James Wallis levels with you

The Elefantenparade in the Room

Today (14th April 2017) I was on the radio documentary ‘Do Pass Go’ on BBC Radio 4, talking about board-games. I praised a particular 1980s board-game called Elefantenparade, which I love as an example of all the things that made German games so exciting in the 1980s.

I want to make it clear that I was talking about the game Elefantenparade, designed by Henri Sala and published by Ravensburger in 1988, and not the game Elefantenparade, designed by Peter J. Mitchell and Robert W. Mitchell and published by Ravensburger in 2003. The two have the same name and are from the same publisher, but one is a charming tactical race-game and the other is an unremarkable dice-based thing for small children, and Ravensburger deserve a slap for the confusion.

This is the good one. Available on eBay or any time you come round to my place.

The Baron, dedicated to dedication

Being asked to sign a copy of one of my books is always an honour, and I try to rise to the occasion. If the occasion is a charity auction where someone is especially generous, then it is in the nature of Baron Munchausen and those whose paths he crosses – I am fortunate enough to be one such – to be similarly generous with their words and anecdotes.

At the end of last year, I gave one of the very last limited-edition hardcover copies of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Patrick Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders charity auction, where it sold for a quite breathtaking $717, to an amazing fellow named Yankton. I knew I had to do something special for him, so I asked him a few questions about himself, planned out a narrative, started to write it into the book… and spilled coffee on the damn thing.

There was then a delay while I hunted down another copy of the hardcover. But while I did an idea was fermenting in the depths of my mind. It would be a shame to use up two copies of a very rare book, and only send Yankton one of them. Wouldn’t it?

Here’s what happened.

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The dedication begins in the Baron’s typical style. I apologise for my handwriting, but I was hurrying to keep up with his dictation. Two pages is fairly restrained when the Baron writes a dedication to one of his friends.

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Three pages, and we have run out of space. The dedication progresses to the blank pages at the back of the book.

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In the middle of a thought, the Baron—a man with no respect for boundaries of any kind—completely runs out of space in the book. What to do? Continue in a second volume, obviously.

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And onwards.

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Nine and a half pages all told, including coffee stains, over two books. Utter thanks to Yankton for giving me the opportunity to do this. I fear the Baron is already considering how to outdo himself in a future dedication, though with no more copies of the hardback left, I have no idea how he’ll manage it. He’ll probably do something insane like printing a whole new edition of the game just to have more copies to sign.



Nerdcon, authorship, and the problem with games

So at Nerdcon, a convention about telling stories in early October, there was a game of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It was a programme item. It was played on a stage in front of a big audience, with big-name SF authors including Mary Robinette Kowal and Patrick Rothfuss—Nerdcon’s organiser—playing it. Nerdcon has just put the first Youtube video of the session live, and it’s a blast.

Here’s the odd thing, which you’ll notice if you watch the video. At no point does Patrick Rothfuss or anyone else mention that Munchausen is a published game, designed and written by a person, in print and for sale. He just talks about it as an activity, he gives it no cultural or commercial context at all. And that isn’t just on the Youtube video. The convention website doesn’t mention the game-as-created-object at all, even in the page for the programme item. Nor the con’s Twitter feed, nor its Facebook page, nor its Tumblr, nor the description text on the Youtube page. Nobody created The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, say these authors. It’s just a thing to do, to show off our creative brilliance.

This is at Nerdcon, a convention that’s all about stories, the act of creating them, and how much we should respect them.

But Munchausen is a game about interactive narrative, not passive storytelling, and it’s a game that also produces an output, a collection of stories. (Caillois said that a game should not produce anything so Munchausen is Caillois-incomplete.) Narrative games occupy an interesting space, culturally and consciously. When we tell a story in a Munchausen session we want to think it’s all down to our personal genius, we don’t like to be reminded that someone created the metastructure that allowed the narrative to come together the way it does. And at the same time people who write fiction have always looked down on people who write games as a lesser form of creation: less important, less culturally interesting (coughbiggerthanhollywoodcough), and I suspect there’s some of that going on too.

Rothfuss and his companions don’t treat other non-book forms the same way. Nerdcon invited authors, podcasters, storytellers, improvisers, comedians, singers and puppeteers as guests, but no game-narrative people. Nobody from video games, nobody from RPGs, nobody from story-games. This is an event in downtown Minneapolis, a few minutes from the headquarters of two companies that have been championing good storytelling in games for decades, Fantasy Flight Games and Atlas Games. But there were no games guests at Nerdcon.

I emailed Patrick Rothfuss a month before Nerdcon to offer help with the Munchausen event, and I heard nothing back. And then Rothfuss completely mangles the name of the game as he introduces the event. But it’s okay, it’s just a game, right?

Put it this way, if I organised a public reading from The Name Of The Wind at a big games event, and at no point before, during or after the reading mentioned that it was a book by Patrick Rothfuss published by DAW, and in introducing the event I called it ‘A Name of a Windbag’, firstly that would be bizarre, and secondly I’m certain a bunch of people would call me out on it. Why is the converse fine? It’s weird.

It’s all a bit weird. I really don’t know what to think about it.

Pandemic Legacy and the Dictionary of the Khazars

For those not following hot board-game news, Spiel 15 saw the release of Pandemic Legacy, a combination of the best-selling co-op game Pandemic by Matt Leacock, and the Legacy system created by Rob Daviau for 2011’s Risk Legacy. A Legacy game is a board-game designed for campaign play: usually a set number of organised games with the same group of players. Here’s the clever part: depending on the outcome of each session of the game, the set-up of the next one changes. New components unlock, borders and boundaries change, new rules come into play, existing rules are modified or deleted. It’s a genius concept.

But there’s one thing that a lot of people have disregarded about Pandemic Legacy. It comes in two versions: Red and Blue. This seems, on the face of it, kind of odd. The publisher, Z-Man, has said that it’s simply so that people can play two different campaigns at the same time without getting confused, and most people have accepted that at face value.red1726_2667

Most people are idiots.

Here’s the thing: Daviau and Leacock are smart people. They are well read. They think outside the box, literally in some cases. And —

(at this point I should make it clear that I have never met either of them, nor do I own a copy of Pandemic Legacy in either version)

— and I’m willing to make a substantial bet that somewhere in their multi-faceted lives one or both of them have come across the works of the great Serbian non-traditional writer Milorad Pavi?. Pavi? is an interesting guy, particularly if you’re a games designer interested in narrative and doing things differently. His second novel, Landscape Painted With Tea, is organised as a crossword puzzle. His fourth, Lost Love in Constantinople is subtitled ‘A Tarot Novel of Divination’. And his first novel, A Dictionary of the Khazars, is available in two editions, male and female. They differ into two things: the colour of a jewel on the spine, and one paragraph on page 293.Dictionary_of_the_Khazars

However, the differences in that one paragraph between the two editions are enough to make the male and female into two utterly separate books.

You see where I’m going with this.

If anyone’s willing to pony up the £100 or so for copies of Pandemic Legacy Red and Blue, I will do a complete tear-down of both and a line-by-line analysis of every component. Because I say with absolute certainty that there is one difference between the two editions, not obvious, but enough to mean that the two campaigns branch and go in very different directions. And I’d be very interested to know what it is. Because given the way Leacock and Daviau think, it’s going to be somewhere intense.

Dictionary of the Khazars is an extraordinary book, by the way. If you like Borges or Perec it’ll blow your mind.

The Essence of Essen

Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, usually known as ‘Spiel’ or ‘Essen’, is the biggest tabletop gaming event in the world, with around 150,000 admittances over its four days. My first Spiel was 1995: I went with John Nephew of Atlas Games, showing off the almost-released second edition of Once Upon a Time. Then I didn’t go back until last week. Here are some thoughts on the show and how it’s aged.

The emphasis of Spiel hasn’t changed: it’s about playing games you haven’t played before, and buying them, not necessarily in that order. The only old games that I saw being played were stone classics or new editions of stone classics. There was a thousand-person game of Settlers of Catan, everybody playing on the same map. I overheard some plans for a big game for next year to blow that out of the water.

Other than that kind of thing, it’s about games you haven’t played before, or expansions for games you have. Spiel is about the new. It’s about acquisition. The number one topic of conversation among people on their way to Spiel is about how they’re going to transport all their new games home afterwards. I brought back two medium-sized suitcases stuffed full, with a third bag hitching a lift to Reading in the van of excellent friends. In 1995 I came home with a selection of traded items and one boxed game which I still haven’t actually played.

Stack of games acquired at Spiel 2015

This pile is two-thirds of the games I acquired at Spiel 2015. You can pick up classic Eurogames second-hand for €10-15. It would have been churlish not to.

It’s also a family show. Loads of families, loads of kids, many of whom will beat you to a pulp at a game of your choice. If anything this was more obvious this year than twenty years ago. You do see kids at other games events, which is great, but they’re a key part of what makes Spiel Spiel. It also means there are a lot of children’s games, many of spectacular quality and cleverness. For example, Haba’s games are almost unknown in the UK with the exception of Tier auf Tier, but they have a major presence at Spiel. The halls fill up with families on Saturday and Sunday: don’t expect quiet browsing and empty demo tables.

It’s more friendly and welcoming than it was in 1995, and it was pretty friendly and welcoming back then. But it’s also confusing. Nobody thrusts a programme book with venue maps and lists of traders into your hand as you walk in, because there isn’t one. If you haven’t downloaded the maps and list of traders from the Spiel website, and if you haven’t made a note of the stands you want to visit and the games you’re interested in seeing, you will spend your time wandering bewildered through halls the size of aircraft hangers, packed with stuff you have never heard of.

The food in the convention centre is better and better priced than any other convention centre food I’ve ever had. That is not to say that it’s particularly good or particularly cheap.

Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany, and nobody outside Germany has heard of it, and there’s a reason for that. Twenty years ago I couldn’t find anything to do there outside Spiel, and that hasn’t changed. To call it a cultural and culinary desert is to insult the exquisite carpets and fine cookery of the Bedouin. If you’re looking for local colour, I’m told Düsseldorf is nice.

Spiel is a lot more international than it was. There were foreign companies demonstrating and trading in 1995, the big ones mostly Americans surfing in on the wave of CCG money, but I didn’t see many. Today Essen is multicultural. The range and variety of games is jaw-dropping. To give two examples of games I picked up at the show with excellent names: Kune v Lakia: A Chronicle of a Royal Lapine Divorce Foretold is by Babis Giannios, who is Greek, and is published by Ludicreations, a Finnish company; and A Fake Artist Goes To New York is published by the Japanese company Oink Games, and designed by its CEO Jun Sasaki.

The language has changed as well. Last time, as a non-German speaker it wasn’t easy to find traders with sufficient English to explain their games to me, let alone a game with English rules in the box. These days while German is still the lingua franca of the show, any booth-holder without English-language product and English-speaking staff is going to lose a bunch of potential business.

I’ve heard people expressing worries that the Asmodee/Esdevium/Fantasy Flight/Days of Wonder merged entity threatens the – I don’t know what it’s supposed to be threatening, but there’s a sense among some fans that large = bad, and that goes back a long time, as if somehow a mass of small companies are somehow better for the hobby. I’m not a disinterested party (Asmodee has been the French publisher of Once Upon a Time since the 1990s) but from what I’ve seen, who I’ve talked to and what I know, the future is in good hands.

Not all gaming was there. It’s not a place for minis gaming. Games Workshop had a presence, but not a large one. There are RPG publishers, but not a lot of them.

It’s still as mind-melting as it was in 1995. Almost literally. You may think Gen Con is mind-melting but whoa nelly. Mid-way through the second day I realised I was sweating hard and losing focus, I’d been so overwhelmed by the sheer density of unknown games that my brain was overloaded with the effort of trying to assimilate them all. I did the best thing you can do with a melted brain: I went back to my hotel and worked on Paranoia instead.

No con-crud either year.

German trains are getting less reliable.

Should you go to Spiel? If you like Eurogames, if you’re not scared by languages you don’t understand, if you’re prepared for a relentless onslaught of unfamiliar titles, and you’re prepared to do the prep work, then you should definitely go at least once. There’s nothing like it, nothing that even comes close. Just don’t leave it twenty years between visits.

Cork Board Game Design Workshop

I’m a special guest at Warpcon XXV at University College, Cork at the end of January (23rd-25th). I’ll be running a mix of Paranoia and Once Upon a Time playtests and probably some new Baron Munchausen material too, but I’ll also be hosting a session of my Board Game Design Workshop.

The Workshop is a three-hour yomp through the principles and practice of game design. It starts with a brief introduction to how games work and ends with everyone clutching a brand-new, complete, playable and playtested game that they’ve created. It is huge fun, a mix of creative and collaborative design and play, and anyone can take part, from complete novices to experienced game-makers.

I have run this event more times than I can remember over the last seven years, most recently as a fundraiser for the London board-game cafe Draughts, but this is the first time it’s happened in Ireland.

I don’t yet know when or where it’ll be happening. I do know that there’s a small fee to cover costs and materials, probably about €10 per person. If you’re at all interested then please email me or the convention organisers to ask for more information.

Warpcon is always a great weekend and I hope to see you there.


A game narrative reading list

Two friends with credentials (George Buckenham and Jurie Horneman) have posted recommended lists of books on game design, and as I’ve had a similar list knocking around for a while I thought I’d put it up here. Mine is more specific than either of theirs since it’s mostly about game narrative, and it overlaps with Jurie’s list more than it does George’s, but I hope it’s still interesting/useful.

(Two things. (1) This is a living document and I will add to it regularly. (2) Most links go to Wordery, which offers free worldwide delivery on all titles.)

THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell. A dissection of metamyths, the structure underlying a lot of folklore and mythology from around the world, and boiling it down to its common elements. This is where a lot of the story-structure theory and thinking comes from, in particular the ‘Hero’s Journey’ metaplot that George Lucas used for Star Wars and the Wachowskis used for the Matrix and so on. On a similar theoretical level is Vladimir Propp’s MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLK TALE which is from 1928 and dry as bones, but it’s where a lot of this stuff started. HERO is quite old-hat these days and many people can recognise a story based on it, but it’s a key text.

SCREENPLAY by Syd Field: summarises the three-act structure of most movies and dissects Chinatown brilliantly. One of the two classic books about writing screenplays, and by extension structuring a story. The other, by Robert McKee, I don’t like nearly as much. (McKee is the seminar-running guru fellow played by Brian Cox in the movie Adaptation.)

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder: takes the three-act Field model and demonstrates how to break it down into story-beats, a structured sequence of emotional peaks and troughs for the characters to experience. Has the distinction of being written by someone who actually wrote some scripts that were actually made into actual films, which is not true of most books about how to write movies or for that matter novels. Very readable, often very funny. People tend to take it as a bible, which it shouldn’t be. Horribly formulaic but by goodness it works.

INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke. ‘Not three acts! Five! Like Shakespeare!’ The most recent of the decent how-to-structure books. I don’t rate this as highly as some do, but it is a good read.

IMPRO by Keith Johnstone, and here we get into interactive story-creation although Johnstone wouldn’t recognise games as being related to what he does. I mean, probably. This is the guy who basically created modern improvisational drama and comedy, and invented theatresports along the way. This is one of my favourite books ever, it’s an inspirational work about creativity and authority and how the two can and can’t sit together, but his stuff on how to impose simple rules to create a structure that generates narrative from interaction is just brilliant. This book underlies a lot of my thinking about how and why games work. I have reread it more than almost any other book in my adult life.

HAMLET’S HIT POINTS by Robin D. Laws takes the ‘beats’ concept from screenplay writing and applies it to interactive media. Specifically Robin applies it to the mad boundary-less sandbox interactives of tabletop RPGs, but there is a lot to learn from here regardless of what bit of game or narrative creation you’re in, and Robin is an engaging and entertaining guide. He’s a master of his craft and created the multi-award-nominated narrative game HILLFOLK last year, which you should also buy because it’s brilliant and I have a bit about feuding Augustan poets in it.

PROFESSIONAL TECHNIQUES FOR VIDEO GAME WRITING edited by Wendy Despain. Nutsy-boltsy stuff on how to write stories for games, with chapters by many of the leading practitioners in the industry. Rhianna Pratchett is in here, Richard Dansky is here, the usual suspects are here. Among the best of its type in the field that it’s in.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND STORYTELLING FOR GAMES by Lee Sheldon. I’ve just got the second edition of this and haven’t had a chance to appraise it yet, but Lee is a god of the field with experience of making movies and TV as well as narrative games. From a first skim this is not state-of-the-art stuff, not cutting edge interactive narrative creation, that book’s not been written yet and I’m hoping that Playful Fiction (the forthcoming journal I am putting together) will be the bedrock of that, but this is a very solid foundation. Bit of a tome. Be warned.

UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud is really about building your critical vocabulary but in this case it’s more about adapting your narrative techniques to fit your medium. This ought to be essential reading for anyone involved in building narrative in any field at all. UC was the direct inspiration for Interactive Fantasy, the journal of game narrative and criticism that Andrew Rilstone and I produced twenty years ago, and which published…

I HAVE NO WORDS AND I MUST DESIGN by Greg Costikyan (web) which is explicitly about critical vocabulary and its importance to the growth of a form. Short. Brilliant.

SECOND PERSON edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. A collection of essays and statements about games and stories, published by MIT. I am massively biased because I have an essay in here and it reprints The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen as an appendix. It’s mostly a collection of approaches rather than a how-to—it’s aimed at academics, as you’d expect from the publisher—but a worthy and not too wordy read despite that. Greg Costikyan is in this one too.

and finally

MAN, PLAY AND GAMES by Roger Caillois, which you really should have read by now. One of the fundamental texts of games criticism: witty, intelligent, and still remarkably on the money even though it predates the first commercial video-game by at least fifteen years. I always feel that Huizinga was an outsider looking in, but Caillois—who hung out with the likes of Georges Bataille—was a player.

There is nothing in this list about Nordic Larp at present, because I don’t know the field well enough. George’s list includes the DJA-winning NORDIC LARP by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola (PDF) which is a monster and you should have read it two years ago, but it’s more inspirational than instructional. Probably the best primer on the field is THE FOUNDATION STONE OF NORDIC LARP edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back (PDF), a collection of influential essays gathered from earlier works, which is also a free download. I’d also recommend Markus Montola’s PhD thesis ON THE EDGE OF THE MAGIC CIRCLE (PDF) even though it’s a PhD thesis because I am obsessed with the magic circle, I think it’s one of the things that truly differentiates games from all other media and it links all the way to consensus realities and Occupy and TAZ which reminds me TEMPORARY AUTONOMOUS ZONES by Hakim Bey, again inspirational not instructive but if you don’t finish reading it and immediately want to either change the world or make a new one then you’re going to design horrible games.

Comments? Any core texts I’ve missed?

Mountain Endings

MountainI am compiling a list of all the ways that a game of Mountain, the almost-a-game “ambient procedural mountain simulator” by David OReilly, can end:

‘You were killed by the Blood Pyramid’

‘You are ruined by a passing giant sun’

‘The Taker of Souls took yours’

Uh oh

Uh oh

‘You were killed by a xyzzyx’ (triggered by playing the Close Encounters theme: as,zb. Not sure if that’s repeatable.)

More to follow. Got any?

(I recommend playing Mountain with the Billow Observatory album looping in the background.)

Addendum: Alice pointed me at the RPS playthrough that was ‘killed by the Eye of Blindness’.

Addendum: ‘You are granted death by the eye of annihilation’, from ukslim in the comments. Another one triggered by playing the Close Encounters theme.

Addendum: The Eye of Love Unrequited. Bastard. It seems you can prolong the life of your mountain, though not indefinitely, if you zoom right out until you find the orbiting bed, and position the camera very close to it. This is a single data-point so far, but I continue to test. Also, I’ve not yet seen anyone comment on the fact that the mountain does not rotate in a consistent direction when you reload. Sometimes it goes backwards.

Addendum: A giant ice cream

'You have been killed by a giant ice cream'

‘You have been killed by a giant ice cream’

There’s an epitaph.

Death and life in Scandinavia

It is a church of modern design, its interior bright and wooden. About thirty people are listening from the pews as a man in his late sixties talks about death. Outside, nearby, there is a conference. Inside there is a magic circle, a temporary autonomous zone, a place with its own rules.

He talks about death: he talks about his own death. Cancer of the liver has come close to destroying him, you can see it in his face, and he speaks of that. Before that, some years earlier a catastrophic almost-accident with a lorry on a busy motorway. And in the sixties, not long after he became the person who introduced LSD to Sweden, around the time he was put on trial for high treason, a terrifying acid trip in which he was forced to confront the embodiment of his mortality and the destruction of all things.

Somewhere behind us music begins softly, ambient and transcendental. It is only later that we realise it is a perfect coincidence bleeding through from a dance workshop next door.

And then effortlessly he brings us around to his real subject: the portrayal and experience of death in art. Our art. Which is not like other arts.

This was absolutely the best session I have ever attended at a games event. I’ve been going to games events for more than thirty years, across three continents. I’ve created some, chaired others, run sessions and talks and workshops at many. This was not like any of them. This was something else.

This is Knutpunkt, the annual Nordic Larp conference, held this year in Sweden. I’ve been saying for a while that if you’re interested in the field of interactive story then Nordic Larp is where the really interesting stuff is happening, but that opinion was mostly based on a second-hand understanding of the scene, received from conversations and books and blogs and PhD theses. I thought it was time I actually experienced it for myself.

I can’t describe Knutpunkt. Not in detail. It’s like diving into a hot-tub crowded with three hundred of the most interesting people you’ve never met before. There is so much going on in this arena that’s barely touched anywhere else, from descriptions of epic Russian larps with thousands of attendees, to scholarly work and hour-long presentations defining a new term in the critical vocabulary of the field, to transgressive, gender-queer and straight-out sexual games, and ones that deal with sexual issues and death in a mature and moving way. Quite a lot of parties, dressing up and dancing. Dancing larps are a thing, there was a whole tango larp recently. I missed the Drag King Fight Club, but apparently there was actual pugilism, though I believe I’m supposed to not talk about it. And a talk in a church about death.

It’s a very Scandinavian event but there were more people from England and Ireland at Knutpunkt this year than ever before. Not all of them were gamers: there were theatre people, film-makers, choreographers and artists. Word is spreading that something really fresh and very cool is happening here. Next year the conference is in Denmark, and by then I hope a few more of you will have had a chance to play a Nordic larp or at least had a chance to read more about it—the award-winning Nordic Larp book by Jaako Stenros and Markus Montola is now available as a free PDF. If you do, and if you feel even the slightest interest, then even if Elge isn’t speaking about death or if there isn’t a church for him to speak in next time, four days at Knutpunkt may (with apologies to Gen Con) be the best four days of gaming you’ve ever experienced.

A Knutebook Larp Design Reader

A slide from a splendid Knutepunkt 2014 presentation by Eirik Fatland