Archive for July, 2009


What a brighter future, or not

July 24, 2009

Whether we intend to or not, we absorb the stories we consume.

I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously “meaning” them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn’t mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try.

So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don’t know how that maps onto the question of “political correctness.” However, the point is not that you’re misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that’s how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are “defined” by an abstract supposedly essential element called “race,” whatever else you were doing or intended. And that’s not an innocent thing to do.

Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men’s strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women’s sexuality in our very real world.

These things are not reducible to our “intent”—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that’s how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

Even the stories that are different, don’t get to be:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to effect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago.

Unless it’s someone else’s ideas of what’s “good enough for you”– a new type of separate but equal logic:

The imprint’s website touts itself as “Bringing you the future in minority literature today!”.

Are black people deemed so stupid that it doesn’t matter if the books they read have mistakes? It doesn’t matter if they make sense? It doesn’t matter that they get something good?

Are black stories so inconsequential except for the part where writing about the hood, and drugs and sex and violence and child neglect and child abuse, makes the publishers money?

Or, maybe it’s “too good for the likes of you” and therefore must really be about white people:

Over the course of this protest, I really have underestimated how insular a LOT of Americans are, especially when you get into towns that don’t have a lot of multiculturalism, like. It’s just plain ignorance.

For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements – EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them….a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IRL.

These conversations keep happening, not because we’re a magical herd of non-existent unicorns, or a “new demographic”, but we’ve been underserved and underheard:

…a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.

Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

And people act as if these discussions are out of the blue, when we’re even trying to be nice and do them person to person:

The conversation went on in this vein for a little longer, all the while certain parties not appreciating my suggestions. I think I especially riled someone when I asked if Realms had a monthly boob quota sheet in the office somewhere. But honestly, I wonder.

I overheard Warren and Doug talking about the issue together a little while later and got the impression that Warren felt I had a valid point and Doug felt that I initiated the conversation just to annoy him. Nevermind that I didn’t initiate the conversation with him; I went to the person with the power to decide stuff.

And for getting too “uppity”, we get to face the classic dehumanizing punishments, even if people come up with new ways to say the words they so clearly mean:

Now, leaving aside the fact that he’s gotten a whole lot of stuff wrong here — like Tempest’s name, the point of the conversation, the fact that someone else entirely did the mock-up cover, the fact that he wasn’t even mentioned in the convo, much less called a sexist (this time) —


For those of you who don’t know, this was the name of a Nineties-era “gangsta” rap group called Niggaz With Attitudes, which made a fuckton of money bringing good old-fashioned hood values to the generation of middle-class white boys who bought their crap. I digress.



Harlan discovered Octavia Butler (he had a black friend! dead now tho), so he gets to call another black woman a nigger.

Ya rly.


This year began with white sci-fi and fantasy authors showing their asses. Repeatedly. It’s not just what you say, it’s also how you treat people when they respond. Who you take into consideration vs. who you call “orcs”, “nithings”*, “sockpuppets”, “NWA” (because clearly people of color don’t read books and form coherent sentences…). It’s a history of whitewashing movies, tv shows and stories. It’s that for the generations that Earthsea books have been bestselling classics, you still can’t get a brown person on tv or even in cartoons.

It’s the fact that I started with a quote from China Mieville and half the folks who disagree would still be on his jock, and yet fail to see the connection.

Come on people. You say you’re intelligent, bright, and creative.

Just imagine that you’re walking around in a world full of people and those people deserve respect as fellow human beings. And that we don’t need magic or new technology to get there, but we have what we need right in our hands, right now.

It’s almost fantastic, isn’t it?

ETA: And here’s a great post full of links from a woman of color who self publishes.

* And then be afraid of violent retaliation, when in fact, the history of the word Nithing demands violent retaliation as the expected response?

“If the accused did not retort by violent attack, either right on the spot or by demanding holmgang, yielding either the challenging accuser to take his words back or the accuser’s death, he was hence proven to be a weak and cowardly nithing by not retorting accordingly.”


Tabletop through Interwebs

July 21, 2009

After getting back into Skype gaming, I’m noticing some things really interesting and specific to the medium.

One program please

First off, we’re juggling between Skype, a PDF of the rules, a dice roller, emails, web pages, etc.

I imagine that whatever publishers figure out a unified program that handles all the group needs in juggling information- they’ll do great.

It’s not just having these functions, it’s having them in a way that makes information management easy- sort of like how you can have a menu system- or you can have a Final Fantasy menu system- the latter is often a great design in making complicated information navigation a joy to swim through..

The Quicker Picker Upper

Skype gaming isn’t just what you do because your friends live in other states, it is what you do because you don’t have time for 4-6 hour face to face game sessions. This means that games aimed at doing the online thing need to look at minimum setup- trying to get on the same page creatively at the beginning is tougher than getting started and finding momentum and creativity IN play.

Likewise, pacing for a “cycle” of play needs to be shorter as well. Probably an hour-long cycle would make the most sense, allowing people to extend to 2 or 3 cycles if they want to continue play.

Imagine the people you’re imagining imaginary people with

For some reason, Skype gaming feels more taxing than playing face to face. I noticed this the couple of times I did Skype games a few years back, but I chalked it up to work and stress and didn’t really think about why I felt tired.

Now, though, I figure there’s probably something taxing to the brain by asking it to visualize the people you’re playing with AND imagine the fiction simultaneously in real time. (There’s also been some recent research that verbal processing takes some processing power away from the visual cortex, which is why cell phones are extra bad for driving…)

I never found this to be the case with IRC/chat gaming, even though it moves 5x as slow for me. But then again, I’m asking my brain to translate written language- an abstract, which is not the same thing as my brain trying to deal with a voice, intonations, pacing, and, monkey brain that it is, seeking to read facial cues.

Do you see what I see?

That said, games which provide common visual cues will probably do better than games which don’t. Games with heavy visual cues (D&D for example), allow players to spend less mental power visualizing and more on creative action and interaction through the game.

I’d be real interested in finding out what tricks specific to playing voice chat rpgs online work best, though I imagine short of some kind of sub-movement sprouting up, we’re not going to see it anytime soon.


Designing Spaces for Design Discussions

July 18, 2009

Looks like it’s time for the annual indie rpg “Tough Love vs. Friendly Space” debate again, in which the usual dodges and circles are drawn.

You know, because naturally the purposes of a fun space to geek out AND a space for hard criticism must always overlap and never be separated, just like how we always put fan conventions and writer’s workshops together, right? Oh wait, we don’t.

Designing for Design Discussions

The issue for design spaces is that it’s about filtering for quality of feedback.

With the roleplaying hobby specifically, we’ve got two big problems – rpgs are pretty time intensive, which makes cycles of playtesting bigger commitments, and second, that many gamers have been indoctrinated to spew truisms or “one-wayism” in their gaming- making for poor feedback. (“Your game doesn’t have a GM!?! No wai it canz work! LOLZ!”)

(There is a third issue that many folks don’t use, and don’t believe that rules actually work. Though it’s usually tangled in with the truism issue above. It’s not hard to see that you’re not going to get good design feedback from people who effectively believe intentional rule design is an impossibility.)

What we’ve seen happen over the last few years is most of the folks who used to post and participate at the Forge have switched over to doing their serious design talks offline or privately. And sure enough, that’s an easy way to filter for quality- find people you know who have good feedback, and talk to them personally- no problems with random internet strangers jumping in and derailing the conversation.

The unfortunate part is, having those public conversations does do a service to the greater community- it not only shows ways of thinking about games and design, but more importantly it shows the manners in which those discussions have to happen for useful feedback to occur. But getting that to happen takes a lot of work, since, effectively you’re now forced to filter a good deal of the internet.

Social Contract

You’ll want to have a social contract- in what manner is discussion acceptable and not acceptable? When there is a conflict, what is the way in which it is prevented from taking over the discussion? When someone comes to the discussion with poor intentions, what are the means of correction and what is the response?

How do we talk about hard criticism? Which is more important – putting it nicely or putting it clearly?

Required Knowledge

What do people need to know to meaningfully participate in the conversation? Is there anything pointing them where they can learn it for themselves?

People used to give me drama about having a list of 4 games for people to go play before talking about roleplaying games here. Ironically, if you wanted to talk about say, classic boardgame design, no one would have a problem if you were expected to at least be familiar with Chess, Backgammon, and Go, for instance (“You can’t have a game where the pieces move differently based on the type of piece! It can’t work!”)

In the same sense, painters are expected to know some classic artists, music critics are supposed to know certain performers/bands, sci-fi writers should have read a few names, etc. in order to give meaningful feedback to others.

Without information and context, it’s pretty much impossible to give useful feedback, despite one’s best intentions.

And anyone who is opposed to even beginning the process of getting more information, doesn’t have good intentions to begin with- either they’re assuming that their voice matters more, regardless of being informed or uninformed (whoa privilege) or else they’re assuming you don’t have good intentions in setting the bar – and if that’s the assumption coming in, what kind of conversation do you think you’re going to have?

Focusing Discussions

Good design discussion comes from depth, not breadth. And, depth is achieved through focusing and avoiding derailing twists. Having a stable set of rules that push people to staying on topic and going deeper with it, is where you get depth. (Filtering out for ill intention and going over 101’s is necessary to even -get- to here).

Specific to rpgs, there’s two things that have to come into play constantly for useful discussion. You need to know what -generally- happens from a given design, and you need to be able to ask what -could- happen to reach for new places.

This is the most useful aspect to public discussions is that you will encounter people who share your experiences AND people who have completely foreign experiences. Both of these give you context and ways of thinking about gaming and design which are necessary in the big picture, as well as spark ideas for things you didn’t think were possible for roleplaying games overall.

Having the social contract in place to let people make statements or questions and get useful dialogue from that- not just arguing (see 99.9% of the internet), that’s the crucial bit.


The people who -do- give valuable input? How do you keep them around? For new folks, it’s the educational quality of what has been learned, but the old hands? It’s about pushing the envelope of what is understood.

I’d say most of the Forge exodus came out of that- the depth digging decreased and the basic education of new folks or, having to filter out problems as listed above took over. So people decided to go to private self-filtered discussions.

So, if you’re looking to start the new design locus? Set your goals very clearly, figure out the controls and prepare for a LOT of work. The internet demands much filtering, gamers are more opinionated than informed, and everyone wants something for free, and expects anything you’re offering to be everything to everybody.


Emperor’s Heart: Rethinking some things

July 17, 2009

Looking at Project Vanguard and Danger Patrol made me realize two things I need to implement with the next draft.

First, nailing down more details- gamers will hack/reskin anything any which way if they’re inspired, you don’t need to leave it blank for them to do it.

Second, conflict resolution right now is… barely functional. It does the job of encouraging people to use resources, and gives a back-and-forth pacing, but it doesn’t contribute anything to the process itself. I’m going to apply more thought and work towards both what happens when you draw on traits, how that affects the Outlaw Faction or local community you’re pulling from, and also what happens in the resolution with each sub-roll.

All of this will have to wait until after the Summit, but I’m excited.


Speak Freedoms

July 15, 2009

APIA Summit

In completely non-game related news, the 5th APIA Spoken Word Summit is coming up in 2 weeks.

I attended the first one in Seattle in 2001 which was a life changing event for me. It wasn’t just folks working through the struggles of pulling out the internalized ‘ism’s that hit us along the way, it was also seeing folks like me, at my age, from around the country finding their voices- a sense of not being alone in it.

While it’s true that this culture loves to feed alienation, it’s a very different story between the usual adolescent alienation vs. actually being othered to the point of being assumed to being alien (The perpetual foreigner). It’s a major reason I expect more from mass media- perpetuating hate for profit is only a different kind of crack being slung.

Spoken word, like hiphop, like writing, like roleplaying, is about finding and creating your own stories, and finding your own voice.

And for some of us, that’s the only way we’ll hear any voices like our own.