A collection of rambling posts about gaming, running, and politics. (and, in 2009, photography.)

Sunday, July 30, 2006


We gathered earlier today, Jason, Krissi, Michael, Maddie and myself.

Maddie actually was not in much condition to play, as the previous evening had been an exciting night for her, so she was not very involved with the game.

We opened the game with the character's having been captured by a large litter of ratkin in the Ruined City of Thet. The party was disarmed and taken before Lucas, the Litter Boss. He was both the biggest, and apparently the smartest of the litter. The group was told that they would be provided to the large pack of cannibals in the ruins, which the ratkin offered to try to keep the cannibal menace at bay. The party talked Lucas into considering an offer that they would go solve the cannibal problem. Lucas let them enjoy the "guest quarters" overnight, and in the morning he decided to release them to remove the cannibals.

The ratkin told them that the cannibals seemed to gather around a large ruined temple in the center of the city. They set off for the structure, and surveyed it from a distance. They saw a few dozen cannibals moving around in the ruined temple, and its surroundings. Also they saw Valadon, the wizard they'd run into last session, enter the area and ride right into the temple, keeping the cannibals at bay with some kind of magic. Valadon left, and the party decided to go in. Violet, Krissi's character, hopped out of their hiding hole, into a shallow stream that ran from the temple ruins, and ran right into a small group of cannibals. Violet made fairly short work of them, and the group moved up along the filthy stream toward the temple. Reaching the edges of the ruined structure, they formulated a plan of attack. Reek kept watch downstream (with Maddie mostly out of the game) and Violet kept point. Their goal, on reaching the temple proper was to have Violet provide a distraction and run interference while Kragar and Sedu infiltrated the temple itself. Right away they ran into a group of eight of the cannibals, whom Violet ran into the midst of, in order to allow Sedu and Kragar to pass into the temple. While Violet kept the group of cannibals busy, Sedu and Kragar crept into the temple. They skirted the main hall, keeping to the ruins of the antechambers and such in order to move around closer to the apparent source of the filthy stream which appeared to bubble up from a fissure in the stone floor. Meanwhile, Violet was having a tough time keeping the cannibals busy, and in fact had to Bring Down the Pain, thanks to a failed roll while fighting the cannibals. The fight was still tough, and she was quite bloodied, but managed to defeat the cannibals with her martial mastery. In fact shortly after this, she upped her Spearfighting to Master. While Violet fought cannibals outside of the temple, Sedu and Kragar snuck through the ruined structure. It was tough going, at one point, Kragar getting wedged into a collapsed doorway. Still, the two of them made it around to the outlet of the stream, and quickly took out the two cannibals who were there at the source. The crept out toward the fissure, but Sedu was less than quiet, and managed to attract the notice of a few of the cannibals in the temple. They rushed toward him, but Kragar, from hiding, managed to take out two of them, leaving only one to attack Sedu. They managed to down him as well, then checked out the fissure. Inside, beneath the water, they saw something glinting. Deciding to try to grab whatever it was, they had Sedu reach in, but the water pressure was too strong, and swept him nearly out of their grasp. Meanwhile, Violet had managed to rejoin them. They tried again to retrieve the glinting object, and again the pressure of the water provded a challenge, sweeping Violet downstream. Sedu tried to pull her out, but she rushed past him, and right amist a group of cannibals gathered down the stream from the source. The cannibals went to pull her from the water, but Violet pulled herself away from them, and after a back and forth battle, she defeated them, and headed back up the stream to her companions. Finally, the managed to extract from the fissure a large Garnet, after which the rust colored water ran clear.

They took the stone and headed out of the temple, running into Reek, coming up toward the temple, with a few hungry cannibals in tow. The group made quick work of the cannibals, and went back to the Litter Boss. He was grateful for their having destroyed what turned out to be the source of the cannibals, and told them that he had captured some other bandits, which he intended to use for a great feast to celebrate the demise of the cannibals. The party realized that these bandits were in fact Lord Philips men. The group parleyed with them, and Sedu convinced the Litter Boss not to use them for the feast, and instead to send them out to wipe out the last of the cannibals. The Litter Boss agreed, and Sedu gathered some horses to be used for the feast instead. Also in return for the group's help, the Litter Boss gave them many pieces of the Crown, which had been scattered in the city.

Soon they headed back toward Lucen. Upon arriving, they found the city to be a tense place. They made stright for the Green Drake, and upon their arrival, were told by a group of armsmen that they were under arrest. They soon discovered that Lord Duval finally realized that the Green Drake was a headquarters of sorts for the Zaru underground. He took this information to Lord Marcus Renald, the head of the Renald family in Lucen, and primary adversary to Lord Philip. In exchange for his information, Lord Duval was granted status by Lord Marcus. The party discovered, to its horror, that much of the Zaru underground had been rounded up and imprisioned, with many of them having already been crucified or hung. In fact, they learned that the city's gallows were not able to meet the new demand, and so were importing a load of lumber from Khale with which they planned to build a whole new gallows system. Lord Marcus asked them to deliver a receipt to the Docks Master, so that when the shipment arrived it would be properly moved. The group left the Renald compound, arguing amongsth themselves about the resistance and Ammeni in general. The saw the red-haired sorcereress in Philips employ that they've run into frequently before, and Kragar set off following her. She went to the docks, and had a quiet meeting with a shady character. Meanwhile, Sedu and Violet plotted on how to free resistance members from the Renald dungeons.

I'm still out here

So I meant to come and post a time or two recently and just didnt feel it.

Last weekend - the 22nd/23rd, Krissi and I drove to Atlanta to visit her folks. They were in town visiting Brian, my wife's uncle, and his wife, Michelle, both of whom are very cool people. Also they were there to attend a conference for a fiction author that my mother-in-law is a big fan of. So we got a day hanging out in Dallas, Georgia, during which time Michelle fed us all tons of yummy Margaritas, and I managed to get a 3 mile run in, which was very nice in the hilly country. We drove down to Atlanta. Relying on my navigation, we promptly got lost, but grabbed a map and quickly found our way. We found a great little gaming shop there called Oxford Games. Shortly after we found our hotel, and caught up with Krissi's parents. Krissi and her mom went and hung out with the author and the other folks gathered there. The rest of the evening we just relaxed a bit and hit the sack. Sunday Krissi and I hung out for a bit before getting our stuff together and heading back toward home. On the way out of town we picked up the Riddle of Steel which I'll post some more about shortly.

The drive was not bad. I spent much of the trip, both coming and going listening to the Sons of Kryos on my iPod. Its good stuff, a little hit and miss, but I'm enjoying it alot.

Much of the rest of our time has been spent, as usual, with work and sleep and a little play and so forth.

I also ordered and promptly received The Burning Wheel. A great game by Luke Crane. Again, I'll talk more about it soon.

So that's the generic update!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Our Administration

Ok, so I feel that America needs me to weigh in on two topics, both pertaining to our leader, George W.

Note: in researching this blog entry.. which I do for every blog entry, extensive research! I found that the following google search produces a number of interesting links: bush shit

The other day, not knowing that he was was being recorded, Bush said "We got to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit." Ha! I'm sure others have thought of it, but the title for this section of my blog entry just came to me. "THE 'SHIT' HEARD ROUND THE WORLD" I am a genius.
I really have only one thing to say on this. Get the fuck over it. I know that we Americans are extremely prudish, and despite that, I'd wager, a solid majority of our taxpayers use this word and others on a daily basis, we dont see it on TV or radio. Its like we're somehow ignoring a big elephant in the living room. An elephant with the word "shit" tattoo'd across its side. I think there are tons of bigger things to worry about than whether someone used a four letter word. Be offended about starvation in africa, or US soldiers raping girls in Iraq, or the plight of women in Guatemala, and please! use swear words!

The other Bush thing I wanted to mention is the weird sortof massage that Bush tried to give to German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently. [link] What the fuck was that? Why did Bush decide to give the German Chancellor a neckrub? It'd have been funnier if she'd have punched him.

The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast

"The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists."
from http://random.average-bear.com/TheoryTopics/ImpossibleThingBeforeBreakfast

"So, who makes the decisions in a role-playing session - positing that this role-playing session, when all is said and done, is a Story of this kind? Someone has to do it; they don't happen by themselves.

1. The GM does it. The players have "choices," such as being allowed to squabble in a picturesque fashion between important scenes, or being able to choose what weapons to outfit themselves with. But when it comes to the story choices, the GM's all set. Maybe the GM made those decisions before play; maybe he improvises them as the group goes. Doesn't matter. If he's unsubtle, it's "shut up and get in the death-trap" time. If he's subtle, then whatever the players do, the GM will transmogrify it into a decision of story significance.

2. The players do it. They really direct the actions of the protagonists, and, unsurprisingly, may play a big role in engineering the situations which cause the characters conflict in the first place. The GM in such a situation plays a facilitative role, perhaps an aggressive one or perhaps a mild one, because he cannot decide when the conflict is the conflict, far less how the character will address it."
from http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?t=5862

"Meanwhile, the players are unaware that their actions have no impact on anything. They sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, and it all seems to fit together. The amount of power the referee has to control events through the credibility given to him enables him to completely hide the fact that nothing the players do will ever matter"
from http://ptgptb.org/0027/theory101-02.html

"All of these games are based on The Great Impossible Thing to Believe Before Breakfast: that the GM may be defined as the author of the ongoing story, and, simultaneously, the players may determine the actions of the characters as the story's protagonists. This is impossible. It's even absurd. However, game after game, introduction after introduction, and discussion after discussion, it is repeated. "
from http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/6/

"The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists." Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other. See Narrativism: Story Now.
from http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/glossary.html

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eye-opener to gaming

This may be my favorite single html page of role playing game information

I think, in fact, that this was the page I read that opened my eyes to stuff that was not D&D or Shadowrun, etc.


Contents mirrored here

Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore

I haven't written the all-encompassing essay yet, which so it goes and ever shall. Instead, how about a running chronicle?

(I've put them oldest to newest, and foof to blog convention, foof I say! The newest is The Narrative Stances?, 5-27-04.)
Doing Away with the GM

You need to have a system by which scenes start and stop. The rawest solution is to do it by group consensus: anybody moved to can suggest a scene or suggest that a scene be over, and it's up to the group to act on the suggestion or not. You don't need a final authority beyond the players' collective will.

You need to have a system whereby narration becomes in-game truth. That is, when somebody suggests something to happen or something to be so, does it or doesn't it? Is it or isn't it? Again the rawest solution is group consensus, with suggestions made by whoever's moved and then taken up or let fall according to the group's interest.

You need to have orchestrated conflict, and there's the tricky bit. GMs are very good at orchestrating conflict, and it's hard to see a rawer solution. My game Before the Flood handles the first two needs ably but makes no provision at all for this third. What you get is listless, aimless, dull play with no sustained conflict and no meaning.

In our co-GMed Ars Magica game, each of us is responsible for orchestrating conflict for the others, which works but isn't radical wrt GM doage-away-with. It amounts to when Emily's character's conflicts climax explosively and set off Meg's character's conflicts, which also climax explosively, in a great kickin' season finale last autumn, I'm the GM. GM-swapping, in other words, isn't the same as GM-sharing.

Any solution to this is bound to be innovative. There's not much beaten path.

Roleplaying's Fundamental Act

Roleplaying is negotiated imagination. In order for any thing to be true in game, all the participants in the game (players and GMs, if you've even got such things) have to understand and assent to it. When you're roleplaying, what you're doing is a) suggesting things that might be true in the game and then b) negotiating with the other participants to determine whether they're actually true or not.

So you're sitting at the table and one player says, "[let's imagine that] an orc jumps out of the underbrush!"

What has to happen before the group agrees that, indeed, an orc jumps out of the underbrush?

1. Sometimes, not much at all. The right participant said it, at an appropriate moment, and everybody else just incorporates it smoothly into their imaginary picture of the situation. "An orc! Yikes! Battlestations!" This is how it usually is for participants with high ownership of whatever they're talking about: GMs describing the weather or the noncombat actions of NPCs, players saying what their characters are wearing or thinking.

2. Sometimes, a little bit more. "Really? An orc?" "Yeppers." "Huh, an orc. Well, okay." Sometimes the suggesting participant has to defend the suggestion: "Really, an orc this far into Elfland?" "Yeah, cuz this thing about her tribe..." "Okay, I guess that makes sense."

3. Sometimes, mechanics. "An orc? Only if you make your having-an-orc-show-up roll. Throw down!" "Rawk! 57!" "Dude, orc it is!" The thing to notice here is that the mechanics serve the exact same purpose as the explanation about this thing about her tribe in point 2, which is to establish your credibility wrt the orc in question.

4. And sometimes, lots of mechanics and negotiation. Debate the likelihood of a lone orc in the underbrush way out here, make a having-an-orc-show-up roll, a having-an-orc-hide-in-the-underbrush roll, a having-the-orc-jump-out roll, argue about the modifiers for each of the rolls, get into a philosophical thing about the rules' modeling of orc-jump-out likelihood... all to establish one little thing. Wave a stick in a game store and every game you knock of the shelves will have a combat system that works like this.

(Plenty of suggestions at the game table don't get picked up by the group, or get revised and modified by the group before being accepted, all with the same range of time and attention spent negotiating.)

So look, you! Mechanics might model the stuff of the game world, that's another topic, but they don't exist to do so. They exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table. That's their sole and crucial function.

Aside: GNS

So you have some people sitting around and talking. Some of the things they say are about fictional characters in a fictional world. During the conversation the characters and their world aren't static: the people don't simply describe them in increasing detail, they (also) have them do things and interact. They create situations - dynamic arrangements of characters and setting elements - and resolve them into new situations.

They may or may not have formal procedures for this part of the conversation, but the simple fact that it consistently happens reveals some sort of structure. If they didn't have an effective way to negotiate the evolution of situation to situation, their conversation would stall or crash.

Why are they doing this? What do they get out of it? For now, let's limit ourselves to three possibilities: they want to Say Something (in a lit 101 sense), they want to Prove Themselves, or they want to Be There. What they want to say, in what way they want to prove themselves, or where precisely they want to be varies to the particular person in the particular moment. Are there other possibilities? Maybe. Certainly these three cover an enormous variety, especially as their nuanced particulars combine in an actual group of people in actual play.

Over time, that is, over many many in-game situations, play will either fulfill the players' creative agendas or fail to fulfill them. Do they have that discussion? Do they prove themselves or let themselves down? Are they "there"? As in pretty much any kind of emergent pattern thingy, whether the game fulfills the players' creative agendas depends on but isn't predictable from the specific structure they've got for negotiating situations. No individual situation's evolution or resolution can reveal a) what the players' creative agendas are or b) whether they're being fulfilled. Especially, limiting your observation to the in-game contents of individual situations will certainly blind you to what the players are actually getting out of the game.

That's GNS in a page.

I don't think I've said anything here that Ron Edwards hasn't been saying. I do think that I've said it in mostly my own words.

Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution

In task resolution, what's at stake is the task itself. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you crack the safe?

In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

Let's assume that we haven't yet established what's in the safe.

"I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
It's task resolution. Roll: Success!
"You crack the safe, but there's no dirt in there, just a bunch of in-order papers."

"I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
It's task resolution. Roll: Failure!
"The safe's too tough, but as you're turning away from it, you see a piece of paper in the wastebasket..."

(Those examples show how, using task resolution, the GM can break success=winning, failure=losing.)

That's, if you ask me, the big problem with task resolution: whether you succeed or fail, the GM's the one who actually resolves the conflict. The dice don't, the rules don't; you're depending on the GM's mood and your relationship and all those unreliable social things the rules are supposed to even out.

Task resolution, in short, puts the GM in a position of priviledged authorship. Task resolution will undermine your collaboration.

Whether you roll for each flash of the blade or only for the whole fight is a whole nother issue: scale, not task vs. conflict. This is sometimes confusing for people; you say "conflict resolution" and they think you mean "resolve the whole scene with one roll." No, actually you can conflict-resolve a single blow, or task-resolve the whole fight in one roll:

"I slash at his face, like ha!" "Why?" "To force him off-balance!"
Conflict Resolution: do you force him off-balance?
Roll: Loss!
"He ducks side to side, like fwip fwip! He keeps his feet and grins."

"I fight him!" "Why?" "To get past him to the ship before it sails!"
Task Resolution: do you win the fight (that is, do you fight him successfully)?
Roll: Success!
"You beat him! You disarm him and kick his butt!"
(Unresolved, left up to the GM: do you get to the ship before it sails?)

(Those examples show small-scale conflict resolution vs. large-scale task resolution.)

Something I haven't examined: in a conventional rpg, does task resolution + consequence mechanics = conflict resolution? "Roll to hit" is task resolution, but is "Roll to hit, roll damage" conflict resolution?

A Small Thing About Suspense

I have no criticism cred to back this up. Just amatuer observations. So kick my butt if you gotta.

Suspense doesn't come from uncertain outcomes.

I have no doubt, not one shread of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we're on the edge of our seats! What's up with that?

Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable.

What's up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don't know what it will cost.

Everybody with me still? If you're not, give it a try: watch a movie. Notice how the movie builds suspense: by putting complications between the protagonist and what we all know is coming. The protagonist has to buy victory, it's as straightforward as that. That's why the payoff at the end of the suspense is satisfying, after all, too: we're like ah, finally.

What about RPGs?

Yes, it can be suspenseful to not know whether your character will succeed or fail. I'm not going to dispute that. But what I absolutely do dispute is that that's the only or best way to get suspense in your gaming. In fact, and check this out, when GMs fudge die rolls in order to preserve or create suspense, it shows that suspense and uncertain outcomes are, in those circumstances, incompatible.

So here's a better way to get suspense in gaming: put off the inevitable.

Acknowledge up front that the PCs are going to win, and never sweat it. Then use the dice to escalate, escalate, escalate. We all know the PCs are going to win. What will it cost them?

My game Chalk Outlines was a stab at this, and Otherkind was a better stab, but where it's really coming home is in Dogs in the Vineyard and the Good Knights.

A Small Thing About Character Death plus a mini-manifesto

Along the precise same lines:

When a character dies in a novel or a movie, it's a) to establish what's at stake, b) to escalate the conflict, or c) to make a final statement. Or perhaps some combination. It's never by accident or for no good reason, unlike in real life.

I've been thinking about examples. Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars? This, his death says, is worth fighting for. Boromir in the Fellowship of the Ring? The right death redeems betrayal. Brad and wha'sname at the beginning of Pulp Fiction? The cop in Reservoir Dogs? All those random people in Total Recall? Tara in Buffy? To escalate conflict, plain and easy. Leon and Gary Oldman's character in the Professional? Final statementville, but Matilda's family? Escalation plus some stakes.

So that seems pretty solid to me.

Before I go on (I'm sure you've already figured out what I'm going to say anyway) but before I go on, my mini-manifesto.

First: if what you get out of roleplaying is a) the accomplishment you get from rising to the challenge, not letting yourself or your friends down, learning the rules and just frickin' owning them, or else b) the satisfaction of peer-appreciated wish-fulfillment, you're off the hook. None of what I say applies to you, you're happy.

If, on the other hand, what you want out of roleplaying is suspense, resolution, story, theme, character, meaning - listen up.

Second: conventional RPGs can't give it to you. I'm sorry.

So, third: that stuff you want? You get that by approaching roleplaying as though it were a form of fiction, a form of literature. All that stuff is well known to fiction writers and they can tell us how to do it. Roleplaying isn't like writing, just like singing pub songs in a pub isn't like composing songs, so the skills themselves are different. But the same structure underlies both. You can't ignore the structure and still get consistenly good results.

So that's my mini-manifesto and here's character death in RPGs:

PCs, like protagonists in fiction, don't get to die to show what's at stake or to escalate conflict. They only get to die to make final statements.

Character death can never be a possible outcome moment-to-moment. Having your character's survival be uncertain doesn't contribute to suspense, as above, just like we don't actually ever believe that Bruce Willis' character in Die Hard will die. Instead, character death should fit into what it will cost. This thing, is it worth dying for? Obi-wan Kenobi and Leon say yes.

Here's a piece of text from Dogs in the Vineyard:

Also, occasionally, your character will get killed. The conflict resolution rules will keep it from being pointless or arbitrary: it'll happen only when you've chosen to stake your character's life on something. Staking your character's life means risking it, is all.

In fiction, You never die for something you haven't staked your life on.

Practical Conflict Resolution Advice

My friend anonyfan asks: "Do you have any ideas on how to effectively and meaningfully implement 'what's at stake' in a non-narrativist game?"

I sure do.

You won't have any trouble at all, and in fact your group will wonder how you got along before, if you find the magic words. I don't know what your group's magic words are but here are some I've used:
"The danger is that..."
"What's at stake is..."
"What you're risking is..."
"So what you hope to accomplish is..."

Say the magic words every single time, when the dice are in their hands but before they roll 'em.

At first, you'll need to finish the sentence every time yourself, with a period, like:
"The danger is that you'll set off the trap instead of disarming it."
"What's at stake is, do you make it to the ferry in time or do you have to go the long way around?"
"What you're risking is being overheard by the goblins on the rooftop."
"So what you hope to accomplish is to get through the doorway, whether this ogre lives or dies."

But after you've said it three or four or ten times, you'll be able to trail off with a question mark when you want their input:
"What you're risking is...?"

And then, once the dice are on the table, always always always make it like this:
- If they succeed, they win what's at stake. They accomplish their accomplishment or they avoid the danger.
- If they fail, they lose what's at stake - and you IMMEDIATELY introduce something new at stake. It might be another chance, it might be a consequence, but what matters is that it's more serious that the former.

"The danger is that you'll set off the trap ... and you do! A dart thocks into your shoulder. The danger now is that you'll succumb to its poison!"
"You reach the dock as the ferry's pulling away. Do you want to jump for it?"
"The goblins overhear you and start dropping in through the skylight. They scramble all over you, biting and screeching. The danger is that they'll get you off your feet!"
"Not only does the ogre keep you away from the doorway, it's pushing you back toward the chasm..."

In combat, you'll probably want to have an overall what's at stake for the fight, and little tactical what's at stakes for each exchange. When you describe the setup, mention two or three features of the environment, like hanging tapestries or a swaying bridge or broken cobblestones, plus an apparent weakness of the foe, like worn armor straps or a pus-filled left eye, and then when you say what's at stake for an exchange, incorporate one of those: "the danger is that he'll push you back onto the broken cobblestones" or "so what you're hoping to do is to further strain his armor straps." This is on top of hitting and damage and whatever, just add it straight in.

It's especially effective if you always give a small bonus or penalty for the exchange before. What's it in D&D now, +2/-2? Give it every single exchange, linked to whether they won or lost the what's at stake of the previous exchange. "The broken cobblestones mess up your footing, so take a -2." "He has to shrug and shift to adjust his sagging armor, so take a +2."

In Forge terms, you've used a couple of nonmechanical techniques to build a conflict resolution system around your game's task resolution rules. Guaranteed plus-fun.

Arranging the Pieces of a Game

This is another straight transplant from the Forge. You'll have to forgive the GNS talk, or not, I mean, it is how I think about things:

How do you treat Character, Setting, Situation, System and Color in Narrativist game design vs. Simulationist vs. Gamist, is that what you're asking?

After setup, what a game's rules do is control how you resolve one situation into the next. If you're designing a Narrativist game, what you need are rules that create a) rising conflict b) across a moral line c) between fit characters d) according to the authorship of the players. Every new situation should be a step upward in that conflict, toward a climax and resolution. Your rules need to provoke the players, collaboratively, into escalating the conflict, until it can't escalate no more.

Character creation in a Narrativist game might work by creating characters who, in some key way, have nowhere else to go. Life o' Crime, the rpg: create a character who owes somebody more money than he can repay.

Setting in a Narrativist game might work by applying pressure to that key point in the characters. Life o' Crime: there's recession, few jobs, no way up or out, but worse class difference than ever before anywhere. You see wealth but no opportunity.

Situation in a Narrativist game works by increasing the pressure. Life o' Crime: Someone depends on your character to bring home groceries and pay rent. Someone else has just been evicted and is facing homelessness. Someone else asks you if you know where to get drugs. Someone else just got beaten by the authorities. Someone else just got beaten by the guy you owe money to. Someone else offers to cut you in on a job. Someone else wants the whole take for himself. Someone else knew you'd never amount to anything. Someone else can't be trusted. Someone else can be.

System in a Narrativist game works, again, by resolving one situation into the next. Life o' Crime: what do you do? How does it work out for you? Does it a) hurt? b) give you breathing room? c) piss someone else off? d) hurt someone else? and/or e) set you back? How does it increase the pressure? Remember the moral line defined by your Premise, and remember that the players are the authors!

And Color permeates a Narrativist game same as any other. Life o' Crime: is it Thatcher's England? Victoria's England? Shakespeare's England? Bush's US? Hoover's US? Colonial Massachussetts? Mars? The Kingdom of Thringbora? The details change, but the core of character situated in setting - the fit characters locked into conflict defined by a moral line - doesn't.

I've had fun writing this! I hope it's at all an answer to your question, and I should probably make clear that it's just how I think about it, and other people no doubt think about it in whole different ways.

I imagine you could break down Simulationist and Gamist games in a similar way.

Pre-play / Play / Post-play

In your game, the game you're actually playing, a) in which stage does invention happen, and b) in which stage does meaning happen?

Invention - creating setting, character, nifty toys, potent powers - invention can happen before the game or during the game. (It can't really happen after the game, can it?)

A game where the invention happens mostly pre-play would be one where there are maps, characters, factions, technology, societies, interests, all in place when the game begins. I can't think of a good example of this in fiction - maybe Babylon 5? - but clearly lots of roleplaying happens this way. Look at all the dang setting books!

A game where the invention happens mostly during play would have the same list of things, maps characters societies etc., but they'd be created at need as the game progresses. We have one serious bazillion examples of this from fiction: Howard wrote Conan this way, their writers wrote Farscape and Buffy this way, and lots of roleplaying happens this way too. It's underrepresented in rpg books because it doesn't call for or produce 'em.

And it occurs to me that, in JRR Tolkein, we have an example in fiction of post-play creation, where he created a bunch on the fly, and then extensively rewrote and filled in to build his world. Apparently the Hobbit changed a lot to match what he'd written for the Lord of the Rings, for instance. Can't really apply to roleplaying though.

Similarly, meaning:

A game where the meaning happens mostly pre-play is one in which somebody or everybody has something to say and already knows what it is when the game starts. You can always tell these games: the GM expects his or her villains and their schemes to be absolutely gripping, but they aren't; the players keep wanting to play their characters as well as the characters deserve, but it's not happening. I make my character a former slave but when it comes up in play it's because I force it to, and my fellow players dodge eye contact and the GM wants to get on with the plot.

A game where the meaning happens mostly during play is also easy to spot: everybody gets it and is engaged. Other players than me are into my former-slave character, and when she gets passionate about something, the other players hold their breaths. The GM lets the players pick the villains through their PCs' judgements, then plays them aggressively and directed-ly and hard. Every session is hot. Nobody sacrifices the integrity of his or her character for the sake of staying together as a party or solving the GM's mystery - the action comes right out of the characters' passions.

And a game where the meaning happens mostly post-play - telling it is better than it was. Sometimes there'll be one person, the GM or the GM's favorite player, whose needs the game mostly met, and if you talk to that person the game will sound rockin', but if you talk to the other players, it'll sound eh. If people talk afterward about how cool this kind of game was, they'll talk about highlights that happened once every three, four, five sessions - as though a game with one gripping, thrilling, passionate moment per twenty hours of play were a successful game.

My goal as a gamer and a game designer is to push both invention and meaning as much as possible into actual play.

Problem: the hobby, represented by the books in your game store and the conventional habits of most gamers, prefers the pre-game over the game.

Seriously. How many times have you created a character who was far cooler in your head than he or she turned out to be in play? How many times have you prepped a campaign only to find that, in play, it didn't go as well as you'd hoped? Have you ever thought that, y'know, reading game books and imagining play and preparing for a game is almost as much fun as actually playing? Or even more fun than actually playing?

The hobby doesn't value or teach collaboration. It values and teaches competing sole-authorship. Pre-game invention sells books but robs players of their ability to contribute; pre-game meaning is thrilling to imagine but dull to actually play. This arrangement we've got going is frickin' broken.

The solution is to design games that're inspiring, but daydreaming about how much fun the game will be to play seems pointless and lame, and you can't create extensive histories or backstories because that stuff's collaborative -

- so you call a friend.

Burning Down the Firewall

Conventional wisdom: if your character's not in the scene, you can't participate.

Text from Dogs in the Vineyard:

The game calls for lots of free table talk, with you and your fellow players calling out suggestions, kibitzing, and expanding on one another's descriptions. Don't shut your mouth just because your character's off the stage.

Conventional wisdom: if your character's not in the scene, you shouldn't let information from the scene influence your actions.

Text from Dogs:

The game works even better when you bring your own metagame knowledge into your character's actions. If you're choosing between two possible, realistic actions for your character to take, don't limit your decision-making to your character's point of view. Choose the one that you prefer!

Conventional wisdom: when your character's surprised, you should be surprised.

I can't beat Ron Edwards' answer to this one. The whole answer's here on the Forge, but here's a quote:

I'm now going to say something very harsh - traditionally, the focus on "must ... surprise ... players!" is trying to solve the basic problem that the encounter with, e.g., the goblins, is fundamentally a stupid and irrelevant event in the game. Gotta have a fight. Goblins. Must make it exciting. Um, well, I guess the only way is to "get into character" and "be surprised," so I gotta figure out how. OK, tell them to immerse, surprise the characters with GM-rolls-it Perception checks, and thus the players will be surprised, right?

Wrong. The perception check is a big fat meaningless waste - the encounter only takes on player-relevance if, in fact, the goblins are relevant to the Creative Agenda of this group.

Conventional wisdom: it's boring when your character's not in the scene.

Text from Dogs:

Like every social fun, playing Dogs in the Vineyard depends on constant feedback and demonstrated enthusiasm. When somebody says something cool, show it. When something's funny, laugh. When you have a suggestion, shout out. (I know, I know, duh, right? I only mention it because I've played other games where you didn't, y'know, do things like that.)

Also, to really deliver, the game shouldn't be isolated from your regular socializing, it should blend in. Chat about the game before and after, just like you would a book or TV show or movie. Chat about books and movies and catch up with each other, during! You can think of it as commercial breaks if you want, but tied to the social rhythms of your little group, not on TV's 15-minute cycle. If the game's worth playing, it'll draw your attention back in. Interspersing some time of just hanging out like friends can be pretty effective for maintaining a pace, prolonging suspense, and giving payoff moments real punch, so don't worry too much about digressions.


Your game will have an overall story, made up of the interwoven individual stories of your characters. If it's not as fun and engaging as the best TV shows, I haven't done my job.

Resolution, Why?

Well kids, I think it's time for the biggie.

Here's some stuff I wrote on the Forge:

The only worthwhile use for rules I know of is to sustain in-game conflict of interest, in the face of the overwhelming unity of interest of the players. Read this to include the in-game conflicts that drive Gamist and Simulationist play too, not just the Narrativist ones.

Any rules that don't do it, you're just as well off if you ditch 'em and play freeform. Lots and lots of RPG rules don't reliably do it.

Startling or very bad outcomes are pointless, sometimes disruptive, if they don't serve the game's conflicts. Hence fudging. Very good outcomes, or even very expected outcomes, vindicate the group's use of the rules, if the outcomes serve the game's conflicts.

You know the thing that happens where a group starts out playing Ars Magica (say) by the book, but gradually rolls dice and consults the rules less and less, until the character sheets sit in a folder forgotten? At first the rules served to build the players' unity of interest, so they used 'em. Now that the group's got unity of interest, it doesn't need the rules anymore. The only thing that's going to win that group back to using rules is something better than unity of interest.

Unity of interest plus sustained in-game conflict is better than unity of interest alone.


Let's say that you're playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he's a nice guy who's had a rough time of it. The problem is, there's something you're trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won't get to say what you're trying to say.

Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.

I'm the GM. What I want more than anything in that circumstance - we're friends, my heart breaks for your poor character, you're counting on me to give him more and more grief - what I want is rules that won't let me compromise.

I don't want to hurt your character and then point to the rules and say "they, they made me hurt your character!" That's not what I'm getting at.

I want, if I don't hurt your character, I want you to point to the rules and say, "hey, why didn't you follow the rules? Why did you cheat and let my guy off the hook? That sucked." I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. Often and hard.

We have a shared interest in the game - we both like your character, we're both interested in what you have to say, we both want things to go well. We also have an ongoing, constant agreement about what's happening right this second - that's the loody poodly. The rules should take those two things and build in-game conflict out of them.

You can see it plain as day in a bunch of games. Look at how My Life with Master's rules create the expectation that the GM will constantly have the Master "hose" the PCs. In Universalis, getting coins back into your bank depends on your participation in conflicts. In Primetime Adventures, the characters' Issue plus Screen Presence tells the GM just what to do - if I back off of the Issue, I'm not playing the game. (And then Fan Mail brings everyone in, so - like in Universalis - it's not just between you and me.) In my game Dogs in the Vineyard, the escalation rules force us both to play our characters passionately - there's tremendous pressure on us to, y'know, stick to our guns.

What a bunch of other games do is stop short. They establish our agreement about what's happening right this second, they contribute to our shared interest in the characters and setting - and that's it. They don't provoke us. I can, by the rules, back off your character's issues, let the conflicts fizzle, compromise and go easy, and we sit there going "I dunno, what do you wanna do?" all night. Or just as bad, the dull "things work out for the best this time too" characteristic of Star Trek: the Next Generation and games where we all like each other's characters and nobody's provoked by the rules to inflict pain.

So: resolution, why?

The answer is: because interesting play depends on good conflicts, and creating good conflicts means hitting characters you like right where they're weak, and hitting a character you like, whose player is someone you like, right where she's or he's weak - it's not easy.

The right rules will show you how to do it. They'll make it the only natural thing.

Here's when I knew that Dogs in the Vineyard was good: I was showing Meg the dice mechanic. We played through the conflict in the book - does your brother go and shoot the woman? She knocked her brother down and took away his gun, but their back-and-forth suggested an essential follow-up conflict. Meg was psyched. She was diggin' it. Now you know that Meg and I are happy long-time freeformers, and Meg especially doesn't have any patience for noncontributing rules. She launched straight into the follow-up conflict and reached for the dice.

Also, the greatest/most helpful/most influential single quote, gaming wise, is from lumpley (Dogs in the Vineyard).

"Say 'Yes' or roll dice."

And... I have to include this, from Ron Edwards' Sorcerer
"Roleplaying is a lot like playing in a band: on game night, you get together and make cool-sounding noises. You'll have to try people out and have standards for their abilities. Everyone has to listen, everyone has to play honestly and hard, and no other group will be quite like it. It doesn’t concern winning, although showing off for your friends might be part of it. It has nothing to do with losing either, although screwing up or regretting things can play its role. In a band, if someone’s not having fun, they stop coming. If someone is not up to the level of the other members, or can’t handle their end of things, they stop getting invited. Eventually the band might be pretty good. When all is said, the rules you hold are just some instruments. The music is up to you."

TSOY and breaking down the system

So we got together for our Shadow of Yesterday game this past weekend.

It went well, in *very* brief form - because there's a particular aspect that I want to discuss- the party ambushed a wagonload of goods bound for Lord Philip. They bested the guards (and the red-haired sorcereress, again), and found part of the Evil Crown, then managed to glean from Red-Head that more of Philips men were headed to the Ruined City of Thet, looking for more crown parts. They supplied up in Lucen, their temporary base city, and headed off to Thet. They stumbled across a Sorcerer named Valadon and his retainers, who were upset at the party's mistaking them for Philips men. But they managed to avoid having a serious misunderstanding. Searching the ruins for Philips men, they happened upon some hungry cannibals, they were able to kill a couple and drive the rest away. Then, they were captured by a large litter of rats and ratkin, and taken before Lucas, the Litter Boss..

The meaty part that I wanted to talk about include stakes, and dice mechanics.

In the Shadow of Yesterday, it uses conflict resolution. If you run into two bandits on the highway, and we get to the point where there are two conflicting objectives (You: not get stabbed, not give them your gold; them: take the gold from you, or stab you and take the gold from you), we setup stakes for the conflict. stakes might be "If I win the conflict, I sneak past the bandits, they dont even know I came by, if I lose the conflict, they've caught me and tied me up." When you roll, you're comparing skills. The outcome is determined by the stakes you've set, and the roll of the dice, influenced by your skill level.
But lets take it to another level. What this means is that you set the stakes. Your stakes could be "If I win, I kill all 40 bandits, and I lose, I only kill 20 of them, before their arrows wound me enough that I flee". This is great because it is swiftly modified to the kind of game you're playing. Gritty and hard core? "If I win, I drive my icepick into the guard's skull, if I lose, I miss, and it catches him in the neck, he's bleeding all over the place, and he's triggered the alarm". Over the top and cinematic (kill bill)? "If I win, all of the Crazy 88's are dead or dismembered, if I lose, they've driven me off". Let me note that while these examples are primarily combat oriented, they can be anything. "I win- I manage to pound a hole in the outer fortifications with my bare hands", "I win- I've talked the king into abandoning this war and releasing the princess" Again, the defining thing here is what the group wants the game to be like. The players have veto power on each other's stakes.

The same applies to Bringing Down the Pain. It uses a Harm tracker. Whether you're trying to serenade the princess, talk the judge into letting you off, convince the captain that he's got you confused with someone else, sneak past the attack dogs, or simply trying to brain the watchman into unconsciousness, you use a harm tracker. It is abstract. I'll note that hit points are abstract as well, but this is even more abstract. Here are some examples. You're in a conflict, you've resorted to Bringing Down the Pain (more blow-by-blow than conflict resolution). Let's leave the nature of the conflict blank - you've made your opposing rolls, and you're up by two, so you'll be inflicting two harm to your opponent. Here are some things that you might hear at the table. "Bang! Two harm! You tell the prince that you've never met someone with worse teeth. You see tears well up in his eyes.", "Two harm! You pull slightly ahead in the footrace, your opponent looks like she's beginning to tire.", "Two harm! Your plasma cannon belches out green liquid fire that sends a Klingon gunship to oblivion!", "Two harm! A great swing of your axe sends a half dozen of the Baron's men to the creator.", "Two harm! You punch the beefy thug square in the nose. He looks pissed." All of these are perfectly fine and dandy, depending on nature of the game that you're playing in.

This goes right into Social Contracts, which I won't dwell on long.. but here's how it relates to role playing games... all of the players and GM need to be on the same page, in simple common things like "We're playing a fantasy game with elves and sorcerers", to things like "This is a gritty game, the object is just to stay alive" or "this is a game with politics and intrigue!" etc. The same applies to figuring out what kind of stakes will work. Do you plan to be doing high adventure powerful gaming, or smaller scale gaming?

And finally, kinda winding down and changing gears a bit - this was something that I meant to mention before I got sidetracked... During the game, when the players were taken by the ratkin, the conversation at the table went something like this. me: "Guys, like a hundred rats and a dozen or so ratkin suddenly come pouring out into the street around you, you're totally surrounded. They're apparently trying to overwhelm and capture you. There are just SO many of them.. you're totally going to be overwhelmed.. We can roll dice for this I guess, but man, there are just SO many of them.. it'd be tough not to be taken down.." The gang kindly consented and on we went, but here's how I think I should have handled it. me: "Guys, a hoard of rats and ratkin come pouring out into the street surrounding you. Now, I'd like to have them capture you, because I have a cool scene that I'd like to do when they take you before the Litter Boss. What do you guys think?" I think asking the players is a better way to go, because it lets them buy into the story, rather than being forced into it. It worked out fine, but with the former way, the GM is steamrolling them into it, whether they really like it or not. Maybe it totally doesnt work for them.. and there's going to be frustration because of it. This also gets into PLAYER involvment in the story, as opposed to CHARACTER involvement in the story. Sure, most of the time we're doing it first-person, "*I* shoot him the with arrow, *I* sneak past the guard" etc, but sometimes letting the players have some weight in how the story goes can work really well. Well, it can if done right, you players can also be horrified when you say "You sneak into the noble's compound, You've gotten past the guards and are headed up to the main house. Do you encounter anything along the way?"

And to back up again, the other thing I was going to mention, which turned into the long thing about stakes and harm and so forth, is that during our game, two of the players got involved in some fighting, Jason facing off against two guards, while Krissi faced off against another two guardsmen. Using the stakes and dice system, rather than, in each conflict, playing out two NPCs against each of the characters, I played them as one entity each against my player's characters. Jason faced two guards, but I used only one "turn", one dice pool, one harm tracker. But the narration was where the difference was. ("Jason, the two guardsmen use their tactics skills to try to flank you, one on either side of you, hoping to catch you between them.") I thought it worked fantastically, though I'm still talking it over with Jason a bit ;)

Monday, July 10, 2006

a run

And finally, running.

Got out saturday morning to do a 13 mile run, and DAMN it was terrible.

It was the worst run I've ever had, I think.

I cite two problems. I just wasn't into it. I woke up feeling completely unexcited by the run. No motivation. And the previous day we walked to and from the swimming pool, I brought no flip flops and so I walked barefoot, which was a mistake. Either the heat or the asphalt itself left the bottoms of my feet in a rather painful state. So this did not lend itself to a good run.

I'll have to work on getting some miles in this week and try the 13 again this weekend.


TSOY, short

We also did some gaming this weekend.

Sunday afternoon the gang came together over at my place to continue our Shadow of Yesterday tale.

The session went well, there was a super fun scene in which they snuck into a nobleman's compound and ended up rescuing another nobleman. It was good stuff. It slowed down at the end though. That's my fault.

Its tough to keep things moving and exciting while trying to build story and frame stuff for later.

Still, people seemed to enjoy themselves, and we're planning on gaming again this coming sunday.

Pirates 2

We saw Pirates of the Caribbean 2 this weekend.

I'm sad to say that I was sorely disappointed. Its no secret that I have particular taste in movies. In fact it provides a sometimes extreme annoyance to my friends, who insist that I am uninterested in "fun" movies, and only like movies that are boring or otherwise somehow unwatchable. In fact, I've been accused of liking movies for the sake of liking them specifically because no one else did, or the reverse, disliking a movie because everyone else enjoyed it.

This seemed to be the case with Pirates, though Krissi was disappointed with it as well. But the folks we went to see it with apparently all thoroughly enjoyed it.

My gripes are this (no spoilers):

It was long. As hell. It clocked in at two and a half hours. I dont mind a long movie if its telling an enjoyable tale, but I sure didnt feel like this one was doing so.

It was over-the-top action scene after over-the-top action scene after... I'm not opposed to movies in which Cool Stuff happens. However I'm not interested a movie that simple features all of the cool scenes they could cram into a movie, regardless of whether it all really works or not.

I didnt feel an ounce of empathy with any of the characters. Not the good guys, not the bad guys, not anybody. I liked the first one well enough. It was silly and campy, but fun. This one seemed silly and campy and not fun and really really long. The bad guy in the first one was a cool, wicked bad guy that right away I was interested in. I was never once interested in the bad guy, or any of the characters in this movie.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The Terrorism Index

According to 100 experts on terrorism, we're not winning.

Now, I won't start in on how that means that the current administration is lying to us, even though they are.

I will mirror the entire text here, but this is the link to the original text: http://www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=1763813

The Terrorism Index

June 14, 2006

Is the United States winning the war on terror? Not according to more than 100 of America's top foreign-policy hands. They see a national security apparatus in disrepair and a government that is failing to protect the public from the next attack.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans understandably rallied around the flag. Having just suffered the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil, huge percentages believed another attack was imminent. But Americans also had enormous faith that the Global War on Terror would help keep them safe. Just one month after 9/11, for instance, 94 percent of Americans told an abc News/Washington Post poll that they approved of how the fight against terrorism was being handled. The United States then quickly went to war in Afghanistan, closing down a terrorist sanctuary and capturing or killing a number of high-level al Qaeda operatives in the process.

Since 2001, terrorists have found their targets on almost every continent, with bombings in Bali, London, Madrid, and elsewhere. Five years on, however, America has yet to experience another attack. But Americans appear less convinced that their country is winning the war on terror. In the face of persisting threats, including a growing number of terrorist attacks around the world, numerous reports show that Americans are losing faith in their government's ability to wage the war successfully and to protect them from the terrorists' next volley. Barely half of Americans today approve of the way in which the war on terror is being handled, and more than one third believe the United States is less safe today than it was before 9/11.

These pessimistic public perceptions could easily be attributed to the high cost, in both treasure and lives, of counterterrorism efforts. After all, Americans are constantly being told by their elected leaders that their pessimism is wrong, that the war is being won. But they're also told that another attack is inevitable. Which is it? To find out, Foreign Policy and the Center for American Progress teamed up to survey more than 100 of America's top foreign-policy experts--Republicans and Democrats alike. The Foreign Policy/Center for American Progress Terrorism Index is the first comprehensive effort to mine the highest echelons of America's foreign-policy establishment for their assessment of how the United States is fighting the Global War on Terror. Our aim was to draw some definitive conclusions about the war's priorities, policies, and progress from the very people who have run America's national security apparatus over the past half century. Participants include people who have served as secretary of state, national security advisor, retired top commanders from the U.S. military, seasoned members of the intelligence community, and distinguished academics and journalists. Nearly 80 percent of the index participants have worked in the U.S. government--of these more than half were in the executive branch, one third in the military, and 17 percent in the intelligence community.

Despite today's highly politicized national security environment, the index results show striking consensus across political party lines. A bipartisan majority (84 percent) of the index's experts say the United States is not winning the war on terror. Eighty-six percent of the index's experts see a world today that is growing more dangerous for Americans. Overall, they agree that the U.S. government is falling short in its homeland security efforts. More than 8 in 10 expect an attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade. These dark conclusions appear to stem from the experts' belief that the U.S. national security apparatus is in serious disrepair. "Foreign-policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration's performance abroad," says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and an index participant. "The reason is that it's clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force."

Respondents sharply criticized U.S. efforts in a number of key areas of national security, including public diplomacy, intelligence, and homeland security. Nearly all of the departments and agencies responsible for fighting the war on terror received poor marks. The experts also said that recent reforms of the national security apparatus have done little to make Americans safer. Asked about recent efforts to reform America's intelligence community, for instance, more than half of the index's experts said that creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has had no positive impact in the war against terror. "Intelligence reform so far has been largely limited to structural reorganization that in most cases produced new levels of bureaucracy in an already overly bureaucratic system," says index participant Bill Gertz, a journalist who has covered the intelligence community for more than 20 years.

The index's experts were similarly critical of most of the policy initiatives put forward by the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush since September 11. Eighty-one percent, for instance, believe the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, negatively affects the war on terror. The index's experts also disapprove of how America is handling its relations with European allies, how it is confronting threatening regimes in North Korea and Iran, how it is controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and its dealings with failing states, to name just a few. "We are losing the war on terror because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause," says index participant Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "[O]ur insistence that Islamic fundamentalist ideology has replaced communist ideology as the chief enemy of our time … feeds al Qaeda's vision of the world."

These conclusions about the United States' performance in the war thus far are all the more troubling considering that, although Americans appear to be growing tired of the war on terror, the index's experts appear to believe that the battle has just begun. Accordingly, a majority agrees that the war requires more emphasis on a victory of ideas, not just guns. That is hardly surprising, considering that nearly 80 percent believe a widespread rejection of radical ideologies in the Islamic world is a critical element to victory. To win the battle of ideas, the experts say, America must place a much higher emphasis on its nonmilitary tools. More than two thirds say that U.S. policymakers must strengthen the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. At the same time, the experts indicate that the U.S. government must think more creatively about threats. Asked what presents the single greatest danger to U.S. national security, nearly half said loose nukes and other weapons of mass destruction, while just one third said al Qaeda and terrorism, and a mere 4 percent said Iran. Five years after the attacks of September 11, it's a reminder that the greatest challenges may still lie ahead.

With Friends Like These

Wars have a way of making unlikely bedfellows, and the Global War on Terror is apparently no different.

Asked to name the country that has produced the largest number of global terrorists, the index's foreign-policy experts pointed to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan--three of America's marquee allies in the Muslim world. Nearly two thirds (62 percent) identified Saudi Arabia as the leading culprit. Thirteen percent pointed to Egypt, and 11 percent said Pakistan produces the most terrorists. "The jihadist movement," says index participant and Sarah Lawrence College Professor Fawaz Gerges, "was born in Egypt in the late 1960s. After September 11, however, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leading theater of jihadist-Salafist thought and action."

Although these three states may be widely believed to be incubating terrorists, the cooperation they have offered the United States in fighting terrorism presents a more mixed picture. Approximately two thirds of the experts say that U.S. cooperation with Egypt and Pakistan has been effective. The experts are more divided as to whether Saudi Arabia is doing what it can to counter the terrorist threat.

These perceptions cut to the heart of some of the dilemmas facing the United States. Egypt, for instance, has received more than $50 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance since 1979, yet it resisted recent U.S. efforts to promote political reform. America designated Pakistan a major non-nato ally in 2004, despite allegations that it has not done enough to capture bin Laden. Saudi Arabia has helped crack down on financial support flowing to terrorist groups, but Saudi leaders have been slow to move against radical elements within their own population. Is the United States doing a poor job of choosing its friends? Maybe. Then again, it may just be keeping its friends close, and its enemies closer.

The Next Attack

Americans are consistently told that the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a question of when, not if. The index's results overwhelmingly agree that the next attack is just a matter of time.

Eighty-four percent of the experts said they believe a terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, is likely or certain to happen in the next five years. More than a quarter said a 9/11-scale attack is certain to occur in America within the next decade. Asked about the likelihood of a smaller strike akin to the July 2005 London bombings, 91 percent agreed that such an attack is likely or certain by 2016; more than half said that such an attack could happen this year.

But how will the terrorists strike? Roughly two thirds of the experts said that some part of America's infrastructure--a port, train station, or major landmark--will be targeted. That is no surprise, given that terrorists have repeatedly struck these locales in the past. But it may be more alarming that almost the same percentage predict that the next attack will come in the form of a suicide bombing. These results, says index participant Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., "reflect a recognition of how easy terrorism has become." Such attacks, he says, "are cheap, unpredictable, and difficult to prevent. All that is required is the will to kill and the will to die, neither of which seems in short supply today."

Americans have never feared a suicide bombing the way the people of Amman or Jerusalem have. But there may be reason to think that will soon change. A recent study by Rand found that 81 percent of all suicide attacks in the past 30 or so years have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001, and the primary motivation for each of these attacks was a military intervention or occupation such as the ongoing operations in Iraq. The odds that America can continue to elude the world's most popular form of terrorism may be fading fast.

Energy's Highest Price

If you could make something a higher priority in fighting the war on terror, what would it be? A little more than one third of the index's experts said killing or capturing terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. About the same number favored promoting democracy in the Muslim world. More than two thirds said stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states. But devising a more aggressive energy policy?

It may surprise, but the index's experts said that ending America's dependence on foreign oil may be the U.S. government's single most pressing priority in winning the war on terror. Eighty-two percent of the experts said that policymakers should make ending America's dependence on foreign oil a higher priority. And nearly two thirds said that current U.S. energy policies are actually making matters worse, not better. "We borrow a billion dollars every working day to import oil, an increasing share of it coming from the Middle East," says index participant and former cia director James Woolsey. "[F]or example in Saudi Arabia, billions are transferred to the Wahhabis and like-minded groups who then indoctrinate young people to hate Shiites, Sufis, Jews, Christians, and democracy, and to oppress women horribly."

If U.S. policymakers don't take this vulnerability seriously, terrorists do. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2, has labeled the global energy infrastructure a key strategic target for terrorists. In February, Saudi Arabia's government foiled an al Qaeda plot to attack the Abqaiq oil facility, the country's largest. Some 30,000 security forces are now guarding the country's oil fields. Global oil markets are so tight that even the threat of a supply disruption can cause a spike in price. These tight markets are partially responsible for the higher prices Americans will pay at the pump this summer. But the index suggests that there may be a greater price for our energy policy: losing the war on terror.

Grading the Government

A room full of foreign-policy experts can be a tough crowd. So it's hardly surprising that the index experts were highly critical of how the various branches of the U.S. government are fighting the war on terror. Only the National Security Agency received an above-average score of 5.2, on a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 represents the worst possible job of guarding the United States. Every other agency received below-average marks.

Experts gave the Department of Homeland Security (dhs) the worst grade. Its average score was just 2.9. In fact, 36 percent of the experts indicated that the newly created dhs has had a negative impact on America's national security, and nearly 1 in 5 thought the department's funding should be slashed. The U.S. State Department received relatively high marks. Surprisingly, this opinion was not limited to the liberal internationalist wing of foreign-policy elites. Even conservative experts, who have sometimes taken a dimmer view of the State Department's diplomatic efforts, believed that the department's budget is a good investment and that it should be moderately or substantially increased. Overall, 87 percent of the index's experts believe that Foggy Bottom requires more funding, including 72 percent of conservatives.

The index's experts also have a strong opinion of how that money should be spent. Nearly 80 percent agree that a widespread rejection of extremist ideologies around the globe is critical to "winning" the war on terror. Yet the experts simultaneously rated America's public diplomacy efforts the lowest of any policy initiative, with a median score of just 1.8. Clearly, few believe that the United States is doing its best to win friends and influence people.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Hope you had a good 4th of July holiday. I certainly did.

Letsee.... I got alot of mileage out of Sim City 4, with the Rush Hour expansion. I spent part of the holiday being bored, going from game to book to tv to game and not really finding anything that was holding my attention. I am going to reread the Belgariad by David Eddings. I read them for the first time when I was in like 9th grade I guess. I havent been able to ready anything that's not an RPG book or a computer game manual in ages, so it'll be nice to get into these fun books. Randomly/ramblingly, I find that I just cant really get into Civilization 4. Its a beautiful game, but it's just not catching hold of me the way all of the previous Civ games have.

We saw Superman last week and I enjoyed it alot. Kevin Spacey rocks, and I was really excited about seeing him in it, and he did a fine job, but everyone else in the movie did a fine job as well. Worth seeing.

The Firecracker 5k was on the 3rd. The whole gang showed up and we ran. It was hot as hell. Race started at 7:30. I made really good speed for the first mile, doing it in (according to a fellow with a stopwatch at the 1st mile marker) about 7 and a half minutes. About halfway into the second mile though, it started getting tough. By 2.5 I was really really hoping to see the finish line, and I was thinking unpleasant thoughts about the marathon at the end of this year. It seemed to me, while running it, that my legs were no problem. I felt like I could have maybe gone a little faster, and run longer.. its the breathing that is what slows me down. By 2.5 or 3 miles I was sucking some serious wind. I rounded the corner and saw the finish line. I drew what I had left and pushed hard, finishing strong. 25:22. Man it was hot. I've certainly seen hotter days, and probably run in hotter weather, but it was muggy, the air was kinda still, and it was 7:30, so the heat of the day still hung in the air. People along the route had turned their sprinklers on into the street, which was nice. After crossing the finish line, I grabbed a cup of water and moved around all of the people and gear so that I could stand along the side, just inside of the finish area, and cheer other runners on as they came across the finish line. I saw and Beth come through, they made it 34:37 and 34:14 respectively. I somehow missed Krissi and coming across, but they joined us on the sideline as well. They both made it in 39:52. John made it in 45:02.

The 1st place was 15:26.

There is a fellow that we've seen at a couple of 5k's. He's a tall, middle aged black man who runs like a gazelle. At the Firecracker and at the Susan G. Komen 5k we saw him, in each case he finishes, then runs back along the race shouting encouragement to the other runners. He is amazing.

Here are the results.

So.. I need to work on cardio and breathing.