Category Archives: Thoughts About My Life

My Life with Games (part 31)–Papers, Please

Are you nostalgic for the Cold War? Does the life of a petty bureaucrat sound thrilling and exciting? Want to grapple with the moral ambiguities of being the face of a system you can’t totally support? Then Papers, Please is the game for you!

Okay, yes, I could totally sell this one better. Like how this game is truly a game design tour de force. How the intersection of game mechanics made me feel more like I was playing a roleplaying game than a puzzle game. How there’s even something oddly enjoyable and thrilling about…well…doing paperwork.

But maybe here’s the best selling point of all. In his preface to The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Papers, Please is, in part, an exploration of this idea in video game form.

First, here’s a link to the trailer for the game.

The core of gameplay is the view that you see in the trailer. You are behind a desk, interviewing the various people attempting to cross the border at your crossing. You have a rulebook, giving the details of the various items you need to watch for. If you discover discrepancies in the paperwork, you highlight the discrepancy to ask the applicant for more information. Sometimes this resolves the issue, while sometimes it necessitates a denial of entry or even detaining the applicant for further questioning.

So that’s the game. Review paperwork, then stamp “Approved” or “Denied” as appropriate. Or, rather, that’s the core of the game.

See, you’re on a clock. So you’re doing this processing in realtime. It’s not that any one applicant has a clock. It’s just that your workday ends when you’re out of applicants to process. 

And that’s where the next aspect of the game enters play.

You are paid piecework. So, the more applicants you process, the more money you get paid. Mess up, and you’ll get citations, and eventually your pay will be docked.

And each day, you have to go home and pay the bills with the money you made. Because you have a family to feed and keep warm. You have to pay the rent. Get lax on these duties, and your family can get sick and even die. It happened in my playthrough. I lost two family members to disease because I couldn’t afford both food and heat, and then I couldn’t afford medicine.

So, your performance at the checkpoint directly impacts your ability to care for your family. 

With me so far?

Now comes the next twist.

The applicants you’re processing at the checkpoint aren’t ciphers. They have personality. They’ll talk to you. Sometimes they’ll ask you for favors, or they’ll overshare. Like the woman who mentioned that her husband had just gone ahead of her in line. Or the other woman who slipped me a note, telling me that the man behind her was her pimp, intent on selling her once they entered the country, and please, oh please, don’t let him through.

So, what about that, right? The pimp’s paperwork is in order. I’m supposed to let him through. But should I? 

 But there’s even more! Your country is embroiled in a tense geopolitical situation, which means that the rules for crossing becoming increasingly arcane and difficult to enforce. And then there are the foreign terrorists, hopping the wall and throwing bombs. And then there’s the homegrown resistance movement who appeals to your patriotism to aid them.

There’s probably even more. I’ve only played through the game once. But, without a doubt, the core gameplay activity of processing paperwork is only a small part of the overall game experience. 

This isn’t just a game about playing “One of these things doesn’t belong”. This is a game about morality at the intersection of competing loyalties.

By my count, my character had at least four competing loyalties: 

1) His government 

2) His family 

3) His country (not the same thing as his government) 

4) Humanity in general 

 Following the rules of applicant processing demonstrated loyalty to the government. Making enough money to provide for his family’s needs demonstrated loyalty to them. Aiding the resistance movement demonstrated loyalty to his country (at least in my mind!) And sometimes bending the rules at the checkpoint demonstrated loyalty to humanity.

But these loyalties do not live peacefully with each other. And, as the game goes on, you are forced to make choices between them.
In my game, I tried to juggle my responsibilities. I tried to do good work at the checkpoint, though I’ll admit that much of this was motivated by my desire to pay for my family’s needs. So, yeah, I accepted some kickback from one of the border guards for detaining people, but I didn’t change my actions. I figured that if I could get a little bit extra for food for my family while still doing my job, then there was no harm. I wasn’t looking for extra reasons to detain people, though maybe I was a bit harsher than I might otherwise have been. I mean, maybe. And I was a patriot! So when the resistance movement contacted me, I jumped at the chance to help.

That was morally grueling in its own way. At first, the resistance only wanted me to look the other way when certain people were coming through. though, as the news came out about bombings against government buildings, I knew that I was culpable. And then came the day when they asked me to kill. And, God help me, I did.

Things came to a head when my superiors announced that there would be an audit of my actions at the checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that I could come through that audit without incident. One of the regulars at the checkpoint had told me about a way to get forged passports to get across the border to a neighboring country. (It was an…unusual…relationship.) But it required real passports from that country as a base. So I began confiscating appropriate passports from people coming through the checkpoint. The day before the audit, and I’m still one passport short. I’m going to lose a family member.

I can’t risk it. I have to leave tonight. So I get three passports for me, my wife and my child. My wife’s mother heads for her hometown to try to disappear within the borders of our country. I don’t know if she made it.

As the game ends, I wait at another border checkpoint. This time, I’m the one clutching bad paperwork, praying that the clerk is unattentive. I hand over our papers. He goes back into the office.

I hear one stamp. I hear a second stamp.

Then there’s a pause. It feels like eternity.

And then a third stamp. I heave a sigh of relief. Then, we cross the border, safe but exiles.

Papers Please was a morally exhausting game.  I tried to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I always did. I know that I screwed over perfectly innocent people at the end of the game in my mad dash to get passports for my family.

Papers Please was also an amazing game. There are apparently 15-20 possible endings for the game, which means that your playthrough could be totally different than mine. I’m also impressed by its ability to take core gameplay that doesn’t seem all that interesting and make it fascinating.

But even more, I appreciate that this game managed to make an artful statement through the application of game mechanics, not merely narrative. And it’s an important lesson.

The System will not save you. The System will not give you the guidance you need. The System can never encompass the entirety of a situation. The System can never replace wisdom. The System cannot tell you what is right. And so, at times, the System must be resisted. It must be fought. It must be overturned.

Or, to quote from the Foundation series, “Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what it right.”

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I have not forgotten you….

February has been rough on the blogging. Partly this is because I’ve been writing a bit over at the Whiskey City Collaborative. Partly this is because of some life events that required my attention (e.g. one last Battlestart Galatica game with a co-worker who was taking a new job in another state). And, honestly, parly because it’s February. Between all that, the schedule has been off and the blogging has been light. I intend on remedying this over the next month, but I wanted to write a little something now. Mostly to begin that process of getting back on track, but also to assure all of you that I have not forgotten.


My Life with Games (part 30)–Flower

Last year, due to the generosity of my father-in-law, we were able to purchase a PlayStation 4 for Crystal and me. This was pretty exciting, because, you know, video games! Also, Sony has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with those weird, offbeat indie game companies that make the sorts of games that fascinate me. So the PS4 was a shoo-in. And, yes, I’ve played a couple of AAA games, but most of my gaming has been with indies.

Like Flower.

Flower is one of those games that seems like a conscious effort to see how far the video game formula can be successfully stretched. It’s not very long; the playthrough video I’m using for this post is only 100 minutes or so, which is the length of a shortish movie. The concept is weird, as I’ll explain in a few minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s all that difficult to play; Hope (age 5) was able to play through it with only occasional assistance from me.

And yet, what a profound experience.

SPOILER TAG: yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I’m going to be hyperlinking a lot in this post to a playthrough of Flower. This way you can actually see and hear what I’m describing.

So here’s the conceit of the game. You are a gust of wind, or the dream of a flower, or a dancing flower petal (the game is kinda vague on this point) that is flying around a landscape filled with flowers. It is your job to touch all the necessary flowers to open the next segment, where you will find more flowers to touch. When you touch a flower, the game plays a musical note, based on which flower you touched. Some sounds like chimes, while others are choral stabs. So your flight is a musical experience. In addition, as you touch flowers, you accumulate more flower petals in your wake. So, you begin as a single petal, and you become this multi-colored streamer of beauty, swooping and twisting in the breeze.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Don’t worry about watching too much; you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

Pretty, isn’t it?

But there are other things going on. The main menu shows each level as a flower in a pot on the window sill of an apartment. Each level opens with a little cutscene of a dark, broken city, which contrasts sharply with the bright colors of the gameplay levels.

Or does it?

Because as you proceed through the levels, the sun is going down. You progress from daylight on levels 1 and 2 to sunset on level 3 and twilight on level 4. The world is getting darker around you as you flit from flower to flower.

And then there’s The Moment.

Flower is a testament to the power of effective user experience design. By the time you reach level 4, the game has instructed you well through patterns and wordless hints. You have learned that accomplishing a given task unlocks a new area, and you’ve learned what that unlocking looks like. For example, on level 4, you are led from area to area by a series of street lights that turn on as you complete tasks. The lights on the electrical wires turn on, one by one, leading to the next lamp, which initiates the next area. (It looks like this.)

And that’s why The Moment works so well. Check it out.

The black smoke. The pulsating red light. The dying grass. Suddenly the idyllic world you have been playing has been desecrated. Ahead of you lies wreckage and ruin. But the game has taught you well. You must go forward. And so, suddenly, you find yourself moving through a wasteland of pollution and metal. Lightning flashes in the distance above a dark, twisted citadel. The level terminates, and you find yourself feeling, “What happened to my beautiful, happy, relaxing game?”

Which brings you to level 5.

I consider level 5 of Flower to be one of the crowning achievements of video game design. All the work of the previous four levels begins to pay off here.

The color is gone. The sun is gone. Instead, rain pounds out of a black sky, occasionally lit by lightning. All around you, twisted girders punch out of the ground. High voltage electrical wires crisscross across the sky.

And then, as you attempt to find and touch the flowers huddled around the level, you discover something new. If you touch one of the girders, you receive a powerful electrical jolt. The screen shakes and flashes, you hear a zapping sound, and even the controller shakes and buzzes. You feel like you’ve been zapped. Every person I’ve watched play this game yelps and almost drops the controller the first time it happens.

And worse, the petals that you have been accumulating burn up into wisps of smoke.

When I played this game for the first time, I suddenly began to be afraid that it was possible to die in this game, burning up in a flare of electricity.

So, on level 5, you do not swoop and flit through the air. Rather, you crawl through metallic wreckage, oppressed by the sky, threatened by the land, dwarfed by the dark landscape that you wander. I’ll be honest; it felt like passing through Mordor.

The level reaches its climax as you are hurdled down a series of canyons, where spearlike girders thrust out of the canyon walls as you desperately try to avoid being “shocked” over and over again. Pieces of metal fall from overhangs as you try to dodge, and you are so far from the happy place where you started in level 1.

And then, physically and emotionally exhausted, you emerge from the canyons, and before you is the city. Walls made of grey buildings forbid you, and yet the end level swirl beckons.

Admittedly, this is where the game gets a little heavy-handed, but in the moment, I didn’t care.

Because, as you head toward the end of the level, it simply fades out, returning you to the main menu, with level 6 unlocked.

And, of course, you dive right in, because you can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, right?

Level 6 starts right where level 5 left off. The end level swirl is still there, so that’s where you head. And when you enter it, everything changes.

A single flower grows up, but then it begins to radiate power. And, with an explosion of light, color and life bursts back into the world.

The color returns to the grass. Flowers sprout up. And you…you are glowing brightly with power.

The grey forbidding city still stands before you, its entrance webbed over with girders. But something feels different. So you head into the girders, braced for that terrible electrical shock feeling.

Instead, the girders explode before you, and you enter into the city.

The first area is covered with girders, but now you can destroy them. As you fly around, shattering metal, buildings grow from the ground and take on color. Where there was once greyness and death, there is color and life.

The emotion has shifted, too. At the beginning of the game, you are happy and carefree. Levels 4 and 5 destroy that. But, in Level 6, the mood changes again. You aren’t carefree anymore, true, but neither are you afraid. You are focused and determined. You have discovered your strength, and there is a battle to be won. Every time you hurl yourself at another piece of metal, it feels like punching back at the darkness. You have passed the trial of night, and you have now come to usher in the day.

As you work through the level, you can still see the citadel of twisted iron in the distance. Clearly that is where you must go. And, eventually, you arrive at the gate of the tower. It looks like the entrance to hell. And yet, as you storm in, it cannot stop you. The once-fearful girders that spear from the ground fall before you as you force your way inside. And then you are at the base of the tower, shattering it from within as you ascend.

And then, as you burst out of the top of the tower, there is a moment of transcendent beauty. And the world holds its breath as, in a final eruption of life and color, the metal tower is transformed into a giant cherry blossom tree, showering blossoms upon the newly reborn city.

The closing scenes show the city again. All is clean and sunlit. Even spaces that you saw earlier in the game are clean. And the closing image is of a little flower, growing in the crack of a sidewalk. And…fade out.

***

When I sat down to play Flower, I was looking for a light, mindless game. I was wanting something cute and simple. I was taking a mental health day, and I wasn’t really in the mood to be challenged. So, I was especially susceptible to the bait-and-switch that the game inflicts on its players. I was caught completely off-guard by The Moment and the raw emotion of the last third of the game.

I won’t lie; when the game was finished, I lay back on my bed, emotionally wrung out by the journey I had just taken.

Part of it was my appreciation for the game’s stance on “the city”. The city isn’t evil. It’s just been overtaken by darkness. It is in need of rescue. Level 6 is all about the redemption of the city. You free it from bondage and make it a place fit for human habitation again.

But there was a price. And the price was a passing through darkness. As a player, you are not equipped at the beginning of the game to face the darkness. No, rather you must pass through the night yourself. And, in some way, that is what qualifies you to become a part of the redemption of the city.

In other words, this game told me my story back to me.

What if my suffering isn’t just coincidence? What if it is a necessary part of my becoming what I want to be? What if I need to suffer in order to feel, to care, to empathize with others? To be able to sit across from someone and truly engage with their sorrow? What if I need to hurt in order to find the passion to shield and shelter others?

What if I needed to crawl between an oppressive sky and a dead earth, simply to be ready, willing, and able to bring color and life into the lives of others?

What if it hasn’t all been in vain?

P.S. Thanks to Catfroman for the four-part playthrough that I used. Note that this was the PS3 version. The PS4 version is even prettier. The links to each video are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.


God made manifest

I love the idea of the church calendar, but I have generally failed to integrate it into my life as a spiritual discipline. Being at a church that observes Advent and Lent helps, but there’s more to the church calendar than just those two seasons. So, this year, I’m going to be working at incorporating this discipline into my life.

All of that being prelude to:

Today is Epiphany. This is the day that the Church celebrates the coming of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. The Western Church tends to lean more towards a focus on the magi, and the Eastern Church emphasizes the baptism more.

What a weird grab bag of events, right? But here’s what they have in common: they are all events in the Gospels where Jesus’s glory was made manifest. The magi coming to adore the newly born King of the Jews. The descending Spirit and the Father’s acclamation at the baptism. The miracle of turning water into wine, which John describes as Jesus “manifest[ing] His glory.” (John 2:11)

At Epiphany, we celebrate the glory of God having entered the world.

So today, at work, I have a lit candle on my desk (while I’m sitting there of course. Safety first!). This candle is a reminder that the glory of God shines in the darkness of this world. That the divine has broken through into our mortal wreckage. That, as John says elsewhere, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

So, today, on this Epiphany, take heart! The Light has entered the world, and no power on Earth can overthrow it.

Happy Epiphany, everyone.


Where we go from here

First, I want to thank all of you who responded to this post about my ongoing blogging. It was very encouraging to hear that my thoughts are helpful and valuable to you. So, I figure I’ll keep doing it.

Here’s my current plan. I’ve put together a Trello board to hold blog topics. I will begin to collect ideas for things to discuss on this board, and then I’ll use my lunch break on Mondays and Wednesdays to write about them. That doesn’t translate into posting on Mondays and Wednesdays, mind you; I’ll release my posts when they’re ready. However, this should hopefully correlate with posting once or twice a week.

My sister Adiel made a suggestion that I’m going to employ. My Twitter feed has a large number of links to articles that I have read, but I don’t really explain why the article was interesting to me. So, as I read things, I will put some aside for further comment. In fact, I’m pretty sure that will be the name of that little series: For Further Comment. I’ll post a link to the article I’m discussing and share my thoughts on it.

(For the geeks and geeks at heart out there: to enable this, I set up a new recipe in IFTTT, using the Instapaper and Gmail channels. I set up a new folder in Instapaper for articles I’m going to comment on further. Putting an article into that folder triggers the recipe, which emails a new card into my blog Trello board. The upshot is that I don’t have to do anything extra to remember to write about an article. Just put it in the right folder in Instapaper, and the Internet does the rest.)

And…I’m back.

I also intend on continuing the My Life with Games series. I won’t go so far as to claim that this will be high-level game criticism, but at least, I’d like to continue to write about the artistic and cultural impact of games. So, I know that I owe the world a blog post about the video game Flower. Past that, we’ll see.

Finally, just in general, I figure I’ll write about philosophy. Wait! Come back! Maybe here’s a better way to say that: over this last week, I realized that this blog has always been about philosophy. If you’ve enjoyed reading what I’ve had to say to date, then–surprise!–you’ve been enjoying philosophy. And that’s good. Philosophy is all about how we understand the world, and one’s philosophy–whether it’s held consciously or not–will shape one’s actions in the world. Change someone’s thoughts, and you change that person’s choices. Change enough people, and you change the world.

Yeah, that seems like it’s worth my time.

That all said, I don’t know what that looks like. I guess we’ll find out together.

In closing, thank you again for your responses, and thank you for being along for this ride. I hope it’s valuable to you. It’s already been valuable for me.


This is not my journal

I have a journal. It’s a black, saddle-stitched notebook with unlined paper. It’s maybe 8″x10″ or so? Something like that. It was a gift from friends (hi, Cory and Vicky!), and I was saving it for something special. So I started drawing in it for fun, and I discovered that I actually do emotional processing through drawing. Weird, huh? And, because I’m not actually good at drawing, I will draw little captions and things to make it all come together and make sense or, at least, express the emotion I’m wanting to work through. The notebook lives in my bag and travels with me everywhere I go.

No, you can’t see it.

And that’s an important realization for me. This blog certainly is a place for me to be expressive. But it’s still a public place, and that matters.

So, as I head into the new year, I intend on writing more here. I intend on expressing myself and sharing what I’m thinking about and all that. For that matter, both this post and the previous one were jotted quickly on my iPhone while waiting for something; you may see more of these shortish thoughts from me as I drop quick little hits.

But this isn’t where I need to go to process my emotions. That’s best done in a private space. Like my notebook.


God created Arrakis to train the faithful

I have no idea if 2014 was a good year or not. I mean, how do you compare events? One big bad event equals two small good events? How do you balance those scales?

And what if they don’t balance?

So, this might be the year that I give up on deciding if a year was good or bad. Because, as bleak as this may sound, there’s not enough good to make up for any amount of bad.

Instead, this is the year when I finally started to realize that the suffering of this life has meaning. At my best, I can see how God is using my suffering to make me into the kind of person that I really want to be. And, apparently, this is what it takes.

In the novel Dune, the desert-dwelling Fremen have a saying about their harsh planet: God created Arrakis to train the faithful. There’s something necessary about the desert. In the wasteland, you discover what really matters. In the desert, you truly find yourself.

And in the world to come, there will be no desert. But now is the time for endurance, to let the harsh winds of this life sculpt me into something worthy of that coming age.

Happy New Year, everyone.


This isn’t a post about New Year’s resolutions

It’s late. The house is quiet, because everyone has gone to bed, except for me. And I have this soul searching to do, so I may as well do it here, right?

Except, that’s been the thing, really. I haven’t been doing my soul searching here. And that leads me to ask: why do I have this blog?

Really, it’s a bigger question than that. I have this creative itch, and I’m not sure how to scratch it or what I’m looking for. Or, maybe what I’m really saying is: I’m not sure who my audience is anymore.

For all that I like my solitude, I find that my creative outlets require other people. Game design, DJing, even writing–I need someone to be on the other side, interacting with what I’m making.

But I’m not sure who that is anymore. And that makes it hard for me to create.

On top of that, to be honest, I haven’t felt safe on the Internet in a long time. But, really, that’s just a function of not knowing who my audience is. Or, maybe better, it’s a function of not knowing who my community is. Or, even better, the overlapping of my communities.

From the beginning, I’ve insisted on an integrated Internet existence. I could be the nodal point where the various disparate communities of which I partake could meet and interact. Yeah, maybe you didn’t know each other, but you knew me, and so that could be enough, right?

But there’s been so much turnover in my communities, and strife and fear have resulted. As such, I’ve withdrawn, hiding in my shell where I couldn’t be hurt. At least, so ran the theory. But it hasn’t really helped. Instead, I’ve just become silent in the world.

And I don’t want to be silent anymore

Earlier today on Twitter, I wrote that I was giving thought to pursuing creativity again. To having a plan. Well, maybe the first step is simply to identify my audiences. Who am I trying to connect with? Who am I hoping will be listening? I have some ideas on this, but I’d love to hear from any of you, too.

So here’s where I’m going to get really needy. For all of you reading this, why are you here? What are you hoping to get out of reading what I write? Why do you come back?

I don’t just want to be speaking into the void. So, let me know: are you out there?

And who are you?


My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.


Happy New (Liturgical) Year

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which makes it the first day of the liturgical year.

So, happy new year!

I’m still working on connecting the liturgical calendar more into my life. The idea is beautiful: structure time around the Gospel narrative. The first coming of Christ in Advent, the dawning of light at Epiphany, the wilderness wandering of Lent, the darkness and triumph of Holy Week, the power of Pentecost, the long slow rhythms of Ordinary Time, and the final eschaton of Christ the King Sunday, which brings us back to Advent.

Living the liturgical calendar is living the Gospel, one day at a day, looking forward to the day when time itself will be redeemed by its Creator.

So, once again, the story begins
Until that blessed day
When it finally ends