Strategy for 2016

Another year draws to a close, and Kannagara still isn’t finished. On the bright side, I didn’t run a Kickstarter for it. On the down side, I would have liked to be a lot farther along than I am at the moment. Writing a significantly different kind of roleplaying game turned out to be quite hard and a lot of work; who would have thought it?

Still, I have made some progress this year; quite substantial progress, in fact. I have a basic set of mechanics that seem to work quite well, and have an obvious way to incorporate facts about Shinto into the game. It’s now a matter of writing the material so that there is enough to play with, and getting people to try it again. I think this version will work better than the last one, but only a playtest will tell. So I need to get it to that point.

With that in mind, I have been considering a change in strategy. Actually, this is something I’ve been considering on and off for a long time. The problem is that I am designing a new kind of game about material that is almost completely unfamiliar to my target audience. Even people who know a lot about Japan tend to know relatively little about Shinto, and the details of rituals and matsuri that are important in Kannagara are a mystery to the overwhelming majority of Japanese people. I periodically wonder whether trying to do both of these at once is too ambitious. That is, it might be better to use a different setting, one more accessible to English-speaking gamers, to get used to the mechanics, and then write Kannagara.

If I did that, the setting would be completely invented, because part of the problem is working out how to fit real-world things into the game system in a respectful and informative way. With a completely made-up setting, I don’t need to worry about that. What’s more, there’s a game that I’ve wanted to play for years, decades, in fact. That is the “School of Magic” game. I think this goes back, ultimately, to reading A Wizard of Earthsea when I was about ten years old; in specific game terms it goes back to reading The Principalities of Glantri in my teens. The thing about the game that I want to play is that it is about learning magic and discovering magic, not about killing monsters in the tunnels under the school. I have yet to find a rule system that supports this. GURPS will let me create the characters, but does not really support the game, not even with the supplement on schools that came out recently.

The mechanics I have written for Kannagara would support that game. I could make up the magic system and the school system to work well with them, and “School of Magic” is a sufficiently well known trope that I would expect the game to be accessible to many gamers.

Eventually, I definitely want to write both games, because they are both games that I have wanted to play for years. The question is which to write first. I haven’t decided yet, and I will keep moving Kannagara forward until I decide definitively to work on the other one, but I may switch tack early next year.

Liberalism and Diversity

Recently, I have come to think that I have been confusing two desirable situations when thinking about tolerance, diversity, and liberty. Here, I will refer to them as “diversity” and “liberalism”, not because I think that is how the words are generally used (I think a lot of people confuse them), but because I think these words fit the respective situations quite well. Both concepts apply primarily to societies, and to individuals insofar as they support that kind of society.

A diverse society is one that approves of a wide variety of people and lifestyles. The opposite of a diverse society is a uniform society, which only approves of a narrow range of people and lifestyles.

A liberal society is one that tolerates people and lifestyles of which it disapproves. The opposite of a liberal society is a repressive society, which attempts to suppress people and lifestyles of which it disapproves.

As should be clear from my choice of labels for the positions, I think that a diverse, liberal society is the best, and that a uniform, repressive society is the worst. However, once written like this, it is also clear that these two labels are, in theory, completely independent. Diversity and uniformity are concerned with the range of things of which a society approves, while liberalism and repression are concerned with its attitude to the things of which it does not approve. Thus, a diverse, repressive society and a uniform, liberal society are both entirely possible. I think merging the two ideas makes it hard to see this; at least, it made it hard for me.

Let us be a bit judgemental. A uniform society is evil, just because it only approves of a limited range of options. Thinking about sexism makes this particularly clear. Being a full-time mother is not a bad choice for a woman. In fact, I would say that it is a very good choice. There is a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved, and such a woman is likely to make a large, positive contribution to the well-being of a number of people, not just her own children. Traditional gender roles are not an evil because they force women to do something bad, because they do not; they are an evil because they say that one good thing is the only thing that women should do. On the other hand, a diverse society is good. It allows people to choose from a wide range of good lives. Women can stay at home and raise their children, or they can become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Naturally, only the extremes are clearly good or evil. A society that gives women a dozen choices is clearly better than one that gives them only one, but not as good as one that gives them a hundred. We might be forced to say that societies in the middle are neutral.

Liberal and repressive societies should be described with different terms, so that we do not reinforce the confusion. A liberal society is chaotic. People are permitted to do things of which society does not approve, so plans for society keep getting disrupted by people doing things that society would prefer them not to. I suspect that it is not possible to produce a beautiful society in a liberal society, because someone will build an ugly house in the middle of your historic area, or insist on wearing hot pink to your goth gathering. On the other hand, a repressive society is lawful, because people only do what they are supposed to do. There may be a wide range of things to choose from within that, if the society is also diverse, but society only permits the options of which it approves. This means that you can have a diverse, yet beautiful, society. There can be many kinds of flowers in the garden, but you exclude the weeds. In a liberal society, almost anything is allowed to grow, so your ability to create any sort of pattern is very limited.

In a liberal society, people are willing to let people do things that they disapprove of, and that they think are bad. As long as they do not cause too much harm to other people, they are left alone, although other people may try to avoid having too much to do with them. Hate speech is a good example in Japan. We recently completed an interview survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki, and the general attitude of the Koreans to hate speech was that they didn’t like it, and would rather it didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t be stopped, because people have various opinions. They just wanted to avoid getting caught up in it. That is a very good example of tolerance in its pure form: they disapprove of something, but do not want to take active steps to stop it, as long as they can stay away from it.

In a repressive society, people are not willing to let people do things that they disapprove of. I could argue that this is an important source of the culture wars in the USA. Neither side is willing to let people do things of which they disapprove (practise homosexuality, or preach orthodox Christianity, depending on which side you mean). It is true that one side is typically called “liberal”, and uses arguments about toleration, but in the terms I’m using here, they are diverse, not liberal. The other side is typically neither diverse nor liberal, however, so if I have to pick one side or the other, it’s easy. However, while the choice between “uniform and repressive” and “diverse and repressive” is indeed easy, neither is my preferred option.

Indeed, if asked to rank “diverse and repressive” and “uniform and liberal”, I would have to say that “uniform and liberal” is better. No matter where your preferences are in relation to wider society, you can at least live according to them in a liberal society, whereas in a diverse and repressive society, you are in trouble if you fall outside the charmed circle of societal approval. A diverse and liberal society is better than both, of course.

The distinction between approval and toleration may not be entirely clear, so let me use homosexual relationships as a concrete example. A society tolerates homosexual relationships if they are legal, and if they are not generally treated as grounds for refusing employment, housing, or services. They are welcomed and approved of if homosexual relationships are portrayed positively in the media, and the law recognises gay marriage. It should be obvious from this why I think a diverse and liberal society is better than a uniform and liberal society; it is clearly much better to be gay in a society that approves of your orientation than in one that simply tolerates it.

This is not to say that diversity and liberalism are easy. Liberalism requires us to tolerate things that do small amounts of damage to other people, on the grounds that the damage is less serious than that inflicted by suppressing the behaviour. However, drawing the line is hard. It is, to me, obvious that we should tolerate comedians who insult, mock, and belittle [insert group name here]. We can disapprove and criticise (remember, that’s what “tolerate” means, as opposed to “welcome”), but we mustn’t try to silence them. On the other hand, if that comedian stands outside a school for children from the target group with a massive sound system every day, that’s much harder. To take a different case, people should certainly be allowed to make the claim that abortion is murder, and strongly criticise anyone who is involved in abortions, but should they be allowed to constantly picket abortion clinics? There has to be a limit, and liberals have always recognised this, but deciding on where the limit has to be is a very hard problem. It is hard to specify the standard by which we should decide, and hard to apply that standard to actual cases. Even worse, the hard cases are common in real life.

Diversity has a very similar problem: drawing the line around the things society approves of. If approving of more things is good, one can always ask why we should stop here, wherever here is. Liberals in the US are typically dismissive of the argument that allowing gay marriage will lead to the acceptance of polygamy and bestiality, but that argument is aimed at this problem. Diversity is good, so we should approve of homosexuality. But then, why shouldn’t we approve of bestiality as well? Diversity is good, right? Indeed, there is a substantial group of people (the poly community) who do think that the next step after allowing gay marriage should be to allow polygamy, because they want legal recognition of their relationships, as well. Should society approve of them? Just as with the line-drawing problem for tolerance, the far extreme is approving of people who rape and murder for fun, so the line really does have to be drawn somewhere, and it is hard to see how to justify drawing it in any particular place.

In a diverse and liberal society, this problem is mainly intellectual. People who get put outside the charmed circle can still pursue their lives as they wish to a great extent and campaign for change if they wish, and society asks them to tolerate the unaccepting attitudes of most people, just as most people tolerate their behaviour. Things are not symmetrical, but they are not obviously inconsistent.

However, in a diverse and repressive society, things are harder. There are people who do not approve of the things that society approves of, and society is demanding that they be tolerant. For example, conservative Christians do not approve of homosexual relationships, and society demands that they be tolerant: that they not treat homosexuality as grounds for discrimination in employment, accommodation, or services. However, society itself is not tolerant. It does attempt to repress the things of which it does not approve, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. Conservative Christians agree with society on some of these points; most of them think that sexism and racism are wrong and should be suppressed. On the other hand they, quite reasonably, do not see why they should put up with things that they think are wrong when society as a whole refuses to put up with things that it thinks are wrong. The result is likely to be a culture war.

In the context of roleplaying games, this distinction allows me to articulate exactly why I have a problem with the SJWs. They are pushing, energetically, for a diverse and repressive society. They put a lot of energy into increasing the diversity of RPGs, by actively seeking out authors who are not WhiCH American men, and by increasing the range of characters portrayed (positively) in games. On the other hand, they also put a lot of energy into trying to suppress things that they don’t like, such as chainmail bikinis.

I am entirely, 100%, behind the push for increased diversity. I am also entirely, 100%, opposed to the push to suppress certain games and elements in games. I think it is at least as important to stand up against the repressive side of the campaign as to stand up in support of the diverse side. However, the polarising rhetoric doesn’t leave space for four sides in the battle. This is odd, because roleplayers should have the conceptual tools ready to hand; indeed, I have already introduced them.

Diversity is good, uniformity evil. Repression is lawful, liberty chaotic. The SJWs are Lawful Good. They are paladins, the classic social justice warriors. I am Chaotic Good. I am happy to work with paladins, although I will work to channel their energy into promoting good, rather than law. Sometimes, we will get into arguments. And I think that, sometimes, it is very important to distract the paladin.

Harae

Today, I have had time to work on the game, and it felt very productive. I did two main things.

First, I tweaked the mechanics in an attempt to deal with the problem of near-redundant statistics I noted a few weeks ago. I think this approach will work, and make the rules significantly simpler, but I need to let it sit for a while and come back to it.

Second, I started working on actual content for the game. I have started by working on the mechanics for harae. I have a good way to fit harae into the game: in order to perform a matsuri while they have kegare, the personae must perform a full harae. This fits with Shinto practice, but also means that there is a solid game reason for the activity. If the personae have no kegare, then the harae will be a purely formal part of the matsuri, background colour with no game mechanics. If, on the other hand, they do have kegare, then the harae serves a clear game-mechanical role, which is important.

Because harae is a ritual, there are two stages. First, the personae must create or discover the ritual, and next they must perform it. Today, I was working on the rules for creation. Part of this was entirely generic, within the ruleset, and that was a good thing, because this is the very first part I have written to be generic. I got the feeling that it is going to work, and that things are going to fit together. This is a very good thing, although that sort of feeling can, alas, be wrong.

The other part was more specific, incorporating aspects of real-world harae rituals into the game. And it was easy. There is an obvious place for them, with in-game meaning so that they are more than just colour. I started plugging them in, and this is the sort of mechanical fiddling that I enjoy doing. I do need to work on how to fit them in somewhere else as well, but this is a very good start. I think I need to include more detail than my first write-up has, but that’s something for second drafts.

Once the rules for creation are done, I think the rules for discovery will be very simple, because they will be essentially the same. In the game, it doesn’t matter whether the personae get something by creating it or discovering it, after all. They would use different abilities, and there will be conditions on discovery that do not apply to creation, but fundamentally they will be extremely similar.

Performance will be different, but it offers potential as the other place in which I can include real-world elements with game effects. I still need to work on that, but I hope that I will be able to do that next week.

It is a little annoying that my other work, the work that actually pays, is having a busy period right now, because I think I’ve just got Kannagara out of initial development, and into the stage where I can seriously get on with writing it.

Core Mechanics

Today, I think I completed the rules framework for the game. It is nothing like the rules I described earlier on this blog, but it all hangs together nicely, and will, I think, support the sort of game that I want to design.

I actually have a track record of designing in this way. First, I do a lot of work on a particular design, putting in a lot of detail and making it quite usable. Then I throw it away completely, and start again from scratch. I did this on my PhD dissertation, where I wrote one 80,000-word dissertation every year, and had no words in common between the first and the last. I don’t think I even had ideas in common, other than the topic of the dissertation. I also did it a couple of times for sub-systems of Ars Magica 5th Edition, and I’ve done it for other gaming things I’ve written. I think I have to conclude that this is just the way I work. I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else, however. First, you should try working styles that don’t involve chucking months’ worth of work away.

I’ve also realised how much more I have to do. If we compare to Ars Magica, the current state of the rules is as if I had the core rules for Ars Magica, for Abilities, Arts, and Laboratory work, but did not yet have the Ability list, Arts list, spells chapter, or much of the Laboratory chapter. Of course, the background chapters don’t exist yet either. If we compare it to writing a setting for Pathfinder, I’m currently some way before the point at which you start work, because I don’t have any character classes yet. (There are not going to be character classes in Kannagara, but I’m missing the equivalent things.)

The remaining work should, however, be the sort of rule tinkering that I really enjoy. As long as this set of rules don’t fall apart under pressure as well, things should start moving forward nicely. I do have a fair bit of confidence in the rules this time, though, because they worked in the simple playtest, and they can easily incorporate a whole bunch of things that I really wanted to include, but couldn’t see a way to handle before. I might even be able to work effectively with smaller chunks of time.

Of course, the progress here depends on time available. Designing Kannagara does not immediately pay, so it has to cede priority to things that do. In addition, last week I took the week off because my local jinja had asked me to write them an English pamphlet, and that had also been pushed back by other commitments for far too long. However, I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off; both activities are about presenting Shinto in English, and the pamphlet for the jinja will have a more immediate impact than Kannagara. The leaflet is basically done, now, so that should not be a distraction any more.

I’m really hoping that the next few weeks will be calm, and allow me time to work on this.