Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Some thoughts on the art of planning

Last night, on our way home from work, my daughter mentioned her desire to spend some time sleeping in on Saturday. Actually, what she said was something like, “I hope no other plans happen so I can sleep in on Saturday.” Being the loving father that I am, I rushed to correct her. (That was sarcasm!) I pointed out that she did have plans: sleeping in. Certainly, if something else came up, she was perfectly free to adjust her plans, but this would be a change of plans, not an imposing of a plan on unstructured time.

As I reflected on this conversation, I realized that I’ve come to understand a lot about planning. So, I figured I’d inflict some of what I’ve learned on all of you. This is mostly going to be stream-of-consciousness, so I apologize if I get rambly. Also, depending on how much material I generate, this may turn into a short series. We’ll see.

That’s right! I’m creating in public without a net!

Anyways, some thoughts on the art of planning.

The Value of Planning

What’s the point of planning? Why do it? One reason that we plan because of finitiude. As created beings, we do not have infinite resources at our command. I have only so many waking hours. I have only so much money. I can only be in one place at a time, technology notwithstanding. Therefore, I am always having to choose to where to allocate my resources.

I’m writing this blog post on my lunch break. As I was preparing my food, someone approached me, wondering if I’d be available to play a game over lunch. I politely declined, because I had scheduled myself to write this blog post. If I use this time on a game, then I can’t use it on a blog post.

It’s when you’re planning that your values become apparent. Continuing with my example, I had decided that it was important to blog regularly. I knew that meant giving up something else, because there’s only so much time in the day. I decided I would give up lunchtime gaming on certain days to allow me to blog. That way, I could easily make decisions like I did today.

Planning for Outcomes
“I think a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.” –Mr. Parker, The Way of the Gun

Having just explained why plans are good, I must hasten to say that plans never actually work as written. I think that this is where many people begin to work with planning and then get frustrated. They put together a plan, begin to execute the plan, and immediately run into roadblocks. The instinctual response is to try to continue to execute the plan, but, of course, it’s not working now. Either they fumble through the steps of the plan, becoming increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome, or they abandon the plan altogether.

Instead, it’s better to see this as just another form of finitude. One thing that we’re short on at the beginning of planning is knowledge. We don’t know what parts of our plan won’t work or what events in the world will go wrong and interfere. Furthermore, there’s not way to know. If we did know, we’d make different plans, right?

This leads into a basic reality that we must face when we plan: uncertainty. I actually consider this to be a fundamentally spiritual point. We often live under the delusion that we control much of our world, but if you stop to think about it, there is so much that is beyond our control. Even our own bodies refuse to bend to our will. Planning in a way that ignores these realities is egotistical, though reality will assert itself in time. However, planning in humility acknowledges our lack of control, which changes how we consider our plans.

James speaks to this well in his letter:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (‭James‬ ‭4‬:‭13-16‬ ESV)

Therefore, since we cannot guarantee that our plan will actually be effective, we must be sure to at least understand the objective of the plan. What are we trying to accomplish here? That way, when (not if!) the plan goes awry, it’s possible to adjust the plan to something new to still be able to achieve our objective.

Remember: we’re never planning for the sake of planning. That’s silly. Rather, we’re trying to make sure that something happens. In a way, as long as we accomplish our goal, who cares how it happened?

I’ve read this in enough places that it’s almost a proverb: Planning is invaluable, but plans are worthless. Planning is invaluable, because the process of thinking through the plan helps reduce uncertainty by developing enough knowledge to support your improvisation efforts when you have to adjust course. But plans are worthless, because woodenly following a plan is not guaranteed to bring about the results that you want.

I think I’ll tie this post up here. Hopefully there’s been something of value here. But my lunchtime is over, and there are other things that I’ve planned to do today that I need to get to.


Totally a proof of concept post

I’m posting from my iPhone! Why? Mostly because I can.

That being said, I’m rolling around some thoughts involving this blog, among other things, so this is a useful test.

Well, to me, at any rate.


Gerald Cameron is looking for editorial work

Gerald Cameron is looking for editorial work:

I’m looking for (paying) editing work.

For now, I’m only looking for one project and then, depending on how other current work goes and how large the project I pick up ends up being, I may look for more work in a few weeks.

I do developmental/content editing and copyediting and I’m interested in projects where I do either or both.

Currently I have two editing credits, both on roleplaying game products: Dirty Secrets by Dark Omen Games and Worldbreakers: Etherkai by Omnivangelist Media. I am also in the process of editing future Omnivangelist Media products, including future Worldbreakers products. As you can see, my expertise is primarily RPGs, but I’m not limiting myself to them.

As a developmental editor, my philosophy leans strongly towards a belief in quality work with a strong bias towards useability/user-centred focus. To that end, I give a lot of attention to organization, clarity and making the implicit explicit. Also, examples are a good thing.

If you are interested in my services, please contact me via e-mail or private message. Anyone making a proposal in comments will automatically be rejected, even if it means I do not pick up any work. I’ll be choosing a project based on personal interest and ability to fit it into my schedule (and the ability to negotiate a fair rate for my work).

Thanks for your interest.

In addition to the games mentioned, Gerald edited A Flower for Mara but wasn’t credited due to an oversight on my part. Bad Seth! No biscuit!

As I said on the Google+ post, Gerald has been professional and prompt, even under the ridiculous deadlines that I’ve asked of him. I plan on working with Gerald again when I’m ready to get Showdown up and running, and I recommend him to anyone seeking a quality editor. You can contact him at linnaeus@gmail.com.


On brooms, screw drivers, DJs, and voided warranties

There’s been some discussion about game design and play on Twitter recently, and my name was briefly invoked. So, as a public service to all, I figured I’d write up this blog post to discuss my views. Also, I’ve not really written here much of late, and it’s nice to have something to say.

So, I’m going to talk about design. Not game design per se, but general principles of design. Or, rather, general principles about the relationship between the designer and the user, as mediated by the thing that the designer has made.

Here’s a simple example. A designer creates a broom to fulfill the purpose “enable the user to sweep the floor”. He selects a shape for the broom, chooses the materials, and lays out how to assemble the materials into the broom. I buy the broom and use it to sweep my floor. Voila! I’m using the broom in a way that matches the intentions of the designer of enabling the user (me!) to sweep the floor.

But then (to pick a totally hypothetical example) something falls behind the stove. Because of the way that it’s wedged into the counter, I can’t really pull out the stove. So I grab a couple of brooms and use their handles like giant chopsticks to retrieve the item that is behind the stove. In this case, I’m still using the broom, but it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly in accord with the intentions of the designer.

What happened in the second example? It’s simple, really. While designing the broom, the designer gave it certain attributes (such as “a long handle”) with the intent that these attributes would allow the broom to fulfill the purpose for the broom (“enable the user to sweep the floor”). However, many of those attributes can also be applied to other purposes (like the “enable the user to retrieve a stuffed animal from behind the stove” purpose).

This isn’t controversial. Repurposing is something that we do all the time.[1] If you’ve ever pried open a can of paint with a screw driver, scratched your back on the edge of a wall, used a newspaper to kill a fly, or stood on a chair to reach a high shelf, then you’ve repurposed a designed item.

In fact, this sort of repurposing is simply an act of design. Usually it’s improvisational, but that doesn’t make it any less an act of design.

So, where does the original designer fit into all this?

This is where my concept of a “voided warranty” comes into play.[2] When I repurpose something, I am moving away from the design work done by the original designer. That’s all well and good. However, it is unfair to then hold the original designer responsible for my design work. After all, he was designing with a different purpose in mind. By tinkering with his design, I’ve “voided the warranty” of the design. The responsibility for making it work now rests with me.

For example, I really struggled to use the two broom handles to retrieve the stuffed animal from behind the stove. But it never occurred to me to blame the original designer of the two brooms I was using. When I repurposed the brooms, they temporarily ceased to be instances of broom design and became an instance of man-sized chopstick design by myself. At that point, any blame for the poor quality of the tool rested squarely on myself. After all, it was my design that was being used at this point, not our distant industrial designer.

And this is how I approach game design. There is nothing holy in the received rules of a game. If you want to tinker, go ahead! The rules of a game are ultimately whatever the group agrees to. Consider all the house rules for Monopoly (and despair). Or, for that matter, all the potential optional rules for Dungeons & Dragons. There’s plenty of room for individual acts of design within a given gaming group.

However, once you begin to tinker, the game that you are playing is now your design, not the original designer’s. As such, you are responsible for making it work. And, if that makes you happy, then far be it from me to stop you. Enjoy your designing career![3]

[1] In fact, being the postmodern kinda guy that I am, I’ll note that the act of making the broom in the first place is itself an example of repurposing. After all, isn’t the designer selecting materials that have pre-existing attributes and then utilizing those attributes in new ways?

[2] As an aside, I’m pretty sure that I picked up on this phrasing from someone else, but I don’t remember who.

[3] There’s a related debate in RPG circles on “playing the game as written” versus “making the game your own”. I see these as two different design philosophies, similar to the portrayed philosophies of Apple vs. Linux. The design aesthetic of Apple is that “everything just works”. The user is sheltered from as many of the details as possible, in order to allow for an elegant experience. In contrast, the design aesthetic of Linux seems to be “make everything open” to allow for maximum hackage. Is either correct? Can’t they both be correct?


Water and the well-crafted exception

I don’t think that I’ve mentioned that I’m not working in IT anymore. Instead, since last December, I’ve been heading up the Systems Department at my workplace. Being in Systems is like being an on-site business consultant…or a game designer. So, yeah. All the books I’ve been reading on design, psychology, sociology, and the like…now all work-related.

I love my job.

Okay, yeah, it’s been cutting into my game design, because I’m solving design problems at work. I haven’t had the mental bandwidth to do much more. (Well, that’s some of it, at least.) But, on the other hand, I get to apply my game design lessons to business issues.

Here’s an example of what I mean. At GenCon 2008, in a late-night conversation with some other designers, I uttered a phrase that had been kicking around in my head for a while: “players are more than just emitters of moves”. A system–be it a game system or a business system– is composed of people, and people do more than just emit moves…or perform tasks. They are each one a complex individual, and a designer who fails to take that into account is being foolish.

(As an aside, I consider that to be the point that I diverged a bit from my strict interest in Eurogames and found myself giving Fantasy Flight Games a lot of money for games like Cosmic Encounter and Battlestar Galactica, which both require that you play the players, not just their mechanical positions.)

I’ve heard a related sentiment echoed by Mark Rosewater, Head Designer for Magic: The Gathering. He has said on several occasions that “you can’t fight human nature”. Sometimes, design simply needs to bow to the reality that people are a certain way, and, even though the designed method might be superior in the abstract, it fails because it runs counter to human nature.

But this cuts against the personality that I’ve seen present in designers (including myself). I mean, if it was written in the rules (or the SOP), shouldn’t people do it? I mean, it’s right there, right? And who cares if the method doesn’t make sense to the people who are using it? If the outcome is superior, that’s all that is important, right?

And then, today, at staff prayer, I had a sudden thought. God designed the universe, right? That means all the intricate order of physics and astronomy and chemistry was all originally orchestrated and designed by Him. So, when we look at nature, what do we see? Certainly, we see order. We see repeatable behavior and consistency. As an example, consider the states of matter: solid, liquid, gas (and plasma, right?). The solid form of a substance is more dense than its liquid form, which is in turn more dense than its gaseous form. Right?

But what about water? Ice, the solid form of water, is actually less dense than water, which is why ice floats in water.

Buh?

That doesn’t make any sense at all! Except, if ice sank in water, it would kill all the fish, who would not be sheltered from the cold winter air by the protective layer of ice that forms on top of the water.

A human designer might have applied the rule with a broad stroke, making ice sink in water. It would have been elegant, simple, even aesthetically pleasing to consider rationally.

It also would have been wrong.

God knows the value of the well-crafted exception in design. Because simplicity isn’t the goal.

I think I need to consider this further.


A lesson in journalism

Hooray! Peoria made the national news!

Illinois Police Pepper Spray Crowd Mourning 4-Month-Old Baby

Honestly, this looks like a mild rewrite of an article from our very own Peoria Journal-Star.

Baby found dead in Peoria home; police fire pepper balls on crowd

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

Now, one of my co-workers is a member of the Tazewell County Auxiliary Police, and when this story was passed around the office, he was a bit put out. He pointed out that it is the job of the coroner to take the body of the deceased. It’s also the job of the police to secure a crime scene. For the record, an area where an infant died suddenly counts as a crime scene. Finally, he noted that it is normal procedure to give multiple warnings before using pepper spray.

Here’s an excerpt from the Journal-Star story:

“A bunch of family and friends came and were refusing to let the officers out with the baby,” said Lt. Marshall Dunnigan. “We had to use great force to get the coroner out with the baby.”

So, hang on a sec. There was a crowd of people attempting to interfere with the police doing their proper duty, and so the police eventually responded to protect the coroner and enforce the law? Why is this a problem?

But even the Journal-Star story sounds like the police overreacted, not to mention the Associated Press story that Fox News ran.

Another co-worker put his finger on this issue:

The problem lies in the use of the word “mourners.” That automatically puts the police in a bad light, implying they used force on people who were in emotional distress. It was a crowd gathered at the house that threatened to turn into a mob by interfering with police. Mourners are usually found at funerals, visitations, grave sites, etc., not congregating at a possible crime scene. It shows us how one eight-letter word can skew the perception of an event.

(Emphasis mine.)

And that’s it right there. Let me reword the lead sentence of that news article by making a slight adjustment:

Police officers fired pepper balls into a group of mourners mob gathering at the house of a 4-month-old girl who died in her South Peoria home Wednesday.

Makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Or, as an alternate example, check out how I tweak this headline:

Officers use pepper balls to break up mob of about 100 people fire pepper balls at group of children

Use of force by the police always draws a lot of scrutiny, and that is certainly a good thing. I’m fairly confident that the entire situation will be reviewed and investigated as necessary internally; moreover, it’s good for the police to be accountable to the public at large. At the same time, we all need to be careful of the opinions that we form as a result of our interactions with the media. Just a single word or phrase can change all our opinions and reactions.

Learn to read between the lines.


In honor of the day…

Today is the anniversary of the Shot Heard Round the World. As such, I offer the following links in a spirit of celebration and contemplation:

The Sons of Liberty RPG. A fast-paced game of crazy, over-the-top, steampunk Revolutionaries fighting the British Man. Though, as the game points out, if you think that’s crazy, consider what the real Founders actually did, and you’ll have to admit that was pretty crazy and over-the-top, too. (Photos are here.)

In his own words: Paul Revere describes his midnight ride.

Another account of April 18-19, 1775.

Finally, an old press release from General Gage.


Tonight we try the bacon vodka

Yep. The bacon vodka.

For those who can’t wait, I’ll try to remember to put something in my Facebook status message. For the rest of you, I’ll post here tomorrow and discuss how it went.

Plus, it’s playtest night, so it’s time for more Blood Red Sands!

And, in celebration, a different type of vodka. HT: Jeremy


I’m on Facebook!

I don’t know why! But I did it anyways!

My profile


It continues to be true….

silence n. a virtue found in few bloggers