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Dan Maruschak
Tabletop roleplaying game and game design enthusiast.
Tabletop roleplaying game and game design enthusiast.

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Examples of tabletop RPG topics I am interested in

Occasionally people accuse me of talking only about what I don't like rather than what I do like. While I am curmudgeonly by nature, there are topics that interest me that I post about. Here are some examples:

An empirical approach to RPG design and development: By far, my most popular blog post is “Some Rules for Developing and Playtesting Tabletop RPGs”, where I tried to distill some wisdom that I gained from the playtesting I did for my playtesting-based AP podcast as well as my career in the microprocessor industry where my specialization was finding bugs in microprocessor designs.

Game Design is Applied Psychology: I believe we should be able to learn things from psychology research in fields like Social Psychology and Behavioral Economics and apply them to game design. Here is a blog post where I highlight a paper about a psychology framework and group of related experiments and suggest that it has useful things to say about several RPG topics, such as “immersion”.

I tend to engage with stuff I care about by digging into it, not with blind enthusiasm: When I discuss issues I have with something it's usually because I care about it or want to help it to be even better, not because I'm a “hater”. But here's an example of me highlighting several positive and negative elements of a thing I care about, an in-depth review of the Mouse Guard RPG

Having a functional online design community for RPGs: I think there's a lot of bad conventional wisdom in the ether about how to become a successful RPG designer or publisher. Rather than chasing the dragon of finding an enthusiastic audience first, I think a wiser course is to figure out how to make good games and build on a strong foundation. However, this is hard to do without a community of supportive peers. A while back I created a “ReForged” G+ Community in an attempt to foster more mutualism and a “get things finished” approach to game design.

My own stuff: I have several games in various states of completion.

Four Panels: This small game is done and posted for free. It's not exactly an RPG, but some of the ideas that are cooked into the design illustrate some points of RPG Theory.

Final Hour of a Storied Age: My game about the Epic Fantasy literary genre is in open beta playtesting.

Getting There in Time: My “Doctor Who with the serial numbers filed off” game is currently stuck in development. I think there are some good design ideas in the game, as well as crystallizing what I think is great about the classic era of Doctor Who and where the modern incarnation occasionally goes off the rails, but there are also some game design issues that I haven't solved yet.

It feels like allergy season hit hard today. I hadn't been noticing many problems, but my walk to the grocery store today was accompanied by intensely itchy eyes and a very runny nose. I assume I have this to look forward to for the next several weeks.

Here is the special weather statement that I was alerted to when I checked the weather forecast this morning (emphasis added):


While I'm sure it's well-intentioned, the out-of-nowhere nature of this concern and the implicit deadpan delivery make this announcement seem very amusing to me.

Given my current financial/employment situation I've been thinking a lot about work and jobs and money lately. I'm not sure how many of my ideas are self-serving or projections of my own narrow experience, but there are some issues I've been pondering.

I think the "work ethic" is a thing. It really seems to me that in my own life my periods of flourishing have been situations where I felt I was able to accomplish meaningful work, and periods of depression or other negative states were periods where I felt like I wasn't able to accomplish things. In our society we tend to think of "work" and "jobs" interchangeably, but it's my impression that there are a lot of elements to the notion of "jobs" that are somewhat disconnected from "work". Jobs are are all about long-term commitments, they're social relationships. Work is something different.

The conventional picture of a job is that we exchange work for money. But I'm not sure that's true, at least in contemporary white collar America. It seems to me that the "meaningfulness" that people can get from work may be subconsciously treated as a resource that bosses control access to -- both explicitly in terms of what tasks people are assigned to, and implicitly in terms of determining what is valued (the most basic management advice is to set concrete, measurable, achievable goals, and yet given free rein most people will micromanage and leave themselves plenty of fudge factors so they can maintain a sense of control).

The job system also creates a lot of "arms race" style interactions. If we look at the "interview" system, every job seeker follows a lot of the same advice about how to seem more attractive than other job seekers, the net effect of which is that there's a lot of noise in the system and very little signal, yet it's very expensive both in terms of time and money. We think we need managers with "people skills", but many of these skills are employed in eking out relative advantage over others within the same organization (e.g. getting more resources for your department) rather than increasing the overall amount accomplished or reducing the overall effort required.

Some of this is almost certainly motivated by an amount of bitterness and cynicism on my part. But it also seems to me that the systems aren't working right and the world would be a better place if they were.

On the last episode of Supergirl they had a powerful media figure, due to Democratic party loyalty, casually agree to cover up a story that would have revealed their sitting president isn't eligible* to hold her office. This show makes some... interesting choices when it comes to politics.

* assuming their alternate-universe United States has the same natural-born citizen clause we do

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I read a psychology paper, ‘To the Victor Go the Spoils’: Infants Expect Resources to Align with Dominance Structures by Enright, Gweon, and Sommerville. The paper's a bit dry, but the experiment and the finding is kind of interesting -- they showed 17-month-olds a video with a couple of scenes in which puppets are in conflict and one gives way to the other, and then have some LEGO blocks distributed between the puppets. The 17-month-olds find it more surprising (measured by how long they look at something) when the two puppets are given equal resources than when the "dominant" puppet gets more. They have the videos posted at the link below, they have a weird quality that I find kind of amusing.

(Also, fans of tabletop RPGs will be forgiven if they think this description of one of the videos from the paper is actually an elaborate metaphor for RPGnet: Both puppets simultaneously approached and tried to take a seat in the more attractive purple chair (Figure 1b). After bumping into the chair three times trying to compete for the attractive chair, the puppet playing the submissive role backed away from the purple chair, and bowed down. The puppet playing the dominant role then sat on the purple chair. After the dominant puppet was seated in the purple chair, the submissive puppet got up and sat on the brown stool.)

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The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.

While state-sponsored official censorship like the type discussed in the article is obviously a much bigger deal than any silly geek culture controversies, this type of "voluntary compliance" and acknowledgement of a power structure that accompanies official censorship is also what some people seek to enforce via informal methods.

Synthesizing eastern and western philosophy: If you meet the Buddha on a footbridge, push him in front of a runaway trolley.

I watched the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who, the one with the emoji robots. This show is so aggravating -- they take a perfectly fine sci-fi premise that even has some thematic cultural relevance (projecting fake happiness on social media), but do absolutely nothing with it, and kind of bumble around acting like the premise of the episode is still a mystery even though the Doctor essentially explained what was wrong early in the episode.

I'm starting to think that maybe copyright law needs something like the Klingon Empire's leadership rules, where if you sense that the steward of a media property is doing a bad job with it you're morally obligated to challenge them and take their place.

Fueled by the idea of political games in game design contests, short games, self-indulgently designed games, gimmicky games, and a bunch of news stories about the new book about Hillary Clinton's campaign, I present a new musical politics game (look away now if you don't like to mix politics and gaming, or if you think dumb micro-games are terrible):

The Competent Technocrat Song

This is a musical game about politics for two players. One player plays Hillary Clinton [*], hoping to overcome 36 crucial decision-points on her quest to be elected president in 2016. The other is the Scorekeeper. The Scorekeeper's job is to chronicle the events of the campaign and keep track of how well Hillary is doing.

For each decision-point, the Scorekeeper will describe some general background about what's going on. It could be an interview the candidate gives, a scandal that pops up, a world-event that the candidate must comment on, things like that. The Hillary player then describes how she'd like to handle the situation and what outcome she hopes for. In order to determine how well she does, use the song mechanic:

In order to succeed at a crisis point, the Hillary player must sing a song to the tune of “Modern Major General”, of which the first line is “I am the very model of a liberal-leaning technocrat.” Subsequent lines must be ad-libbed by the Hillary player. Hillary must sing as many lines as the current crisis number, i.e. one line for the first crisis, two lines for the second crisis, etc. The Scorekeeper determines how well the song has been sung. If the newly added line is insufficiently rhyme-y, it doesn't count. If the timing is off it doesn't count. If the line is substantially similar to one that failed before, it doesn't count. If the line substantially repeats an already established line it doesn't count. If a line doesn't match a line that was successfully established earlier (keep notes to keep track of the song) it doesn't count. The Hillary player may not take notes, and since a newly ad-libbed line won't count if the rhyming or timing is off she may need to ad lib multiple lines in later rounds of the game.

If Hillary succeeds at singing as many lines as the current crisis number things go pretty much how she hoped, the Scorekeeper will describe that, embellishing a bit by adding details. If she fails the Scorekeeper will describe that, making sure to add details to vividly convey the results of the gaffe, mistake, bad luck, or whatever else caused the failure.

The first event, which requires singing only “I am the very model of a liberal-leaning technocrat”, is qualifying for the primary ballot in all 50 states. The final event is election night vote against Donald Trump. The Scorekeeper should use their own creativity to come up with the other 34. Do it sequentially rather than planning ahead, just keep in mind that things need to build up to election night on crisis 36.

[* If the player is uncomfortable portraying Hillary Clinton, they may choose to play as a man named Jonathan Gordon instead.]

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