Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

Looking for people who want to brainstorm on some RPG rules
Looking for a small group for some brainstorming on RPG rules. Expecting it to be FATE. Ping me if you are interested in being part of a small email group.

A long while ago, I started working on a science fiction game centering on founding a colony on an alien world. I expected gameplay to be a mix of survival, exploration, mystery-solving, building, and political/factional disputes. Potentially, designing gameplay around long-term planning and adventures allowing for seasons and years to go by.

Like unfortunately many of my game ideas, it stalled when I hit a point where the energy I was getting out of working on it was less than the energy I was putting into it. Meaning, I got bored and did other things. ;)

Since I've identified "doin' more creative things" as something I could or should be doing to be happier, started brainstorming again this week with a goal of getting this project back into my head enough to actually finish it. I've actually been thinking about it since December, but this week I finally started typing some notes and going back into "development" mode.

The basic structure I put together could work for a one-shot, but probably works better long-term as a campaign. As a one-shot, I suspect it would tend a bit toward survival and a more dramatic plot. The earlier game development I did was really around letting the players answer questions to build out the game world. I mean, the game could literally be a colonial expedition, or it could be more of a crash landing, like the Lost TV show. So who are the players? What sort of ship did they come on? What world did they land on? My goal was to present a more focused questionnaire rather than leaving it completely open ended. I think that structure generally works still.

Without trying to put the whole brainstorming document in this post, where I'm at now is trying to write some mechanics together. Some parts of the game/story could theoretically be done just with aspects and a lot of improvisation, but I think that having more mechanical weight will help focus the game just a bit more. What I've been brainstorming about is having resources that the players need or want to find access to. Food, water, that sort of thing. You have to spend these resources to actually keep the colony alive. Another resource/tracker would be morale - are people happy or despondent?

Mechanically, I want something that's just formal enough to focus roleplaying, without feeling like a boardgame. But a lot of my inspiration right now is coming from "survival + story" boardgames like Robinson Crusoe and Dead of Winter. In those games, at the end of a turn, you need to spend food and/or other resources. If you don't have food to eat, you take wounds and possibly die. So a big chunk of the boardgame is scrambling to get enough resources each turn (and maybe the payoff is when there's not enough resources for everyone, and you start having rivalries turn ugly).

This might be getting off the original idea, but there's an En Garde game I was playing for a bit (and may rejoin soon). The idea of turning some of this into a play-by-email game could be interesting. One thing about En Garde is that it is almost entirely character focused. The fortunes of the British Empire aren't really at stake in En Garde, just the rank and success of the characters. If I turned this into a PBEM structure, the character actions would be a little more formal than a standard RPG setup, but I'd also want the fortunes of the colony itself to matter. You are improving your character and also building the colony. (FWIW, the idea of a large En Garde game mixed with the structure of Dead of Winter has a BIG appeal -- random events to introduce crises would mix up the game play some).

I have a pretty long list of inspirational games, and I've started putting together some of the concepts, but want to brainstorm on how to make the mechanics work well. It may be that at the end of the day I move away from FATE entirely, I'm not sure yet.

Anyway, some games worth noting:

Robinson Crusoe: Boardgame. Resource gathering with periodic need to spend them to survive. "Choose your own adventure" event cards.

Dead of Winter: Boardgame. Resource gathering with periodic need to spend them to survive. "Choose your adventure" cards, crisis that the colony needs to survive each turn, factions and private victory conditions.

Perseverance: RPG. Interesting structure of action scenes followed by interpersonal downtime. Creating a crisis/event deck at the table based on the theme, then moving through the deck to unfold the story.

Ars Magica: RPG. Seasonal and troupe play. Settlement as a character. Different kinds of settlements (so evolution of the settlement over time, even if you start somewhere other than the beginning).

Wrath of the Autarch: RPG. Seasonal and troupe play. Settlement as a character. Structured adventure/conflict resolution. Mission-oriented game structure. Adversary as PC.

En Garde: Personal character development. Turn-based structure.

Dresden Files Accelerated: Mantles as a way to focus character play. Lightweight character rules. Resource pools as a way to feed stunts.

Apocalypse World and MANY variants: Playbooks to make game setup easier.

Masks (technically an Apocalypse World variant): Built-in story goal or payoff for a character. Significantly changing who a character is as a result of gameplay.
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I'll try to keep this one short, as my brain isn't really up for a lot of writing.

Coriolis is yet another kickstarter game I backed. I've been reading the near-final draft as they are about to go to print. I love the world building they've done in this game, and the mechanics seem reasonably playable on a casual read. So, this one goes into my pile of games I'd recommend to friends to look at.

How to describe the setting? I've got a few analogies I can make.
* This is Firefly, but with middle-eastern flavor rather than mixing in the Chinese elements.
* This is like the old RPG Fading Suns, but with more of a middle eastern flair (and a LOT more interesting world building).
* This is science fiction with heavy influences in Cyberpunk, Dune, and 1001 Arabian Nights, and maybe even a little Ian Banks.

They've got an interesting backstory in the game that mixes religion, technology, djinn, magic, and enough dark elements and politics to make it interesting. And they keep the flavor throughout the world and the game elements. So, think uplifting Arabian Nights to a science fiction setting, with starships, AI, cybernetics, biosculpting, religion, and more -- you are starting to get there. And the dark between the stars, it is always looking for people and things to prey upon.

Production values on this game look to be stellar. The core rulebook is almost 400 pages, full color, with beautiful artwork that really inspires and sells the setting. I'm still looking at a PDF, but I expect the physical book to be pretty damn nice looking. Lots of example adventures and setting pieces were unlocked as part of the kickstarter, so the main rulebook not only has the big picture descriptions of history, world, factions, culture, and technology of the 3rd Horizon, there are also many write-ups of little watering holes and more personal/roleplaying settings.

(I'm reading a draft, so there are typos, but I expect those will be cleaned up).

I think the way the setting views technology works a little better than Fading Suns, which was very disjoined in how technology was treated. It was never really clear where certain technologies were at and whether the common person even understood technology. Was it science fiction, science fantasy, or more like a post-apocalyptic world where only a few have technology. Here, technology is a bit more prevalent, with a better sense of how older technologies and folk lore can live side-by-side with more advanced technology. Tech is split into primitive (which I'd say is 21st century technology plus 'rural folklore'), original tech (basically: spaceships, computers, etc), advanced tech (antimatter, smarter AIs!), and then faction-specific technologies. The latter lets them add esoteric space aliens with really weird tech and also weird tech unique to specific groups. This sort of reminds me of Dune, with the different groups having near-monopolies on certain kinds of tech.

I'm not up for rereading and regurgitating a comprehensive look at the rules. But a few tidbits I liked:
-- Basic mechanic is you roll some number of d6s, looking for sixes. One six is a success, more than one gets you a better success. Nicely, they put a small probability chart in for people to estimate their chances of getting at least one six. Modifiers increase or decrease the number of dice you roll. A few opportunities to reroll dice. And that's mostly it, so pretty simple to teach.
-- You have a lot of control over making the character you want, but one or two elements are randomly chosen. Mainly, which Icon (deity) is likely to meddle in your life. The default for the setting is that people are religious and a little superstitious, and there are both mechanical and setting things to encourage this amongst PCs. (e.g. if you know you are going into a particular situation, you might make prayers to an Icon favorable to that activity, and get a small bonus. Since you get to choose one per session, and use its bonus potentially multiple times, this is a good perk.)
-- As with some other games (Fate, Cortex Plus, 7th Sea 2nd), there's an economy between the players and GM. Players generate darkness points, and GMs use them to advance story elements or force botches/problems to occur. Examples: Players can pray to an Icon to reroll some dice, or when using magical powers, both of which generate darkness points. But then some setting actions, like passing through a jump gate or spending a long time out in the deep dark can automatically generate some darkness points. There are dark powers out there, and going into their domain gives them power. For every good thing, there's something evil out there. (And you never go through a Portal while conscious -- there are dark things between the stars...)
-- When you start a group, the players pick what kind of team they want (explorers, mercenaries, merchants, etc) so there's an immediate shared theme. It comes with a little mechanical weight: you get to pick a shared ability that you have in common as a team stunt. There's a specific list of team abilities. The concept of a team stunt would move very well over into FATE. They also have suggestions for the kinds of characters that might appear in a particular kind of theme, which feels great for both ensuring roles are filled and helping beginners get started.
-- The starship rules are quite interesting reading, with a very modular way of building ships, and also doing a good job of expressing ships at different scales, from small fighters to massive build freighters (a la Dune navigator ships). In combat, players have specific combat roles and a somewhat fixed order of events for combat: captain's orders, maneuver, electronic warfare, weapons. It really isn't designed for a large-scale battle...better for small numbers on each side. Potentially a lot of rolling for the GM. Anyway, between good rules for ship building and combat, and good flavor throughout, I like it a lot better than most of the takes I've seen on FATE vehicle construction and combat. It still feels closer to roleplaying than engineering work. (So, not GURPS Vehicles.)

I'm not sure what I plan to do with Coriolis. I'm pleased I chose to back it, as it looks like a great game. I put it near the top of the stack of games I want to play or do something with. With the right group of players invested in the middle eastern flavor, I think it would be a really interesting game to play, enough that I'm gonna try to encourage a few people to look at it. Some of the world building makes me want to go back to a world I briefly ran a game around a few years ago and restart it, with more work put into fleshing out the world.

So I started reading the draft rules for an RPG I backed on Kickstarter, Perseverant. Loved the concept, and I like what I see in the rules. Looks good as a standalone game, but also has ideas that can be borrowed for other RPGs.

Basic concept: Survival roleplaying. You might be stranded in space, traveling through a desert, or some other 'wilderness'. Whether you are working together or against each other, you are working through a series of scenes to reflect the journey.

Play is structured into challenge scenes and social scenes. Challenge scenes are the action scenes where you deal with problems, like falling through thin ice, being attacked by wolves, or maybe having your camp set on fire. Social scenes are played in the aftermath where you interact with the other players, for good or ill. The two kinds of scenes play off each other, with challenge scenes generally reducing your character's resources and social scenes recharging them. (Optional rules also give the group as a whole one-time uses of other resources.)

I can see similarities with some other systems, but the combination of these characteristics looks great. Here's a short summary of some of the ideas in the game.

* You create relationships to two other characters as part of character generation. They don't have to be positive relationships. So the group has some shared backstory.
* Characters are defined using other traits: history/backstory, method (how you act), cause (what you belief in), and fear (what you are afraid of). These are described narratively and in play you are looking for situations where you can justify their usage. I think you are supposed to have one of each, but the draft rules aren't clear here. Both relationships and traits remind me a lot of Fate Aspects, but also the attributes in PDQ / Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies.

* A challenge scene requires the party to generate successes (the total is a random number that's greater than the number of players and goes up to twice the number of players). Reminds me of D&D4e challenges, or coop boardgames like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter where you collectively have to generate successes.
* Each person gets one opportunity to narrate how they help resolve the challenge. For each trait or relationship they can justify, they roll a die. 50 - 50 chances to roll a success or failure for each die. Each success contributes one to the challenge, each failure exhausts a trait (to be justified narratively, doesn't have to be one used in the challenge). Exhausted traits can't be used for future challenges. Someone who is out of usable traits dies or gets separated from the party. I like the idea here of temporarily reducing what a character can do; and using these same resources reminds me of PDQ.
* Instead of acting directly in the challenge, you can give up your turn help or hinder someone which case you can pick some of their dice and reroll them. Slightly different effects to you depending on which you decide.
* If you fail to get any successes, you receive a personal setback, which blocks a character trait until it is resolved at some other time. Narratively feels a lot like a FATE consequence. If the group fails to resolve a challenge, there's a group consequence as the challenge failure is narrated, and everyone gets a setback.

* After a challenge, everyone gets to frame one social scene if they want. You frame conflict scenes to recharge one of your own cards or camaraderie to recharge some group of other people's cards. (On paper, always better to cooperate, but this is a roleplaying game.)

* There are rules for directly engaging in PVP with other characters. Conflicts always generate new relationships between the participants and otherwise give you an opportunity to narrate a change in the status quo, which could include a setback for someone.)
* You can betray the group! Gets you lots of successes or restores all your exhausted traits, but the person you betrayed gets a setback. You can also sacrifice yourself to automatically beat a challenge.
* Generally, death is a narrative choice. You can't kill someone's character without permission, and even if you sacrifice yourself, it doesn't necessarily mean you died. You might be separated from the group and reappear later (with penalties).

It feels like the designers have a good sense of narrative; I haven't read the gamemastering/facilitator section deeply, but the gist of it seems to be to have players justify decisions narratively, and to support the story. Players have some veto rights on things.

I'm putting this into my pile of "mini games" that I'd like to try to run as one-shots: Noirlandia, Questlandia, Fiasco, Microscope, Kingdom, Perseverant.

Napoleonic Warfare and gaming
Haven't made a big post in a while so here's an attempt to pull some notes together.

I'm spending a lot of time right now working through Chandler's Campaigns of Napoleon, which has both detailed stories of Napoleon's campaigns as well as a good general discussion of how Napoleon fought. It is all quite interesting, but what I keep thinking is how difficult it would be to actually design a good game that encompasses all of these ideas.

Trying to summarize a large and meaty subject is difficult, and is going to lack some detail, but here goes.

- His armies were organized into divisions that were essentially self-contained armies, with cavalry, infantry, and artillery. This meant that a detached force could actually survive in the field for an extended period of time without support. Chandler states pretty clearly that these forces could defend themselves for an extended period of time from much larger forces.

- Napoleon's armies would advance strategically across a very wide front, sometimes hundreds of kilometers across, throwing out skirmishers and light cavalry in large numbers to find the enemy and prevent the enemy from finding his own forces. With such a wide front, his objectives were often obscured from the enemy.

- As they got closer to the actual objective, they'd start to converge on a smaller front. (He typically had done a huge amount of research about opponents, terrain, and troops, so he often had a very clear idea of where he wanted to fight opponents, but he also did so much research that he could quickly change plans and pick alternative locations.)

- When his scouts found the enemy forces, he wanted to force a decisive battle, and he would quick march his troops to get them into position. He was the master of the force march, disrupting enemies by moving faster than they expected. If the enemy's forces were separated into multiple armies, he wanted to move quicker than the enemy to concentrate forces to destroy each army one at a time before the other army could intervene.

- His preferred battlefield strategy was to flank. He would use a division to pin the enemy in a particular location, forcing them to fight it. Ideally, the would draw enemy reserves. He would throw out scouts to keep the enemy in the dark while he moved forces around on a flank. Then, when the forces were in position and the enemy reserves in play, they would trigger a prearranged signal (such as a particular artillery barrage). His main and flanking forces would charge in swiftly with a shock assault, breaking the enemy, disrupting their morale, and then he'd roll up the lines.

I've identified some of the interesting game problems, without necessarily coming up with better solutions for how to game them.

- Imperfect knowledge: Ye olde fog of war. You might know for certain what's going on near you, but you doesn't really know what's going on 30 or 100 miles away. At best you can send scouts out to try to find the enemy or deny him from finding your army.

- Data lag: This is the second and more significant part of fog of war. Even when you send your scouts out, or a flanking force out, the information you get from those scouts doesn't get to you instantly. They have to send messengers to get information back to you. So, as a battlefield commander you are getting messages sent at different times from different people and have to make sense of it all.

- Morale: It takes effort to motivate men and get them into position. If you surprise men, their morale takes a hit. If you are an inspiring leader, your men can force march harder and faster than the other guy, deal with lack of food and other supplies.

- People do not move like automated machines in perfect straight lines on perfect terrain. They don't move at the same speed without real effort. They stumble. They have to go around small obstacles. You have to periodically redress your lines. Even learning to march (again) was one of the major innovations of the 18th century. This one is primarily a complaint about real-time computer games. And I've spoken a little before about wanting to do a real-time game where units actually have momentum; where a charge actually drives their lines back.

Morale and movement are two points why I think a division could hold out against superior forces for an extended period of time. It takes time to marshal troops to fight them, and if they've got artillery, you probably can't charge into artillery even with superior forces. I suspect good terrain was likely part of their survivability as well. I would love to find a more detailed explanation of their survivability against difficult odds.

Anyway, in a lot of board games and computer games, these concepts don't exist or exist in very simple forms. You generally know where your opponents are or find out as soon as combat gets executed. Units move at a fixed speed. Morale and supply are sometimes implemented as separate concepts but not always well.

Worth mentioning some of the ways they have been implemented, although this isn't a complete list.

* Fog of war: using blocks or counters or some other unit marker to denote some sort of enemy force, without telling you what's in it. So you can see your opponent's units moving around, but until you probe it or fight it, you don't know what it actually is.

* Morale is factored into some of the more interesting real-time games, such as Warhammer: Dawn of War. Weapons in that game did both morale damage and health damage, so you could obliterate a unit or break its morale and make it flee.

* A lot of Napoleonic board games combine health and morale and fighting ability, meaning that you aren't necessarily killing every soldier, you break enough of them that they fight at a reduced level, retreat, or flee (which may simply remove them from the map).

* Supply was one of my favorite parts of Conquest: Frontier Wars, which was a space game. Your units needed to bring supply ships with them or periodically return to bases to resupply. A ship out of supplies was incredibly vulnerable.

* My Borodino boardgame does a few interesting things: you get supply points to reinforce units (which is also necessary to keep your army leaders supplied and able to give orders). It uses blocks to hide unit names or strengths until you get into combat, so you can try to confuse an enemy with deceptive attacks. And last, it has interesting terrain rules that limit how many forces can move from one sector to another in a single turn, and how many units can occupy a single sector, which gives you time to see attacks massing, and also makes it more difficult to completely overrun a position in a short period of time.

* I worry that in most games, dividing your forces doesn't work because it is too easy to defeat each unit individually. Sometimes because that's the "real time strategy" model -- commands are given and acted on instantly, and units don't need time to muster, to organize, and to march.

As far as minis games go, one of my thoughts is that minis games are often fought on too tactical a scale. Line up the two lines and fight, see who breaks first. You don't have enough scale to move scouting units, and even if you do, you rarely have enough of a double-blind game going to hide such movements from the enemy. I'm wondering how to step up one level and also include more of the grand tactics. Blucher has at least one set of rules that cover both minis and larger scale movement, so that's a possible avenue to pursue for ideas. Blucher ALSO does a nice job of letting uncommitted forces move quickly into position.

I wonder if at the end of the day, I'm looking for too much in a single game or simulation. Wanting to both simulate the large scale pieces, and the smaller scale battles. To have great strategic movements of armies, then the smaller grand tactical movements, and finally charging up that damn hill.

One idea I've had would be to treat expeditionary forces as "story events", similar to King of Dragon Pass and a few other such games. Meaning, when you send a force off to perform some task, you don't get to see those troops and micromanage them. Instead, you get periodic messages from your subordinates based on what they found. And then you have to send orders back. It would require a little bit of an engine to figure how how to write the messages and give orders, but it could be interesting. It also gives an opportunity for the game engine to delay or stop a message from being received. Even more, the commander might have to choose which messages to read and respond to first. I'm thinking forward to something like Waterloo.

When it comes right down to it, I think the pieces I'm thinking about the most are:
- Present a limited view of the battlefield so that the commander cannot see every unit under their command or try to micromanage every single unit. They are forced to interact with subordinates.
- Units have morale and movement that feels a little more "organic".
- As much as possible, double blind.

Language Learning
So, I’m nearing 5 years into my “hobby” of studying the Russian language. I would say I’ve acquired a fairly good familiarity with the language. There’s still too much to learn, but for the primary goal of making myself understood I’m mostly successful. For someone who isn’t immersed in the language because of living there, I feel I’ve done quite well.

A couple of people asked me “how I study languages” recently, so I thought I’d try to summarize some of the tips and techniques, lessons learned, things I’m hoping to do in the future, and just where I would start and what resources I would look at. I suspect that if I was going to study a third language, I could do so a bit more economically. I mean that both literally for money but also for time spent.

I’ll start with some of the hard problems of studying a language, then go into some thoughts into what sort of progress I made in Russian, and then talk about various resources that might be helpful. Dates are very approximated.

Here’s what I think the major problems with getting started with language learning are:
1. Memorization of new vocabulary.
2. Learning the sound system - this is one of the few places where biology actively gets in our way; we will never be able to hear the sounds as well as a native speaker, so there’s only so much we can do to correct our mistakes.
3. For some languages, learning the writing system takes time.
4. Getting used to the grammar; playing with the language. (Meaning: Actually being able to use the language to say something interesting)
5. Getting the confidence to use the language when you aren’t any good at it yet.

I think any “system” you create for yourself needs to tackle these things. So…

1. Learn memorization techniques
2. Find ways to immerse yourself in the sound system
3. Learn the native writing system
4. Practice using the language in dialogue with real people.

Now, what’s interesting to me is where my breakpoints were, meaning when did I make big leaps in progress.

At 2 months: Knew some words, but nothing that was really useful to start conversation
At 3 months: Realized that Rosetta Stone wasn’t teaching me enough *useful vocabulary* right at the outset. Things you need all the time, like “I don’t understand.” Made a focused attempt to fill these critical pieces in first.
At 6 months: I could start having very simple conversations. Could get through 30-45 seconds of conversation at Friday night waltz; enough to say that I am studying Russian, who I am, where I work, and would you like to dance? Practicing scripted conversations helpful.
At 9 months: First trip to Kiev. With 6 weeks of intensive study prior to the trip, I was getting a lot more versatile with the grammar and written language. I felt like I cratered here, except with friends. HOWEVER, this first trip was probably my single biggest leap in my listening skills.\
At 1.5 years: Starting to be able to work with the language enough to make friends laugh.
At 3 years: Vocabulary reasonably fleshed out, but still big holes and places where I forget things. Started getting more systematic about how I memorize new words and concepts.
At 4 years: Second major trip to Russia and Ukraine. Starting to do a better job of recognizing dialectic differences. Found myself reading and reacting a lot more to signs and stuff. Unfamiliar signs were mostly comprehensible to me; I could infer meetings of specific words.
At 5 years: Much better ability to remember some of the relationship rules in the grammar, and infer meanings of roots and stems. More systematic about looking for a stem in the dictionary to uncover related words at the outset. Learn word clusters and not words. Can generally make myself understood, but to listen and understand requires the native speaker be reasonable to me.

Okay, with that in mind, some very quick thoughts about different things that are helpful when studying a language. Books, software, web pages. Going to try to keep these relatively generic.

Rosetta Stone
A good starting point but expensive. Their audio and visuals are good and they force you into the language right away. Grammar is a problem because you have to infer everything yourself. Learning useful vocabulary early on is a problem. Not enough dialogues until later on. Not enough spaced repetition.

A Good Introductory Book
I think you need to find a good introductory book for the language you are learning. Sometimes it helps to get a good systematic grounding in the language. Ideally, one that uses scripted conversations and written essays.

A Good Grammar Book
Similarly, having a good reference book for the language’s grammar is indispensable when you need to really figure out how something is supposed to work.

Fluent Forever
A don’t agree with everything in this book, but it is a great starting point, particularly for someone with a more “science/computer” mindset.
This page is absolutely critical for finding audio files of words you are learning. You need to hear the words in the native language.
Google image search is very useful for finding images you can use to illustrate a word.
Good web page for exchanging messages with native speakers, and getting them to correct your essays.

A very nerdy flash card program; I say nerdy because it basically doesn’t hide very much of the database or visualization from you; if you are coder, you can really see how to customize things for yourself.

Travel Planet guide for your language / region
Small, focused book on the language, with useful phrases and dialogues.

Dictionary app on mobile device

Phrasebook app on mobile device.

So that’s kind of my focused starting list. I’d be willing to replace Rosetta Stone with something more affordable. I would look for something that has a lot of conversations, rather than just boring sentences. Assimil or Glossika sell reasonably good packages. Michel Thomas method has some nice conversations and asks the reader to form a lot of sentences (good) but also exposes you to too many non-native speakers torturing the language. Teach Yourself Russian had a lot of good conversations in their audio files. I probably have a dozen books and different sets of recording for Russian. Hard to say whether one company is consistently better than another.

And now some random notes, any of which probably can be expanded into a full post.

Memorization techniques:
* All memory is association; the more associations, the less likely you lose it.
* Associate the written word, the audio of the word, a picture for the word, and as many personal memorizes as you can. Practice it in different sentences.
* Spaced repetition: Use software or some other technique to periodically test yourself with the language.
* Testing yourself can’t just be passive recognition. You need to make sure you can actively remember and use the word. This is where conversations come in handy.

Getting a basic vocabulary
* One of the hardest parts, because for the most part it involves a ton of bulk memorization. You need 2000-3000 words.
* Have to find a way to make it fun.

Listen and repeat
* Listen to recordings from a native speaker and do your best to repeat it with the same intonation and speed. Repeat multiple times. Find similar sounding words so that you learn to distinguish the sounds of the language.
* If you listen to something, can you write it down with proper spelling.
* If you hear something, can you get close enough to the correct spelling to find it in a dictionary. (If yes, then you are probably getting better at recognizing the sounds).
* Speak out loud often, even when reading.

Playing With Language
* Make up your own dialogues, especially if you’ve got specific conversations you expect to have
* Take a sentence and try to say it in a different way
* Take a sentence and use the same structure, but for a different concept (e.g. I’m walking home, I’m walking to school, I’m walking to work). Note the differences in grammar when they occur.
* Where necessary, use cards or something else to test usage and grammar.
* You have to make this practice as active as possible. You can’t memorize grammar rules and expect to use them at speed. Our brains are actually wired so that grammar slowly gets assimilated into automatic processes. So you have to put in the time, don’t assume you are smart!

Word Morphology
* Learn how your language changes words to adapt them to other parts of speech. For example, adding prefixes or suffixes. Try to learn any patterns that are consistent in the language. (e.g. farm -> farmer, bank -> banker, program -> programmer).
* Instead of learning words, look for word clusters, with a common meaning but in different parts of speech. "I know this noun, I wonder if there's an adjective for it". Ideally, put together enough example sentences that you can see when and how you use each form of the word is used. (Some languages, like english, don't morph words as often as they simply rearrange sentences).

* Find native speakers, explain to them your goal, try to practice.
* Figure out the hard parts of the language (where it differs most from what you already know) and practice those concepts.

Speaking like a native
* Get away from the text book and figure out how people speak the language.
* Listen to how they play with language. (e.g. in english we verb nouns all of the time; in Russian, they make new endings).

* Sometimes useful to get some formal instruction, especially when you find yourself at an impasse.
* Have clear goals of what you want out of the tutoring.
* I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard good things about recording online tutoring sessions and reviewing them afterwards.

Movies, books
* YouTube is a good source for both language tutorial videos and small bite sized chunks in the language.
* Look for kids books but beware “childish” language.
* Look for books that take an existing story but simplify it down to a smaller and more manageable vocabulary. (Usually pitched at language learners).

* If you are serious about the language, put in a couple of weeks in a place where it is spoken natively.

2016 Resolutions
Before I even talk about the new year, it is worth acknowledging that 2015 was a good "growth" year for me.

* I addressed some of the physical pain and restrictions on my legs that were blocking me from enjoying dance and other activities. I'm stronger and more fit than any time in the last 10 years, even accounting for the injury to my foot.
* I've become a better listener, and more conscious of my flaws. And better at being more open.
* I started to be more serious about making changes to my life, talking or writing about some of the things that bother me, and trying to correct them.
* I had good experiences, interesting travel opportunities, made new friends, and rekindled some lost friendships.
* I was able to work on my self-image...including a pretty cool photoshoot.

I”m still working out the “implementation details” for what I want to do in 2016 — ways to make them measurable and actionable — but for the next year, I have two semi contradictory goals:
* Really put hard work into the things that are holding me back.
* Learn to relax and learn to enjoy life as it is. I am at my worst when I am sad, angry, or frustrated, so I should stop doing things that make me sad, angry, or frustrated.

In the first category, I’m focusing on deeper “fundamentals”, because I think that addressing them makes everything more solvable.

* I want to get better at organizing things in my life and keeping track of things I’ve learned, so that I can tackle all of life’s projects more effectively.
* I want to continue to improve my physical health: eat better, exercise more consistently, get back to dancing, and dedicate regular time to stretching and flexibility.
* I want to keep improving my interpersonal skills. Be a better listener. Be more understanding and empathetic of others. Be clearer about my emotions, what I feel and what I want, but in a way that promotes better relationships. Find ways to succeed without being a bull in a china shop. Be a better friend. Make more friends.
* I want to give myself 15-30 minutes a day to just rest. Mindfulness meditation is part of it, but I’ve decided if I’m going to do that, I also need to have a way to record the thoughts that come up in the process, so that I can look for ways to close those “open loops”.
* I need to find at least one good project that inspires my creativity. It might be something artistic (like drawing), it might be creating some new fictional worlds, it might be a programming project to freshen up my skills. Hell, it might be more than one project so that I do all of these things. But I want to commit to at least one good project and to reserving some time to be creative.
* I want to do more thinking about my values and goals, and how they impact my life. I want to live those values more consciously.
* When I’m sore or hurt (physically or emotionally), I need to find constructive ways to address those things. I fall back onto bad habits when I’m feeling down.

That’s already a lot, and I’m probably going to have to break these up into smaller tasks and approach them slowly.

The second category is more fuzzy. The closest thing I have to a mission statement is “Find many ways to be happy and stay happy (…but not at the expense of others.)”

I feel that I am a considerate person, so the appended clause may not make a lot of sense. Let me unpack a little -- this came out of a conversation with a friend not too long ago. Her point to me was that I need to be more selfish, that I’ve occasionally let people take advantage of my good nature. I got pedantic and searched for a better word, because the encyclopedia definition for selfish doesn’t fit what I’m looking for:

“(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”

That’s not the person I want to be. The word I come back to is assertiveness (from How to be an Adult). Being clear about who I am and what I want. Taking responsibility for caring for myself and not letting others divert me from my core values or hurt me willfully. I don’t want to be selfish and uncaring about others, but I need to focus on taking care of myself first, and being willing to walk away or assert myself when someone isn’t respecting my boundaries.

A lot of what I’ve tried to do is to make my life more fulfilling: to be happier, to seek out relationships and friendships, to have joy in my life. I've tried to look for a lasting relationship, and thought I'd found some good opportunities, but I've not really been successful here. I intend to look again this year. I’m talking with the person who helped me with my wardrobe and photoshoot, and hopefully that will lead to more opportunities to meet local women that I might find interesting.

What I’m trying not to do (and unless I’m deluding myself I think I’m doing okay) is to be so focused on outcome. Meaning, that I should just enjoy the process of living and not have a checkbox that says “find a girlfriend” or “find a wife”. No, those aren't in my task management system. :) But I concede, that's been a thought in my head. I’ve tried too hard and put myself out too much, so I’ve ended up hurting myself. That needs to stop.

Ultimately, thinking about relationships is why I choose to use “assertiveness” and not “selfishness”. I’m not looking for pleasure at the expense of others — I’m not a player. But I am going to put more effort into my own happiness and keeping my own integrity. Finding ways to show who I am, but really expecting the other person to show me that they are worthy of being in my life.

Stepping back and addressing things more generally, I think there’s a powerful idea in having focused and measurable goals for skills and development, but being very open about future outcomes. Being willing to change a plan or goal if circumstances change. Not being a sail flapping in the wind when the winds change, but being willing to actually look and choose something that will make me happier.

For example, right now, I’m already working to save vacation days for a Europe trip during the summer. And maybe a different Europe trip in spring. I've got 3 weeks to allocate between the two. I probably need one week in spring just to survive my crazy job. At first glance, two weeks is not enough to see all the friends I want to see, do all the sightseeing I want to do, and dance at a week-long festival. So, I’m committing to saving the two weeks, but not necessarily committing to dance. And if other changes happen, either of these trips can become something different. I’m not holding on too tightly to specific plans or outcomes. I’m leaving things open, and I’ll change my mind when I need to, in order to get an outcome I'm really happy with.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words vomited out onto the page, and I know when I write all of these things down, it always sounds worse than it actually is. Clearly I'm always miserable, and thinking too much. Yeah yeah, I’m a perfectionist, and I haven’t found a way to change that. So I'm channeling it into fixing the things that wear at my happiness. :) But I’ve got a good job, good health, and I'm more than able to explore new possibilities, visit interesting places, meet cool people, and find more ways to being joy into my life. I'm at a good starting point. Instead of looking for a scientist's perfect answer, I'll look for the engineer's pragmatic answer: happy enough, without causing any disasters. :)

Books that inspire me
I haven't posted here in a while, and I like the idea of occasionally posting longer entries on Livejournal.

As we get closer to the start of a new year, and my thoughts turn to "resolutions", I thought it might be a good idea to review some books that have helped me acquire a healthier mindset. These are books that I come back to. I'd love to reread them all with pencil and paper in hand because I think they provide a lot of overlap into being a better person.

If I had to summarize what I was looking for when compiling this list, it would be:

* inspiring me to find my talents and develop them
* behavioral fundamentals (building blocks for healthy and productive behavior)
* creating a better sense of self
* learning critical interpersonal and relationship skills
* helping me to live a more compassionate and happy life.

The Talent Code - Coyle
The Little Book of Talent - Coyle

Honorable mention goes to Talent is Overrated and Outliers for paving the way on "talent", but I really prefer these two books because they go into more depth. Essentially, all of these books on talent changed my attitude towards life from "I'm terrible at XXX skills" to "...but if I'm willing to practice them, I can improve." What I like about Daniel Coyle's two books is how they distill practical information about inspiring yourself and others. The first of his books is more like journalism, while the second book is a pragmatic list of things to do.

The Power of Habit - Duhigg
The Willpower Instinct - McGonigal

These two books are great building blocks to removing bad habits and creating better ones.

The Willpower Instinct can be a depressing book (in that it shows you all the ways you will fail!) but I think it is really helpful. It has some interesting overlap with concepts in the various mental health books, in that having a strong sense of self is really an important part of building strong willpower. Meaning you know your personal values and are unlikely to compromise them.

The Power of Habit was mentioned in The Talent Code, and it takes some ideas there to a deeper level.

Getting Things Done - Allen
How to organize and prioritize all the things in your life, without having them completely dominate your thoughts. I'm reading the new edition to improve my overall approach towards managing my time and projects. It waxes philosophical in a few places, in that part of prioritizing your choices of things to pursue is fundamentally part of who you are, what your values are, and who you want to be. So, you can treat this as simply practical advise (how to survive the job) or take it much farther.

Self-Esteem, McKay and Fanning
Why Can't You Read My Mind - Bernstein

These are my go-to books for improving my own sense of self and expressing it in relationships. I link them together because both have a similar discussion on negative thought patterns (negative self talk, absolute or extreme positions). The former focuses on yourself, while the latter independently talks about these ideas in the context of relationships. I read the second book shortly after a failed relationship a few years back (that failed because we couldn't find common ground) and found it very helpful to see areas where I could have handled things better.

How to Be an Adult - Richo

I've got about four of his books, but this one is a good (and short) starting place. Yet another "mental health" book; this one gives good practical explanations of healthy behavior and interactions with others. Sometimes I feel the spiritual information and background information is not clear enough to act on, but I come back to these books a lot. In particular, the chapter on assertiveness is something I come back to quite a bit.

The 5 Love Languages - Chapman

This is also a first of a collection of similarly named books. The key concept here (shared with some ideas in How to Be an Adult) is that people react differently to different expressions of love. Knowing how you want love to be expressed and knowing how you want friends, family, and partners expect to receive love helps you build stronger relationships. My recollection is that this book focuses on practical ideas (without cumbersome psychology language.)

Thinking In Systems - Meadows

I found this to be a great book for really understanding how to model problems as systems and to really understand positive and negative feedback loops in the real world (such as taxation). It isn't quite in line with the other books in this collection, but I found it to be a good book for thinking about the world more thoroughly.

Influence - Cialdini

A great book at dissecting the tools that marketers, politicians, and con artists use to influence your decisions. My copy is more than 20 years old, so there might be a better place to look). (

Difficult Conversations - Stone, Patton, Heen
Crucial Conversations - Patterson, Granny, McMillan, Switzler
People Skills - Bolton

These books teach better communication and interpersonal skills. Listening to understand and bringing difficult ideas up in conversation in a way that maintains respect for other participants. Having the right mindset when communicating with others. The first two books focus on "high stakes" situations, either in business or in relationships, where stress and adrenaline make it harder to think and respond well. The third book is a more general look at a wide variety of social skills.

The Mindful Path to Self-compassion - Germer
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - and it's all small stuff - Carlson

These are good books to go to when you need to relax and stop thinking about all the crazy things the other books in this list get you thinking about. ;) Especially if you start perceiving that that you are 'broken'. Relax, love and accept yourself, and live a happy life.

There's one topic that isn't covered in depth by these books - mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Some of them touch on the concepts but don't dig deep into technique. When I find a book I really like, I'll add it here.

Feel free to recommend other books in the comments.

Long vacations are goooooood!
An insights from my trip is that I need to take more long vacations.

This the first vacation in a while where I truly got out of the rat race and was able to rest, relax, and do a little thinking about life without feeling driven to do things. My default state of mind has become what a couple of friends used to call my "v-max mode": get things done, kick down doors, do what it takes, go go go, fight for results. People who have lived with me (and hell, probably worked with me) know that this can be good or bad, depending on whether or not you are in my way or not.... ;) Not always, but it definitely becomes about the GOAL and not the process or being happy about it.

It isn't always great on the inside either. Oh, I like the sense of accomplishment, but I've become less enamored with the mindset it takes. I end up in a mode where I'm thinking 3 steps ahead. What's the next domino to knock down? I'm good at figuring out that these 3 things need to be aligned and if they do, I can knock them all down together. But I don't want to always be in that mindset.

I'd already known that 3-day weekends were a 'waste of time' for me. I almost never use vacation days to take 3-day weekends, except for special circumstances (i.e. friend coming into town, going out of town for a special occasion). Because, when it comes right down to it, I don't get far enough out of work mode to actually rest and enjoy those trips. Usually, I try to never take less than a full week off from work. A week is enough for me to actually rest a little.

The insight for this trip is that "a little" was actually smaller than I thought it was. Ignoring my injury and illness during this trip, what struck me in Moscow was that I was finally out of the mode of needing to do everything and see everything and overthink everything. It isn't that I hit a point where I was unmotivated; what I found was that I hit a point where I didn't feel that I needed to BE motivated to also be relaxed and happy. Oh, I was still thinking about stuff, but with less pressure to achieve "results". I was able to ask the questions "what do I really want or need right now?" without feeling like it must be immediately followed up with an implementation plan and a project review. ;)

I maybe have found a couple of insights there about relationships during that time. I want to write more about this in a future post, but the brief version is here: Yes, I'm still looking to build meaningful relationships and find a life partner (wife, serious girlfriend, pick your terminology). But I think I'm no longer so enamored with the idea that I need this drive to make me miserable and prevent me from building good friendships. I want to focus on building the friendships for a while, and if the right relationship comes along (meaning: mutual interest and agreement) then so be it. What I need to work on is communicating interest/attraction without necessarily necessarily having intent or a purpose-driven mindset behind it. Sometimes I move too fast and push too quickly, and other times I'm not willing to express things at all because I don't want to ruin the moment. Communication is hard. :) Anyway, this is really an aside to the main point of this post, and is mostly just here because I was able to find some insights on this trip. That hey, maybe I'm not feeling DRIVEN right now, and that's a good thing.

Worth noting that part of my process in life is somethings to document my reactions to things or challenges when I'm blocked: many of the posts I made about working in the Russian language during my trip fell into this bucket. When I was making those posts, I didn't really feel anxious or truly negative about them, even when they were documenting areas I was struggling with. Oh, I was frustrated a little during this trip, but I was able to go through all the stages of grief to acceptance. "Okay, I've got more work to do on Russian. So be it. I'll write it down now and figure it all out later."

ANYWAY, I don't know that anyone can ever truly get away from all of the stress and anxiety in their lives, but with a 3 week vacation, I definitely got farther than my 1 week trips have accomplished.

At this point my career, I get four weeks of vacation a year. I've usually been taking a few one-week vacations a year - April and September, almost always, with June being a possibility also. The rest of the days end up banked for future years or used for little side-trips and emergencies.

So I need to make a decision: can I get away with one one-week vacation in spring and fewer diversions in order to take a three-week vacation every year? Can I get the same relaxation out of a two-week vacation? Can I even choose better one-week vacations? I'm not sure what the answer is. :)

Of course, there's another side of this: how can I not dig myself so deep into "getting things done" mode that it takes me three weeks to dig myself out of it? How do I find extra time to regularly detach from the process and just check in to see how I'm doing? I do bite off more than I can accomplish, but some of that is WHO I AM! I'm not sure I know how to NOT do that. Maybe I do need fewer things that require maintenance time - the minimum investment to either stay where I'm at or move things forward.

I guess, when it comes right down to it, is that my goal, if I have one, is to find a way to continue to have my drive to accomplish great things and to try new things in a way that's healthy. I don't want to lose the drive, but I want to be the one in the drivers seat, not the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Those two modes kinda suck.

Our Pathfinder game mostly wrapped up yesterday, with us taking down the big bad. We'll have a final session at some point to decide what happens to each of our characters, but the game part of it is basically done.

I enjoyed Legacy of Fire, warts and all. I really would love to do more with an Arabian Nights-style setting. It worked at its best when Lee took the story/modules and made them his own. It worked at its least when we were mostly slogging through dungeon rooms or having accounting sessions. (A classic from session 1 or 2 was my comment of "In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate, today I will tell you a tale of the day we bought 3 pieces of string, some chalk, two candles, iron rations, ...")

Mostly, I'll wrap up with my quick thought on Pathfinder. I was mostly "Done" with 3.5 games eight or so years ago; having run two big campaigns and having played in many more, I'd pretty much seen or done just about anything interesting with the system mechanically. And its warts had become pretty obvious to me. Pathfinder doesn't really fix or solve anything there. It mostly layers another set of things on top of 3.5, with some minor band aid fixes along the way. Some of that is audience; Pathfinder was really a way to grab all the 3.5 grognards from Hasbro when 4e changed too many things for their tastes.

My list is a lot longer than this, but here are some of the things that get frustrating over time:

* Classes are more mechanically dense. Pathfinder didn't simplify much; it added new powers and new concepts of the characters. It definitely delivers on crunch for crunchy players who like crunchy crunch. I can appreciate that, but I want story also.

* The buffing game. Oh god, the buffing game. Everything is about filling the paper doll of mechanical boosts and then dropping a round or two of spells on top of it. It slows down play, it means that everything should ideally be an ambush, it means calculating and recalculating play stats, and it just doesn't feel 'fun' to me.

* High level fights are super fast. I would say that in the last 5-10 fights of the game, very few combats went more than 2 rounds. The big bad died in less than 3 full rounds; we did something like 500 points of damage to him in that time. Arguably, if he'd ever gotten a full attack action on anyone, they would be dead dead dead, for the same reason.

* Action economy is everything. If you have a way to get more actions, you win. The most effective character at dealing out damage at our table was a druid with companion. With buffs, her and her pet were easily doing 3x the damage of the rest of the party combined. Mostly that's just extra attacks and extra actions being a huge force multiplier on damage boosts. (Power attack + the add-ons, two-handed weapons, being able to stay size huge for the whole adventure).

On the other side of this, the big bad was only getting a normal set of actions per round, and he had no backup. Which meant, at the end of the day, that we took him down with only one person taking any damage. (She had more reach than him.) He needed friends, more actions, reactive effects, global room effects.

* High level spell casting is full of "traps". Oh, there are definitely some really powerful fight-ending spells. I pulled one out on the fight before the big bad, for example. But a large number of the spells sound flavorful but in practice don't scale particularly well or have a weakness that makes them not very useful in practice. Some of them just exist to take the cap off of some higher level spell. It really comes back around to early comments on buffing and fast fights. If I'm lucky to get one or two spells off, every one of them has to be something effective. When fights are going to last 2 rounds, the best thing I can do is cast haste.

* I've ranted about wizards specifically before, but they really ramped up the power level of other classes but left a lot of the limitations of wizards intact. Wizards are in the awkward situation of being the class that needs both TIME and CASH to get class abilities. I still feel the only reason I survived the campaign was generosity from Lee -- I couldn't have ever generated enough defenses to matter otherwise or if I did, that's all I'd be doing. After the half-way point in the game, there was never a session where I was seriously threatened, and very few fights where I took any damage at all. One or two fights where we got hit by an AOE spell effect, but that's about it. OTOH, if he'd put a fire giant or just about anything into melee with me, I'd have been tissue paper.

* There aren't enough reactive effects. For the most part in a fight, I could tune out when it was not my turn. Oh, sometimes I'd be researching my next spell to cast but it wasn't like I had to pay attention to the wall of numbers going by otherwise.

* Wizards (and maybe other casters) still really have no great default action to do when they don't want to cast a spell. Meaning, if I can't land a fireball on multiple monsters or a haste on the party, it drops pretty quickly to magic missile or single-digit staff attacks. In a world where at-will attacks for other PCs are averaging 60-100 per round (more with crits), that's kinda weak. Put another way, casters need to burn resources to be effective but can't do that all of the time.

I'll touch on this again in the next item, but I would love to see skills (like knowledge skills) have more mechanical weight at the table. For the most part in our PF game, the primary use we got out of them was to identify monster's weaknesses. Which is not to say that this was a bad thing, but it was very passive.

* Pathfinder is so mechanically dense that story gets lost under the weight. And, related: many of the character development options - feats and the like - lack story color. Especially for spell casters, where metamagic is really quite dull. I would love to see more feats or skill options that let my wizard be more wizardly. To have story tropes with just enough mechanical weight that they can play out well at the table.

That's probably the big ticket items for me. And I certainly admit that coming to pathfinder after multiple years of 4e certainly colors my experiences. I don't always agree with the way they 'fixed' things in 4e, but I do feel they were trying to solve some of the right problems.
- At will powers that don't suck.
- Fewer buff spells
- Better action economy overall, including reactive powers
- Better action economy for solo villains
- Less number inflation (this one is arguable; the number inflation wasn't there quite so much at the start, but definitely there within the first year).

(I could - and have - ranted about all the things 4e broke while trying to solve these problems, mind you).

This is one of the reasons I want to try 5e some more; it feels like they tried to solve some of the same problems but with cleaner (or at least simpler) solutions than either 3.x or 4.x.

If I had to spell out a "vision" for what I'd like to see, it would be roughly:
* At-will powers from non-casting characters are effective, but not overpowering.
* At-will actions from caster types are less effective.
* Casters have fewer resources to draw on (spells memorized), but those effects are more effective on average.
* Everyone has at least some "give me the spotlight for a minute" effects.
* Everyone is not cookie cutter.
* More story flavor in skill and power usage.

Make it personal
I needed a break tonight from work, Russian, and other things, so I decided to try to expand (or at least write down) some of the ideas that I've been thinking about for roleplaying games. I still think I want to run a new game this fall or next year, assuming I can commit myself to the time required to do it right.

Some of this post is based on the SF stuff I tried to run last year, a game I consider a "success with complications". Meaning I was happy with some things, but I made a few mistakes that QUICKLY wrote me into a corner where it stopped being fun. Extenuating circumstances because of work and all, but I ditched the game because I couldn't be creative enough to make what I was doing work. I'm trying to learn what I can do better next time, both to tell better stories and to make stories that keep me motivated also. This is all under the theme "keep it personal".

The Faceless Opponent
NPCs with whom the players interact can't be complete cyphers, ninjas, zombies, or cardboard cutouts. The players should know some of them by name, and have an emotional connection to some of them, even if that connection is "Oh, he needs to be smited." And I should know the NPCs well enough that I can invest them with personality and character.

Put another way, I'm finding as I play more, that pointless kill or be killed combats in RPGs are just as bad or worse as pointless action sequences in movies. There has to be tension and emotion or I might as well phone it in.

One of the biggest mistakes I made was that I went into the game with an "event/plot" in mind, but left it WAY too open ended, without enough work to tie it to the player characters or to know why the bad guys were doing what they were doing..or even really who they were. Some of that was trying for an improv scenario but not doing any homework at all.

- I set up the situation, but didn't have anything fleshed out.
- I kicked in the door with ninjas too early and turned it into a thriller, rather than going with a slow burn
- I never really established any named characters to interact with.
- In trying to leave the endgame totally open, what I ended up with was a directionless set of action scenes.
- In trying to let people explore FATE, I let a compel or two in that didn't really serve story, and led me down a path where I couldn't reason a good out for the bad guys. So they stopped making sense to me. They were just targets to knock down.
- the lack of good PC-NPC interactive scenes meant that personality and compels weren't really happening often.

Basically, I didn't have a strong enough pillar of support to build stories on. Leaving the story open to what the players are going to do is absolutely important, but trying too hard to keep everything open ended meant never committing to something with enough meat on the bones to sustain the adventure.

So, I don't want to do that next time. :)

Zoom in on the Players

This one is not about mistakes but is more about wanting to go the extra mile. There's a tendency in some situations to zoom away from the personal action and get too abstract. For example, in RPGs, something like space combat always gets a little dicey, because you might blink and suddenly you realize you are playing Star Fleet Battles or Sails of Glory with your roleplaying group. Not good.

I don't think my game went down that route -- this was one of those places where FATE shined really well, and we kept things appropriately cinematic. But there's room for more. I've been digging quite a bit into different FATE books, to see how they handle "different" combat situations, like space combat or ...disasters or even social situations.

I ran an experimental game last year, and I want to explore the idea more: The Disaster Movie. Essentially, I was running dramatic combat, not against monster but against an event. In the example game, a starship malfunction caused a cascade failure in the ship's systems and effectively the ship was seconds or minutes from destroying itself. The players had to race against time to get the three or four major problems under control. Mechanically, (FATE Bronze Rule), the complications were actually stated like characters. So the ship's fire had an attack roll it could use against players or against the ship. While it wasn't intelligent, I was running it like a character, and generally selecting its "attacks" for dramatic effect.

For a first stab at really building a FATE adventure around it, it was a great success, and one I'd love to explore further. Push the characters into a tough situation. Make them work. It doesn't have to be a monster.

I'm intrigued by Fight Fire, which is essentially a fire fighter game in FATE, because that is all about fighting against situations.

Which brings me back to starship combat. Most of the games I've seen for FATE end up using the normal rules, but having the players pick up different roles. So some of the players are usually attacking and the rest are dropping in advantages in play. In practice this works...okay. Potentially great, when the story works. But there are some issues...
- generally the PCs attacks and defenses are grouped (one ship) and maximized (best player in each role).
- the players usually can get a good supply of aspects to tag.
- running an equivalent sized "crew" of NPCs is a huge amount of die rolling of the GM.
- The action is just a little abstracted.

Here's the idea I've been noodling around in my head -- and I've got a couple of games I need to look at to flesh this out more.

- NPCs do not need to be symmetrical to PCs. Meaning, I don't need a giant crew of NPCs to roll against. It is okay to give them higher skills or bonus stunts just to reflect a "big crew", even if those same stunts wouldn't really work for a PC.

More importantly, these characters need to be able to hurt the PC ship enough to create urgency.

- Zoom in on the player: get away from the space map, and back onto the ship. Make drama on the ship important in addition to the fight.

- Put the ship's schematic out on the board, marked with zones and aspects and everything. Make the actions require players to occasionally move around the ship. They aren't just sitting in cushy chairs. This also invites boarding actions and a wide range of problems.

- Take a page from some of the optional toolkit rules, and ditch stress and even maybe some of the consequences for the PC starship. Instead, there's a series of "conditions" to choose from. Like consequences, conditions can be used as fuels for dramatic effects in play. "Engine room fire" is a lot more interesting than "2 stress", and it puts players into situations where personal stress becomes relevant again.

(Fate System Toolkit p. 18 describes this. Think of having the equivalent of 2 mild, 2 moderate, and 2 serious consequences, and no stress, and that's not terribly far off the mark).

To a great extent what I'm striving for is to build drama and narrative. If every round feels too similar in terms of actions, then things get less exciting. I want someone to have to rush off the bridge down to the engine room because the chief engineer is trapped under a pile of debris.

To get away from ships and ship combat, I think one of the things I'm looking for is being able to do dramatic situations that either have no fighting or the fighting is only part of it. A superhero trope that's discussed far more than it is implemented (in gaming) is the scenario where the PCs are averting disasters. Age of Ultron mostly avoided this in that the scenes with them saving civilians are mostly not scenes where they were fighting. Mostly. But somehow, putting NPCs on the map, making the PCs and the GM care about what happens to them, and making their rescue interesting and dramatic...that has potential.

It isn't *directly* related to these ideas, but one of the other ideas percolating in my head is the frontier game. Put the PCs on a colony somewhere. They've got to deal with the problems of a colony, without access to the best resources. So they need to think on their feet but also keep people alive. The potential for drama is heightened when the person you are saving is the only doctor in the colony...or the person who has the codes to the weapon's locker.

And...I think if you are going to ratchet up the tension, you have to be prepared to pay out. Put pressure on the players and keep it there. Maybe Doctor Stevens *will* die. Adventures have to be tough enough that it could happen. The players need to have a chance to lose. In FATE, this means being tough, because PCs have a huge amount of resiliency and ability to pull out all the stops if it comes down to a single critical roll or two.

I have MANY games on my shelves that I'm either looking at or thinking about past experiences with:

This article has a great mental model for ships in FATE, I think. It got me started down some of my thinking and dissatisfaction with the current options for ships in FATE.

More FATE setting books that either have interesting ship rule ideas or disasters.
Fight Fire
Strange Voyages
Aether Sea
Sails Full of Stars

Asteroid - an old board game by GDW, but with roleplaying elements. It sort of zooms in on the personal disaster story and getting off the base.

Battlestations - boardgame where you play a ship's crew, simulating action on the ship. Definitely the game that got me thinking about zooming in on the starship map itself, not just "space". Make players move around the map.

Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactics - board games where you act cooperatively, but also may be at odds with each other (secret factions).

Robinson Crusoe - boardgames where you explore the island as a group and are just scrambling to survive. I liked its event model of bringing up an event and then having it shuffled back into the deck to strike again later. ("I shouldn't have eaten the pig.")

Collectively, these last 3 games are my colony/disaster games, where dramatic things are happening to the PCs and they are forced to make trade offs and decisions.

And others, but that list is already pretty long.

Am I at least going in an interesting direction here? I'm looking for ideas and discussion, but hey, if I ran a game and tried to push these things, would these ideas be interesting to you?


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