brainpower. But, with the advancement of technology, it would interesting to see if the chunking problem could be bypassed digitally, and allow games, and all other sensory stimuli, to be analysed at an actual rather than allegorical level.

All of this makes my jaw ache, but I’m now going to read a little bit about Gunpoint, and see if I can render this questions into something useful.

Have a think for me.

Walking Through Wild Garlic

wild garlic

In a week and a small sleep I will be walking for twelve days along the Pilgrim’s Way, which doesn’t actually exist at all.  It’s a hand-hold from before London, for hunter-gatherers afraid of heights. I suppose that the North Downs Way is where I’m heading. There will be a couple of nights in hostels in Rochester and Canterbury, mainly because municipal councils would not take kindly to a heavy-set rambler attempting to drive budget tent pegs into a Curry’s forecourt.

Man Alive

A friend of mine has made an 88-second film for an 88-second film competition. It is nice and taut, though I do feel that he is far too well hirsuited and booted for a working post-apocalyptist.

Period Pieces

I have been thinking a lot recently about technology, and our acquisition of it. Technology is, quite rightly, an expensive purchase; just to come close to constructing a calculator requires hundreds of transmuted meteorite shards that are scraped off the inside window of the Earth. They require factories of technology to produce, to pulverize and liquefy in order to store information or output light. Technology changes daily, and, for the most part, our choice to change with it remains a choice. If I am a rich man, I may choose to upgrade my technology every time something new is released, and discard or recycle that which I used before. If I am poor, or merely comfortable, I may wait several consumer generations before buying again. I may also be an archaist, or a luddite, or anything in between the polarities, and buy once and wish to use forever. I may be content to only give the capitalist contract a cursory glance, and decide that I need nothing more.

This contract simmers down to this particulate:

“If you pay us money for an object that is advertised as a purchasable product, or an easily defined experience, that experience or object belongs to you, within the confines of common sense and ability. You may use it as you see fit within the bounds of already-defined law, and it remains yours until you sell it, discard it, or die, in which case it passes on to your descendants, until it crumbles into dust or is otherwise obliterated.”

As far as I can tell, this is the basis of all modern commerce. Some services and experiences may be defined more nebulously, but this is the crux of it. One may also hire, or rent, or license, or borrow, or interact with objects in many other ways. But, for an intelligent person, your relationship with your object is defined prior to the choice. You know, or can divine, in advance, whether you are hiring or buying.

This, it seems, is not a given anymore.

I am not actually referring to digital products which provide no concrete, ad infinitum link from consumer to product, like Kindle purchases that can be wiped remotely or Steam libraries that can only groan silently with weight and expense, and may, in fact, be wiped at any point and for any reason, infractious or not. These issues have already been raised, by many, and I for the most part agree with them, but there is a different paradigm for immaterial purchases; the practicalities of storage and the easily-broken promises of “forever-access”.

I am referring to good old-fashioned hardware. Those things that can be grasped, picked up in a car, and sit in the corner of a living room until the curtains glow with far-off oil-fires and the whoop of marauders pound at the door. Computer hardware is caught in an amphibian conundrum; its physical shell fulfills all of the tenets of the above consumer agreement, and is purchased with the ineffable promise of continual, permanent ownership. However, its blood is software, the cloud-like, undefined anti-stuff of which I talked in the above paragraph. The shell without the blood is nothing at all. The old Apple 2s and Valve, owners of the Steam platform, to realistically honour a refund of every transaction made if their servers were wiped. And their EULA protects them against such an obligation. And so we enter in this argument that we now own nothing, but pay the same fees as we do to own to instead license, with added convenience. If the prices were different, this would make sense. But they do not. The capitalist contract is being used incorrectly.

I am not sure if something needs to change legislatively, or if this instead requires a change in outlook. People need to realise the relationship to what they are buying, and how this may change in the future. That shiny computer you buy today will degrade, and gather dust and jam-prints and will need cleaning and maintenance like anything else; but those theoretical spaces that exist within them, and alongside them, in an unknown dimension, sit thrumming silently, waiting for the light to switch off. That computer is only a rental, no matter how much you paid for it.

You Are Special

While you have a bowl to put yourself in, there is a uniqueness that nobody else recognizes. Your head is an iceberg’s hat, a deeper-than-thought dwelling for you to place parts of yourself that require an intimate knowledge of every sniffed nose you have ever had. There is a thrift of understanding that causes you pain, and you wish that others would try to spend it.

They are. Everyone you ever meet tries hard to understand your point of view and foibles. It is a constant effort, and much of our brainpower is spent in it. Everybody fails. Don’t feel bad about it. You’re special, remember.

The wasted effort spent in trying to understand each other, and in that effort the knowledge that others are as unique as ourselves, and subject to that uniqueness in the same manner as ourselves, is what stops cheeks sliding from faces and the formation of ideas such as:

– What is this house for, anyway?

– What should I terminate?

– Starting things should cease.

Black Films

motorway

The road is a process. It remains entirely unsame throughout its life, after which it is shaved off and used to keep the dishes quiet. Even a single second after the bitumen lorries have left, it is different.  The chemical-smoke that worms off of it contains neat shelves of atoms, and in being different, it is hard to focus on the material.  When I drive along it I see only the trees surrounding it, the bridges crossing it, and the personalised machinery using it; never the road. The road is a process.

Machinery can become filthy without human aid. This is not the prevailing opinion, but it is true. The road is the proof. No humans walk there, apart from when wrapped in evolutionary warning dyes to make of themselves sufficiently important to avoid death. Sometimes the lost or stranded are forced to wait, fearful of the wind that changes, always changes. They are quickly shuttled off, trying to forget the cold, and the noise, and the choking air. There is no hint of man here. He left with the bitumen lorries, and took his skin cells and eyelashes with him. There is no coating of man. And yet black films collect.

It is a natural process, shaped by the switchbacked throat that breathes up and down from where all the air is. You may see it in the sea, in the woods and by the rivers, wherever you live. Some things are swept along by the air. Others are not. The things that are swept along do not remain homogenous, they catch their slightest utilities on the claws of others, are knotted, and come to halt, the air trying to reclaim them. And still the cars come, and scratch themselves, and a matte-black dust settles over everything.

I have seen this more and more since I became a driver. Strange objects all coated the same, washed against the central reservation, wind-shoved between the rails of a pedestrian bridge. Bottle caps mixed with flat meat, hubcaps becoming carbonised and petrified with snack packets, toddler toys, cigarettes, apple cores, faulty radios, dustings of chocolate yoghurt biscuit pots, forming fungus that can make no roots and so is mobile, swept along until exhaustion or underpasses give them a little bit of peace.

Sometimes roadkill will be fresh, and it seems that lack of blood lets light, artificial or stellar, illuminate the interior and give the feathers or fur or puckered skin a lantern quality. This will not last. The throat gulps eternally, and the black cells come, filming everything and wearing down the catch until it drifts off again, and plasters the rear ends of vans and provides someone somewhere to write and draw pictures. This will only happen when they are drunk; they often will not wash their hands before they next eat, and do not know what they are coated in.

I knew somebody who wanted to walk the entirety of the M25 on the hard shoulder. I now imagine him treading slowly on, each passing vehicle stealing a infinitesimal part of him, until by the end of his journey his edges are rounded, and he does not know how close he came to becoming part of the black film, the sample of pheasant and badger and polyurethene, that moves along those roads where humans no longer go without a tabard and a cone.

PlaGMaDA

The name PlaGMaDA reminds me of Peskajumba, Biarmaland, or other conjunctive inventions that mankind fall into. But it’s not. It’s our wheezing, rickets-laden friend the anagram. The Play Generated Map and Document Archive. A worthy ephemera, yet again, a shelf found in a crowded library. The Internet brings us things that matter entirely in their not mattering.

In their own words:

PlaGMaDA’s mission is to preserve, present, and interpret play generated cultural artifacts, namely manuscripts and drawings created to communicate a shared imaginative space. The Archive will solicit, collect, describe, and publicly display these documents so as to demonstrate their relevance, presenting them as both a historical record of a revolutionary period of experimental play and as aesthetic objects in their own right. By fostering discussion and educating the public, it is hoped that the folkways which generate these documents can be encouraged and preserved for future generations.

I believe that the archive is physical as well as digital; people disappearing into their lofts to retrieve kilojoules of effort rendered onto stamp paper. Dungeons and Dragons, and its ilk, generate effort, more than anything else.

This effort is important, and it is important to document it. This represents the collective development of hundreds, if not thousands when one includes the adventuring groups that were influenced by these maps. It doesn’t matter if these players went on to be writers, or fishermen, or tax clerks, or government officials, or firefighters, or even failed writers. The things they see when they look across a road and see an unusual configuration of organic matter; two people arguing, a woman riding a horse, a smug man driving a classic car, are directly influenced by the play they did as a child. Part of this, of course, includes the maps they drew and read. These maps probably occupy a greater imprint in their minds than the maps of their neighbourhoods, of their own house. They know where their character’s bunks are, could trace their steps with their arms by their sides and their eyes closed.

To matter so much to someone, no matter how young they are, means that there is a psychological force that occupies these things. And to see them as museum exhibits both removes us from their significance, artifacting them, and highlights what they meant. How they have aged, how the acid in fingers has digested them slowly, how smeared chocolate could have caused the death of an entire ideology.

They matter. And PlaGMaDA matters.

If we want to exist as a species, we need to remember them, and put pen to paper that was meant for writing letters, or cheques, or calculations.

A note: All images from the archives were used with the permission of the tireless Timothy Hutchings, curator of PlaGMaDA. I truly think that what he is doing has worth beyond catalogue. He told me about some exciting events involving his work: Everything is DOLphins, a successful Kickstarter relating to PlaGMaDA itself, and a Delphinidae-themed RPG. PlaGMaDA art is on display here, and Tim’s own art is to be found both here and here. I’m not the biggest fan of abstract art, or merely non-figurative work, but I really liked these. They are bright, technical and intricate. This is my favourite.

Addendum: I’ve just discovered these as well. They are very appropriate.

White Films

BIIIIIIIGGGG JAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRR

Sandor Katz and Doc Fermento managed to convince me that gently rotting my own vegetables would not end up with a face the colour of greening tin and cured sausage for legs, blood for effluent and a corkscrew wedged in the duodendum. This fermented cabbage sat in my cupboard, in a dark warmth, for two weeks, and then was refrigerated to put everything to sleep.

I tasted it yesterday, with corned beef, a little creme fraíche, and some mustard.

It smelt… not wrong, as I had been trained by my reading to trust an actual smell from my food as evidence of health. The thing I noticed was a lack of vinegar, and a strong smell of salt. Which, considering there’s around 500g of salt in the jar, is to be expected. The caraway seeds had mostly sunk into a thick gound at the bottom rim, but I could feel them pricking up through the soup, alerted to my breaking of the seal.

It tasted great. Really great. I have a cold, but it still tasted great. Crunchy, as salty as a crisp, but with a wet, earthy strata underneath. It tastes like it has sat in a cupboard for two weeks, in a good way. It sat well in my stomach, and I am ready for more.

Next, Kimchi, yoghurt, and tsukemono.

The 12-Bar Club, London


Gig poster drawn by the wonderful Sarah Ogilvie.

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