Pick a Hat, Any Hat…

Oooooh, look what I got in the mail! Yep, it’s Fedora Noir, where you can be a Detective… or you can be the detective’s Hat.

Fedora Noir

Fedora Noir

I’ve been using the online tool to play but it’s great having the actual cards. Soooo pretty…

Ben Robbins | July 11th, 2022 |

All the Stuff You Never See

“Show us all the stuff you haven’t posted and the games you abandoned!!!”

I write a lot of stuff that no one else is ever intended to read. Thoughts, theory, reflections, problem solving. Lots and lots of stuff. But it’s just for me, to help me figure things out. If you did read it, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense, because I haven’t put the effort in to turn reflection into communication — I haven’t taken the time to explain to the reader my mental starting point or the big picture I’m trying to address. Because I already know that, and I’m the audience.

That’s the vast majority of what I write, day-to-day.

Then there’s the flip side, the outward facing stuff, that is intended for other readers. Stuff like games I publish, ars ludi posts… or this thing you’re reading right now.

My two key criteria for putting out material are that, one, I’m putting in the effort to provide context and explain what I’m talking about so that someone else can understand my point, and, two, that I think what I’m writing about is actually useful to someone else.

Point one is about time and effort — you can just do more work to make it clear what you’re talking about. Time is the ultimate finite resource, but in fact it is almost never the work involved that stops me.

Point two is entirely more fundamental, and it usually is the thing that stops me from publishing something, either a game or a blog post or whatever. If it doesn’t seem like it’s really a new idea, or it doesn’t convey something useful to the reader, why post it? If a game doesn’t add something new and interesting, why make it?

I can get very far along, do a lot of work, and then just decide nope. The world is full of lots of people talking already, so I try to save my voice for when there is genuine merit. I’m not saying that’s how anyone else should operate, but that’s how I roll. One could argue (and I’m going to argue it right now) that deciding what part of your work has virtue and what does not is a big part of the job of a writer or game designer. Editing out the parts that don’t have merit. Scrutiny. That’s why we get paid the big bucks harhar.

But even the work you never see accomplishes a purpose. It helps me shape thoughts that will (often) lead to posts and games you do get to read.

Even as I type this, I question where this post lands on point two. If I decide it isn’t truly interesting and I put it on the discard pile, it will not be lonely.

My instinct is to give this essay a thumbs down. But I’m going to post it anyway. An exception that proves the rule.

Ben Robbins | July 4th, 2022 | | 1 comment

It Never Ends

The most unrealistic thing about Microscope is that the history has an end. There’s a starting bookend and an ending bookend.

Real history never ends. It just keeps going and going. Every victory sets the stage for the next battle, but so does every defeat. The next election will fix things! Or destroy things! Yes, an election will make a difference, but there will be another election after that. And another, and another, and another.

Things just keep happening. It’s never over.

When I talk to friends and family about the simmering hellscape that is current events, this is the thing I keep coming back to. We discuss the importance of the next election or how someone should face punishment for their crimes or what should be done about today’s tragedy. But I remind them (and myself) that the truth is it will never stop. It’s never over. When this thing is done, there will be something else.

If we don’t accept and embrace that this is how the world works we risk exhaustion and perpetual disappointment. We risk giving up on fixing things because it never feels like anything is *settled*.

Because, honestly, nothing ever is. It never ends.

Ben Robbins | June 26th, 2022 | , | 1 comment

He Needed His Anger

I forget how juicy family stories are in Union. Then I play it again and… wowzers.

The Crimson Knight was a vigilante who put on a mask because he was an angry, violent man, and fighting crime was the most positive outlet he could find to vent that anger.

But anger is not a bullet proof vest. And for all his fury and skills, Stephen Jones was just an ordinary man. And so one night, battered and bloody, he found himself in the hospital. Which is where he met his future wife, Deborah Steward.

Deborah was a nurse, and to Stephen (and herself) her life seemed ordinary, but as players we knew it was not. Her father was a down-on-his-luck boxer who had taken jobs with the mob to make ends meet and raise his daughter by himself. Deborah never knew her mother, because the woman her father had loved and lost was not who she said she was. She was really an infiltrator from a distant star, a spy sent to our world who fell in love with a human — because our story was ultimately about the hero born of that alien and human bloodline, a child of two worlds. (Did I mention that part? The alien bloodline that gives humans superpowers? Yeah that’s the conclusion we’re building towards in Deborah and Stephen’s grandchild.)

Deborah was only a baby when her mother returned to the stars, and neither father or daughter ever learned her secret. Deborah has no idea her half-alien heritage gives her powers, and in the hospital she heals the sick and injured without even knowing it. And yeah, there’s a ton of irony that the costumed superhero has no powers but the “ordinary” spouse does, though neither of them know it.

Their Union was simple. They met that night. Eventually they fell in love and had a child.

But every Union also has a Fate, so we can see how this couple’s story ends, and we see that what happiness they had was not to last. The Crimson Knight tries to infiltrate a criminal gang to bring it down but he is found out. He fights, he’s killed, and his body is dumped in the river. Deborah never knows what happened to him, only that one day he never came home, leaving her alone with their one year old son. It’s a sad ending, and a sad echo of her own childhood when her mother never returned.

But because Union is full of Microscopy goodness, that doesn’t turn out to be the whole story.

A player goes back and narrates a scene showing how before the Crimson Knight’s death, they spend long hours talking as Deborah tries to help him get over the rage that always haunted him, because yeah, that’s no good for a relationship. And now trying to help her husband find peace, the same power that healed the sick frees him of the anger that burned inside him. His hate is gone.

But he didn’t hang up his cape. And what is the Crimson Knight without his anger to drive him? We already know: a dead man. He needed his anger.

Now you tell me: was that scene Light or Dark?

Ben Robbins | May 10th, 2022 | , | 5 comments

Lockdown Level-Up: Mind Over Matter

I was chatting with Pat, part of the old school Story Games Seattle braintrust, about how the online games I’ve been in have gotten so much better since the lockdown.

And the logical thought is, yeah, practice makes perfect. We’re playing all our tabletop games online instead of at, y’know, a table, so we’re getting better at all the methods and techniques that are unique to being online (and also getting better headsets, natch).

Buuuuuut, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think something more subtle is going on.

Whenever we played games online before the lockdown, they were… fine? But we always knew somewhere in the back of our minds that it would have been better to be playing in person, at a table. We knew we were settling for second-best.

But role-playing games — particularly ones that require lots of creative contribution from the players — hinge on attitude. If you come into a game with reservations or doubts, you’re going to have a worse game because you’re distracted and holding back. You’re judging the experience instead of freely participating, and a creative game needs everyone to contribute.

So while there are disadvantages to trying to talk and play online, thinking about those downsides makes you play even worse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: expecting an online game to be worse causes the online game to be worse.

In any situation, you can overcome a bad starting attitude or distraction, but it’s an uphill battle — which is also why we used the welcome spiel of Story Games Seattle to set the mood and get people in the right mindset. A similar thing happens when people playtest games: they go into the session sitting back and analyzing everything, looking for flaws, instead of leaning in and playing, which naturally makes the game worse (which is why the one piece of advice I always give is to never think of a game as a playtest: just play normally).

But once the lockdown hit, playing in person was off the table, so to speak. There was no point even thinking about whether gaming in person would have been better because it wasn’t an option, so you stop coming to the game with an unspoken feeling that it’s a compromise. The same problems are there, you just don’t think about them. You just play, so you have more fun.

And you get to play in pajamas…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s all in your head: only half of it is.

Gaming online is more difficult than playing face-to-face. It’s harder to communicate, there are reduced social cues to understand how the other players are feeling, there’s a layer of detachment because you’re staring at a tiny window on a screen instead of a real person, etc. etc. etc. You can get better at those skills but to some degree they’ll always remain.

There are advantages too, mostly regarding logistics: you can play with anyone anywhere, there’s no travel time, no need to arrange a venue. And you can play in your pajamas. But the advantages are things that are outside the session (aside from the pajamas), whereas the disadvantages are things that happen during the game and actually impact the quality of play. And the quality of play is the point of the whole damn thing.

It’s kind of a magic trick: yes there are disadvantages, but they hurt the game more if you think about them, so forgetting they’re there makes the game better. It’s no different than if you were playing in person but the seats were hard and the room was loud: you’ll have a quantifiably better game if you just forget about the inconveniences and focus on playing.

Does it work? I look back on the awesome games we’ve played during the lockdown and say yes.

What about you?

Ben Robbins | April 27th, 2022 | , | 3 comments

Their Power to Oppress

Rules must always be evaluated for their power to oppress

Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs, by Dan Olson, 2022

The discussion is about community rules, economic rules, and even legal rules, but game rules are exactly the same kettle of fish. The community is that group of people, sitting at that table, playing the game. Does a rule inspire a healthy collaborative community, or does it give you a cudgel to lord over someone else?

Even if a system intends to be fair, if it’s badly designed it can be gamed to someone’s advantage. It’s no different with bad laws or skewed tax exemptions, which of course is why we need more ethical game designers in all levels of government…

And yeah I’ve watched Line Goes Up about fives times. And I will again. My only criticism is that there is *so* much material, covering so much ground, that I wish it was multiple videos so people could absorb it in smaller chunks. You can hear people’s eyes roll when you tell them to watch a two hour video. It’s a lot to take in, but utterly worth it.

Go watch it.

Ben Robbins | April 24th, 2022 | , , | 1 comment