This is Bowie to Bowie. Can You Hear Me Out There, Mahn?

This is my final commission for the Kaleidocast, Season 2. Kaleidocast is an amazing podcast put together by the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers’ group, who have given me the incredible opportunity to not only do some really weird art like this, but also to make some really, really good friends.

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The Titanic Pentaforms of Ashlesa

The Fibonacci geyland of Ashlesa 3.1 is a vast “grass”land of Monoforms that support the coboglobin-based ecosystem of Diforms, Triforms, Pentaforms, and Octoforms. This, the Titanic Pentaform, is the most massive Pentaform discovered to date.

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Deconstructing the Future, Part 1:

This is the first essay in a series, looking at Shock:1.x, what I set out to do with the game before its publication in 2006, what it does, and how I want the game to behave differently in Shock:2. I’m hoping it will be enough of a record that it helps new creators understand what a twisty, imperfect, messy process is creation, and how compromise and the acceptance of imperfection allow a creator to extract experience from the process and go on to create other, better things.

Shock:Social Science Fiction came about because, in 2004 or so, I was GMing a game of GURPS Transhuman Space and realized that all the really good experiences that came out of that game was stuff that GURPS just didn’t care about; and all the stuff GURPS cared about, none of us players did. We cared about the irony of selling a slave dealer on Ebay to the very AIs he’d sold. We cared about the discovery of wild AI and what it meant to those of us who were humans, or transhumans, or designed-and-constructed AI (and, really, the players, who were all IRL humans) when we faced the complexity of what we call the Human Experience.

Separating the Yuck From the Yum From the Spicy

As I began to take the project seriously, I read Ron Edwards’ book, Sex and Sorcery. It was a big deal at its release, and I think there are many, many minds yet for it to blow. Though Ron wrote it as a supplement to his RPG, Sorcerer (a game that came about because of Ron’s similar realizations while playing Champions), Sex & Sorcery is concerned not with resolution mechanics or detailing elements of the setting, but with consent; with the premise that we need to have a way to agree to (or disagree with) the subject matter of our active play as it interacts with our emotional experience.

One of the central suggested structures in the book is the pair of veil and line. When players discover a piece of subject matter they don’t want to be explicit in the game, but don’t mind its implicit presence, they “draw a veil” over the action. It might be that the players aren’t comfortable talking about sex with the other members of their group, or it might be that violence is OK when it’s goofy and James Bond-like, but realistic violence or torture is something they don’t want to have to envision in their minds’ eyes, even though the Bond villain does it offscreen or otherwise at a level of remove from the players’ experience.

The players watch their own reactions and those of their fellow players for how explicit the group wants to be about that subject matter, and, if the subject matter itself, offscreen or on-, is disruptive to the players’ experience, they draw a line instead of a veil. Players often draw a line around material that is sufficiently affecting that it prevents the players from fully engaging in the subject matter. It might be as emotionally impactful as material that replicates traumatic experiences, or as managerial as avoiding material that violates the tone of the game as it’s evolved in play.

However, by the time I was working on Shock: the larger community of players had begun interpreting the line as something established upfront, before the players had even had a chance to figure out their feelings in the social environment and in the context of the fiction they were creating together. Players would request that a particular subject be considered off-limits after agreeing to play, but before play had begun. I think that was the result of a confirmation bias kind of problem: if a game was, prima facie, about subject matter they didn’t want to engage in, they wouldn’t join the game in the first place; but also, they didn’t want to be ambushed by that material in another game, and were taking appropriate steps to not get their yuck in the other players’ yum. But at the same time, it was becoming hard to play a game in order to find out what it was about because the early phase of play became about eliminating potential subject matter.

At the same time, I noticed an even weirder side-effect of that interpretation: often, as soon as a player established a line at the beginning of a game, they would proceed to promptly cross it. Players who requested that child abuse not be present would establish characters who were abused children. Players who abolished particular sexual expressions would design characters who expressed those very things. Violence on the wrong side of the line would become the motivation of the line-drawer’s character.

Not only was the Forge player community misinterpreting the idea as something to state upfront, but they were using it for something much more interesting than what the principle of the line promised — despite the understanding of the very players who were using it! They were using it to establish creative constraints and a safe space where they could effectively address the stuff deep in their guts.

From that observation came Shock:s Issue — the thing that really matters to you. The idea was borrowed from Matt Wilson’s excellent Prime Time Adventures, but Shock: uses it differently. While a character’s Issue in PTA is a personal (usually interpersonal) issue, the Issues in Shock: exist on a sociopolitical scale.

That established the first of the elements of the game that I now want to look at seriously and critically: Shock:s view from orbit of the world.

The reason players start with Issues and not characters is that speculative fiction requires that characters be an extension and expression of the setting and in service to its system of metaphor. The game asks players to establish Issues first (then crossing them with Shocks) because doing so means that the Issues the players are exploring become inevitable subjects of the fiction. But it also means that characters — Protagonists and Antagonists — are clearly products of their environments, and what we care about most is the effect that their decisions and trials have on those environments.

The Personal <->Political Proportion

Here, at the very heart of the game, is my first major question: How do I turn the dial between the personal and the political? On the one hand, how do I make the game feel like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars, where individuals are emblematic of social institutions, given only enough personality that their stakes make sense to us and they feel like plausible people; and on the other hand make possible stories like Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life, about the inevitability of intimacy, attachment, suffering, sickness, and death?

In the first case, Shock: shines. As Shock:players, we’re often cruel to *Tagonists because the game gives us distance that keeps us from feeling protective of the characters, and we let them live and suffer and die as symbols. But Chiang isn’t callous with his characters like that when he brings them suffering. He’s compassionate with them. He gives us intimate, unusual details about their lives and relationships. We learn their insecurities, even in the face of certainty. We learn the texture of their feelings about each other without losing our ability to recognize the extraordinary.

It is this second mode — common not just in Chiang’s work, but in Ursula LeGuin’s and Philip K. Dick’s as well — that Shock: does poorly. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat and Fate, wrote an article about the impact of exactly this design decision several years ago. In it, he describes the disconnect he feels to the game. Fate is a very different kind of game, built as it is to assume the heroic relevance of the characters, where Shock: wants to give you opportunities to find out if they matter at all . So I’ve kept the article in the front of my mind for years for two reasons.

1. His analysis is correct.
2. Shock: is working according to its design specification.

The question is how to give players the flexibility to make a character as simple and in-the-service-of-the-plot as an Asimov character when one wants to; or as subtle, emotional, sexual, complex, and fleshy as one of Rosemary Kirstein’s. And, ideally, as bizarre and personal as a Rucker or Dick character.

Finding Secrets Where Everyone is Looking

Over the last seven or so years, a conversation has been going on in RPG design circles. The conversation is called Powered By the Apocalypse, and the games in that conversation have been making roleplaying more visceral and imaginative than I’ve ever seen before.

My own contribution to the Powered By the Apocalypse conversation is The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze. It takes the viscerality of the Apocalypse Engine and combines it with the system of creative constraints from one of Epidiah Ravachol’s contributions, Wolfspell, and turns it into the turbine that powers the game. The resulting play revolves around on the players’ sense of humor the same way Shock: does, but in a way far easier to understand, moment-to-moment; far smoother in practice; far faster in implementation.

The catch is that The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze relies on a universe that comes from the heart, guts, and wombs of the World of Names — not from a consistent, testable, repeatable universe where the closest one comes to a deus ex machina is coincidence. Rationalism is not, and cannot be, a descriptive philosophy of The World of Names, and that means that there can be no development of philosophy, no pyramid of technologies, there can be no science, and therefore there can be no science fiction. A universe of consistent, testable, repeatable phenomena is a core piece of Kirstein and Dick’s work, not to mention Asimov and Clarke’s. It’s what separates the kind of science fiction Shock: does best from Star Wars or Flash Gordon, or even lots of Star Trek.

But there’s something there in that system that I want to explore. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to broaden it into a system that supports science experiments like those Shock: produces while keeping that close relationship that it has with the Second Chakra.

Bad Credit

When first designing the conflict resolution system for Shock: I went through several different design specifications. Because I wanted the game to always feel like a rational, determinist universe, I first decided that resolution should have no luck involved, and designed a system in which players bid Credits to win their side of the conflict. But it became apparent that the outcome was always a foregone conclusion; the number of Credits to spend was obvious to the players, so determinism became not a mystery to solve — “what are the factors that caused this outcome?”— but simply a known fact. There were too few elements in the game to produce a complex output, so conflicts came out like you said they would, or you wouldn’t actually make the conflict happen.

To increase tension without increasing the number of confounding elements, I turned each Credit into a die. That way, when a player failed to achieve their objectives, it was, in a way, their fault; they could have spent to roll another die. In all likelihood, this was the first time I felt like I understood what dice were for in roleplaying games. I’ve since developed the idea to this: Randomness in RPGs functions to show that there are more factors in an outcome than serve our aesthetic objectives to represent. (I discovered, during the design of Mobile Frame Zero 002: Intercept Orbit, that determinism can be used similarly: your spaceships will continue traveling forward unless your dice allow you to alter the situation; maintaining control of the vessel takes crew able to control the vessel, and I wanted the ships to move like naval ships, not real spaceships, so “go forward 1” is a minor problem you have to solve each turn, hoping that your dice come out well enough to retain that control.)

Eventually, I discovered that disliked the extreme distance of the Credit bidding process from the fiction of the game, so I gave Protagonists a number of dice based on the number of things we knew about the character, called their Features. Initially, this had been a system I used only when Protagonists conflicted between each other. But I was delighted to discover that I could eliminate one system for a simpler, better one. (Note: the qualities of the character do not impact the events of a conflict; simply the number of qualities a character formally has. We’ll get back to that!)

Conversely, Antagonists, because they’re so abstract, have kept their finite number of Credits throughout the development of the game. Whereas Protagonists fail, they become better-defined characters, Antagonists should feel pressure to commit to resolving the Protagonist’s story.

The catch was that the Credits remain, throughout S:1.x, to be determinist to the point where there is really only one moment to choose how many to spend: on round 1, you might save one Credit, spending to rolling the minimum so that you have a die for the finale, two rounds later. Rarely, that Credit is used on round 2 instead.

The Credits don’t increase tension. Despite my hopes, they just don’t work that way. In practice, though, they do something else important: provide the game with its pacing mechanism. Which means that removing them will remove part of the system of communication in the game — the “currency”, in oldschool Forge terms — that players use, like eye contact and rhythm in a Jazz band, to collaboratively feel the tone, sense of humor, and timing of the story. Without it, players need greater personal rapport to feel it out, and that means that they need to practice with each other without me reminding them to communicate their time signature. I’m definitely skipping out on my responsibilities as the game’s designer if I don’t give them a way to communicate that stuff. I’m just not sure yet if Credits, as they exist right now, are the most elegant solution.

Grilling Stakes

As in many roleplaying games of its age, Shock: uses Fortune In the Middle, upfront stake/counterstake setting to convey between players what they hope the outcome is. Such declarations of intent live in two places in the game: the Intent (what your hopes are in a single scene) and the Terminus (what your hopes are over the course of this story or chapter, originally called the “Story Goal” in Shock:SSF, changed to Terminus in Shock:Human Contact.)

Because Shock: cares a lot about the outcome of events — not just what you’re doing at the moment — it uses up-front stake setting, then allows other elements to get drawn into the vortex as the conflict continues.

The first creative responsibility you have as a Protagonist player is to set your Terminus. No sooner than you have an idea about where a Protagonist sits in the Grid, you set the Terminus and tell your Antagonist player what it is. That gives the two of you some of the first of a shared set of symbols to use as you collaborate (if antagonistically) to form elements that form your shared idiom.

The View from Orbit of stake-setting does something good — it keeps the events contextually relevant, allowing players to make sure that the players are looking to interpret them in ways that support each other’s objectives. But they also do what Fred says: they distance you from your character’s internal life, distance the player from the setting, and distance the characters from each other.

Asymptotically Approaching a Singularity of Stakes

The game allows other elements to be drawn into the possible outcome, as the conflict continues: Links and Escalation. Links — elements of identity, like friends and allies, wounds, and other mutable assertions of one’s nature — broadens the risk to personal elements that the player didn’t necessarily expect to be endangered. Escalation represents a deepening of the danger, making it affect more of the world.

Links do what they were designed to do: give the player options once they’ve rolled their dice, but don’t like the results. They also give you a reason not to. It’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, they also ask you to change contexts in the middle of the highest intensity part of the game: when everything is going wrong for the Protagonist.

At a certain point, I realized that the conflict of interest that I resolved by making Links into a resource didn’t resolve the conflict of interest in the player as they were trying to empathize with their character. So, in Human Contact I added the ability for the Antagonist to threaten a Link. The Antagonist doesn’t after all, want to beat the Protagonist’s numbers. They want to accomplish their objectives in the world and defy those of the Protagonist, an they’re certainly not above taking hostages to do so.

Escalation takes place more linearly: where Links increase the breadth of the elements drawn into your conflict, Escalation increases the scale. I’m not sure this is a valuable element to retain at all. After all, we care about Buffy when her stakes are her friends and relationships, but when it’s the whole town sinking into the ground, it doesn’t feel bigger; it feels garish.

Bug Report: Dissociated Characters Operating As Expected

The View From Orbit strength/weakness of Shock: is something I’ll be coming back to in future segments of Deconstructing the Future. I’ll be able to talk about how it impacts Links when they serve the dual, mission-critical purposes of in-conflict compromise and challenges to the characters’ values. We’ll talk about how Minutiæ and the Audience role keep contact from orbit. We’ll talk about what happened when the mechanics that encourage the View from Orbit were introduced into the personal-scale objectives and longer-form play of Human Contact.

Please back the xenoglyph Patreon to get to the fun parts: where I start turning this analysis into playable experiments!

The only Solarpunk RPG I've ever seen.
The Fifth World is on my very short list of real science fiction RPGs. It sits with FreeMarket, Paranoia, and Shock: and not much else.

Ligaments (or, in this case, the lack thereof)

It’s gotta be rough, being a centuries-dead hero of legend, struggling from the waters of the underworld, swimming through a literal sea of the dead, only to find out that you’re coming back as the lackey of an underage necromancer.

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Help Fund the Development of Shock:2!

Shock:Social Science Fiction debuted at Gen Con 2006. It was my second published roleplaying game, and, among the many things I’ve built in the course of my life, one of my favorites.

It’s time to think hard about what I want Shock: to do, to pull it apart, to refine the parts that work toward my objectives, and to replace the parts that don’t. You can help me do that by subscribing to xenoglyph!

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The Phoban Pilot Craft, Koreshbâd

The pilot craft Koreshbâd, captained by Goresh Demetriou, is one of hundreds hovering over and around Phobos, waiting to catch hurled containers from the asteroid belt or Lunar orbit.

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The Sea Cloud

An illustration from my upcoming story, City of the Worm King. Up in the bow, you can see probably the best picture we’ll ever get of the traveler’s face. He doesn’t like for people to remember who he is, and I’ll respect that wish of his.

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She had lain in these frigid waters so long she had forgotten her name until she heard it spoken; had been blinded by the deep blackness that saturated her mind so she could not remember what it was to see. The pain of the waters had long ago faded, and now she felt nothing at all.

But the name stirred in her a recognition, reminded her of what it was to hear, what it was to know something. It pleased her to have a thought, that she recognized something, that there was an idea — an idea that held around it the tiny crystals of a memory. It came again: the sound far away, as though shouted into a tempest, and then, again, realized that the memory was of herself, that this sound was a name, and that it was hers.

She tried to turn toward the name, but the direction was as dark as any other. Her limbs protested movement and gave her more than a memory: it gave her pain. But the pain, itself, ignited a memory. A blade of bronze, hafted with stout wood from a foreign land, sliding through her side, piercing her liver, pouring her life’s blood onto the battlefield. The shout of victory as her opponent saw her fall.

Her opponent had been fierce as he was beautiful. His beard was oiled and curled. On his shoulders, he wore wings graven from wood and inlaid with gold and precious stones. His face was clothed in the satisfaction of an accomplishment of a task thought unconquerable. In his hand was the haft of his spear.

Again, came the name. Still distant, and coming from far above.

She swam toward it through the biting cold and the water tried to snatch away her strength, but she remembered the might that she had had in her life. Her fingers grasped an arm, here attached to another body that writhed away at the touch; then a leg, cold as night. Her fingers found purchase in mouths and eyes, in every part of every body that she swam through for hours, or days, or months. Finally her finger touched another memory: rocks. Sand. The shore. She pulled herself out of the water and she was wracked with spasms of shivering. She lay on the icy gravel of the shore, no less blind in the dark, but knowing that every thing, every place in the world was warmer than those frigid depths she had just left.

Again, the name, called from above : Ubash. Her name. She tried to stand, but she could not hold her weight and she crashed to the sharp rocks, the pain again calling memories of her life, of her body. Of the scars that wrote out her story, a story of slingstones and the fangs of beasts; of bronze wielded by the brave and daggers wielded by the cowardly, all turned or braved, but that last tip of the one beautiful man’s spear. But also she remembered her body’s perfection, the pleasure it gave her and others, of the gentle touch of oils on her skin and combs in her hair, held by hands more beautiful than her own. Of the tastes of foods of her homeland and those of the road and those from far away; spices that burned or soothed the nostrils, flesh of beasts she had never witnesses while alive, the dried delicacies of distant crafters of food whose wares had found themselves in her possession and in her mouth.

She crawled toward the sound of her name. And when next it spoke, it came from the distance of the span of a hand, though muffled as though through a thick wall. “Ubash, I would treat with you” it said in a voice tired with long waiting, and spoken in a language she did not know, but understood.

Her voice was long unpracticed. She tried to respond to it, to ask it why it had brought her such a distance through such pain. But she could only whisper the reply, “Yes.”

There was a pause, pregnant with the surprise of the speaker, whose voice again came, as though close, but through a door. “Ubash, hero of the city of Dauem, I would beg your protection and might of legend. Would you follow me back to the land of earthen-beings, warmed in the day by the strong right eye of the sky…”

She remembered the feel of the morning sun on her skin, chasing the chill of night away.

The voice continued, “…and in the night turned beautiful and terrible by the weak left eye?”

She remembered the feeling of the first breeze of evening on her sun-darkened skin, the flash of the moon on a river, and then in the eyes of a lover as the silver light spilled through an open window.

She tried to answer, to say how she missed her flesh. But she could only whisper: “Yes.”

A new sound came, the rumble of stone against stone. The burst of light was first so powerful that she was as blinded as by the dark. But then her vision cleared, and she saw, stooped over her, looking down over the walls of stone that surrounded her, the face of a boy — or perhaps a man with no memories but those of a boy. He wore an abaya as though he were a desertman, though no beard promised to ever adorn his chin. His matted, dark hair was tied back from his face, held by a simple band that she could see bore words, but even in life, could not have read. His eyes, wide with wonder, were blue like the sky, shot with flecks of silver and jet, as though blown by a storm. A kind face.

She tried to sit upright, but her body felt heavy, or perhaps weak with the long and difficult travel. She moved a finger and heard it tap the stone bed at her back. The boy took an involuntary step back, nearly receding past the edges of her sarcophagus, but leaving his eyes visible to her.

In her exhaustion, she perhaps slept, because a dream or a memory came to her of a song she sang, a proud brag, but a true one, met with joyful song that matched her fingers on her bull-headed harp. She longed to feel the strings on her fingers again. Her fingers that had led the charge of loyal soldiers, had strummed the strings of her harp, Ammud; had strummed the faces and bodies of many lovers to make music as sweet.

Still, the boy’s face hovered nearby, lit by the flickering of oil lamps, the dim flicker that had blinded her before.

She discovered that her jaw lay open, and she closed it, with the clop of a bone dropped by a butcher. Her mouth felt dry, but when she tried to lick her lips, she found no tongue with which to do it — nor, indeed lips.

She moved her hand to feel her body, but found the bowl of her pelvis, dry and ancient; her mighty thighs reduced to femurs, her broad and muscled back nothing but a spine. Her bony fingers traced the outline of her once-mighty frame warmed by the fire of life and still found only bone, dry and cold.

Finally, slowly, she sat up and the bones followed her will, clattering as they aligned into the shape of her body. She looked down where there had always been flesh and saw only the pale outline, the armature that had once supported her might.

She felt her face; the lipless jaws that held teeth broken in struggle long ago, the nose that bore still the scar where it was smashed by a monster, the sockets that once held eyes that could see far and entrance the beautiful.

Infuriated, she looked to the boy, who recoiled and said, as though he had been waiting with the words prepared, “You have given your word to protect me!”

She had.

Another memory came to her: the bronze dagger that had once found itself in her back with less effect than that wished by the wielder, and what she had done to return the dagger to the trusted betrayer whose hand had driven it there.

The only Solarpunk RPG I've ever seen.

The Filter Feeding Aerial Pentaform of Ashlesa 5.2

Ashlesa 5.2 has a rich set of near-isolated ecosystems. Among the few entities that can cross the vast deserts of the planet are the flying Pentaforms, of which explorers have identified two species.

Where the other is an aerial predator, this one is a filter feeder, a solitary flyer.

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The Machine of the World, by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Phenderson Djèlí Clark’s flash fiction, The Machine of the World, is one of the stories that will be coming on Season 2 of The Kaleidocast, and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to make my observations as it emerged into Meta-Brooklyn, recorded here in my sketchbook.

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