Monday, 28 September 2015

So what's the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction Anyway?

It’s not the laser swords, silmarils, farcasters, AI, long ears, kaiju, red shirts, arrows to the knee, wizards that came from the moon or the melange.

It’s as complex and as simple as this:

Fantasy is about how things end, Sci-Fi is about how things begin.

If you want to create stories in either of these genres you need to think about how you are going to characterise Change.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Risk, Heuristics and the Mesh Dream core mechanic

The basic mission statement for the Mesh Dream core mechanic is:

`If you are willing to accept the consequences, you will achieve your goal’.

It works like this:
  1. the GM summarises the current situation in such a way that it issues a challenge to the players.
  2. The Players make a statement of intent to respond to this challenge. What is it that they want?
  3. The GM measures this statement and the capabilities of the characters against the Scope of the challenge and decides if they are greater, equal or lesser than the challenge. They will achieve their statement in 1, 2 or 3 Steps. Each Step is an action or cohesive sequence that will contribute to achieving their goal.
  4. STEP 1.  The GM briefly summarises the situation and the objective for the first Step (as supplied by the players above).
  5. The GM asks the players to supply 3 risks. `Give me three things that could go wrong?'
  6. The Players use a dice mechanic (more about this in another post!) to generate a number; 0, 1, 2 or 3. This is the number of consequences that will be activated if the players proceed to complete the Step. Character resources can be applied to reduce the likelihood of consequences.
  7. If the resolution mechanic indicates consequences, the Players must choose them from the list of 3 risks that they provided above. In some cases the GM will get to choose one or more consequence.  If the players do not want to accept the consequences they can choose to fail the Step and exit the challenge, avoiding up to 2 consequences from this Step.
  8. The GM and players integrate the action to date into the fiction.
  9. Either return to item 4 to start the next Step in the Challenge or if this is the final Step, proceed with the fiction.

  1. Wine/Dark and Yellowlegs are clambering down a split conduit when suddenly a Renovator looms into view. Booming and humming to itself it extends a crane sized spar and starts stapling the conduit to the wall, extending downwards in a zip-like motion. The characters are 1000 metres from the shadowed floor below.
  2. Wine/Dark and Yellowlegs want to get down to the floor before the Renovator staples them to the wall. This fits with their overall goal to find the human enclave that is rumoured to exist across the floor beyond a jagged range of power converters.
  3. The GM decides that they are equal to the task and assigns 2 steps to the Challenge. The first step will get them most of the way to the ground and the second step will get them across the floor and beyond the enormous bulk of the Renovator.
  4. The GM Explains that to achieve the first step the Characters must rapidly descend the split conduit to stay ahead of the massive chattering head of the Renovator's stapler as it zips down towards them.
  5. What could go wrong? The Players decide that the risks are: One of them could be injured in the descent, One of them could drop a valued item, Their descent could attract the attention of the Renovator.
  6. The Players use the dice mechanic and it returns 2 consequences.
  7. At this point the Players could choose to exit the Challenge by exchanging the 2 consequences for failure of their goal. They know that if they choose this option they are going to get stapled to the wall so they decide to accept the consequences. They decide that Yellowlegs drops his Apex Key and they draw the attention of the Renovator.
  8. The GM describes that as they scramble and slide down the frayed conduit it increasingly shakes and vibrates as the Renovator’s staple head hammers down the line towards them. Suddenly Yellowlegs slips and his Apex Key tumbles away, arcing down and down until it ricochets off the Renovator’s superstructure with a distant clang. A sensor boom extends out to investigate and even as they continue their descent it locks onto their movement.
  9. The GM returns to item #4 to resolve Step 2 and complete the Challenge.

Risk and Heuristics

The Mesh Dream core mechanic requires that players make four separate kinds of decisions:

  • What to do when faced by a Challenge? (item #2)
  • 3 risks? (item #5)
  • Use character resources within the dice mechanic to reduce the likelihood of consequences ? (item #6)
  • Accept consequences or exit the Challenge and proceed with the story?

All of these choices need a decision making framework so that we can enjoy the game, maintain the correct balance between tension and boredom and hopefully promote a flow state. To do this we have heuristics.

Heuristics are mental short-cuts that we use to ease the cognitive load when making a decision and it seems that the more cognitive load we experience, the more likely we are to use them. A key to heuristics is that they hold an important role in how we assess and rate risks. This is important because the key Player decisions in Mesh Dream involve risk assessment and these decisions flow in an order that magnifies the cognitive load of the value judgements.

It all starts fairly gently with the players deciding how to respond to a challenging situation. This is common to all games and it sets the tone of the types of decisions that lie ahead. It is important because this is where the Affect Heuristic starts to influence decision making. The GM has an important role here by setting the emotional tone in item #1 of the process.
With the emotional tone of the Challenge set (or at least influenced) by the GM and a goal set by the Players, they must address the first Step by choosing 3 risks. The risks that they choose are a value judgement that is a useful tool for the GM to use in the ongoing game. Some players will learn to be strategic and choose risks that have minimal impact on or even promote their agenda and others will choose risks that reinforce their vision of the role of their character in the story. These are all valid. As play proceeds and the Players experience a series of Challenges the Availability Heuristic will increasingly influence these value judgements. This is useful for the GM because it implies that things that are easily recalled tend to score higher value than things that are harder to recall. By reinforcing specific points (such as `No-one survives an encounter with a Renovator!’) the GM can moderate value judgements via the Availability Heuristic.
The final two decisions; applying resources within the dice mechanic and choosing whether to accept consequences in order to win the Challenge or exit without consequence both access the Effort Heuristic and the Escalation of Commitment Heuristic.
The Effort Heuristic states that endeavours that require more effort are generally valued higher than those that do not. My goal has value because I am risking all these consequences to achieve it. If my goal has value it is worth spending character resources to achieve it. I am highly aware of the risks I take (Availability Heuristic) because I must choose them each time I act.
The Escalation of Commitment Heuristic implies that ongoing or increased investment in an endeavour is justified by prior investment even if that cost exceeds the relative benefit. The Mesh Dream core mechanic states that players will win if they accept the consequences. As play proceeds through a series of Challenges the Players will begin to accumulate more consequences and will experience an interesting tension between their inherent value judgement and the evident price of winning. This divide is a measure of the Change that they have caused (inflicted?) and the price of Choice.

Why does this matter? 

Back a year ago (wow!) I blogged the four pillars of Mesh Dream. It is a game about Choice and Change, Patterns and Rebellion. A year of thinking, writing and not blogging about it and I think that I can summarise it as a game about the Mystery of Freedom. The structures of the game are intended to guide the player on a journey that will set them to thinking about the value of their judgements, the structures that limit them and the steps to break beyond them.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Trail of the Scorpion has released!

Race like a pack of Terrolinian Wolves to buy it here. If you wisely decide that you would prefer to join the Order of the Scribe, pre-order a print + pdf copy here

Trail of the Scorpion is a great opportunity to get onboard Rocket Age, the radium fueled game of interplanetary adventure. You get six Episodes (one by yours truly) constructed to be played alone or in sequence as an epic campaign.

If you haven't checked it out before, now is a great time. Rocket Age won an ENnie earlier this year as the game most likely to get you eaten on Venus, enslaved by the Mind Dunes of the Moon, pursued by Nazi war walkers on Mars and disintegrated in high orbit over Europa. Supplements to the core rules offer more hero options - Heroes of the Solar System, locations -Blood Red Mars and the Asteroid Belt and a glittering handful of episodic adventures.

I look forward to comments and reviews as GMs get their hands on Trail of the Scorpion and from players as they experience it. Working on it was a great learning experience and I feel that I have improved as a writer and game designer. 

Onwards and upwards Rocket Rangers, turn your heels to the Sun.
Blast into the unknown, it's where all the cool kids are a'goin'.
Make allies of strangers, get good deeds done.

Sunday, 2 November 2014


Work/Life has taken its toll of late and Mesh Dream keeps expanding in scope. The project was originally something to do while Bandit Country percolates through my subconscious and finds traction. It has become so much more than that.
Mesh Dream is very ambitious. On a scale that I can't really reveal because that would ruin the whole point. The game is a playable mystery and the reveal is... a revelation.
This requires some intricate design and writing. For it to be anything more than a game with a plot-point campaign or a playable story- arc there are obstacles that must be considered and resolved.
Mesh Dream is a traditional game in that it has a GM (called the Architect), Players, dice and characters. The role of the Architect transforms as the game proceeds. Initially it is that of a GM like in most RPGs. As the players gain a sense of what the game is and begin to learn and use the strengths and weaknesses of their Characters, the GM becomes more of a Curator. They hold the mystery of the game and the ideas that it represents and decide how to give them form as a gallery for the Players to observe and interact with. In the final stages of the game the Curator becomes the Architect, the game has become a plan, a composition, and at the very end, the Players are faced by a decision.
The obstacles that I face to complete Mesh Dream are mostly in the form of successfully translating the concepts of the game into a format that empowers utility for the Architect. In many ways, the art of writing a successful pen and paper RPG is all about recruiting the GM. The GM is the first customer and if drawn to the game, will sell it to the Players. (I am talking here about the exchange of ideas). All games need this buy-in because they are a group activity. Mesh Dream needs it even more because the game is intended to arrive at an ultimate moment and will only get there if the GM is an actively enthusiastic guide who wants to prepare and present this moment for the Players to discover.
To bring it all together (and to get to the point of this post!) I have been searching outside my own head for solutions. Three things that I am quite proud of and excited by have all come together recently. They are all the result of collaboration; being an active participant in, but not an owner, of a creative endeavor.

 Firstly, my work on Cubicle 7's Trail of the Scorpion for Rocket Age is soon to be released. I am the minnow in the pool of talent involved and I am looking forward to seeing the completed book. Rocket Age is a young property but thanks to the tireless work of Ken Spencer (and everyone else involved) has a very strong sense of self. Professionally writing for a property that you don't own is a great way to grow your talents because you have to bring your A game and you don't get to choose the narrative limits. 
Secondly, I discovered the Golden Cobra Challenge. I started working on a game and realized that my time is just too limited at the moment. Then on I came across Rickard Elimää's entry: Imagine (Click Here for final version). We started chatting and I drew a flowchart (as is my wont) and before I knew it I was immersed in the Kishōtenketsu narrative structure.
Thirdly, I got in touch with Jeff Moore, prolific game creator who wrote 5x5, a game that I have admired in previous posts whilst bemoaning the jargon and complexity of roleplaying games and the barrier to entry that they offer new participants. Jeff is one of those rare creatives who not only create and innovate but can then iterate and refine. He is working on a version of this game for Super Heroes and it is absolute genius. Fortunately for me he was open to my ideas and I am attempting to hammer two disparate mechanics into a consolidated flip state mechanic (that I will then have to sell him on!)
My creative stream has always benefited from harvesting insights from multiple simultaneous projects. On one hand Rickard's game is minimalist to the point that it slaughters many of the cows sacred to gaming, nearly the entire herd. It eschews a GM, random challenge resolution, character reward/ challenge loops, character acting and even conflict. I told him that some people would (wrongly) argue that it isn't even a game. Jeff's game is all about character acting, challenges and in comics, everything is conflict. The games are poles apart and it has been a fantastic experience collaborating on them.
I expect that this will change Mesh Dream which, considering what it is, is entirely to be expected. I now have a flowchart for the core gameplay loop and that goes a long way towards implementing the methods by which the later stages of the game will subvert it. I will post this soon along with a glimpse of the Mesh Dream palette.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

MESH DREAM: Character Sheet

Click here for MESH DREAM Character Sheet

I am working on the next version of Mesh Dream and will post it when I have completed my next round of playtesting.

I updated the sheet to fix a typo.

Saturday, 4 October 2014


Included here, a short (non exclusive) list of the mad visions that inspire Mesh Dream.

Her (Spike Jonze): Prelude to the Singularity.
12 Monkeys, Brazil (Terry Gilliam): When humans are components of their own mechanisms. The horrible grind of recursive patterns.
Solyaris (Andrei Tarkovski): Failure to communicate, the language of experiences.

the Prisoner (BBC): An artificial society trapped in its own patterns. Unthinking obeyance. The strangeness of the Herd. The rebel.
Dr Who from the 80s: Strange communities threatened in a way that only an outsider can resolve.

J G Ballard’s short stories and novellas: Space, Time , Human Perception and Memory are facets of the same universal constant. Megastructures, Transformation,Epic strangeness
the Hyperion Cantos (Dan Simmons): Epic scope, AIs, Humans, shenanigans. Megastructures. Unique vision.
Feersum Endjinn, The Bridge and the Culture novels (Iain M. Banks) Megastructures, epic scope. AIs and Humans, impending doom, calculated responses.
the God Whale (T. J. Bass): What will humanity do to survive? What tools will they create and what will those tools become?
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams): There's no place like home.

Blam! (Tsutomu Nihei): Megastructure. Emptiness. Strangeness.

King City, Prophet, Multiple Warheads (Brandon Graham): Strangeness, sensibilities, scope. Is there any doubt that the future will be confrontingly weird?

Transistor: stylish. 
Alpha Complex of Paranoia rpg: All hail the Computer.
NaissanceE: The nearest thing to the Structure that I have seen.

The music of Eduard Artemiev (soundtracks for Solyaris and Stalker).
Koyaanisquatsi (Philip Glass)
Spektrmodule podcast (Warren Ellis)
Future Sound of London and their contemporaries.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Check out the latest version of Mesh Dream: Click Here

I think it is well on the way to supporting my first two Pillars. The final two Pillars are more about the setting and the experience of Play but I hope to refine more of them into the Rules and Instructions as I go.

Meanwhile; Avoid the Renovators, beware the Mal.