Oh yeah, so I guess I have internet access at camp after all.
I just finished the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I bought on the way through Denver, Colorado yesterday. Oh, man, was that yesterday? Holy cow it was. And I've been through six Aikido classes in that time. So I guess I read it pretty fast.
Saturday and Sunday were a road trip from Chicago to Glen Springs, Colorado (not Boulder as I previously thought) with three other people from my dojo, Julia and Marcin and Nina. They were previously just acquantainces but we told a lot of stories on the ride and bonded so we're friends now. Horay! We stayed overnight in Nebraska at the home of some friends of Julia's.
So, I was reading the book in the car, and somebody said "Why don't you read it out loud?" and everybody agreed, so I read it out loud. I got really into the rythm of it and started doing the voices and everything. I worked out how to do a distinct voice for just about every character. (The ones that are most fun are Auntie Muriel's and of course Hagrid's.) I was kind of glad there were no British people in the car to hear my horrible fake attempt at British accents, cuz I was trying to make Hermoine sound proper and upper-class and make Ron sound slightly cockneyfied.
Everybody at the aikido camp who saw me with the large yellow tome said things like "How far are you? I'm on page 351." or "I'll kill you if you spoil anything!". I've had at least a dozen of these conversations and not a single person has made fun of me for reading a kids book. I was chatting with six or seven other aikidoka at breakfast and most of them had theories about how the series ends and remembered the names of even minor characters. Ladies and gentelemen, this is a genuine cultural phenomenon we have here, of the kind that comes along only once a century.
"Deathly Hallows" itself is super-awesome. It is intense, a sustained 750-page climax. It reaches back to every previous book to bring back minor characters and give them a chance to shine, to re-interpret the significance of major plot points, and to tie up plot threads you didn't even realize were still dangling. It takes the series into deep and dark and disturbing places that nobody could have imagined back in the early books when it was all about Quidditch and sneaking away from teachers. The conclusion is both shocking and thematically appropriate and casts every single previous book into a new light. It's the perfect way to end the series and really elevates the whole story to a higher level. I appreciate this especially since most fantasy series have degenerated into total lame-itude by their seventh volume (and here I am glaring directly at the ghost of C.S. Lewis).
So yeah, I'm bouncing up and down with glee. You all have to read the series now so we can talk about it without spoilers.
...Now, when the heck is "A Dance with Dragons" going to come out?
I'm leaving today for a 9-day Aikido training seminar in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado. I will be AFK until July 30. I might not even have any email access at all! ZOMG! So, that's why I'm not responding to anything you send me.
To celebrate the fact that Enso is now compatible with Windows 2000 and Windows Vista (previously it only worked on XP), I drew this picture. From top to bottom that's 2k-tan, XP-tan, and Vis-tan.
Now I'm going to see if I can convince the guys at work to put it on the official Humanized website, mwa ha ha ha!
I fixed some broken image links in the previous post.
I'm finally taking a much-needed day off today, so I was poking around the forums on The Forge and I found a link to a podcast interview with RPG theory guru Ron Edwards on a site called Theory from the Closet. The interview is a bit long-winded but worth a listen if you have two hours to kill and care a lot about role-playing games. He talks about what he doesn't like about White Wolf games, and where story comes from, and about the business of being an independent game publisher, and so on.
I was listening to the interview and nodding along while writing up my Adventures in Eastern Europe Part 2 (see below) when to my complete and total surprise, they started talking about me.
I had met both the interviewer and interviewee back in the early spring of this year at ForgeCon Midwest, which was an extremely cool and exciting weekend which I fully intended to tell you all about on this site, but I never got around to writing it up. I guess I had made a good impression on them, because suddenly in the podcast Ron is saying something like, "I'd be surprised if that Jono guy doesn't come back soon and show us a proto-game idea" and then later "Jono and I both live in Chicago so I'm sure we're going to do some gaming together soon".
Dang! That was recorded several months ago, and now I feel bad that I haven't contacted those guys or posted anything on the Forge since then. Of course my free time has not exactly been copious. But things are starting to look up -- next weekend I'm going to Colorado for the Boulder Aikikai thing, which will take a full week, but after that my schedule looks pretty much empty, finally. Especially if I don't go to GenCon. Given how many cons I've done this year already I think I'm going to skip GenCon, save my money, and have a free weekend. Most of my time is surely going to continue to be taken up with Humanized, but maybe next month I'll actually be able to start some sort of regular role-playing group once again? That would be awesome.
Oh, and I do actually have a couple of proto-game ideas, I just haven't had any incentive to work on them when I have so little gaming time that I haven't even yet played all the games I own.
I really hope I didn't offend anybody with my previous post! I was just making fun of my own inexcusable ignorance about Polish language and culture; I don't really have anything against Poland or Polish people (hello Tomasz! Welcome to my site.)
Anyway, this trip turned into a pretty big adventure. The conference was awesome; other aspects of being in Lithuania were, um, anti-awesome.
Here's the propellor plane that took me on the last leg of the journey, from Warsaw to Vilnius:
I got to the conference center and found a bunch of hacker-looking people with iBooks and Ubuntu laptops milling around, but I didn't know where to go for registration or who to talk to about getting set up for my talk, so I just picked a random person walking by and said "Excuse me..."
And this person turned out to be Laura Creighton. Laura Creighton is cool! She's one of the organizers of the Euro Python conference (second from the left in the above photo), and also in charge of a Swedish company that Humanized is (probably) going to be doing business with. The rest of Humanized had met Laura when they were all visiting Sweden, and apparently they had all told her about me, so this was the first time I met her but we sort of knew about each other already. Laura is one of those extremely energetic and enthusiastic and humorous people (and one of maybe four females at the Python conference) and she told everybody who would listen about how great Enso is and how they needed to try it out. She was a better spokesperson than I could have been!
When Laura heard that I was staying at the Holiday Inn (or rather, judging by the state of the sign, the "t_liday Inn":)
Laura told me why it's never a good idea to stay at the Holiday Inn when abroad. It's a hotel chain frequented only by clueless American travelers, so any locals who are looking for someone to scam, beg money from, or pick on will hang around near Holiday Inns.
This advice turned out to be prophetic, but I'll get to that later...
There is a statue (or rather, a bust on a pole) of Frank Zappa in Vilnius. As soon as I heard that I knew I had to find it and get a picture.
Why is it there? The way I've heard the story told is that when Lithuania gained independence from Russia, they were running around pulling down all the statues of Lenin and Stalin and generally having a great big country-wide party. Eventually the question came up of "what should we replace these statues with?". There was a Frank Zappa fan club at a local art school who decided that they were going to try to get a statue put up of their favorite American rock star, partly out of fanboyishness and partly to test the limits of their newfound freedom. The only problem was, what does Frank Zappa have to do with Lithuania? Nothing, actually, but the art students came up with some bogus story about Zappa's heritage and sold it to the authorities, and they got the statue. That's pretty cool.
I'm guessing that all of the graffiti-encrusted remains of crumbling concrete-block architecture which I saw all over town were probably part of the same turning point in history. I imagine that people finally free to express what they really thought of communism did so by gleefully defacing communism's most tangible manifestation: hideously ugly grey-cube architecture.
I saw this vaguely Bomberman-esque character repeated in graffiti over and over again around the neighborhood. I have no idea what it means.
I went to lots of talks on the first day of the conference. I'm not going to go into details since most of them were pretty arcane, but I'll hilight the talk about the Python-controlled talking robotic Tux the Penguin that some people created (and are selling for just 79 Euros).
Guido was wearing a nametag that just said "BDFL" -- that's "Benevolent Dictator for Life". He doesn't need his name on there because everybody at a Python conference knows who Guido is. (That's Guido von Rossum, the creator of Python, now working for Google, and focusing mainly on the Python 3000 project.)
At the end of the conference day, Guido stood up and addressed the assembled crowd, inviting us all to a certain bar/restaurant, and adding: "One more thing: DRINKS AH ON GEWGLE!". And the crowd goes wild!
This restaurant was in Vilnius' Old Town, and it was practically a real-life version of an inn from Lord of the Rings. We were on the bottom floor, underground, with no windows. One room was all rough-hewn wood with spiked clubs and animal skins on the walls, and a great big indoor tree. Another room was was like a brick dungeon with swords and axes and sheilds and crossbows and flails all over the walls. It was pretty bad-ass.
Lithuanian food is... well... I had these things called "zeppelins", at the recommendation of a Lithuanian hacker I was having dinner with. Apparently this is the epitome of traditional Lithuanian food. (And they were calling them 'zepplins' long before the Zepplin airship was invented.) Imagine the thickest, densest, chewiest, blandest mass of dumpling, surrounding the thickest, densest, chewiest, blandest meatball, and covered with the thickest, richest, gooiest, creamiest, blandest cream sauce. I think I'm still digesting mine. They are quite the opposite of the blimp kind of Zeppelin, which is made to be light.
(The food is so heavy you might say they're like lead Zeppelins, a ha ha ha.)
At this dinner, I got to chat a little bit with Guido up-close. This was very, very exciting for me. I'm not sure which was more exciting, Guido or Scott McCloud ( but I definitely managed to come off less like a rabid fanboy this time around, so I guess I'm learning ). I passed on Stephen's message to Guido: "Thanks for keeping Lambda in Python 3000!". I got into a discussion with Guido about a topic that's been on my mind lately, how open-source projects can have better user interfaces, and the role of a Benevolent Dictator of a project in making the interface consistent, and so on.
Guido is way cool. During his talk about Python 3000 the next day, I was impressed by the depth and clarity of his thought about language issues, and his willingness to hear criticism from the audience: "yes, I agree that's a bad design" or "no, I don't think there's enough use cases". It's an example of the kind of meritocratic culture that hackers value -- Guido gets to be benevolent dictator because he has good ideas and listens to his users. As Joel-on-software put it, hackers want to be in a culture where you can win any argument simply by being right.
The second day of the conference, I ended up giving three different talks about Enso. First was the talk that I signed up to do, my talk about the Enso autocomplete project. There is a feature going into an upcoming version of Enso which turned out to be so difficult that I think I can actually write an interesting computer-science paper about the problem and its solution. So this talk was sort of practice for that.
After this, due to popular demand, I gave two more talks. The conference schedule had some flexible space where you could just write in ideas for discussion topics, and interested people would come and participate. This was called an Open Space talk, so I did one of those about Enso in general, mostly Q-and-A style. Finally, Tuesday evening I gave a Lightning Talk where I briefly demonstrated Enso to the whole assembled conference. (In retrospect, it would have been a lot more logical to give these three talks in exactly the opposite order, but too late for that.)
Lightning talks are lots and lots of fun -- anybody can sign up, and they get exactly 5 minutes to present their idea in front of the whole conference. After 5 minutes they get pulled off the stage and the next person gets a turn. It's fun to watch because when they have only 5 minutes, people get right to the point and give the most interesting stuff up front. One guy demonstrated how he was running a webserver on his cell phone. But my favorite talk was LOLPython, a programming language that some crazy guy made based on the grammar of the captions on LOLCats.
All of my talks were quite well received. Lots of people came up to me afterwards with good questions about UI design issues and about our business, and gave me lots of cool ideas and suggestions to think about. I'm very happy with how it went.
(And I just realized I never actually said during the lightning talk that Enso is in Python. I hope nobody thought it was a random bit of shameless self promotion that we had snuck in. Well, it was, but it really was Python related. There's a reason I wasn't at Euro Ruby or something.)
Here's some more pictures of Vilnius:
Here's what all the toilet affordances looked like in Lithuania. There are two buttons labeled "+" and "-" which do a big flush and a small flush, respectively.
And here's a randomly hilarious street sign. Utena indeed!
There was a dinner after that, where I talked to lots more interesting people. (Including a Norweigan guy named Rune Henson. That's a cool name!!) Saw a retro arcade-style game that one guy was working on. Good feelings all around.
The conference was to continue on Wednesday, but I couldn't attend as I had to get up at 4 AM and rush in order to be in time to spend all day waiting in airports. Blah! So I about 11 pm I was on my way back to the t_liday Inn.
...And I was coming around the corner, right across the street from my hotel, and ran into three young Lithuanian men in black jacket coming up from the blind side of the corner. "This could be it", I thought.
The scene of the crime.
I've been replaying the whole thing over and over again in my head ever since, thinking of the ways I could have avoided the situation in the first place, ways that I could have dealt with it better, and the many ways in which it could have gone much, much worse. The first thing, of course, is that I shouldn't have stayed at the Holiday Inn, and the second thing was that I shouldn't have been walking alone at night. I should have at least found someone going the same direction to walk along with me.
But anyway, here's how it actually happened:
I tried to step past onto the crosswalk, but one of the three dudes (he was extremly ugly -- think blonde Eurotrash with a face halfway between Neanderthal and gargoyle) stepped in front of me and started saying "Money, money!" (probably the only English word he knew). The other two guys were kinda hanging back; their body language said that they didn't really want to be part of this.
I was not sure yet whether this was going to be a mugging attempt or just a particularly agressive panhandler. I was not sure how seriously to take this guy -- he was about my size, and his friends seemed to be hesitating to back him up. He didn't seem much like a hardened criminal or a professional mugger at all. If he was a professional mugger, he and his two guys would have been surrounding me right away and the switchblade would have been out already and I would have just immediately said "OK OK here's my money". But instead, I think that he was just some guy who had just spotted me and made the decision on the spot to try to hassle me for money. Just not that threatening. So at first I was thinking that I should just brush him off, cross the street, and go inside, so I just glared at him and said "No.", emphatically, and kept walking.
Then he grabbed my wrist.
He grabbed my wrist! Really! That is like how every basic technique starts in Aikido practice, but I always thought that was just a way of simplifying things to make practice easier. I didn't think that anybody would actually try to start a fight that way in real life! Or if it did, that the attacker would grab my wrist and immediately punch or kick or do something else. But here this Lithuanian guy was actually grabbing my wrist and just standing there saying "Money, money!". It was the perfect setup for any number of techniques.
So, think quick. Should I do it, or not? Do I pin this guy to the pavement right now, or do I say OK and give him my money, or do I just break free and run? If you had a split-second to make that choice, what would you have done?
What I actually did was I started working a kosadori-ikkyo-ura. And it was working, too -- Mr. Eurotrash was my size, and didn't really have good strength or balance. If I had committed to the technique and kept going, I'm pretty sure I could have put his face in the pavement.
But I had sudden doubts. Was I overreacting? Was this more force than the situation required? Or on the other hand, was I just going to get myself into worse trouble -- would I end up with him pinned on the ground and his two friends pulling guns on me? Or would I end up having to talk to the Lithuanian police and, if so, is it just going to be my word against his for who attacked who? I didn't want to be in any of those situations. Maybe the safest course of action would be to give him my wallet, and figure out later how to deal with being penniless in a foreign country.
So I just kind of let go of the technique halfway through. All this happened in just a second or two. We were out into the middle of the crosswalk by this point, and I had one eye on the color of the light. I hesitated, not knowing what to do.
Then he pulled a knife on me.
Well, sort of. Like I said before, he wasn't a very good mugger. He didn't even have a switchblade, more like a leatherman, and he was keeping it in a fanny pack. So when I say "pulled a knife" it was more like he made the internationally recognized sign language gesture for "I'ma stab you!" and then "Hold on while I reach around and unzip my fanny pack and get out this leatherman and fold it up into knife configuration."
I have no idea why I let him get that far. I was just standing there like an idiot in the middle of the street watching this scumbag get his knife ready. If I had decided to fight, the time that it took him to reach for the zipper on his pack would have been a perfect opening to start kicking the crap out of him in any of a dozen ways. If I had decided to run, same thing. If I had decided to give up, I should have gotten my wallet out already. But I just watched him, sort of fascinated by how stupid and pointless the whole situation was. Again, all this happened in just a couple of seconds, and his friends were still hanging back on the sidewalk, saying something in Lithuanian which from their voices and body language seemed like they were telling Mr. Fannypack not to be such a dumbass.
Anyway, he had the knife out and was making stabby gestures with it to get his point across in sign language, and I was reaching for my wallet, when he got distracted by something (might have been his friends yelling at him, might have been the light changing) so I just broke and ran. The hotel was right there, so I just ran into the lobby and up the stairs, and when I looked around none of the goons had bothered following me in.
The only casualty was that my favorite shirt got ripped up at some point in the scuffle. (This was that "disco overlord" shirt, and it was never really made for doing any sort of fighting in.)
I was never really scared. I stayed strangely calm the whole time. I was just indecisive, and if things had gone a little differently my indecision could have gotten me stabbed or run over or something. Ever since that night, I've been going over and over and over the whole scenario in my head, picking out all the things I did wrong and what I should have done instead, and picking out all the things that the would-be Eurotrash mugger did wrong too. The fact that I got away unscathed and with my wallet had very little to do with any crisis-handling skills of mine, and a lot to do with pure dumb luck and the fact that this guy was, really, an amazingly incompetent mugger.
So, what lessons can I gain from this (aside from don't stay at the Holiday Inn, and don't walk around Eastern Europe alone at night)?
I'm sure my Aikido training is going to be different from now on. I have a data point. It is my first hard data point related to an actual fight. Well, vaguely fight-like situation.
There are three ways in which the actual situation on the street differed from my imagining of it during dojo training. First, encumbrance. I was wearing a backpack containing clothes, laptop, etc., as I usually do when traveling anywhere. It restricts movement somewhat. Second, terrain: the confrontation started on the edge of, and moved into the middle of, a crosswalk across a busy intersection, which meant a timing element from the changing status of the light. I would seriously like to start doing some Aikido training when wearing a backpack and sneakers on the sidewalk, because if I'm ever in a situation again, that's how it's likely to happen.n
The third difference, and this is big, is that a real situation requires snap judgement. It must be determined immediately whether or not the situation calls for striking a guy in self-defense. If one is going to strike, it's better to do so immediately, withtout warning, and with full intent to incapacitate, as a half-assed attempt is going to make the situation much worse than no attempt at all. But even a perfectly executed maneuver has the potential to make things worse for me -- what if I beat the guy up, but he was just a panhandler? What if I beat the guy up, and then his friends come back with guns? What if I beat the guy up, and then the police appear and believe his version of the story instead of mine? -- So it's much better to get away without anybody getting beaten up. I have always been a believer in the superiority of Aikido teachings for precisely the reason that they enable defense without inflicting any serious harm on the other person, but that night in Vilnius really drove home the practical importance of this point.
Even so, one should never attempt an Aikido technique half-assedly. They require focus and commitment, or they're not going to work. Even if the technique does somehow work in a narrow sense, if my mind is full of hesitation and doubt, it's not going to get me safely out of the situation. Getting out safely requires more than just pinning or throwing one guy -- it calls for instantly sizing up the situation, forming an escape plan, and executing it within the space of a few seconds, before the advantage of surprise is lost.
So whether I run, fight, or hand over the money, it would have been better to make a decision instantly and then to act on that decision without doubt or hesitation. This is hard. I'm wondering if there's a way to practice this kind of snap judgement as part of regular Aikido training.
Anyway, I am safely back in Chicago now, shaken up but luckily no worse off then when I left.
I almost didn't make it on the flight. I got to the airport at T minus 2 hours. Which terminal to go to? On the big departures board just outside the CTA stop, the terminal for my flight was marked "?". Not helpful. For future reference, here's how it seems to work: United has its own terminal, terminal 1. Any international flgiht that's not on United will go from terminal 5 (the international terminal) which is most easily reached by intra-airport train.
So, got to Terminal 5, found the LOT airlines desk (they have a sexy cartoon stork for a logo ?!?) and talked to the guy and immediately hit a snag. A large snag. More of an "I blew it". Bad. I guess I was just assuming that nobody used paper tickets anymore. But it turns out that when I reserved this flight through Travelocity (terrible customer service by the way, they sent me an email asking that I call them to straighten something out, and I had to go through the horrible voice-recognition maze even though I didn't really know I was calling -- you asked me to call, can't you make it easier than this? -- and after finally getting to a guy I had to be on hold for 18 minutes, and then finally found out that all they needed was for me to confirm my address.)
I guess the address confirmation should have tipped me off (or the fact that it said right there in the email!!) but it wasn't clicking in my mind that there were physical tickets that I had to get. I didn't think of checking until the last day, and that's when I realized that the FedEx final delivery notice that had been hanging on my apartment building's front door was for me, and my tickets were at the FedEx office in Shaumberg, if not on their way back to the sender already.
(I don't understand how Fedex or UPS or those things expect to work at all. Who's at home during business hours on weekdays? What, do they expect everybody to have/be housewives? I guess I should always put my work address for delivery, but a lot of places don't like it when the delivery address isn't the billing address.)
I thought I was still OK because there was a confirmation number from the Travelocity email. So I thought I'd be able to input that confirmation number into something at the airport and be allowed to board the plane.
It was not so. The guy behind the counter told me I definitely needed a paper ticket or I couldn't get on the flight. I walked numbly away from the counter. I found a payphone, but then realized I had no idea who I would even call. I almost gave up and went home. I was standing on the train platform composing excuses and apologies but I didn't like it, so I went back in, planning to ask if I could change to another flight the next day or get a partial refund or something. (New joke: How many Americans does it take to buy an airline ticket?)
By this time they had changed shifts at the LOT airlines counter, and the new person was more helpful: she said she could recreate my tickets, but it would cost $110 extra. I paid it happily, but it took them forever to print out new tickets; I watched them through the doorway struggling bravely with their computer system. It was about 9:10 by this time, and the flight was at 9:55, and I was really supposed to be on the airplane by 9:45, and I still had to go through security and find the terminal, so I was getting really antsy.
That's when they started paging me by name over the loudspeakers. They repeatedly asked me to report to gate M8, in English and Polish. Like this: "czjkwlyzjk zcjwkyjcwkzyj jky zwc DiCarlo zjcwk ykjzcwy". They said they were ready to leave and waiting for me and the gates were closing in 5 minutes (?!?!). WTF??? I thought I had another half hour at least? The LOT counter people still had my passport and credit card so I wasn't about to run off and report to the gate. This was getting pretty scary.
Finally the LOT representative gave me the tickets, and I said "can I make it? would it be better to put me on a later flight?" and she said "No! Sign here, quickly! You can make it but you have to run! Write your address here, hurry!" "I'm so sorry, this is all my fault", I said. She said "I know."
So I grabbed my stuff and ran to the security line, where I got stuck in the middle of a very large middle-eastern family with arabic writing on their passports. The women were all in hijab and the patriarch had a tattoo of crossed daggers on his wrist and he was passing a wad of $100 bills to somebody. And I got pulled aside from the security checkpoint because I had forgotten that I had a bottle of water in my backpack and that's a no-no. Lucky for me I just apologized a lot and they didn't delay me for the full drug/bomb cavity search. So I was able to run to the gate, where the last couple of LOT employees were glaring at me, and I said I had heard them paging but I was still stuck in line and I'm verry sorry, and they said what's your name and I said DiCarlo and two of them were like OH IT'S YOU!! and one more guy just pointed and said "Italiano" and laughed like that explained everything.
BUT I GOT ON THE PLANE!!!
I got sucked into a weird conversation with a chatty, overly perfumed Polish woman going to visit family for a few weeks. I understood maybe 2/3 of the words she said in English. She and her friends across the aisle kept saying how young I look and wanting to hook me up with their daughters. It's just like middle aged Japanese women. I got to thinking about how in the more traditional cultures of the world it would be strange for me to be still unmarried at 27. I'm married to my work, is what I said.
(Q: In the medieval kingdom of poland, what was the favored weapopn of knights? A: A war-saw! I would also have accepted "a polack's pole-axe".)
Just switched my computer over to eastern european time (GMT + 2:00) which took me from 5 AM to 1 PM.
At the end of our flight, all the middle-aged women agreed that I should definitely come to Poland next time and not go to Lithuania, which they said in that "why would anybody ever want to go there" kind of voice, because Poland is so much nicer.
Adventures in the Warsaw airport: I exchanged $20 for 48,60 of some currency I don't even know the name of. I just found a desk labeled "currency exchange" and gave the guy a $20 bill to see what I would get back. It turned out to be just enough to buy dinner. Did they rip me off? Is this the fabled airport markup? Or is the US Dollar no longer as valuable in Eastern Europe as I had assumed?
I do not speak a single word of Polish. All I can deduce about the language from looking at the signs around me is that most of the words seem to be phonetic spellings of equivalent words from English with a bunch of extra czj stuff glommed onto the end. I know nothing about this country. It is humbling. When I talk to somebody in English I don't know if they're going to be able to answer me, and whether they do or not I feel like I should be apologizing for not knowing Polish.
I cut myself on a chair in the airport. There was a nail sticking out of the seat of the chair next to me and I put my hand down and just gashed myself on it. I would normally classify this as a bug, but who knows, maybe in Polish culture it's considered a desirable feature for some chairs to randomly have nails sticking out of them. So unexpectedly, the first item I needed from my 1-quart ziploc bag full of 3-oz gels and liquids was the band-aids. Don't mind me, Polish people, I'm just standing here in the bathroom holding my hand to stop the bleeding.
I'm looking out the window and it looks just like any other city, except the license plates are all weird and the signs look like somebody was cheating at Scrabble. But I have a vague and creepy awareness that this place survived a Nazi blitzkrieg and several decades of Communism.
This is the "Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport"? But they do not play Chopin here, they play really trashy "oontz oontz oontz" style eurobeat techno.
I managed to get electric power for my laptop here by camping out until the guy at the restaurant moved away from the table next to the outlet. These outlets are a weird shape and it's easy for the plug to just fall out, but the adaptor that I bought does work.
The plane to Vilnius was delayed by 2 extra hours on top of the 5 hour scheduled stopover. So I was glad I brought a good book (see previous post). When the plane finally came, it was a propellor plane. I've only ever flown on jets before, so that was cool. Got to Vilnius about midnight, local time, and took a taxi to the hotel for 60 of another monetary unit I don't know the name of. (Come on, get on the Euro bandwagon already!) By the time I got to sleep, I'd been traveling for almost 24 hours of real time.
I was woken up in the morning by the phone next to the bed ringing. Some guy with a deep voice who barely spoke English asked if I was Jonathan DiCarlo "from Washington" and said he wanted "to be speaking business to me". I thought he must be from the Euro Python conference so I asked him a bunch of groggy questions, but then found out that he had nothing to do with the conference "No, I am in the hotel, it is not conference business it is personal business, do you want to be discussing this business with me?". I told him "no" and hung up. Only then did I realize how disturbing the whole thing was. Like, what the hell? Is this some kind of phone spam/scam? How did he get my name and hotel room number?
To be continued...
Spent most of the plane ride (and most of my time stuck in Warsaw international airport) reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. It's pretty amazing so far. It's refreshingly non-dystopic and post-cyberpunk. In fact, the future is so vividly realized, so radical, and so believable in its every detail that it's making me feel above all impatience, impatience that I can't live there yet. Cuz dang, the life of a neo-victorian nano-engineer in Atlantis/Shanghai sounds like the life for me! At the very least I want to try out that setup with the glove that lets me assemble individual atoms. Again and again in reading this, I'm thinking "yes, of course, that's exactly how it's going to work". The "matter compilers" that run on feed pipes of pure chemical elements, and the fact that the matter compiler is annoyingly slow if you can't afford a thicker pipe. The voluntary-membership globally organized tribes. Phrases like "you may have additional rights depending on the government of the geographical territory in question", or "we found little worth of emulation in the 20th century so we had to go back to the 19th to find the basis of a stable society". The air getting junked up with the smog-like remains of dead nanites after a particularly fierce war between airborne nanite invaders and the airborne nanite immune system. The fact that most people have forgotten how to read letters in favor of animated icons and voice-recognition interfaces on every single everyday object. The insight that when science is sufficiently advanced to grant your every wish, the one big issue that's left is mental and cultural self-discipline. It's all so right.
I just wish that Neal Stephenson didn't have to include such joyless, disturbing, squick-inducing sex scenes in every single book. And that he didn't have to include insanely convoluted, yet somehow obvious, conspiracies in every single book. (Seriously, take every weird person and organization that's been mentioned for no good reason in the first half of a Neal Stephenson novel, put them into an "Illuminati"-style organization chart, and you'll know how the second half of the book is going to go. I'm already having trouble keeping it straight which conspiracies were in Snow Crash vs. which conspiracies were in Cryptonomicon vs. which conspiracies were in the Diamond Age.) Also, Neal: Your names are silly. Snow Crash featured "Hiro Protagonist"; The Diamond Age has characters named "Dr. X", "Hackworth", and "Bud".
Great googly-moogly, do you need to learn how to write endings.
In a couple hours I'm getting on a plane for Lithuania to give my presentation at Euro Python.
Last weekend I made a planned-at-the-last-second overnight trip to Boston to see Alexis and Ben. I wanted to cheer up Alexis who is still recovering from getting hit by a car which broke her femur.
Despite the amount of travel involved (I flew into Providence and took the train to Boston, since it was 1/3 the cost of flying directly into Boston), I had a great time. We spent most of the weekend playing RPGs.
So, I finally got to play "Shock: Social Science Fiction", a game I've been wanting to try out for a long time. We did a one-shot and it was four hours of solid concentraed awesomeness. I was inspired to write a review/play report of the game. I submitted it to RPG.net, since they were looking for more SF game reviews. I'm also going to post it here. It's pretty long, and if you're not interested in role-playing you can stop reading now, but otherwise:
I love science fiction. I love role-playing games. So an SFRPG (science-fiction role-playing game) ought to be my favorite thing in the world. And yet, none of the SF games I've tried in the past has been quite what I was looking for. Most SF RPGs seem to fall into two categories -- there are faithful reproductions of popular TV/movie settings, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Firefly and Farscape, and then there are settings which are basically fantasy universes with the addition of high-tech tropes, like RIFTS and Shadowrun and the Warhammer 40,000 universe. While each of the games I've mentioned can be lots of fun in its own way, and each is deeply loved by its fans, I feel like none of them captures the essence of what really good science-fiction is about.
When I say "really good science-fiction", I'm usually thinking of one of those classic collections of short stories by authors like Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke, or Larry Niven, or [insert name of your favorite author here]. Each story was a self-contained "what-if" scenario, meant to be thought-provoking above all else. The best of them made us think in a serious way about how human life and society might be transformed -- within our own lifetimes, even! -- by our first contact with alien life, or the beginnings of interplanetary colonization, or the invention of self-aware robots, or by a networked gestalt human consciousness, or any of a thousand other possibilities both marvelous and terrifying. The emphasis was not so much on the exotic life-form or nifty gadget, but on change, and what such changes might mean. At their best, SF stories ask us challenging and uncomfortable questions about the world around us, our future, and our own philosophies of life.
So, that's what I'm looking for, and that's why I get a little bit frustrated every time I open a SF game book and all I find is a bunch of rules for how well a cyborg ork can shoot with a laser bazooka, you know what I'm saying? It seems like most games use SF tropes as setting details, but the emphasis is all on action-adventure. I don't know of any games that captured that speculative, intellectual element of SF.
To sum up "Shock: Social Science Fiction" in one sentence: think of it as an interactive, multiplayer version of one of those classic SF short story collections. Sound interesting? Read on!
It's sometimes been said that in SF, the setting is the main character. That is, if your story is an exploration of a possible future, then the focus must be on the ways that the future differs from the present. Here we get to the first innovation that makes Shock different from most RPGs you've probably played: instead of giving you a default setting (or a line of setting sourcebooks) Shock gives you rules for creating a unique setting of your own. After all, if the setting is the main character, doesn't it deserve its own character sheet?
The setting creation rules are worth going into in a little bit of detail, because everything else about gameplay depends on the setting you come up with. Setting creation is a collaborative, brainstorming process. The group makes a grid on a piece of paper. On one axis of the grid is a list of real-world social issues. For instance, in the game I played, we chose the issues "Intellectual Property" and "Lack of Due Process of Law" (after brainstorming a much longer list and narrowing it down). Both of our issues were rather academic and technical ones, but yours don't have to be. The most important thing is that the issues should be things the players care about. The game book suggests several issues and recommends scanning newspaper headlines for more.
On the other axis of the grid are the Shocks. The game I played was a short one-shot game with just three players, so we had just two issues and one Shock. If we wanted to do an extended campaign and explore a world in depth, we would have used more. Our Shock was "Ubiquitous computing": Everybody in this world has the Internet permanently wired into their brains. Choosing this Shock pegged our setting as being kind of cyberpunk-ish. You don't have to do anything like that, though; you could choose "interstellar war" as a Shock and play a far-future space-opera, choose "nuclear holocaust" and play a post-apocalyptic scenario, or you could pull a Shock out of the latest issue of a science/technology magazine and play a game set ten minutes into the future. This, too, is a suggestion straight from the book.
Your group must also decide on the "Praxis scales" for your setting. What this scary-sounding phrase means is really just, "What are the different ways player characters can deal with problems, in this world?" You can think of Praxis as being setting-specific stats. Most RPGs have a fixed list of typical stats: Strength, Intelligence, Agility or Dexterity, Health or Constitution, and so on. But when the players create the setting, a fixed list of stats might end up being meaningless. For instance, in a world where all fighting is done with energy-beam weapons and robots perform all physical labor, what possible use would there be for a Strength score? And if you're never going to use Strength, why bother even putting it on your character sheet?
So, to create a Praxis scale, the players think up two ways of approaching a problem which are in some sense opposites. For instance, a good Praxis scale might be "Fighting vs. Negotiation". Each character will have a number that tells his or her position on this scale, so that characters who are better at Fighting will be worse at Negotiation, and vice versa. A setting always has two praxis scales, for a total of four methods of dealing with problems.
Choosing your Praxis scales allows you to focus on the types of conflicts that are going to be important for your characters and your setting. If you wanted to do a style of game heavy on the physical conflict, with a lot of "infiltrating heavily-defended enemy base" type of action, you might choose a Praxis scale like "Combat vs. Stealth", or even "Guns vs. Martial Arts". On the other hand, you could do a game of political struggle over the fate of a group of space colonists, with no physical combat at all, and you might choose Praxis scales like "Reason vs. Emotion" (how does your politician character appeal to the populace?) and "Cooperation vs. Sabotage" (how does your character deal with political opposition?). For a very philosophical game, you might even have "Science vs. Religion" or "Nature vs. Nurture" as Praxis scales -- you just have to deal with classifying everyone's in-game actions according to those scales.
In the game I played, we chose "Self-Reliance vs. Reputation" and "Force vs. Cooperation". This was after quite a bit of discussion where we rejected several other ideas ( "Law vs. Trade", Accusation vs. something-or-other... ). Picking the right Praxis scales for your game is very important, because every action a character takes during a conflict has to be classifiable as one end of one praxis scale, in order to determine the target numbers for your dice. Well-chosen Praxis scales can interact with the Issues and Shocks of your setting in a way that makes the story incredibly cool. On the other hand, Praxis scales that are too narrow, or too vague, or which don't apply to the types of characters you want to play, seem like they could really screw up your game.
With just Shocks, Issues, and Praxis, your setting is starting to take shape, but it's not very detailed yet. That's OK. If you had to create every detail of the setting before you could start playing, you'd never get started! So instead, the idea is to start with a sketchy setting and then figure out the details as you go, answering questions as they come up. To do this, your group must decide who is the "owner" of each Issue and each Shock. (This will often be the person who suggested the idea, but not always). The owner will answer any questions that come up during play about that issue or that shock: "Is the technology capable of doing this?" or "Is it against the law to do so-and-so?" So in the game I played, for instance, I was in charge of the "Intellectual Property" issue, and my fellow players (who I'm just going to call A. and B.) owned "Lack of Due Process of Law" and "Ubiquitous computing". Of course, we were all constantly suggesting ideas, but the owner of each shock or issue has the final say over how something works. Once they make a decision, they write it on an index card and throw it into a pile in the middle of the table. This growing pile of index cards is called "minutiae" and serves to document the details of your setting for future reference.
Here are a few minutiae about "ubiquitous computing" in our setting:
When you've got the Internet in your brain and you look at another person, you automatically get pop-up windows in your vision showing all sorts of information about that person. Your personal network records every sight you see and every sound you hear, so you can recall any of it instantly and perfectly. For this reason, most people have gotten really bad at using their own memories (just like how when writing was invented, people got worse and worse at memorizing 50,000 line epic poems. It wasn't a skill they needed anymore.) Finally, it's possible to steal somebody else's "rig" and plug it into yourself; you know practically everything that person knows, but the danger is that the flood of memories will overwhelm your personality: you'll forget who you are, and think you are this other person instead.
"That's odd", you may be thinking, "What's all this about ownership of Issues and Shocks? Why does a different player make decisions for each aspect of the setting? Why doesn't the GM just make up a setting and decide how everything works?"
Well, that's another interesting thing about Shock. There is no GM!
"WHAT??" some of you are probably thinking. "If there's no GM, who sets up the challenges? Who sets up the goal of the adventure? Who settles rules disputes? Who springs surprises on the players? Who keeps the game from degenerating into total chaos, or worse, total boringness?"
A GM-less RPG is a pretty weird concept for most of us, but there are several of them in existence, mostly obscure indie games. Clearly you can't just take an RPG system like d20 or Storyteller, remove the GM from it, and expect to have a functional game, any more than you could rip the heart out of a person and expect him to stay alive. But you can imagine an alien life form that evolved along a very different path and so doesn't have or need a heart. In the same way, it's possible for an RPG to follow a very different path of design, one where there is not a single Game Master in charge of everything. Instead, responsibility for NPCs, for the details of the world, and for the direction of the story is spread out among all of the players. There are still goals, challenges, surprises, and ways of settling disputes, but it's no longer the case that all of these are the responsibility of a single person. A GM-less game like this must have very clear rules to guide the sharing of responsibility, to say who gets to decide what, and so on. In the following sections, I'll go into a little more detail about exactly how this division of power works in Shock. It's quite clever and, in practice, surprisingly playable.
I've already explained how responsibility for aspects of the setting is split up among the players. Let's move on: now that the setting is sketched out, we can start creating player characters. Since there's no GM, every player gets to create a Protagonist.
Remember the grid we created for our setting? Each protagonist exists at one of the intersections on that grid, so each Protagonist is based on a combination of one Shock and one Issue. This is not allowed to be the Issue that the same player controls. I owned "Intellectual Property", so I couldn't have played a character with Intellectual Property as his Issue. If I was allowed to own an issue and also play a character based on it, there would be a temptation to decide facts about the issue in such a way as to make my own goal easier, which wouldn't be very much fun.
In the game I played, my character was at the intersection of "Ubiquitous Computing" and "Lack of Due Process of Law". What does it mean to be at an intersection on the grid? The Shock and the Issue are going to be a big deal for my character. His story is going to be about these things in some way. But that still gives me a lot of leeway for deciding who my character should be. Does lack of due process mean that I am an innocent man, falsely accused of a crime? Does it mean that I am a criminal who was unjustly set free? Or perhaps I'm someone in a position of authority who is responsible for due process not being implemented. Hmmmmmm.... I chose the latter. Here's my character:
Raymund Pulaski, Retired Master Hacker Issue: lack of due process Shock: ubiquitous computing Features: Master Hacker. Zeroed out of all legal records. Has memorized the Lord of the Rings word-for-word. Links: Independent lifestyle (Goats!) Praxis: Self-Reliance/Reputation = 3. Cooperation/Force = 6. Story Goal: To fix what he once made broken. Antagonist: The ARCHoN system.
That's not a summary of my character sheet, by the way -- that's the entire thing! Characters are pretty simple, at least mechanically, in Shock. You can make your character's personality and background as detailed as you want, of course, without any reference to the game systems, so here's mine:
Raymund Pulaski was the main programmer who created the "ARCHoN" system, a massive artificial intelligence which has replaced the entire judicial system. Vastly more efficient than the old system of courts, judges, and juries, ARCHoN can decide any criminal or civil case in a matter of seconds, not weeks. As soon as a complaint has been registered by at least three people (using a convenient web form), ARCHoN goes into action: downloading all relevant sensory records from the personal networks of the victims, accusers, and suspects, analyzing them, and reaching a judgment as to guilt or innocence.
Of course, the problem with this system is that it assumes that all sensory data from personal networks is inherently reliable. Therefore, it's easily fooled by anyone who can tamper with the inputs. "Garbage in, garbage out..." -- a fact that Raymund Pulaski knows all too well. Before he quit his job, he put a backdoor into the ARCHoN system and "zeroed himself out", meaning that as far as the legal system is concerned, Raymund Pulaski does not exist and can never be tried for any crime.
Troubled by the implications of the networked world, and the fact that people are losing their ability to remember things on their own, Raymund moved to a small patch of land in the Rocky Mountains, where he has been living a simple, natural life for the past few years, raising goats, chopping firewood, and exercising his biological memory capacity by forcing himself to memorize, word-for-word, the entire works of JRR Tolkien. He still has his personal network, of course, and when he goes online he does so under the pseudonym "Feanor" -- the elven prince whose beautiful, perfect creations (the Silmarils) led his people into thousands of years of suffering.
I didn't decide all of those details about the ARCHoN system all by myself. I hashed them out in discussion with B., who owned "Ubiquitous Computing", and A., who owned "Lack of Due Process". Like everything else in Shock, character creation is a collaborative process. Since you don't even create the setting until all players are assembled, there's no such thing as creating a character in isolation.
As you can see from my sheet above, each character has Praxis scores, and Features and Links, which are a fairly free-form way of describing personality traits, special skills, possessions, and other facts about the character. But the most important things that every protagonist needs are a Story Goal and an Antagonist. The Story Goal is simply what you, the player, are trying to accomplish with your character during the game. The Antagonist is who or whatever is trying to stop you from getting that goal. Your antagonist will be played by one of the other players at the table. An antagonist can be a person, but it could also be an organization. The interaction of Protagonist, Antagonist, and Story Goal is what gives shape to the game.
So in our game, my goal was to "fix what I made broken" and restore due process of law by reprogramming ARCHoN. B. played my antagonist, the ARCHoN system itself, and tried to stop me. B. was also playing his own Protagonist, a sociopathic serial killer named Lawrence (intersection of Ubiquitous Computing and Due Process). Lawrence's story goal was to get away with murder without ever having his identity revealed to the public. Opposing him was a detective named Mycroft, played by A.. Finally, A.'s protagonist (intersection of Ubiquitous Computing and Intellectual Property), was a comic artist who published comics online under the pseudonym "G. Fire" -- smutty comics starring copyrighted anime characters in sexual situations (don't think that this stuff doesn't already exist!) G. Fire's goal was to make money off of his work; opposing him was "Johnny's Mom" (another pseudonym), played by me. Johnny's Mom was the overprotective mother of a teenage boy who found G. Fire's comics in her teenage son's memory and immediately started an online crusade / moral panic to get G. Fire shut down.
So let's see: we got a serial killer, a pornographer, and a guy responsible for the false convictions of probably millions of people. Clearly this is not a game that requires you to play heroes! There's no alignment, and you don't even have to worry about whether your characters could fit together in a "party", because there is no party -- each protagonist is the star of their own story. You pretty much have free reign with your choice of story goals, and again, players are encouraged to discuss them with each other. These choices determine most of what you'll be doing during play, so you'd better pick a Story Goal that you're going to enjoy pursuing!
We don't all play all our characters at the same time -- that way lies madness! Instead, we take turns doing scenes. So when it was my scene, I played Raymund, B. played my antagonist the ARCHoN system, and A. was a neutral onlooker. Not a passive onlooker, though -- she decided all facts about due process, meaning she was in charge of how the justice system actually worked. Once a scene had reached a logical stopping point, we would switch roles and play a scene in another protagonist's story. At no point did our three protagonists meet each other, so in a certain sense we were playing out three parallel plot threads which never met. But since these plot threads were based on the same themes and the same setting, the game felt like it held together anyway.
As I see it, this round-robin style of play cleverly takes care of all of the important services that a GM provides in a more "normal" RPG. Instead of the GM presenting a scenario or mission with an implied goal, the direction of gameplay in Shock comes from the protagonists each trying to accomplish their own Story Goals. Instead of the GM throwing various enemies and obstacles at the players, opposition is provided by the player of the Antagonist. Instead of the GM making decisions about the way the world works, each facet of the setting is owned by a different player who gets final say over it. And so on.
There are a couple very nice results of doing things this way. Since there's no GM, nobody has to spend hours laboriously preparing an adventure before the game starts. Such things have no place in Shock: you sit down around the table, create a setting together, create characters, and play! Speaking as someone who has spent far too much of his free time writing elaborate adventure plans -- only to have them rendered instantly useless when my PCs made an unexpected choice -- the idea of a game that I can play without prepping an adventure is extremely appealing.
It also means that every player gets a chance to express his or her creativity during the game. If you were ever frustrated in other RPGs that what you wanted your character to do didn't fit into the GM's plans, you may find Shock very refreshing. In fact, it's too mild to say that you'll "get a chance" to express your creativity -- it's more accurate to say that the game demands maximum creative input from everyone.
Have you ever been frustrated, in any RPG, by having to feign interest in generic "adventure bait"? The old guy in the tavern with a map to a cave full of treasure? The shady contact offering you big bucks for an illegal corporate espionage mission? ("My character's really not motivated by money", you think to yourself, "but I'd better go along with this or I won't have anything to do tonight." -- sound familiar? ) In Shock, this cannot happen, because everything that your protagonist does is in pursuit of a story goal that you chose, based on issues and shocks that you cared about enough to write on the grid. Not only that, you've got a devoted antagonist dedicated to making your chosen goal as hard as possible. It's like having an adventure custom tailored to your protagonist and your interests. I think that's a lot more fun than following the generic adventure bait.
I'm sure that some of you are still skeptical. "Are you sure this is really a role-playing game?" I can hear you asking. "It's starting to sound more like some kind of group therapy session, or a brainstorming activity from a college creative-writing course!" And that's not an entirely unfair description. Shock does, in fact, require all the players to think a little bit like story authors. But don't worry, I'm getting to the part where we roll dice. The actual gameplay of Shock is tightly focused on the one thing that every game needs in order to be exciting: Conflict!
Conflict in this game can be anything. Depending on what your Issues and Shocks are, conflict in your game might take the form of a massive starship battle, a political debate, a duel of wits between hacker and corporate security, or an argument between two lovers. With an infinity of possible settings, there's no way to have specific rules covering every possible kind of conflict.
So Shock doesn't try for detailed, realistic simulation of every event. This is not "GURPS: Social Science Fiction"! Instead, Shock goes for a system that is extremely simple, flexible, and abstract. In fact, once you're done creating characters, there is really only one game mechanic. This all-purpose die-rolling mechanic, based on Praxis, can be used to resolve any kind of conflict, from the starship battle to the lover's argument that I mentioned above. It just takes a little bit of flexibility from the players to decide how to apply the results of the dice to their specific situation.
I consider this a pretty nice feature. The entire set of game rules is small enough to easily fit inside my head, so there's no need to look anything up during play. I for one hate to have to pause everything in the middle of a fight to dig out a reference for how some spell works. But if you're the kind of player who likes to have a detailed table of weapon ranges and damages and so on, Shock might not be your kind of game.
Gameplay is very streamlined. If you're not in a conflict, you're role-playing freeform. At one point, I wanted my character to steal a pickup truck and drive to Kansas. Nobody at the table contested that, so it simply happened -- no skill rolls, no random encounters, no filler, just "OK, you're in Kansas now." But as they teach in dramatic writing 101, the point of every scene in a story should be to drive towards conflict between characters. A scene never goes on very long before the protagonist, trying to do something, runs into the antagonist trying to mess up his plans.
As soon as the players find something to disagree about, a conflict begins. The protagonist and antagonist each declare a goal, decide what method (from the Praxis scales) they will be using, and then roll dice. Choosing your goal is key, and so there is always a period of discussion and negotiation about what the goals should be before the dice are rolled. An important twist: it's possible for both goals to succeed, or for both goals to fail. For this reason, players are required to choose goals such that "mutual success" and "mutual failure" make logical sense as possible outcomes.
Here's an example of a typical conflict, from the very first scene of our game. B., my antagonist, declares that a SWAT team has just descended on Raymund's little cabin. They've got black vans, black helicopters, rifles, riot shields, all that good stuff. They demand that I come out with my hands up. (My antagonist is the computerized judicial system, so ordering in a SWAT team is well within his power.) My guy is supposed to have total legal immunity, so obviously something has gone horribly wrong. This sounds like the start of a conflict, so we declare goals! As protagonist, I choose first. The obvious goal would be "get away without getting arrested". But my curiosity is stronger than my fear, so I say "My goal is to find out what's going on: who sent them and what am I being arrested for?" B. declares the obvious goal: "They're trying to take you into custody."
(Note that if I had said "My goal is to escape", then B. could not have said "Their goal is to capture you". Those are mutually contradictory goals -- it wouldn't make sense for both to succeed or for both to fail! But since my goal is to find out what's going on, then any outcome is a possibility -- I could get captured and find out, I could find out and escape, I could escape without finding out, or I could get captured without finding out.)
We put this in terms of Praxis. Remember, our choices are Self-Reliance/Reputation and Force/Cooperation. The SWAT team is clearly using Force to try to arrest me. I explain that Raymond is hacking into the personal networks of the SWAT team members in order to access their memories of their orders -- and, if he can, to confuse them, in order to stymie their Goal. Since he's relying on his personal 1337 H4x0r skills in order to do this, we decide that I'm rolling Self-Reliance. This is typical -- it's a matter of interpretation which Praxis defines an action. Like much in this game, the players need to talk it out and reach a consensus before rolling.
After goals are declared, we've each got a certain number of dice we get to roll. Out of that number, we each choose how many are going towards achieving our own roll, and how many are going towards hindering the opponent's goal. You can think of it as dividing your dice between "attack" and "defense". It can be a tricky decision. I have to decide which is more important to my character -- getting that information, or evading capture.
Meanwhile, A. is neither the protagonist nor antagonist in this conflict. Does that mean she sits around being bored? No! She gets to roll a single die, which she can throw in on either side of the conflict, by introducing a new fact about the setting. If there were more players, they'd each get a single die too. Since A.'s character has no stake in the outcome of my struggle with the SWAT team, she can decide based on what sounds like a more interesting direction for the story to go. She decided that in this setting, SWAT teams have all their members sharing a single powerful network, for rapid coordination of their missions. They're like a mini-hive-mind! She put her die against my goal, since their powerful shared network is very difficult for my character to hack.
The addition of this die resulted in a tie for my goal. Exactly on the number, in Shock, means that we're so evenly matched that the conflict must escalate. My original goal fails, but I get a chance to try for a bigger goal and roll again. There's no way I can access any information about the SWAT team's orders -- so I escalate to attempting to bring down the central server of their network, disabling the whole team!
As it turns out, the result of this conflict was mutual failure. I didn't defeat the SWAT team, but I wasn't captured either. I was able to disorient my enemies just long enough to grab a shotgun and make my escape, vanishing into the woods. And that was the end of my character's first scene.
The dice don't tell you exactly what happened -- they only tell you whose goals succeeded and whose failed. The group has to interpret these results in terms of what goals were declared and what Praxis values were being used. There's quite a bit of flexibility here; it's up to the players to go back and narrate how the conflict played out, turning a dice result into an exciting bit of storytelling. This is not a game system that cares about how fast people are running, how badly they're wounded, whether a gunshot hit or missed, or how much fuel your rocket has left. Those sorts of details are left up to your common sense and how you're imagining the scene. So just like setting creation and character creation, the outcomes of conflicts require the players to put in their own creativity, discuss the situation, and reach a consensus.
It's fair to say that Shock is rules-light enough to be almost free-form role-playing, most of the time. But let's be honest: a lot of veteran role-players of any system do most of their resolution by common sense and GM fiat anyway, only occasionally reaching for the rules and dice. What makes Shock different from free-form (and, in my opinion, much more playable) is that the regular use of conflict dice in each scene help to provide structure, focus, pacing, and unpredictability.
Scenes continue alternating between the protagonists' plot threads until we finally reach a climactic scene for each one. The climactic scene is actually explicitly defined in the rules -- when the antagonist runs out of "credits" (used to buy conflict dice), then it's time for the climactic scene. That's when it's time to play out one last conflict that will decide the fate of the protagonist's story goal.
So you actually decide ahead of time about how long you want your game to run by deciding how many credits the antagonists start with. For our game, we wanted to do a one-shot, so we gave each antagonist 12 starting credits, which resulted in about three scenes per protagonist. That doesn't sound like much, but each scene covered a lot of ground, and it enabled us to finish the game with a satisfying conclusion for each character in a single play session. It took just under four hours from start to finish, including setting and character generation. If we had wanted to do a longer, multi-session game, we could have used the same story goals but more credits, and filled the story out with more intermediate conflicts, more detail, and more subplots before reaching the final conflicts.
This may sound like an odd way to play ( "Pre-deciding when the final scene will happen? What?" ), but I found it quite refreshing. I've played in dozens of campaigns over the years which started with great promise but which ended with a whimper long before the epic plot could come close to a resolution. It's a nice change to be able to say "Let's play a game of Shock with 21 credits" and know that you'll actually be hitting a resolution for those Story Goals after two or three focused gaming sessions.
Let me tell you about how our game ended, because it was extremely cool.
Remember Lawrence, the serial killer? His story was a tense battle of wits between him and the detective Mycroft who was tracking him down. As we got to his final scene, Lawrence realized that his cover had been blown, so he formed a desperate plan: He knew the police would be tracking him by the electronic signature of his personal network, so he went down to the docks, looking for a fall guy. He found a man of his own approximate physical description, snuck up on the guy, bound and gagged him, and swapped rigs with him. The fall guy would be Lawrence for all intents and purposes, and take the punishment in his place.
What Lawrence didn't realize is that the fall guy he picked was in fact Mycroft, the detective, who was down at the docks tracking him. In his haste to escape, he didn't check the identity of the rig he was putting on. And in the final conflict roll, the force of Mycroft's memories in the rig was strong enough to overwhelm Lawrence's personality... and vice versa. Lawrence, now acting as Mycroft, shot the man he thought was Lawrence, and then walked away into the sunset, thinking justice had been served. It was a perfect Twilight Zone kind of ending.
Meanwhile, our copyright-infringing artist had been engaged the whole time in anonymous cyber-warfare, a series of plots and counter-plots and double-crosses involving legions of angry mothers, unscrupulous fans, and the lawyers of the Bandai corporation. There were message-board flame wars and Google-bombing and corporate blackmail and fake pseudonyms and Internet-based pleas for sympathy. G. Fire continued to get more and more ruthless as all of this went on, making the rest of us wonder just how far he would go to protect his right to profit from cartoon smut. Someone pointed out that despite the cyberpunkiness of our setting, everything that was going on in this storyline was stuff that's already happening today. We truly are living in a world that's more cyberpunk than cyberpunk.
In the end, G. Fire threw up his hands and walked away from the whole thing. He gave up on the idea of making money from his artwork, gave up on smut, left the Bandai corporation with their public-relations nightmare, and started a new career under a new name making legitimate, original artwork. A. was the only one of us who failed to achieve her story goals, and yet her character was the only one of us who achieved a happy ending -- or at least personal redemption.
And my character?
I had finally arrived at the physical location of the ARCHoN central processor, in the middle of Kansas, buried underground under a field full of satellite dishes. I went down through the service elevator, evaded the guards by posing as a legitimate sysadmin doing routine maintenance, and logged in directly from the console. I found that the backdoor I had put in all those years ago had long since been disabled, but I was able to log in as a regular maintainer and trick the system into escalating my privileges.
In the final conflict, between me and the ARCHoN system, my declared goal was to reprogram it to re-introduce the element of human judgment to the system. My antagonist's goal was to see me dead.
We both won our rolls...
Under ARCHoN's new programming, in any case where its margin of uncertainty was greater than 0.5, it would select twelve random people by e-mail to form a remote jury-of-peers, and pass judgment only when the jury had reached a unanimous agreement. As soon as the system was reactivated, it immediately tried its first case under the new programming. That case was the case of Raymund Pulaski, on trial for tampering with justice. The remote jury reached a verdict within minutes, and sentenced me to death. A security guard patrolling the building received the APB on his personal network, and responded at once. He executed my character on the spot, before I even got up from the chair in front of the console.
None of us could have predicted any of these endings. There was no script and no pre-ordained ending, neither in an adventure supplement nor in a GM's mind. But the game mechanics, and the combination of each player's choices and ideas, led us all to the perfect dramatic endings for our characters. It was the first time I've ever stood up and applauded my own character's death, let me tell you.
I couldn't be happier with the experience of playing Shock. But an RPG book is not the same thing as a game experience, and presumably you're reading this review to find out whether you should buy the book, right?
The book for Shock is a small, thin, square, paperback. The cover is bright, shocking orange with black text and no illustration. It's an unusual design choice, but certainly attention-grabbing. Make no mistake, this is an indie-press book: small print run, shoestring budget, amateur artwork. You can feel that it's a labor of love.
What's actually inside? The rules, as I said, are quite simple, and take only a few pages to explain, and there's no such thing as a fixed setting, so most of what you'd find in typical RPG rulebook simply has no reason to be in Shock. Much of the book is taken up with a complete story called "Who Art In Heaven". Taken from an actual game session, this is a story about a race of creatures called "vacuumorphs" -- engineered to survive in the vacuum of space, controlled by an artificial religion, and used by humans as slave labor for orbital construction. The main body of each page gives a fictionalized, in-character account of the story, while the sidebar details what the players at the table are saying, the rules being used, the dice being rolled, and so on. It's a very helpful example as well as an intriguing story in its own right. The rest of the Shock book is suggestions: Where to come up with ideas for Shocks and Issues, how to play an Antagonist in such a way as to make the game challenging for your Protagonist, examples of play, lists of SF stories that inspired the game and how to turn them into playable settings, and so on.
I have only one reservation about the Shock book, but it's a significant one: I'm concerned that the rules aren't presented clearly enough. I was lucky enough to be taught the game by people who had played it before, so this was not a problem for me, but when I read the book cover-to-cover it made me wonder whether I would have been able to figure out how to play if I had picked up the book cold. Several play procedures which are quite crucial do not seem to be explicitly spelled out in the book -- at least, I couldn't find them when I looked for them. Important information such as the maximum and minimum values that you can use for a character's Praxis value are never mentioned in the book. Additionally, the book says something about protagonists spending credits for more dice, but nothing about how protagonists might get credits -- the rules seem to say that only antagonists have credits. We simply played without the protagonist-credits rule, but I'm still wondering whether it was a typo, a missing rule, an accidental hold-over from an earlier version of the rules, or what.
If you're interested in Shock, I highly recommend getting someone who already knows the game to show you how to play, as that's the ideal way to be introduced. But the game is not yet very well known, so it may be hard to find other players. If you are considering buying the book, teaching yourself how to play, and introducing it to your gaming group, be warned that the book may leave you with some serious questions about the rules. (You may find the glyphpress website helpful -- it has a small section of errata, as well as links to play reports, which are an aid to understanding.)
The presentation is not an insurmountable problem, but it is quite annoying that the book doesn't do a better job with explanation. The rules are not complicated, so there's really no excuse. The actual play experience is pretty amazing once you've got the rules down, and I hate to think that the unclear presentation might prevent people from enjoying it.
Shock is my new favorite role-playing game, personally. But it's not for everyone -- that needs to be stressed. It is a very different type of experience than the RPGs you're probably used to. If you come to it expecting more of the same, you'll be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, you might love it or hate it. In this section I'll try to give you some idea of which category you might fall into.
First, your enjoyment of Shock will depend a lot on how you feel about the whole setting-creation idea. If you're the kind of person who buys RPG books mainly for cool background setting, Shock is probably not the game for you. Again, the book contains no setting, only ideas and rules for creating one. You can easily use Shock to recreate the setting of your favorite SF novel or film, or even to recreate the setting of another game. But I predict that the people who will love Shock the most are the kind of people who are wanna-be SF authors themselves, who keep notebooks filled with half-formed ideas for SF stories and settings. Get a few people like that together and they'll have a field day turning their ideas into exciting, playable scenarios. In fact, wanna-be authors will appreciate Shock for another reason: it's a good resource for learning to write SF as well as play it. The elements that Shock stresses as the basis of exciting gameplay -- protagonist/antagonist, setting scenes, escalating conflicts, and so on -- are also the basis of good storytelling, even if you're writing a book and not a role-playing scenario.
Next, I'll warn you that you might be a little disappointed with Shock if you're looking for deep character immersion in your RPGs. Because players in Shock are co-authors in the story, and not just players of single characters, it requires you to put a little bit of distance between yourself and your character. Sometimes you even want your character to fail. As I think I've shown, an ending where your character dies or fails to get his objective can still be very cool. If you're used to thinking of your character as "yourself" then this might be quite jarring. I can't say whether I prefer co-author style role-playing over deep-character-immersion style role-playing; they're just two different things, and you should know which one you're getting into.
Furthermore, I need to stress that Shock requires a mature group of players who can trust each other. You have to be willing to cooperate and to accept each other's ideas, since it is group consensus and not "GM says so" that ultimately determines everything from the setting you're playing in to the outcome of conflicts. I imagine that the delicate balance of player roles and responsibilities in Shock could be easily destroyed if there was a "problem player" in the group -- someone who is unwilling to compromise, who is unwilling to contribute ideas, who is disrespectful of others' ideas, or who is trying to "win" the game. This is especially true since there is no GM to act as referee for the group. Use Shock with caution if you have any doubts about your group's social dynamics.
Above all, the fun you get out of Shock depends entirely on how much imagination you and your friends put into it. Don't buy Shock expecting a ready-to-eat meal. What you're buying is a set of cooking utensils and kitchen appliances. It's up to you not only to do the cooking, but also to provide the ingredients. The procedures of gameplay are just a set of tools. They will help you blend your ideas with those of your friends, add pacing, structure, and excitement, and create a satisfying story out of the mixture. But all the raw materials -- the issues, shocks, characters, praxis, conflicts, antagonists, and so on -- they all have to come from the players' imaginations. This is not a game for people who want to sit back and be entertained, nor for those who want to follow a GM's story and see where it leads. It's for people who want to be active story co-creators. It's a challenge. It's mentally draining. Cooking is work! Some days you'd rather not cook, you'd rather go to a restaurant and consume something prepared for you. But the advantage of a well-stocked kitchen over a restaurant meal is that you can cook something different with it every day for the rest of your life. I feel like I could play Shock every weekend for ten years, going through hundreds of different settings, without ever getting bored or repeating myself. In this way, this one thin little orange book can provide more depth and variety of gaming than an entire bookshelf of expensive, glossy, hardcover supplements.
My closing thought is this: because a game of Shock is built around real-world issues that you care about, your game is going to be a little deeper than just entertainment -- it's going to be a story that's about something. It's going to have some intellectual heft to it. It's going to get you thinking. For this reason, I think that playing Shock can actually be therapeutic: when you're feeling confused about some topic in the news, if you can't decide how you feel about some pressing social issue, if you see a new invention and wonder what it might mean, you can play a Shock game about it. Role-playing it out might help you and your friends work through your thoughts and explore possible consequences. In Shock, I think we might finally have an RPG that does what the best written SF does -- help us learn to cope with the rapid social and technological changes occurring in the modern world.