Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brainstorming Alternate History

I still owe everyone one more systems thinking post, and I promise it is coming. I've got the diagrams drawn and everything.

But in the meantime... I've been reading heaps of alternate and secret history stuff lately (Guns of the South, Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, and Alternate Presidencies), and they sparked an idea about how to brainstorm alternate history plotlines.

Take a sheet of paper and place it landscape format in from of you. In the middle of the sheet, write a sentence describing some well known historical event that might have turned out differently, for example: the Union wins the Civil war, Constantinople falls, Ceasar crosses the Rubicon.

Now above it write some much less significant historical even that nevertheless has an impact on the event below it. Examples include: Stonewall Jackson is shot and killed by friendly fire.

Below it write some general consequence on the shape and form of our world that results from the historical event in the center. Examples might include: Slavery is eliminated from North America, Rome becomes and empire. Connect the three by arrows showing the (loosely) causal connection.

Now to the right and left of the top item of the page write two alternate possibilities for your first historical event. For example: Stonewall Jackson is wounded and turns to politics, Stonewall Jackson is not shot and lives to participate in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Next, do the same with the event in the middle of that page, but instead of one possibility, write two possibilities on each side. Make them increasingly radical. For example: right side -- The Civil War lasts another four years, The South wins the Civil War. Left side -- The Union Wins the Civil war and Lincoln is never assassinated, The Union Wins the Civil War but Southern Generals retreat into South America to set up a shadow government.

Finally, so the same on the bottom of the page but write three possibilities on each side. Feel free to get wild and crazy with your outermost events. Armies of Abraham Lincoln Clones, Nazis landing on the moon, or a Roman Empire that lasts until 1945 are all great examples.

Now connect up your alternate possibilities. Each possibility connects to the two possibilities underneath it to the right and left. For example, the rightmost option at the top of the page connects to the two options to the right of center on the next level down. These connections represent alternate timelines.

You now have an alternate history "what if" tree. You can take a timeline and refine it to use as a plot or setting for a game. You might even use this tree as the basis of a cross-time history altering battle between future agents of competing interests with one faction trying to push the tree right or left while another tries to bring it back to the middle. For some really high weirdness, write an alternate timeline down the middle and put the "real" history timeline down one of the wings.

This all has something to do with Mathematica, a design problem I can't stop thinking about, but am not yet remotely ready to tackle.

Here's another exercise. Instead of Alternate History, do a Secret History. This is a history that is outwardly indistinguishable from (and possibly identical to) our own, but which hides a great secret that changes the meaning of history. Many storylines involving agents trying to "set the past right" are technically secret history.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Mathematica and the fiction of history

Tony will love this.

Maybe the crazy advanced technology of Tony's proposed Mathematica game (not to mention the entire steampunk genre) isn't just because of some mystical understanding of the power of mathematics. Maybe it's also because our conception of history is flawed, and our chronology is off by a thousand years. No, not a thousand years shorter than it actually is; 1,000 years longer.

This is the conclusion (the thousand-years-too-long part, not crazy advanced technology) of an actual, real-world Russian mathematician named Anatoli Fomenko. Using his knowledge of celestial mechanics, Fomenko worked out that the eclipses described by Greek ur-historian Thucydides could not have happened between 431 and 413 BC, but they do match the ones known from AD 1037 to 1053. His conclusion: history is bunk, the Peloponnesian War and the Crucifixion both happened less than a thousand years ago, and all those popes with similar names are actually the same people listed multiple times.

Fomenko's arguments are presented in a book titled The Lost Millennium: History's Timetables Under Siege*. An excerpt is provided, along with some more details, in a book review on, linked there and above. Take a look, I think you'll be entertained.

(*The author of the book is not Fomenko himself, but another mathematician named Florin Diacu. The book is available on Amazon, if you're interested.)


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Story vs Tactics / Conflict vs Task/Narration vs Description

Something has been niggling at the back of my brain in regards to conflict vs task. That has to do with tactics. One of my big complaints with D&D revolves around how long a fight takes to resolve using the Task based, tactical, descriptive setup. But the more of the indie games I play, I am discovering that tactics is being sacrificed for narration. In DitV, the combats(conflicts) are not taking any less time. The tactics in DitV "combat" revolve around when and how to use your dice. How you use your traits are interesting, but there is nothing tactical about it. I will mention PTA, only because it is the pure opposite of D&D. It is all Conflict and Narration. You tactics are story tactics, really manipulations of the players, rather than the game. I have read Burning Wheel (but have not played it) and I think it might be the bridge between the worlds, but it is hard to say currently.

Here are my questions:
  • Do Tactics have a place in a Conflict oriented, Narration based game?
  • Do you have to sacrifice the Tactics (Gamist) element on the altar of the story?
  • Can you have satisfying Gamist conflicts that don't take more than 15 minutes to resolve?
I feel as though some of this may have been discussed in the GNS articles but if so, I never made it that far.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

2005 Good Gift Games

Theory, shmeory. Can't we just play some good board games for a change?

Fortunately, The Morning News has just published their "2005 Good Gift Games" guide, written by Matthew Baldwin of the Seattle weblog Defective Yeti. His list includes Ingenious, which I know John's been grooving on for a while now, so he must have some idea what he's talking about. Check it out, maybe you'll find something new to play, or at least a good gift idea for someone else.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Chapter 4: Fixes that Backfire

Before I start on Fixes that backfire, I want to talk about how I've been using systems thinking to help me clarify my design goals for my current project, Magicians of England.

In Magicians, potential narrative control is represented by poker chips. Players make play choices that either increase their store of chips or reduce it. Adding tension to the story gives you more chips. Resolving tensions takes chips away (but you get to decide how it's resolved). One of the design goals of the game is to create a balancing loop between chips (potential narrative control) and resolution (narrative control exerted). Thus the design is built around a balancing loop. Knowing this gives me a better idea what to look for in the actual play and how to identify the source of the problem when actual play goes awry.

So on to fixes that backfire...

Fixes that backfire are characterized by a problem that goes away when a fix is applied, only to reappear more strongly after a short delay.

Actual Play Example
The only really clear example I can think of to demonstrate fixes that backfire in action is the practice of nerfing in MMORGs. MMORGs often face serious problems of balancing classes and equipment. When one class or item is seen as too powerful, MMORG administrators face a strong temptation to weaken the offending thing. The goal is to re-balance the game so that no one play strategy is optimum. The problem with this is that they almost always weaken it to the point of being unviable, particularly to the most competitive gamers, who are always the ones using it the most. This reduces the number of viable options in the game, further exasperbating the imbalance problem.

Fixes that backfire are all about balancing situations that create pressure for a quick fix. One place I see a potential for fixes that backfire is when a designer slaps a reward mechanic into a game because a certain behavior is perceived as desirable. If the behavior they are trying to reinforce is part of a balancing loop, the fix can easily backfire.

In fact, the archetype diagram for fixes that backfire shows this - a balancing loop that is "short circuited" by the fix:

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