“Playtest” Results

This blog has been quiet for a bit, because development of Kannagara has been on hiatus while various life things happened. However, they’re over now, and I’ve moved this game to a higher priority. Today, I ran the first mini-playtest of the new version.

In a sense, it wasn’t a real playtest, because I was the only player. Because Kannagara is designed to have no gamemaster, it ought to work perfectly well for solo play, which means that I can do preliminary testing by myself. It will still need proper testing with other people, of course. However, to do that, I would need rules and content that was written up to be fully understandable by other people, with explanations of what is going on.

At the moment, I don’t have that. I do have a full set of rules, and I wrote up all the content I needed to run a single “situation”, the Kannagara equivalent of an encounter. (“Encounter” is a bad name for them in Kannagara, because in most cases the personae do not encounter anyone or anything.) Then I ran through it.

It worked.

There were plenty of minor moments of tension when rolling dice, and some of the mechanics worked well. Then there was a good section of making meaningful choices, and a climactic moment of tension (when I rolled very well. I win!). I think the basic mechanics are sound, finally.

That’s not to say that they are perfect, because I noticed a few flaws. One was to do with the consequences, and I think it will be fairly straightforward to fix. The others may take a bit more effort.

The biggest was that the first part of the situation did not, in the end, involve any meaningful choices. In part, that was because of the solo-player set up; with multiple players, it would make sense for particular personae to take particular actions, which would add a bit more choice. However, even there, the choices would mostly be obvious given the persona’s game statistics, so while it would distinguish the personae, it would not give each individual player meaningful choices to make.
I think I may be able to combine a fix for the absence of choices with a fix for the problem with the consequences. Let me explain the structure of a situation in general terms.

In the first stage, the players generate their options. This involves dice. In the second stage, they use their options to set up the possible outcomes. Finally, they roll a die to see what the actual outcome is. This final die roll is the climactic moment of tension in the situation, and always will be; the rules guarantee a wide range of possible outcomes, while also guaranteeing that the outcome cannot stop the story moving forward.

Part of the problem with consequences is that the outcomes ended up too purely good or too purely bad. Mixtures are more interesting, from a gaming perspective. I didn’t end up with a bland middle possibility, which is good, and I don’t think that’s possible, but I’d still like more good at the bottom and more bad at the top. I think there is a change I can make to the generation of options that will have that effect. The next step in development will be to try to make that change work.

The Freedom to Publish and Safe Spaces

A month or so ago, I wrote an article saying that I disagreed with OneBookShelf’s decision to start refusing to sell “offensive content”. In the discussion of that on my Facebook page, a number of people expressed incredulity at the idea that anyone might have a right to be sold. That comment thread was not a good place to discuss the issue, and I promised to come back to it. It’s taken some time, but this article will address that question, and related issues, in more detail. Three thousand words of more detail, it turns out.

First, I should sketch out my basic position. I start from the foundations of classical liberalism: freedom and equality. That is, everyone should have as much freedom as possible, and everyone’s freedom is equally important. I believe that the state’s role is to ensure that everyone has as wide a range of opportunities for action as possible. This means that people need to be healthy, educated, financially secure, and living in a peaceful, orderly state with a functioning infrastructure, so the state ends up being quite substantial. In addition, I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. I think that ensuring the freedom of others must be an important part of anyone’s personal ethics, and that someone acting in a way that excessively limits the freedom of others is behaving unethically.

On the other hand, material property is not that significant to me. People only have a right to private property because, on the whole, that maximises their freedom and ability to plan their lives, so there is no problem with taxation to ensure that other people also have that freedom. Conversely, there is no reason to seek material equality, although particularly gross inequality may well limit the freedom of many people, particularly the poor. Thus, I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist, although in practice I think I tend to end up closer to the socialists on economic policy, and closer to the libertarians on social policy.

I don’t claim that this position is obviously right and indisputable, and there are many difficult problems to be solved if it is to be put into practice. However, in this article I’m not going to defend it, and I will do my best not to respond to comments querying it. As I mentioned, this is already 3,000 words long, and it would be far longer if I tried to deal with those issues. What I do plan to do is engage, in detail, with one of the difficult problems: should DriveThruRPG sell products like Tournament of Rapists?

The Right to be Sold

Let me start from the point that raised the most incredulity: the claim that there is something like a right to be sold for publishers of RPG material. No-one commenting on my article thought that the authors of Tournament of Rapists should be legally prevented from writing and publishing it. Some people do, but my commenters were mostly authors and publishers, so they can see the clear threat to freedom of speech involved in going that way. What they could not see was why those considerations obliged DriveThruRPG to sell it.

The discussion did allow me to clarify my own position in my own mind. It is not purely about freedom of expression; it is also about freedom of employment.

First, freedom of expression. Recall that I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. If a certain private entity has an effective monopoly, or even a near-monopoly, on important means of expression, then that private entity acquires obligations to protect freedom of expression, even if it strongly disagrees with some of the content. The same applies to an oligopoly, except in that case the obligation is that they collectively protect freedom of expression. For example, if there are only five major newspapers, but they all have similar circulations, and all can easily be purchased, then as long as any opinion can find a publisher in at least one newspaper, the individual newspapers are free to exclude people with whom they disagree. If, however, all of the publishers disagree with, say, Islam, they do have an obligation to publish Muslim pieces, despite their disagreement. If they do not, Muslims are effectively deprived of freedom of expression.

This is, essentially, the idea that society can silence minorities by depriving them of a platform, and the claim that media outlets have a moral obligation to provide such a platform. I would also say that the state is permitted to force the media outlets to provide a platform.

On this basis, DTRPG probably does not need to sell Tournament of Rapists if Paizo or e23 is happy to do so. Paizo and e23 are not as big as DTRPG, by a large margin, but they are probably still big enough to count as providing a reasonable platform for expression. “Selling from your own website”, however, probably does not. (On the other hand, in table-top roleplaying, publishers have no obligation to publish anything they dislike, because “start your own publisher” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.)

This raises an important point about these rights. The obligations of private entities depend on the scale of their influence. An independent bookshop has no individual obligation to support freedom of speech, because it is clearly possible to sell a book elsewhere. If that independent bookshop develops into a national chain that is the only way to acquire books in most cities, then it acquires obligations to sell anything (through special order, if necessary; they are not obliged to stock everything). Obviously, then, there is an empirical question about just how big and influential an entity is, and this will not always be easy to answer. However, the fact that some moral questions are difficult is not a reason to abandon morality.

Next, freedom of employment. The freedom to choose your own career is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution (Article 22), and it is a fundamental part of any meaningful freedom. It is, however, a difficult freedom to pin down. We cannot sensibly say that I have the right to be a world-famous film star. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to say that I have the right to try to be a film star, to audition for roles at least. It also seems reasonable to criticise the film industry if it simply never hires, say, black people or women to play leading roles. Black people and women also have the right to aim at being film stars. Saying what this means in detail is very hard, so I’m not going to even try to address the general question here. Instead, I want to consider what it means for table-top roleplaying.

First, it is obvious that no-one has anything approaching a right to make a living wage in table-top roleplaying. In our industry, that dizzy height is reserved for the people who achieve major break-out success. Equally, there is no right to a proper job, with medical insurance and a pension. However, no-one should be excluded from being a freelancer, and for historically excluded groups that means that it is a good thing if publishers actively encourage them. One feature of our industry is that most publishers are micro-companies run in their owners’ spare time, and such publishers can compete with the largest companies we have. This is, I think, a very good thing. If a group of conservative Muslims decide that nothing available in roleplaying reflects their experience or the games they want to play, they can start a publishing company and publish the game.

However, they must be able to offer it for sale to the public. We are talking about the right to employment, not the right to a hobby, so new publishers must be able to offer their product to the market. That is the equivalent, in our industry, of applying for a job. Further, you must be able to offer it to most of the market, because otherwise there is no chance at all of making any money. The market is tiny to start with; restricting access to a small fraction of it is effectively a bar.

For electronic products, I believe this means that you must be able to sell on DTRPG. I don’t think Paizo or e23 is large enough (and the numbers I have heard from people who sell on two or more of those sites backs this up). If someone is to have a genuine chance to apply for the job of RPG publisher, they must be able to sell on DTRPG. This only applies to DTRPG, because of its size and dominance. Paizo can refuse anyone it likes, because it is small and largely irrelevant if you aren’t selling Pathfinder products, and not critical even if you are.

An analogous situation to DTRPG refusing to offer something for sale because of its content would be 1950s Hollywood refusing to hire people because they were, say, Communists. It would, effectively, deprive people of the freedom to even attempt a career in a particular field.

To summarise, then, freedom of expression suggests that DTRPG probably, for ethical reasons, offer Tournament of Rapists for sale, while freedom of employment provides an much stronger argument that it is obliged to.

Safe Spaces

“But what sort of signal does that send to women?” I hear you ask. The signal it ought to send is “Even if you want to write an RPG inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you will be able to offer it for sale on DTRPG. We respect your freedom to try to work in this industry, not matter what you want to write”. The argument that group A can only be welcomed if group B is excluded is one that is frequently used by powerful groups to exclude and oppress minorities, and it is a bad argument. In a free society, you have to accept that you are living with people with whom you strongly disagree, and that you will see evidence of them doing things you disagree with. This is why conservative Christians have to put up with same-sex marriage, and why feminists have to put up with rape fetishists (but not rapists).

The problem that must be taken seriously here is that of “triggering”. For some people, certain themes or images provoke extremely strong negative reactions, and cause significant distress. The correct response to this is not “Free Speech! Get Over It!”. However, the correct response is not easy to determine.

Let us take food allergies as an analogy. I am very aware of the risk of trivialisation here. Food allergies can kill their sufferers, painfully, in a matter of minutes, and interfere significantly with eating, an activity necessary for life. Psychological distress caused by a hobby game product is not even close to being the same level of problem. However, this does mean that a response that is appropriate to food allergies cannot be an inadequate response to triggering, although it could be an over-reaction. If it turns out that food-allergy-like policies could be implemented without imposing excessive burdens, then that’s fine; when we are talking about the risk of harming people, some degree of over-reaction is good, as long as it does not cause other problems.

These days, I suppose most people know how food allergies are dealt with. Food products are clearly labelled with the common allergens that they contain; in Japan, there appears to be a standard set. This does lead to slightly daft situations, such as packets of mixed nuts with “Warning: Contains Nuts” printed on, but “slightly daft” is much better than “accidentally killed someone”. Further, these steps are taken even in cases where there is some doubt about the existence or prevalence of the allergy. For example, it is somewhat controversial as to whether gluten intolerance is actually a thing (although I think the consensus is that it is), and its prevalence is very controversial. Even so, “gluten” is listed, and gluten-free products are available. Even if it is not really a problem, gluten-containing products are still available for the people who want to consume them, so it is reasonable to issue a warning for people who may, genuinely, need to avoid it.

Moreover, I believe that in many cases it is possible to overcome food allergies, and, obviously, a good idea to do so. Nevertheless, this cannot be done instantly, and we have no right to force people to do so. Thus, the information should be made available, and people with allergies should be able to avoid those foods. Obviously, people with very unusual allergies cannot expect everything to be labelled, so they have to ask about ingredients individually.

Note that labelling a product as containing nuts is in no way a judgement of the culinary worth of the product. It is simply a warning so that people who are allergic to nuts can avoid it.

Can a similar approach be taken to roleplaying products? It seems so. DTRPG already has an “adult” filter, although it is applied very inconsistently. (I find it astounding that the Worlds of Darkness are not behind the filter, for example, given that every book includes an explicit “this is mature content” warning, and most books include nudity.) With a bit of thought and research, themes that seem likely to cause serious distress to a large number of people could be filtered out.

The immediately obvious theme is sexual violence. This is distressing to a large number of people, and should clearly be flagged, and people should be able to hide it from themselves. I think this is a very good idea.

Another theme is “nipples”. Sorry, nudity. This is largely a US hang-up, but it is quite an important one there, so people should be able to exclude such products from their searches.

However, there is another important class that seems to get overlooked: phobias. Arachnophobia is not a rare condition, and such people can be triggered by pictures of spiders. It might not be obvious to someone new to the hobby that “City of the Drow” is likely to contain lots of giant spider pictures, so it should be possible to hide spiders. Snakes and blood are also common problems, as I understand it.

More generally, it should be possible to filter out horror games in general. The whole point of horror games is to take disturbing images and work them into the game, because some people enjoy that. However, it is not always obvious from the title that something is horror, and the blurbs themselves are sometimes disturbing, so filtering them from searches should be an easily available option.

It is also an undeniable fact that a large number of people in the US and the rest of the world claim to be deeply offended and upset by portrayals of same-sex sexual relationships. Now, I think that it would be better for them to get over it, but, as with food allergies, that is unlikely to be instant, and we do not get to tell them that they must change. I think it would be wise to include a “LGBT” filter. It could even be made bivalent, so that you could set DTRPG to only show you LGBT products, something that the LGBT community might find useful. In fact, all the filters could be set up like that, to make it clear that this is not a moral judgement.

The filter topics are not obvious, and would require some research. If we use “internet outrage” as our standard (and this is not a bad standard; avoiding internet outrage is a sensible strategy for a company), then sexual violence, nudity, explicit sexual content, and LGBT content are the current leading issues. If we use “clinical prevalence of people who are triggered”, then I have no idea what the list will be, but it could be very different. Research would be necessary. Indeed, it might be a good idea to cover both: internet hot-button issues mainly for PR reasons, and clinically prevalent reasons primarily to protect vulnerable people.

The elephant in the room, as far as RPGs are concerned, is violence. I am sure some people are triggered by violence, but a filter to hide all violent RPGs would leave you with nothing but Golden Sky Stories. (The “spiders” filter would get it, however.) It is true that violence is ubiquitous in US entertainment, but in most fields it is not quite as all-consuming as it is in tabletop RPGs. Even computer games seem to do better in this respect. Still, this is not DTRPG’s problem, and I am exaggerating (very slightly) for rhetorical effect.

It does, however, bring home the point that, if everything that contains a fairly common trigger were placed behind a filter that was on by default, DTRPG would display no products to the casual browser, and that would almost certainly be very bad for business. As this was another objection that was raised to my position, I’d like to conclude by considering it.

The Duty to Go Bankrupt

It was suggested that, if DTRPG were to sell Tournament of Rapists, the backlash would drive them out of business. Can we really require them to do something that will drive them out of business?

In general, the answer is “yes”. If you can only sell cars by adding software to cheat the emissions tests, then you should be driven out of the business of selling cars. Going back to my fundamental position, no-one has the right to a job that requires excessive restrictions on the freedoms of others. However, the answer in this specific case is not obvious. The fact that, sometimes, going out of business is the only ethical option does not mean that it always is.

The filter problem is a good example of this. DTRPG probably would go out of business if the filters were on by default. That means that it is permissible to have them off by default, as long as casual browsers can easily turn them on, and the user interface for doing so is very easy to find. Requiring someone who is triggered by violence to click on a “trigger filters” link and then select “hide violence” is not an unreasonable restriction of freedom, particularly if the alternative is going out of business.

What about the original question? What if the backlash against a product would drive the company out of business?

The first thing to note is that, if this would actually happen, the group threatening the boycott is not a marginalised group; it is the dominant group in the industry. Furthermore, it is a dominant group trying to drive a marginalised group out completely. (If you think the Black Tokyo line is mainstream, you need to learn a bit more about our hobby.) So, the question is, is it ethically permitted to cave in to a dominant group in its attempts to exclude a minority, if the alternative is going out of business?

This is a hard problem. I think you should err on the side of not caving in, because boycotts are almost never as effective as threatened, and we know from history how easy it is to get caught up in persecuting people. In this case, I do not think that the backlash would drive DTRPG out of business, particularly if they were introducing more consistent trigger filters at the same time.

Three thousand words later, where am I? (I would say “where are we?”, but I doubt anyone has read this far.) I still think that DTRPG is making the wrong decision, and that it should be selling offensive content. I also think that it should be working on better filtering for triggering content, so that people can make the site into a safe browsing environment for themselves, without restricting the freedom of others to aim at a career in table-top roleplaying games.

OneBookShelf’s Offensive Content Policy

On September 1st, OneBookShelf, the company that runs DriveThruRPG, announced an offensive content policy in reaction to the outrage over a product entitled “Tournament of Rapists”. Steve Wieck, the CEO, published a blog post explaining his decision. It is a thoughtful and serious attempt to wrestle with a difficult issue, and one that recognises the complexity of the situation, particularly the fact that OneBookShelf’s marketplace dominance means that its decision to not sell a product is de facto censorship. Nevertheless, I think he came to the wrong decision. There are several reasons, and I will start from the least serious. (If you haven’t read his blog post, it would be a good idea, because the rest of this post will make little sense without it.)

First, I think it will be very hard to implement the reporting policy. It will have to be limited to genuine accounts, so “genuine accounts” will have to be defined, and there will have to be a way to block people who use it frivolously, so there will need to be a definition of “frivolous reporting”. Neither of these will be easy to determine, let alone code. It will almost certainly have to be limited to people who have bought the product in question, but I doubt that OBS will be in a legal or financial situation to offer refunds. A product that has been challenged and passed will have to be removed from the flagging system, which means that OBS will put a badge of approval on fairly offensive books and high profile books that attracted protest flags, but not on uncontroversial books from small publishers. It’s going to be messy.

Second, the new policy is a PR disaster waiting to happen. If Mr Wieck is serious in his intention to err in the side of permitting books, and I believe him, then at some point he is going to refuse to drop a product that someone in the SJW community has challenged. Now, you and I know that there is a big difference between “This is bad, but not bad enough to justify banning it” and “I am a wholehearted supporter of the ideology expressed in this product”, but do you seriously think that the internet mob is going to respect that distinction? Similarly, it is very likely that he is going to have to exclude someone in the SJW community from the flagging system, because they are flagging too many books that don’t merit censorship. At this point, he is not only Steve Wieck, rape advocate, he is also an agent of white male oppression, silencing the voices of queer women of colour.

If the disaster waits for a month after the implementation of the policy, I will be pleasantly surprised.

Third, this was a major change to fundamental policy made as a snap response to a single crisis. By a roleplayer! All GMs know that it is a really bad idea to make general changes to house rules at the table in response to a problem that has just come up in play. You make a spot ruling to fix that problem, then think about a suitable general response, discuss it with the players, and come back in a week or two with the longterm solution. This principle becomes more important as the decision becomes more important. I realise that the internet feels that taking an hour to respond is a clear sign that you are ignoring their concerns, but the internet is wrong. A couple of days is the right timeframe to make a decision about this case; a month, at least, is an appropriate time frame to make decisions about the longterm policy. These snap decisions are almost always bad, and very often illiberal.

Now, those three reasons are quite important for OBS, but not good enough reasons for me to stick my head above the parapet. That’s reserved for the final reason.

I think it is an unethical decision.

No-one will be surprised to learn that this is a free speech issue. I find it a little difficult to make this point, because I actually agree with the SJWs that this particular product was almost certainly harmful and unethical. I haven’t read it, as it has been censored, but it is in the tentacle porn genre, and what I have seen of that genre convinces me that, in general, it valorises hurtful and harmful attitudes to women, sex, and female sexuality, and I am concerned that it might actually promote them as well. I think it is unethical to make and publish such things.

However, freedom of speech applies to unethical, harmful, and hurtful speech. Indeed, this is exactly the speech it has to apply to. No-one tries to ban speech they think is harmless. The people trying to ban RPGs for being Satanic in the 1980s didn’t sit there thinking “What harmless hobby should we try to ban? My DM killed my thief, so let’s try to ban D&D!”. They (at least most of them) genuinely believed that RPGs were harmful. Yes, there were some bandwagon-riders, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that that’s true of the SJWs. Freedom of speech means protecting people’s right to say things that you believe are wrong, harmful, and pernicious. It also means defending your right to criticise them for being unethical, but you must not silence them, and you must not try to exclude them from the general marketplace, whether of ideas or of products.

Now, that does not mean that you cannot try to create a marketplace or environment where they are not present, but that must be, in an important sense, a marginal environment. Safe spaces are important, but you must not create them by excluding groups from the main space. You can limit certain sorts of behaviour, such as harassment, but speech has to be free. (And yes, I have thought about the distinction, but this is going to be too long anyway, so I’m not going to go into it here.)

I think that preserving this sort of freedom, the freedom to say unethical things, and make hurtful and harmful statements, is an essential part of social justice. That is why I have abbreviated the standard name to “SJW”. The people strongly advocating this censorship are, in this case, fighting against social justice.

Now, there are a lot of points on which I agree with the SJWs, from the judgement that “Tournament of Rapists” is almost certainly harmful and unethical to the need to create societies that are more inclusive of people who are not members of the dominant group. I’m generally in favour of quotas to drive the participation of historically excluded groups, such as women, because waiting for it to happen naturally seems to be far too slow. I would like to work with them on those issues, which is why I have avoided criticising them on the points I don’t agree with in the past. But freedom of speech is too important. If we got everything else and lost freedom of speech, even for rape fetishists, we would not have created a just society. I fear that this will mean I won’t be able to cooperate with them in the future, although I hope I am wrong about that.

I should say that, as ad hominem arguments appear to be de rigueur in this field, that although I am a white, cis, heterosexual man, I live in Japan, so I am not a member of the socially dominant group. I have chaired a meeting attended by several Japanese men (that is, members of the locally dominant group) who had expressed their hostility and intent to confront us online, in advance. The local police thought that their comments made it wise to send a squad of riot police (out of sight) and a couple of plain clothes officers (in the audience) to ensure my safety and that of my colleagues. And I still called on the hostile group to speak, several times, as long as they confined themselves to speaking, even though they were arguing that we, as non-Japanese, should not be allowed to speak out about social issues. When they got a bit too vehement, the police encouraged them to quietly leave the room, and they did. I am fully aware, from personal experience, of what it is like to be a member of a minority and to face hostility from members of the majority, to have members of the majority try to silence you, to face a real risk of violence from them, and to live in a culture in which you are not the norm and do not blend in. I do not take that to be a reason to restrict freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful and harmful the speech, as long as it is restricted to speech.

So, what do I think OBS should do? I think they should rescind the decision. They should say something like “On reflection, we over-reacted to an internet campaign. While we are glad that the publisher chose to withdraw the product in question, and hope that it does not reappear, free speech is an extremely important part of social justice. We will not be implementing any censorship on our sites.”. Yes, this will cause a massive explosion of outrage. As I mentioned earlier, however, I don’t think they can avoid that at this point, and if they take a stand in favour of free speech they can, at least, expect to have allies, and the confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.

But I know that reasonable people sometimes disagree with me, even about ethical issues, and even about important ethical issues. As I said to start with, I think Mr Wieck has thought seriously about the right problems here, and while I think I should publicly disagree with his decision, I don’t think he is a bad person for making it, nor do I plan to boycott OBS over it. I hope he changes his mind, but I hope he changes his mind because he is convinced, not because he has been threatened.

Edit: I have posted a follow-up going into more detail about my ethical position on this, and the reasons for it.

The Importance of Options

Oh dear, it’s been a couple of months since I updated this blog. I have continued working on the game, but I’ve also had to start editing the final book for Ars Magica, so I haven’t had quite as much time to work on Kannagara.

The problem I’ve been working on recently is the problem of offering choices to players. I am a firm believer in the principle that a choice is only a real choice in a game if it makes a mechanical difference. If something is just colour in the way that a player describes her persona, it is not really a choice that the player makes. This means that the rule system has to support a wide range of options.

Pathfinder is a good example of a game that offers lots of choices. There are all the classes, to start with, and then the choices of feat at each level. All of these choices make a game-mechanical difference. One could even argue that Pathfinder has too many choices. Similarly, in Ars Magica, magi can choose which Arts to emphasise, and those choices make the magi very different.

These are examples of choices that make the character different. Kannagara incorporated part of that by having different abilities for doing the central activities of the game (discovery, creation, and growth), but I wanted to add some more options, so that personae could take different approaches to the same ability. Overall, these approaches should be balanced, but each should have advantages in a particular situation. I think I have the framework for that, pending writing up and playtesting.

The framework goes like this. Each activity has two abilities. One determines how many times you can do something, and the other determines how effective each action is. The overall effectiveness of the activity is determined, effectively, by multiplying the two numbers together, so neither activity is better than the other, and, at this stage, the choice makes no mechanical difference. However, each environment limits both the number of times you can do something, and the effectiveness of each action. Normally, one of these limits is significantly higher than the other, but either can be higher. Obviously, if you have a high maximum effectiveness per action and a low number of actions, a persona who can take a small number of highly effective actions will do better. A persona who could, in theory, take a large number of less effective actions can only take a few of them, and so will get a lower total. The reverse is true if the situation allows a large number of actions, each of low effectiveness.

Personae can choose to favour one approach or the other independently for each activity, which means that there are a lot of options for a persona.

Another kind of choice is choice of action, and the environment provides that; the personae can use different abilities to resolve challenges.

Finally, there is choice of outcomes. As I mentioned way back near the beginning of working on this project, I want to set things up so that the actions of the personae change the context for the final decisions. I think I have a way to apply that to every major activity in the game, with the added advantage that it will be impossible for things to come to a halt because of failed dice rolls. However, I haven’t quite got that worked out enough to talk about on this blog yet.

“Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs

The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.

Let’s take an example I’m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who don’t know, I’ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and I’m in the process of naturalising.)

The important “racial” minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are “East Asian”. They disappear when “racial diversity” is being considered for an RPG. “Racial diversity” is used to mean “people from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhere”. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to “diversity”.

On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.

The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.

(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but women’s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of “more inclusive language”.)

I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.

So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be “no more Americans”. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.

Progress!

In the last week, I seem to have crossed a critical point with Kannagara. I now have a 6500 word draft of all the core mechanics, and I think they are both simple enough to be usable, and complex enough to support the sort of game I want to write. I don’t yet have anything I can share for playtesting, because the draft is too abstract. If we use Ars Magica as an example, the current draft says “You cast spells by adding a Technique and a Form together, then adding one Characteristic”, but it does not yet have a list of Techniques, Forms, or Characteristics.

(Obviously, that’s not at all how Kannagara mechanics work.)

The dice mechanic I mentioned earlier on this blog has gone, and so have most of the details of the proposed mechanics, but the basic thrust of the game is the same, and a lot of the concepts will be retained. The next step is to start preparing ability lists, and describing what they can do. This is also where I put concrete numbers on things.

While I was writing today, it struck me that these mechanics would also support the “School of Magic” campaign that I’ve tried to design in any number of systems, and never been able to do. I should really write Kannagara first, though.

Ars Magica and Kannagara

Today, Atlas Games publicly announced my retirement as Ars Magica Line Editor. It doesn’t take effect until the end of this year, and it’s been planned for about three years, but the public announcement is an important step.

What does this have to do with Kannagara? Well, the reason I am retiring from Ars Magica is that I have finished doing what I want to do with the game. Kannagara is (part of) what I want to do with role-playing games, but cannot do with Ars Magica. Obviously, Shinto cannot really be shoe-horned into Mythic Europe. Actually, that would be a very bad idea, given the way that the metaphysics of the game world are set up. Further, the rule structures I want to try out in Kannagara do not fit with the existing rules of Ars Magica. It is, from all perspectives, better to create a new game.

That process is moving along. I think I do have the rules for discovery now, and I’m part of the way through the rules for growth. (I’d like to say “half way”, but the second half normally turns out to be much more work than the first half.) When those are done, I need to create rules for creation that fit with all the other rules. I have vague ideas for how that will work, but the devil is in the details. I have no idea how long it will take to put together.

Once I have a new structure for everything, I’ll start talking about things in a bit more detail here. I’ll also be trying to set up playtests.

Not Even Resting

Kannagara is not dead. It’s not even resting. It’s just all been happening behind the scenes.

I know I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a long time, but I have been working on the game, along the lines I outlined previously. This has proved difficult.

It took me a while to identify the big problem, but I think I finally have. The structure I was working on was insufficiently modular. That is, it was not possible to make changes to one part of a scenario without changing the rest of the scenario to match, and each part of a scenario depended intimately on all the others. That made it impossible to write anything on a unit smaller than a single scenario.

That would have been bad enough, but as Kannagara is supposed to support long term development and growth, a “single scenario” quickly turned into a whole campaign. Designing something that large, all at once, with new mechanics, proved too difficult. If I can’t do it, then it will be impossible for other people to write for the game, or to design their own home campaigns. That, obviously, is a very bad thing. I had to find a way to make the parts of the game more modular.

I think I have now cracked this problem, at least for investigation and discovery. I have a set of mechanics that looks simple to use, and that will allow me to drop in any number of different things to be discovered. It still covers searching for evidence, and putting that evidence together to make a theory, even if you have some evidence that doesn’t fit. I have a straightforward way to deal with evidence that doesn’t fit, rather than having to design in the interactions between every possible version of the game world. It doesn’t involve complex mathematics, and normal persona statistics should stay in the 1 to 5 range, with 6 and higher for really skilled individuals.

As I have got a set of mechanics together today, tomorrow’s job is going to be putting something in those mechanics, and that something ought to be the first part of the demonstration scenario. If it all works out, I’ll move on to the mechanics for creation, and for interacting with other characters. That should be relatively easy, because I need to keep the same basic mechanical structure for all parts of the game. This is important to keep it easy to play, but also to make it easier to write.

I know this post is a bit vague, but I’m only part way through putting the first bit together. If I make progress tomorrow, I may have something a bit more concrete to post in the next week or so, but as it has been about six months since I updated the development job, I really felt the need to post something. Is my plan to finish something playable this year still realistic? I think so, but I’m not confident yet.

Choose Your Success

A lot of roleplaying games take the possibility of failure to be a necessary element of the fun. If you know that your characters will survive, where is the tension, the anticipation? That is the argument, but it has always had an attendant problem. If a character dies permanently, that player has nothing to do in the game until she creates a new character. Thus, permanent character death is always a difficult issue, and providing possible failures in which all the characters survive is not easy.

In Kannagara, personae are very unlikely to die, because the game isn’t about those sorts of stories. However, I have been working on the basis that the personae must be able to fail. I’m now less sure about this, and I think I might change it. The change comes from thinking about my experience of line editing Ars Magica.

In Ars Magica, magi are extremely powerful wizards, even when they have just completed their training. It is hard to create opposition with a realistic chance of defeating them, whether in combat or in scheming. Magi are not just powerful, they are flexible, and they can be subtle as well as direct. This means that, in an Ars Magica scenario, the question is not usually whether the magi will be successful. Rather, it is how they will succeed. Different approaches have different consequences, and take the saga in different directions.

Structurally, this has an important benefit for the game. It means that there are almost no choices, other than the players going on strike, that bring the game to a halt. The story always continues, and not always in ways that the players would have predicted.

How would this work in Kannagara? I haven’t worked out the details yet, but I don’t think I would reduce it to simply choosing the outcome you like best. Rather, there will be a basic success, which the personae can achieve without making any effort. This would come with problems for the future, such as strained relationships or missing items. Personae would be able to remove problems and add additional benefits, by using the abilities that they have. A certain group of personae might be unable to remove a particular problem, because none of them have the necessary abilities, but that is not a problem for the game. It just means that a future story will be about the personae dealing with that problem.

Since Kannagara has no GM, the players will also be describing the situations and the problems. The problems that come with a solution make good complications; something the personae do creates the possibility of an ongoing problem, and unless they resolve it, that problem is a lasting legacy of their actions. Nevertheless, the existence of a continuing issue in no way alters the fact that the personae have succeeded in resolving the primary problem.

This structure does mean that it matters what the primary problem of a scenario is. The primary problem has to be solved, while secondary problems might remain to cause the personae trouble in the future. This may be a feature, rather than a bug, in that it may make the game easier to play if every scenario defines a central problem, and each scenario ends when its problem has been solved. In the current introductory scenario, for example, the central problem would be “we are in a kamikakushi”, and the problem is solved when the personae get out.

As I continue to develop Kannagara, I will be looking at making success assured, but its consequences variable.

Inclusivity in Roleplaying Games

Recently (over the last year or so) there has been a lot of talk in gaming of the need to make products more inclusive, to provide options who are not straight white cis-men. This campaign seems to have started in computer gaming, where my limited experience suggests that it is really needed, but it has also spread to tabletop gaming.

Is this really a problem that tabletop gaming needs to address now? To be absolutely clear, I am talking about the inclusion of a variety of characters in products, not the diversity of authors or players. In addition, I think that diversity of characters is a good thing, and important. My question is over whether this is something that tabletop RPGs need to address now.

I’ll readily grant that it was a problem 30 years ago. The only non-white Companion of the Lance is metallic copper. However, even 25 years ago, companies were starting to address it. Early Forgotten Realms novels include a black protagonist in a series of novels in which racism is a recurring theme, and female protagonists. In the early nineties, White Wolf put a black man on the cover of Mage:the Ascension. He was the only character on the cover, and the iconic symbol of the whole game. In 1998, Fading Suns included non-binary-gender characters as an important option for a race that was primarily binary (the Ur-Obun). In 2000, D&D 3.0 had iconic characters who were deliberately designed to be diverse in terms of race and gender. Steve Kenson put an openly gay superhero in Freedom City in 2003, and in 2005 Blue Rose presented a fantasy society in which homosexual and polyamorous marriage were both normal. Games set in Japan go back to the earliest days of the hobby, and Nyambe, in a fantasy version of sub-Saharan Africa, was released in 2002. Disabilities have been standard character options in all games that have an Advantange/Disadvantage system since those systems were invented. Today, D&D 5e explicitly raises race, non-binary-gender, and multiple sexualities as choices you should think about in the free introductory set.

In short, I think the “inclusivity problem” was solved in roleplaying ten years ago. “Inclusivity” is the default position for tabletop gaming, and has been for a long time. Of course tabletop games should continue to be inclusive, but this isn’t something that needs campaigning for. There may turn out to be some groups who have not been included, and people will want to see more inclusion of particular groups, but the battle for inclusivity in general was won years ago.

There is a different problem, which is sometimes confused with the need for inclusivity. This is that the portrayal of some cultures in roleplaying games is not particularly good. To take an example I’m familiar with, Shadowrun 4e illustrated Shinto with a picture of a BDSM prostitute in Street Magic, and the Shinto pantheon in Scion 1e is really, really badly researched. (Although you can, at least, tell that they did a bit of research.)

First, I want to stress that this really is a completely different problem. This problem only arises because tabletop roleplaying games assume that you have to be inclusive. If Scion had only included white European pantheons, they would not have had a badly research Shinto pantheon to get bothered about in the first place.

Second, this is a real problem. It is also a really difficult problem, because researching something well enough to present it sensitively and in a way that is suitable for gaming takes a very long time. To get to that point for Shinto required learning Japanese, living in Japan, and spending about five years studying Shinto, including taking classes at the largest Shinto university (in Japanese). I can do the same for medieval western Europe, and that took several years with borrowing privileges at Cambridge University Library.

If you take the research requirement seriously, then a single author cannot write a diverse and inclusive book. A single human being cannot know enough about enough cultures to do it. A team of half a dozen authors is going to be really pushed to do it, particularly if they all have to be native speakers of English, familiar with the game, and willing to write for what tabletop roleplaying pays.

Now, I think that the research requirement should be taken seriously. If you are purporting to write about a real culture, you should know that culture very well. For a contemporary culture, you really need to have lived in it while fluent in the local language. For a historical culture, you need at least a couple of years of reading around it, including primary literature. For a prehistoric culture, you get to make a whole bunch of stuff up, because we just don’t know enough to be accurate in the first place, but you need to be very familiar with what we do know.

On the other hand, if you are writing a fantasy culture inspired by a real culture, you should be granted a lot more leeway. Rokugan is not Japan. It should be exotic, in a way that a portrayal of real Japan should not. The Southlands does not have to be an accurate portrayal of North Africa and the Levant, and indeed it should not be. I think fantasy games (including far-future science fiction games) should be allowed to pick elements from non-Western cultures and use them to make fictional cultures that acknowledge the existence of people and cultures that are not straight white cis-male, without being required to accurately reflect the cultures they are borrowing from. I think this is the only way to make broadly inclusive games and settings feasible in tabletop gaming.

I also think that there is an important role for a diverse range of games that are not individually diverse, where the authors know enough about one culture to present it accurately and sensitively.

I don’t expect many people, certainly not many people who produce tabletop roleplaying games, to disagree with what I’ve written here. That’s because I believe that virtually everyone in this business agrees that inclusivity and research are necessary, and regrets the times when they mess up one or the other.