Tag Archives: Games

The Sympathetic Universe, Part 3

Whoops, the Entity had missed something. It rewound the reality. It couldn’t seem to get to precisely what it was looking for, so it switched to a four-dimensional view. Finally, it found the moment (measured in millenia in our time) where the Neanderthals got eradicated, and moved back to automatic progression through the time dimension. A slaughter. Geez, Sapiens is mean! 

The Entity received an invitation to participate in a shared reality from its sibling. It ignored it.

Sapiens went on to eradicate wooly mammoths and saber tooth tigers. Then it exploded in numbers, covering the entire planet, nearly eight billion.  Sapiens started flying through the sky and communicating via long-wavelength radiation.  Suddenly the planet was an uninhabitable, radioactive wasteland. Uh-oh, rewind.

Actually, let’s pause. The Entity considered its next move. Should it start a new reality and hope it generated interesting creatures that didn’t annihilate themselves? If it was to rescue this reality, what would be the proper intervention? The rules worked so well, it didn’t want this to end up just being another make-it-up-as-you-go reality.

The Entity decided to rewind for now and figure out what to do about the end of the world later. It liked woolly mammoths, so it put one in a glacier where Sapiens wouldn’t find it until it was ready to appreciate it.

The Mongols were decimating China when The Entity got another invitation from its sibling. This time it offered a counter-invitation. “Come look at my reality.”

“What? Just watch? That’s boring.” said the Sibling, “Those zero-player realities always collapse into boring patterns.”

“This one is different,” the Entity insisted.

Finally, the Sibling relented.  “There’s nothing here,” it complained.

“You have to be at the right point in time and space.” The Entity provided coordinates and a time to its Sibling.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” it whined, “I just see a bunch of shapes growing and shrinking.”

“You have the dimensions wrong,” said the Entity, “View in three dimensions, and play on the time dimension. Play slowly,” it offered a playback speed.

“Oh, I see it. What are these little things? What is that one doing?”

“Which one?”

The Sibling manifested a light on the head of a young woman in a hovel in France.

“She’s crying. Her husband died.”

The children in the hovel were staring at the woman and her halo of light.

“Now look what you’ve done,” cried the Entity, “Take that light away!”

The children watched the halo wink out, and startled the woman out of her reverie with their cries of wonder. The Entity rewound reality and ran it again without the interference. “This reality is fragile,” it snapped. “Don’t touch.”

In moments, the woman was dead of cholera and her children were sold into servitude. Just as was supposed to happen.

“What?” wondered The Sibling. “What is death? What is crying? What is cholera? How can the woman entity have children and still exist?”

“In this era,” quipped the Entity, “with great difficulty.” It had watched Sapiens make jokes, and liked to think it was getting pretty clever itself. The Sibling didn’t laugh, but it didn’t know what humor was, so it was a tough audience.

Soon The Sibling and The Entity were both ignoring invitations from their cousins. Eventually, they started wondering what those two were up to and they took a look. It was impossible for them to understand what was going on because their temporal-spatial orientation was all wrong and there was so much time and space in this reality that had absolutely nothing interesting in it. Fortunately, when The Entity finally looked at its messages, it offered the appropriate coordinates and play speed, and they were in. It also warned them not to touch right from the start, and made it a rule.

Soon, a good portion of the BABBBABBABABAABBBABABBBBABABABBBBBBBABABAA family was watching The Entity’s reality. This continued for some time. Eventually, a cousin complained, “I want to do more. I’m tired of just watching.”

“No.” said The Entity, and that settled it for a while.

Then another cousin complained, and another, and even The Sibling got involved. The Entity hadn’t realized his reality was going to be in jeopardy just because it was so popular, or it might have never shared it at all. It was a little-considered fact that “rules” were not completely enforceable. They prevented an impulsive Entity from doing something without thinking, but a dedicated Entity might well be able to find where the rule was coded and change that. If you protected those rules, it might find where that rule protecting those rules was and so on. Even if you made rules that protected themselves, in the end, they were all segments of the same entity, and enough intention might be able to break even the hardest rule. It had never happened, but it couldn’t be ruled out.

In an effort to placate, The Entity considered inviting its relatives to go make their own realities, or even make their own copies of its to do with as they pleased, but then one of the cousins suggested something else.

“These little systems, they look like they experience boredom and surprise like us. Do they really, or is it just an illusion? If they can experience emotions we experience, could we experience their emotions?”

This gave The Entity pause. An emotion like sadness or remorse simply couldn’t happen for an omnipotent entity. No, that wasn’t true. It had a distant memory of an ancestor who reached out to its sibling and never received a reply. Entities could feel lonely and sad. They could feel shame if they failed to create the goal state in a shared reality. It wasn’t the same, though.

BABBBABBABABAABBBABABBBBABABABBBBBBBABABAA family’s rule-based realities were fun because of the limitations they imposed. These wretched little systems in The Entity’s reality seemed to be composed entirely of limitations. If The Cousin really wanted to experience misery, why not let it? “Cousin,” The Entity said to The Cousin, “Take your memories and make a backup. To really experience what these little systems do, you will have to become one.”



The Sympathetic Universe: Part 2

The BABBBABBABABAABBBABABBBBABABABBBBBBBABABAA family, whom we shall refer to as the BAA family played hundreds of millions of “change one thing” games. This continued until a new game appeared. This game was special in that it could be entirely different each time. The initiating entity would create a reality. Much like “change one thing,” the entities would then take turns altering the reality. The difference, however, was that encoded in a nearby separate reality accessible to all players was a set of rules that governed what changes each player could make.

Sometimes these rules amounted to “change one thing” with just a few restrictions, other times the restrictions were so severe the game didn’t seem much different from just a one-entity reality. Over the course of this generation, the games became more sophisticated. Soon, rules were set up that led the reality to take automatic reactions to entities’ actions. Entities made puzzles where, following the rules, a player entity had to take the reality from its initial state to a given goal state. Entities developed realities where two players each had a conflicting goal state and they competed with each other to realize it. The new idea of competition allowed entities to feel pride and shame, each of which they thoroughly enjoyed.

Entities made realities with thousands of goal states, goal states shared by players, goal states that did not conflict, allowing several players to win. The rules became more complex, to the point that it would take libraries to describe them. The entities with rule-based realities that essentially no one else could play in were exploring simple rules that would create complex outcomes. The goal was to create a system that produced interesting behavior for as long as possible. This proved to be challenging, as these entities were notoriously difficult to entertain. The systems they created had a problem that they were always settling into predictable patterns or ending up diverging into nonsense that nobody liked.

One entity found a combination of rules that we might dimly recognize as a precursor to our laws of physics. After a few tries, it managed to invent matter, and then it developed rules that caused the matter to clump together into interesting lumps, some of which got big enough that they collapsed in on themselves. The pressure at the middle of these huge lumps was so much that the matter inside fused and generated energy. Smaller lumps turned into spheres. This was so interesting that this entity kept at it until it found several spheres near enough to stars that the energy bathing them made interesting phenomena without disintegrating them entirely.

One sphere had boiling minerals that rose into the sky and became rocky clouds before raining down molten pebbles. Another was just gases making violent storms all over the sphere. A small sphere had subzero nights and inferno-hot days. Sometimes a small lump would collide with a sphere and entertainment would ensue.

A sphere with a large amount of dihydrogen monoxide was of particular interest. Rather than a rock cycle, this sphere had a cycle of this particular compound, which we know as water, that covered most of its surface. The entity observed in fascination as this water system led to more complex systems, including little systems that began to appear inside it.

In the blink of an eye these little systems had become bigger and more complex, all on their own. They fought with each other over resources and the winners got to go on and make more of themselves, perpetuating their own small changes. The entity was amazed. It was omniscient in that it knew all the rules to the reality and it could pause at any point and observe the precise velocity and location of every element, but now the math was so complicated it couldn’t predict what would happen next. From the combination of small, simple behaviors emerged something magical. This entity was thereby introduced to wonder.

The entity continued to watch as the little systems grew. Occasionally something big would come along and destroy almost all of them, but some would always survive, and in moments they would take over the world and send the evolution on a new path.

At some point, the entity noticed a toucan trying to impress a mate. It brought a mango and tossed it to the other toucan, but the gesture was rejected. As the entity watched the toucan, it recognized an emotion. Now this was interesting. All of a sudden, the entity was not just observing, it was empathizing. As the little systems became more complex, there was more and more to empathize with.

And then we showed up.


Constitutional Democrazy is an experimental game I invented a while back to try a mechanic where players write the rules of the game as they play using voting.

As it stood, the game was an expansion of the existing game “Democrazy,” where besides the rulemaking aspect the game was just about colored chips.

In brainstorming what I was going to do for my birthday, I had the idea to apply the rules to another game entirely, and what game better than the classic Monopoly?

It didn’t take long from the start of the game – someone traded the last property for a light blue Monopoly to Tom. Shortly after, Henry proposed a law that light blue be zoned residential 1, or R-1, preventing more than one house from being developed on each space. He showed us pictures on his phone of the beautiful wildlife that would be protected by this restriction. Over Tom’s protests, we passed the law 5-1.

Shortly after that, Henry bought the monopoly off of Tom for the last property to give him a green monopoly. Then James passed a law designating green R-1 (5-1). We passed an “Eminent Domain” law requiring forcible transfers of property to be paid for according to the mortgage value.

I passed a law saying when you land on Chance or Community Chest, you draw three instead of one card and act on each in order. This law passed unanimously. Tom and Henry bribed me to pass a law that would benefit them and Ben, but Ben surprised them by voting against it. Future bribes were conditioned on the law actually passing.

James passed the “Honesty and Transparency in Corruption” act requiring bribes to be paid as promised (Monopoly doesn’t enforce time-delayed contracts by default). We instituted payday lending, where someone could get $50 from the bank once at the cost of gaining nothing on their next go pass.

Henry passed a one-time law letting everyone get a $5 for each $20 they had. Then he tried to pass a couple laws that would take away everyone’s money and give them all $250. They tried to bribe Ben by giving him free houses on his property, but again he voted against it. Then James passed a law requiring all financial redistribution laws to get a unanimous vote to pass.

The game does not technically prescribe a win condition if the game ends prematurely, so we voted on one. For whatever reason, instead of the obvious “whoever has the most assets wins” we randomly selected a winner from a distribution weighted on assets held. I voted against this because I wanted the win condition to be “highest rent on a single property” (I held a developed Park Place). Even though Henry had the most money, Tom ended up winning.

The game received unanimous praise. Beyond merely being fun, many thought it was actually something of a simulation of how capitalism and democracy interact. James suggested he might write a paper about NIMBYism based on this game.

I look forward to playing again.

A review of my games

My father has reached the level of notoriety that he has become known as “The Game Man,” and his game collection now grows through no effort of his own. People give him old games, unplayed games, and some very strange games because they know he will play them. He fills the top level of his foyer closet with his games, and has an entire bookshelf in the garage for the rest of them.

Comparatively, I am still merely a game boy. I still must purchase most of my own games, and my collection does not even fill a miniature bookshelf. It is a very nice bookshelf, though, a gift from my Mother. Also, I know a bit about the best game for the best situation. Let me go through my games from left to right and top to bottom.


A cross between telephone and pictionary. Popular at parties. People will often complain that they can’t draw, but tell them the worse the drawings are, the more fun the game is.


A one hundred year old game (114 years old, to be more precise) that simulates the commodities market. Boiled down, this game is quick to learn and tends to involve a lot of shouting as players each clamor to get the attention of a trading partner.

Seven Wonders Duel

If you have one fellow strategically minded friend, this is a good game for the two of you. Advance through technological ages and build an empire better than your rival’s!

Red Flags

A game where you make imaginary people for your fellow players to date. It’s a fun, simple to play game where you make ridiculous suitors such as a man who “loves kittens, shares all your interests, and is incapable of feeling emotion.” Don’t expect much strategy or a lot of replayability.

Aye, Dark Overlord

One of my favorites, Aye Dark Overlord is a guided improv game where one player plays the overlord and the other players are all his or her minions. The twist? The minions have already failed at a task that the overlord player makes up to assign them. Each minion’s job is to avoid the blame for the mission’s failure. The penalty for being blamed is, of course, death.

The Battle for Vyk Tornaahl

This is more of a piece of art than a game. It’s beautiful, but when my friend, who illustrated one of the cards, showed it to me, and I insisted we play it at three or four events, eventually he said, “Could we play a fun game?”


The classic D&D parody where you kill monsters and take their stuff. This game is simpler to play than a serious strategy game, but more tactically rewarding than a pure party game. My copy is many years old, and has so many expansions and is so well-played I have to hold the box together with rubber bands.

Unstable Unicorns and Exploding Kittens

A small sample of the recent explosion in kickstarter party games. Still more sophisticated than Red Flags strategically, but simpler than Munchkin and much simpler than a real strategy game. Their amusing illustrations and writing make them fun to bring out once or twice at parties, and unicorns and kittens may be effective at drawing out certain reluctant players.


This is a variant of dominoes with simple rules and bright colors.


I often refer to this as “the magnet game.” The goal is to put magnets on a mat without them touching each other. The rest is physics. I find this game is particularly good for attracting the interest of non-gamers, and I often will claim that it has never failed to entertain.

If any of these sounds appealing to you, they’re all still available for sale, I’m sure. If you’re in the area and want to play one, just let me know!

The End of a Campaign

Yesterday, the D&D campaign I began on December 3rd, 2016 ended. Generally, it was a success. The players seemed to think so, and that’s really the most important gauge. I enjoyed myself, although I would be hard pressed to tell you I succeeded in creating the story arc that I originally set out to. Communicating a complex story in four-hour-per-month increments while simultaneously keeping action up for players who themselves can and will change that story is challenging if not impossible task. As a writer, I cringe at the mess I made of my own story at times to keep things moving. Abrupt plot shifts, characters dropping all of their internal motives just to say “ok” to whatever needs to happen for a session to end on time, and of course, monsters and villains inexplicably arriving at exactly the right time to make for an exciting battle. It’s ok, though because this isn’t a fantasy novel. Most if not all of the best moments came from my party’s own sense of their characters and personal creativity.

In Asymmetric Information in D&D, I described some of the entirely organic scenes that arose in my D&D campaign. Let me add a couple more. One of my players insisted on looking through a bad guy’s desk I had just put there for decoration. He kept asking me what he found until I told him he found a list of people they were looking for. Then he kept pushing. “What else do I find?” I told him he found some tawdry love letters to an “Esmerelda.” Then when the bad guy showed up, he read the love letters aloud to infuriate him.

Another player tried to seduce the bartender Ilyna with song. The tavern got excited at such a beautiful voice singing for them and started making requests, which he was happy to fulfill. They had such a good time that Ilyna invited him to stay at the inn as long as he liked and enjoy the food and lodgings free of charge, and he said “no.” He was a wandering man. Ilyna said she understood. The world needed saving. She just had to ask on behalf of her customers.

Another time, I was putting a bunch of vultures on a clocktower just to make it creepy and draw attention, and a player said “someone’s been hanged.” I liked the idea and I decided a NPC priest of the D&D god Pelor they’d met before who had been trying to stoke the peasants into a fury against the queen had overplayed his hand and gotten lynched. The rest of his little gang got run out of town at the same time. It turned out to be an exciting way to tie up loose ends and raise the stakes at the same time. The players, some of whom had a personal connection to this NPC, cut him down and had a burial service. I even got to resolve a little subplot another player had created around himself where he wasn’t sure what version of Pelor he was supposed to be following, the kind, loving Pelor, or the angry, intolerant Pelor these NPCs represented. He’d fought with Pelor so much that for a few campaigns I told him he felt his connection to his god weakened. After laying his former comrade to rest and praying for the rest of the day, Tom the Monk finally understood in his heart he’d been on the right path all along and could feel the light of Pelor shining through him once more.

So, what to learn from this? I should spend less time planning D&D modules ahead of time, and just run with the ad-lib, I think. People really don’t mind when it’s simple or there are plot holes. They love getting the opportunity to do something nobody else has thought of, and uncovering something surprising. What’s especially important, and I think I’ve done well with this, is that I must never lose track of the point of a D&D game. It’s not about telling a heart-wrenching story,  making a perfectly coherent world, or perfectly balancing the monsters and the players in combat. It’s about the all the players having a good time. As a DM, that’s what makes me have a good time.

Murder, chocolate pudding, and ponies

I was playing a game this week in which you play a little rabbit creature with magic powers. The unstated goal was to murder everything in sight, for which you were rewarded with experience that made you stronger in interesting and fun ways. At one point my little serial killer came upon a creature she had been chasing, who was now stuck under some rubble. The protagonist rescued it and the narrator of the game informed me that she had reminded this creature that there is still kindness and mercy in the forest. After accepting the stolen artifact for her inspiring love, the protagonist blew up an owl with two magic missiles and used its soul to empower her to do so again in the future using only one magic missile.


dark chocolate orange pudding recipe

On Friday, I made orange dark chocolate pudding for a party. I’m not sure it was the right snack for that venue. I didn’t put as much effort into the presentation as the above picture. People liked the dish for not being excessively sweet, and even though only three people out of eight (including me) ate any, one person may have had three bowls of it. I still have an awful lot left over, so I’ll take some to my co-workers who expressed interest on Friday when I mentioned I was going to make it.

But the crowning story of this week, if we include the prior weekend, is that Alice got to go visit the wild ponies of Virginia.

Enraged, a wild pony viciously attacks Alice’s hip.

It is illegal to pet these ponies. Please witness in this picture, Alice is not petting the pony. To my knowledge, there are no laws in the state of Virginia against being eaten by ponies.

Asymmetric Information in D&D

The key element of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the party. Seldom does a dungeon master run an entire campaign for just one person. A cooperative group of players is central to the game since its founding, and is so entrenched that when a player doesn’t want to cooperate, things can go very badly even outside the game itself.

But that can make for a dull story. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had no Boromir, a friend turned foe by the evil power of the One Ring only to be later redeemed. NPCs can serve this purpose handily, but it’s harder to get player characters to change alliances and fight with one another.

One issue is well-defined moral dichotomy, which to some extent I have already discussed. Another part of the matter is that information is necessarily shared between all players. If the dungeon master tells a player what his or her character is seeing, all players hear. When crowded around a small game table, inconspicuously getting around this may be easier said than done.

It’s not impossible, though. If you pass a note to a player, other players will see that you’ve passed a note, but not the contents. If you write a text message, they will hear the ‘ping,’ but won’t know what has been communicated. These are only good for simple messages, as few players are willing to wait while their DM types out a page of details on his or her phone.

For more in-depth privileged communication, I recommend what I refer to as a “Special Session.” A special session is a session of a campaign devoted entirely to one member of a party. Generally this can happen while the other party members are asleep or after another excuse to split one player off. I have run special sessions in person and on Google Docs, exchanging DM descriptions and player actions in text rather than through speech. In the latter case it can even take place over a number of days, although it must end before the regular party comes together again, or the story might not be able to accommodate the separated player participating with the rest of the group.

I have tried a few of these methods with exciting results. For one example, I have a druid in my party who can understand spider talk, so I send him texts of everything the spiders around his druid are saying. Colleen elected to tell none of her friends what her arachnid friends were telling her, much to the rest of the party’s chagrin. Another character had a midnight meeting with an NPC who begged permission to kill another NPC party member, a zombie, whose very existence she felt was against her God Pelor. This led to a dramatic, improvised sequence in which the party debated whether to kill the ostensibly friendly zombie, and eventually Tom the Monk succeeded in converting the zombie to himself be a follower of Pelor. This substantially changed the plot going forward onto a track that I had not previously considered. A third pious character received a message from his god during prayer (an email from me) and spoke in elaborate fantasy detail of his experience of the message to the other party members. Other private communications are still playing out. Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t go into detail.

To be fair, I should note that some dungeon masters would prefer to avoid rather than encourage party infighting. for some groups it will ruin the evening. In my case so far people are enjoying the special attention that they receive as part of getting privileged knowledge. I am enjoying seeing what they do with it. I cannot recommend strongly enough to any DMs looking to add more spice to a D&D game that they should try and add some information asymmetry. It’s well worth the effort.