Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

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?

Dragon Age Inquisition
So, yeah, I've finally been playing the single-player campaign. I started it last November and never got around to finishing it. A month or two ago, I started playing the multiplayer with a friend of mine and we were quite enjoying it. I took the knowledge I'd learned from the multiplayer and picked a better class to play in single player. And now I'm hooked into the story.

I'll have a few pluses and minuses to list here, but the short review would be: Buy this game, it is probably the best RPG Bioware has done in 5 years. The last time I had this much fun was probably Mass Effect 2.

The pluses:

Great graphics and visual effects: All of the locations get a tremendous amount of atmosphere from the improvements in graphics. I'm on Xbox One, YMMV on other platforms. But it adds to the story telling.

Great storyline: I'm not sure how much the storyline is actually branching in a way that matters, but the appearance of making decisions that matter is actually there on this first play through. Actions and decisions have consequences. You lock some things out with your decisions.

Great characterization: All of the NPCs in your party are interesting, interact with each other more deeply, and have backstories.

Great tie-in to the lore: If you played Dragon Age and Dragon Age II, there are both deep tie-ins to what's happened before in those games and also to the backstory and lore of the setting. There was a point about 12-15 hours in where I wished that Dragon Age Origins was available on Xbox One so I could just slap the disk in and watch the OPENING CREDITS. I did find my old "ultimate" strategy guide with the 100 pages or so of setting lore. I feel like the story is deeply invested in the lore (even if I still skim the codex entries....)

I've found myself digging deeper into stuff that's been published about the setting, and wanting to know more about the world, something I felt during Dragon Age Origins, and totally didn't feel in Dragon Age II.

In particular, I would say they've managed to make the Chantry and religious side of the setting a bit more interesting. I've been RPing most of my character's responses as a devout person, and there's a fulfilling arc to that.

Deep mechanics: Comboing within the game is still a thing, like DA:O. Knowing how to spec your characters makes a huge difference. My core party of 4 is now just a threshing machine of AOE damage.

Great dragons: Every time I discover a high dragon, my heart usually skips a beat, because it is unexpected and dramatic.

Reasonably good AI for party members: Most of the party seems to use their abilities semi-intelligently. I don't have to micromanage a lot of fights.

The negatives:

Slow load times: This is true of almost any Xbox One game. There are so many media files to load, and it never seems to be quick.

Find the pixel: Every major zone in the game has at least four different "hunt the pixel" quest lines. Find the zones, fine the markers to claim, find the crystal shards, find the mosaic tiles. Outside of having a strategy guide, the chance of finding everything is vanishingly small. I still haven't finished a mosaic.

Different mechanics in Multiplayer: While they share some things, there's a lot of differences in how you purchase abilities in single player. Crafting is also very different. In particular, single player appears to force you to "waste" more points on the skill trees to get to the abilities you really are interested in.

(An opposing view: you also get access to MORE abilities in single player, meaning you can, say, make a mage character who has combos that aren't possible in SP).

Opaque mechanics: While in places the mechanics are deep, this game also suffers from the problem many of these games have, in that they throw a bunch of numbers at you without giving you all the numbers or showing you enough information to really assess whether something is an improvement or not.

Sameness to the fights: Outside of major boss fights, I'm just clearing out the trash, in the MMO sense. Most of the time, I don't take any damage now. Ho hum.

A gigantic f-ing world: All of the zones are just gigantic. While this gives the game a great sense of scope, and lets them do interesting zone design, it also means this game is probably twice as long as any of the Mass Effect games, but not with twice the story. More, twice the pixel hunting.

Little need to switch between party members: Once I got my party of 4 where I like it, I've almost never switched. Frankly, it is a pain to find or equip gear on the other 6 or so party members, so I usually just don't bother. It also means that I really have to make a dedicated effort to go back and talk to these characters for backstory.

Big-ass world: Did I mention that this game world is huge? Seriously, I didn't need to hunt for pixels in a world this big.

I figure I will finish this play through, with some minor looking at strategy guides for the locations of mosaic pieces. Then I will dig deep into a strategy walkthrough and decide if I want to play a second character through it this summer.

Napoleonic roleplaying
Duty & Honor and Beat to Quarters are giving me some good roleplaying ideas to go with my Engarde idea.

I bought these games in a bundle but never got a chance to read them. Clearly written by someone who is also a fan of the napoleonic era and related fiction.

Some of the things I like:

Reputations are a big part of the system. How the men feel about you, for example, can have an effect in combat. Reputation isn't static because...

The damage system uses identical mechanics to deal out damage to health, reputation, or to the company/ship's morale, or to the ship or company itself, or even to the character's wealth level. This matches up pretty well with my ideas for using FATE; a key tenant of FATE is that anything can be treated as if it were a character.

It uses cards to resolve conflicts, sometimes using the suit of the card to randomize effects. For example, where cannon fire hits the ship.

Interesting fog of war and combat resolution. For example, you usually plan a battle plan ahead of time. You can change the plan mid battle but at a cost.

Edited to add two more pieces:

The fact that morale plays such a big part of the system feels really important to me. So many roleplaying games gloss over the 'human' factor of morale, but I think there's a lot to be said for it in a game where the players are an important cog in a larger army or ship's company.

The other thing I really liked is that the game's core attributes are very different than most RPGs. There's no strength or dexterity. There's guts, influence, charm, and so on. Similarly, by default, combat skills are identical for PCs. You have to actually take a 'trait' to have notable differences in physical fighting ability. This is a nice way of emphasizing that other attributes -- such as leading men into combat -- are more interesting. Having someone who is notably a good shot is a distinguishing attribute. That matches pretty well with the Sharpe's TV show. All of them were good shots, but only Hagman is the best.

I've seen a couple of other games in the FATE constellation that have done things like this, and I like the concept. A notable example is Dark Star in Fate Codex 1-2. Everyone in the campaign is a crack pilot; so players customize the "how" and "why" using aspects and stunts. In other words, you can't just be a generically "better" pilot; you need to define what things you are better at. I like that focus.

Looking for game suggestions : western fencing in FATE
Okay, I've been noodling on this game idea but it isn't quite coming together. So I'll throw it up here to see if anyone else can see into my blind spots.

Concept: FATE game with a fancy and cinematic fencing system with ways for players to distinguish themselves with specific styles. Think 7th Sea, but with the story and mechanical benefits of FATE. My current inspiration is the martial arts system in Tienxia.

Mechanically, this is mostly straightforward. Stunts and aspects do almost all the heavy lifting. One challenge of working with stunts in FATE is that the more interesting designs of stunts require both creativity and technical knowledge of the game mechanics interact with each other. It is the area that I haven't seen much innovation in our local games. We usually tend to stick to book stunts.

I actually think that the entire system in Tienxia can be re-skinned and it will work just fine. Meaning mechanically similar, but thematically and stylistically western cinematic fencing.

Here's roughly the interesting parts:

1. The chi skill gives you mystical armor at the start of fights that you can use to block damage; it goes away when you use it. Western version : Elan.

2. Based on having stunts in the martial arts, you get a Kung fu rank. When fighting people of a lower rank, they can't gsng up on you and you get a free use of your martial art aspect during the fight against them. This is the grandmaster versus the crowd of mooks.

3. Martial arts in the game are formed by taking two substyles, an element and a form. So: Iron tiger, forest monkey, storm dragon, etc.

Each substyle has 3 stunts inspired by the theme. A grandmaster gets a mastery stunt that is unique to that element-form combination based on the theme of the two parts. So with 6 forms and 6 elements, they created 18 stunts for each subsystem and 36 mastery stunts - 72 total. If you made 36 distinct arts you would end up needing to make 252 stunts....

The naming of the arts is the thing I am having problems re-skinning because I haven't come up with a western sounding combination of parts. I don't know what to name the substyles.

First, two sentences from the rules that work pretty well for building out the parts:
Element substyles are about method and tactical applications of the style.
Body substyles are about execution and physical manifestation of the style.

Here are some of the ideas I have for substyles:



Name of the master...

I am mostly looking for naming suggestions at this point. Ways to put two halves together to make something interesting. Something like "iron dragon" but fitting a western fencing style. It may be that there isn't something like that and I should stop tilting at windmills.

The best idea so far is that it doesn't literally have to be a two word name - I can give it a name that plug it into a sentence: "The art of xxxx is a *approach* style that comes from *nation*." "Xxx is a *approach* style invented by *grandmaster*"

Avoiding online dating scams

This post has been percolating for a week or two, with some debate in my head as to whether I should write it. But I've been snarking about it already on facebook, and maybe getting it out of my head will help. :)

So I've been at least testing the waters of dating sites again, at the very least looking for more practice with "first dates" and the like. The sites I've been picking have both local people and people from other countries. And of course, with my Russian studies, I've always considered the possibility that I might find someone from another country to date or fall in love with. I won't debate whether long distance dating a good idea or not -- I feel like I've had that conversation with a few people and that I have a good handle on the pros, cons, risks and rewards. (From my perspective, in brief, I have an open mind: it is possible to find a good and fulfilling relationship with someone here or someone half-way around the world; I'm not limiting myself any single possibility).

But one of the risks of long-distance relationships and dating sites is dating scams -- that you aren't talking to the person you think you are, just a filthy scammer trying to take your money. That's what I'm going to ramble about today. Mostly, to describe what most of them look like and how to detect and avoid them. Yes, I've studied security thinking, why do you ask?

One of the debates about posting things like this is that it is a potential tool to build a better scam. If someone can get past these guidelines, could they scam me? I suppose it is possible, but honestly, it requires too much work to accomplish. Meaning, I would have to attract an extraordinary scammer.

To date, I've ever been successfully scammed by an online scammer. The scams I've seen someone try to pull on me are all pretty similar. They move quickly (3-5 emails), try for emotional attachment, and then try to get you to send money. Often, they use hardships to gain sympathy. I think like many scams, they prey on weakness. Much of the cure, from my perspective, is to be strong, to know what you need to believe that a relationship is real, and to rarely compromise much on those beliefs.

Briefly, the typical pattern I've seen is:

1. Spammed intro email: "Hi, I'm CUTE_EASTERN_EUROPEAN_GIRL. I think you sound like a wonderful person! Please write to me at EVIL_SCAMMER@some_domain".

2. If you write to them, they send the first letter, almost always a pre-written note. It will almost always come with 3 photos. (Rarely 2 or 4 -- I don't know why this is. I've joked that someone must sell a scammer kit). Often, the photos are model-quality professional photos.

3. You exchange 2-3 emails, each from the girl will sound like she's more and more attracted to you. Each will usually have new photos. Often, the photos will get more racy as time goes by (rarely explicit nudity tho).

Depending on the skills of the scammer, these notes will either be very form-letter like, or they might be half-and-half, meaning they will say a few things in reply to your questions/comments, and then the rest is their existing scam latter. Often, you will notice a big quality difference between the answers to your questions and these other sections. The spontaneous content is of lower quality.

4. You receive an email that effectively is asking for money. For example, "I lost my bag with all my stuff I need for work. Now what will I do?!" or "Your girl is using our translation service and can no longer afford to pay for this service. If you wish to continue to correspond, you can work with us to establish an account for her."

The thing is, this is a VERY quick escalation and ramp up. They aren't trying to keep a mark on the hook for months, they are looking for the score and the brush off.

So, how to defend against this. I've got a few thoughts here.

1. Don't look for online long-distance dating at all. Ignore all introductory emails if they come from another country. Honestly, that's the best defense.

Better to look for personal introductions, friends of friends. Hell, that's usually true for local dating also.

2. Be strong. Don't trust so quickly. Really, do you want to be with someone who is telling you how amazing you are after two emails? Real relationships take time to develop, and I think you need to see deeds, not just words.

You must keep some level of skepticism about anyone that you haven't met in person. If someone seems too good to be true, they probably are not a real person. Hell, even in person, I think people need to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

3. Use google image search on every photo. Probably 3/4 of the scams I've seen use photos of lesser known celebrities or models, so a google search finds the real person fairly quickly.

The more professional ALL her photos are, the more likely it is that this is a scam. Come on, not everyone manages to get perfect lighting in every shot. Most girls will not have professional lingerie shots.

4. Use google search on the email address she's using. There are also web pages specifically devoted to scams and tracking email and IP addresses. The scammers don't usually create burner addresses for each mark.

5. Use google image search on some of the text in the email, usually scammers will reuse some of the same text. Again, the scammers have to be efficient or it isn't worth their while.

6. Ask early to skype or use some other video chat service. This way you can see a real person talking to you. Most scammers will refuse here, saying it is too expensive or they have some other problem to prevent it.

Phone calls are a possible second place, but are still not very good at gauging whether someone is real. And I've seen at least one person that I detected using photos, but was otherwise interested in talking on the phone.

As a VERY distant third, ask for a personal photo or video that shows something specific for you. In other words, something that if they were a real person, they could go take a photo that matches some desire of yours or has a personal message in it. Something that can't be photoshopped.

My experience is that all of these attempts will fail. They lost their phone. The war has damaged the internet so they can't send video. They can't afford to pay the translation service. And so on and so on. It is distantly possible that some of these excuses are legitimate, but all of them? Unlikely.

For what it is worth, skype is not simply a good tool for detecting scammers. I think it is a great tool for establishing real relationships if you are trying for something long distance. We are visual creatures, and crave body language from our partners.

7. Time: I think most of these scammers are trying for short-term rewards, if they can play the whole scam in 2 weeks, it is a win for them. So if you are clear that you need time to build a real relationship, they will probably rush their game, send notes that are off in tone, or just leave.

For example, recently, I had been contacted by someone. I made it clear in my first email that I wanted skype. She said she didn't (internet problems). I said that there are too many scammers, and without something tangible, it would be difficult to build the trust required for a relationship. . I got two messages asking why I didn't trust her (while she of course, trusted me with all her heart), and then the scammer moved on to the "you need to pay for translation services if you want to keep talking to her). I think the last email was the only one where the scammer was back "on script".

8. Avoid deep personal information that can be used against you. Of course, you wouldn't give your social security number to anyone. But avoid other information that can be used against you. For example, don't say you are going on vacation or out of the house or anything like that.

One site I saw had a good set of rules: don't use photos on dating sites that are also used on other social media. In other words, google image search can be used against you, the mark, as well. I don't think I've seen much evidence of this in practice, but it is out there.

At some level of paranoia, use a different phone number or an anonymous email address. Or at least a different email address that you don't mind abandoning. (I use a different email address for friends than I use for dating sites).

9. Ask questions that require answers that are hard to write as boilerplate. I don't have any great examples offhand. Honestly, the best thing I've found to throw them off their game is simply to talk about how difficult trust is and to ask them to show you something real. They can't do it.

Anyway, that's a list of specific things I've considered, but also just reiterating general principles: be skeptical, be honest, be cautious. Give someone a chance to prove themselves to you, and don't accept it when they can't. (There's another lesson here in life, which is how to avoid putting up barriers that are so high that no one can get past them, but that's a different kind of problem, one I'm still calibrating for myself. Trust is like a well-cooked egg, neither too runny or too rubbery).


Grounded reality in horror gaming

Had some morning discussion about horror gaming and FATE (a system I'm poking at quite a bit right now). There's some overlap with my previous post on violence in games.

There's two thoughts I'm working on today.

#1 How to make horror games interesting without making them a gunbunny game or a pure victim game. For me, horror games should permit the players to be heroic in some senses of the word; they can decide to put themselves in harms way or try to stop something terrible from happening. This might be turning the tables on a monster stalking them, for example.

#2 Interesting hacks and gamemastering techniques in FATE to pull off a more 'grounded' approach.

I often find myself ambivalent to horror gaming. It isn't a genre I run exclusively nor one that I hate. I prefer to use horror elements in other games because the unexpected makes those elements more potent. Part of my negativity is that so many of horror games fall into uninspiring subgenres.

Gunbunny gaming is what I call a totally tactical take on horror. There are zombies/cthulhian horrors/vampires, and we need to take them out, preferably with big guns and big explosives. Many early CoC games I played fell into this pattern, because that was an era of gaming where tactical play against an adversarial GM was the norm; you were rewarded for good tactical play, not good roleplaying. We need to investigate A,B, and C, then get the dynamite, then blow up the cultists. We'll lose a character to madness, because apparently seeing anything bad causes insanity. Enough sessions with that pattern, and I needed to move on.

The other extreme generally comes when the players are made powerless against the monsters, often as a reaction to gunbunny games. Dynamite doesn't work. Guns don't work. Nothing works. Keep running. A feeling of powerlessness is critical to psychological horror, but past a certain point at the table, it stops being fun. There needs to be some way to turn the tables on the monsters.

What I want at the table is a mix of elements. The PCs are normal joes, not superheroes. The darkness can be fought, but not on even footing, and there will be consequences. You can't fight what's out there without being changed by it. Going into a situation with overconfidence will get you killed. Swagger is right out.

FATE has a reputation (somewhat deserved) as being a game that goes over the top. Some of this comes from its early incarnation in Spirit of the Century, a pulps setting. But, frankly, a lot of FATE con games also fall into a pattern: the players get beat up along the way (but not very much), there are complications based on who they are, but they make it to the final scene and UNLOAD with all the fate chips they've been hoarding. The big boss(es) wither under incredible damage rolls, because in FATE it is usually better to hit a villain with one big attack than to wear them through stress damage.

The thing is, I think you can ground FATE games without rewriting the core rules. I've seen tons of interesting ideas in FATE Codex and other FATE Core derived games. FATE is pretty flexible, and it so much of how it plays depends on how you use the tools you've been given.

One well-worked example comes from Tianxia, a wuxia game set in fantasy ancient China. The section on martial arts offers a suggestion that simply by changing descriptions and how you define zones on the map, you can either take a grounded approach (martial artists still obey the laws of physics) or a fantasy approach (players can fly from building to building). Mechanically, you use the same tools but for different kinds of scenes.

Here are some thoughts on using FATE to run more "grounded" games. I think these apply well for horror games but could work in almost any setting that you wanted to ground a bit more in reality.

Realistic aspect phrases - An aspect is "always in effect" so it represents something that is true about a character, a situation, or the story. So my first item is simply to police how aspects are named. Allowing "Psychic CIA assassin" as a high concept immediately changes the tone of the game to something more powers based. "Curious Housewife, mother of Two" or "Science Nerd" has a different tone; these are normal people! Maybe in a horror game of identity, enforcing a PC's relationships to the other PCs through aspects ends up important; something enforced during character generation. Ask for aspects related to the kinds of games you want to run. If you want the characters to be in conflict with each other, make sure they have aspects that give them differing goals or approachs.

Character's level of comfort with violence - An explicit reference to my last post: can your character act violently? How does he or she consider violence? If confronted with actual horror, will they freeze up? Again, make it an aspect, and make it clear.

Compels, Consequences, and Concessions - As far as I'm concerned, the three C's and how you apply them during play will set the  tone for a game session. In a horror game, ruthlessly compelling the PCs feels entirely in scope. When the players decide to make a stand against the truly terrible beings, maybe they should have to pay that fate point for the priviledge. Elaborating: In a normal game, often GMs only offer compels that they expect the player to take; if the players are buying off compels often, that's usually considered in a failure. In a horror game, it might be a feature.

Consequences offer the opportunity to add new elements to a person's character. Consequences open up new ways to compel a character; meaning that the PC loses some control of how their character acts and who their character is. "Twisted ankle" means you might be able to keep the character for getting away. "Startled by loud noises" gives you something to hit the character with an appropriate moment.

"Bitten by a zombie" is a fascinating aspect -- the latest FATE Codex goes into a lot of detail about some of the ways this aspect can be compelled, and how to define a zombie setting. I loved the ideas there. "Dracula's latest conquest" could also be an amazing consequence, setting up all sorts of interesting compels at the wrong time. These two aspects and things like them could easily be used to erode trust between the PCs. Keep the PCs from showing a united front!

And finally, concessions. When the heroes concede a fight, make things worse. A lot worse. It is okay to root for the villain. I touch on a few ideas related to this below.

Changing the character's aspects - I still think that the biggest innovation that Dresden Files brought to FATE was an expansion of changing a character's aspects either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often, these are the result of a situation (extreme consequences) or a choice (black magic). Use black magic enough and it starts to color your personality; you are changed by the experience.

I think any game where story is important should also have the characters changing over time. Not simply getting stronger, but getting changed by events. While I'm still not a fan of random insanities (a la Call of Cthulhu), I am 100% on board with trauma changing the characters. Make it hard for them to function. In many ways, this is taking some concepts in consquences and making them more permanent. You have changed who the character is.

Obviously, this works best if the players are on board and being creative in how they change the aspects. But given the situation, you are allowed to say "no, that's not enough, make it worse."

Megastunts - Atomic Robo has some rules for strong stunts and aspects. Make some monsters explicitly immune or resistant to common attacks. One interesting concept is that just because I'm immune to bullets, it just means the bullets can't hurt me. But a gun might let me create a boost long enough to get away. That's totally in line with horror storytelling. You rob certain actions of their power, but you don't eliminate those actions entirely.

It is okay for players to fail - GUMSHOE introduced a mechanic that guarantees success for certain player actions, namely clue-finding actions that would derail a game if they fail. FATE has a milder approach for this, which is the concept of "success at a cost", meaning the players might succeed at a task but they pay for it in stress, consequences, or other problems (you can think of this as similar to a compel). My goto examples here are "you find the clue but the bad guys are alerted", "you find the clue but are attacked", "you find the clue, but it took longer than expected, giving you less time to take advantage of it."

But...just because FATE has success with complications doesn't and shouldn't mean that every action the players take needs to be a success. Rooting for the PCs does not mean that adventures become golden paths of repeated successes. Adventures should allow the players to fail at challenges...and maybe those failures make things a lot worse. When the players get "success at a cost", the cost should have real bite. These aren't the zany antics of slapstick comedy, these costs are real losses or penalties. Perhaps only short-term problems, but still problems. The radio the PCs have to talk to their commander is destroyed. They lose all their food.

An obvious challenge of putting more screws to the players is that they WILL become more defensive and tactical. I'm not 100% certain how you get around that other than perhaps reminding them of who their characters are. When the High School Principle starts organizing troops into a pincer movement, you probably don't have enough setting buy in.

When I first started playing Spirit of the Century, I felt that one of the things it did was open the story to trusting the GM to tell a good story. I might accept a concession to move a story forward, but because I  conceeded I get a little control over how happens. Most of the control is in the GM's hands. Getting players to accept capture or loss is often hard, but concessions reward this mechanically AND can also make for good genre-appropriate stories. But it definitely requires trust in the GM to pull those sorts of compels and concesssions off.

Tihe more bite you give concessions, the harder it will be to get players to accept those sorts of concessions. I think part of the answer is that the alternative (being taken out) is always on the table also. Being taken out doesn't mean the PC has to die, but it does mean the player doesn't get any say into what happens to them. With concessions, they still have a little power to adjust things in a way that they might be able to take advantage of down the line.

But, fundamentally, I think if you are going to run a horror game and try to work in some of these thumbscrews, you need buy-in from the players and everyone needs to trust each other at the table. The experience isn't a purely tactical one; if you want that, there are about 100 zombie boardgames on the market. The goal is for the GM to torture the players (and put them into situations where they can't all agree about what to do). But the players also need to enjoy the game.

While I think the detail I've added above is helpful, I think the basic concepts can be summarized succinctly:

* Decide on the tone you want for your game and the kind of scenes and stories you want to see.

* Make sure that what you are doing is still fun. Get buy in from the players where necessary.

* Police the game elements (aspects, stunts, map zones) to make sure they fit this tone.

* Be cruel and ruthless. FATE has plenty of thumbscrews to tighten. Don't be afraid to use these thumbscrews to set the tone, advance the villain's agenda, and to damage player characters. A victory with no lasting consequences is no victory at all!


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