Conlanging vs. Language Death

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Musings

There is a question that comes up in almost every Q&A session after a talk about constructed languages and in the comments thread of any article on a popular website. This question is: why aren’t you spending all this time and effort saving real languages that are dying off instead of making new ones?

Honestly, this is an annoying question, partially because it is based off of erroneous assumptions. Because this comes up so often, I wanted to lay out a number of the responses.

So, why are we conlangers out there saving dying languages instead of playing with our words by ourselves? Because we can’t – we don’t know how. What people need to understand is that creating a language and preserving a language are very different activities. A skilled conlanger is not a skilled field linguist (and vice versa). Both involve linguistic knowledge, but they require different skill sets. Spending time and effort on creating a language doesn’t keep a linguist out of the field.

Next, language death is more a political problem than it is a linguistic one. Languages die because people stop using (or are forced to stop using) the language or the people who use the language die off (or are killed). This is a bigger (and more important) issue than the language itself. It’s about the death of a culture, protecting it from assimilation and destructive forces (social, economic, and political). Language preservation can be a part of that, but it can’t be the only factor.

As an aside, because language is a medium of culture, revitalizing a language by encouraging people outside that culture to speak it can very easily be an act of cultural appropriation. While that theoretically might continue the language, it’s unlikely to actually do anything to help the culture itself.

Third, there is a place for art in the world, and constructing a language is an art form. It is a method of creative expression, like painting a picture or writing a novel. You wouldn’t blame a fiction author for not spending their time for writing historical essays, would you?

Art can also happen along side of the ‘productive’ activities in the world. A number of conlangers are, in fact, trained linguists who use their training professionally in their occupations. Other conlangers have productive lives doing whatever it is that they do for a living, and they construct language for the joy of the activity. Art, and hobbies, can and do exist right along side of the ‘productive’ world. J.R.R. Tolkien did precisely that – he was a philologist, professor, and author while creating languages.

And finally, constructed language can be a gateway to the rest of the linguistic world. Learning to conlang exposes us to topics in linguistics that we might not have otherwise have encountered. This is also the case for the non-conlanger or those who are not linguistically savvy, especially for monolinguals like many modern Americans. Interaction with a language that is not our own opens our minds to the possibility of language and sometimes getting that through our entertainment is a more effective spark than other things we do.

Review: The Art of Language Invention

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Reviews

Anyone who knows me to any degree knows that I am a conlanger – that is, I create constructed languages for fun (and occasionally for profit). It’s an obscure art form, needless to say. However, it is a pursuit that has become increasingly more visible in the entertainment industry and the public eye. Tolkien’s languages have been around for a long time, and everyone knows about Klingon, sure. But the real harbinger of wide recognition that conlanging is a thing was spawned by the HBO show Game of Thrones and its languages Dothraki and High Valyrian. The zeitgeist of that new wave is is the creator of those languages, David J. Peterson. He’s the mind behind The Art of Language Invention.

Let’s start out with the most important detail about this book: You do not have to be a linguist to read this book. While there is a lot of information in the book, this is not a dry textbook focused on an academic audience. Rather, this book is full of entertaining tangents like when David blames English spelling on foul-tempered print setters, or repeatedly makes peanut gallery-style remarks on how much he hates onions, or uses werewolves to explain linguistic concepts. But if you can just enjoy the ride, the book has a unique voice that’s entertaining and engaging no matter how much you know about language.

That being said, linguistics is a huge topic (as is making languages) so he covers of lot of topics pretty fast. I would not expect the average person to absorb much of the information on the first read. In fact, I think that those who already have a little bit of linguistics knowledge (you’ve learned a few languages or taken an introductory linguistics course, for example) will be those who get the most out of the book. There’s enough there to fill in the holes of what you don’t know to give you a foundation that you can really appreciate the nuances of what David is talking about.

Now, this isn’t to say that if you don’t have that experience then you’ll be in over your head. It just means that this is a book you’ll end up reading a few times, and getting more details out of each time as you get more familiar with the topics. And that’s the sort of book you want on your shelf anyway, isn’t it?

The real gems of the books are the case studies, however. At the end of each major section, David uses some of his own experiences to further explain the topics he has been going over. These are a mix of insights into his thought processes and decisions, as well as little tidbits about making languages for the entertainment industry. There’s something for all levels of readers here. The fans of shows like Game of Thrones and SyFy’s Defiance will find the sort of details that they love to gather about their favorite shows. People new to the art of conlanging will find these to be valuable examples of the sort of things you need to think about. Experienced conlangers will find discussions and bits of wisdom that can only come from getting your hands linguistically dirty in the art, and that’s a very rare thing to find.

If you are looking for a light read, this is probably not it. But if you are really interested in learning what the art of inventing languages is like, David’s book is a great place to start. Heck, even if you never want to make your own language, you’ll learn a ton about how language works and enjoy doing it.

Here’s a David Peterson-style tangent: If you’ve ever listened to one of his presentations, or just sat down to talk with him, David is just like how he comes across in the book. He can dive into deep discussion on language topics, and then suddenly veer off on tangents that get you laughing. He obviously knows what he is talking about, but his combination of knowledge and amusing relatability make him perfect for being the popular face of this hobby. David is pretty much the Bill Nye of conlangs.

So yeah, buy the book.

Okay, next steps:

  • If you finish the book and your curiosity is satisfied, then good job – it’s money well spent.
  • David is also starting a YouTube channel to go along with the book.
  • If you want to learn more about making a language, I suggest reading The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It’s another introduction to conlanging and while there is a bit of overlap, you’ll find that it complements The Art of Language Invention nicely.
  • If you want to dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of language, I suggest Describing Morphosyntax by Thomas Payne. It’s meant to be a guide for field linguists, but it is very useful to someone who wants to build a language.
  • If you want to get involved in the community, check out Conlang communities on Facebook and Google+, as well as look at the Conlang-L mailing list. Also, check out the home page of the Language Creation Society at

Review: Race to Escape TV show

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Reviews

Race to Escape is a new TV show on the Science channel, and it is what you get when a game show and an escape-the-room puzzle love each other very much, and have children. Luckily it seems to be a cute child so far. This review is based off of the pilot episode.

For those of you not familiar with the term, an escape-the-room puzzle is just what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle where your goal is to escape the room you are in. Usually, you have to explore the room and use the elements there to solve puzzles that eventually lead to your escape. Sometimes that requires using things you find around to open locks, uncover clues, etc. Sometimes you have to decipher codes and discover passwords. The exact nature of the puzzles. It’s a very popular subject for small, rudimentary Flash games with MS Paint style graphics, but shows up in games of all levels of complexity and sophistication (Myst is, in essence, a series of elaborate escape the room puzzles).

Race to Escape turns this into a competition. Two groups of three people (who have just met each other) are placed into two identical rooms and the goal is to get out before the other team and before the one hour timer runs out. In order to escape, the players must discover a series 4-digit codes which are put into a keypad on the wall, five codes in total. Once the first code is put in, a clue for how to find the next code is provided and so on. Enter all five, and your team wins. The prize is $25,000.

There are some wrinkles to it. When the clock has 20 minutes left, the prize amount decreases by $500 every minute. Also, you can spend $5000 for a code breaker, which will tell you how to solve the puzzle you are on. You cannot use a code breaker on the puzzle to acquire the final code, however. Also, if you put in three incorrect codes in a row, your keypad locks for 2 minutes, to discourage just putting in codes willy-nilly. To increase the pressure, there is an indicator in each room that shows how many puzzles each team has solved so you can see if you are ahead or behind.

The show itself cuts back and forth between the two teams in a reality show way, with voice over commentary by the show’s host. Also, there are small little fluff bumper scenes where the host explains a detail of one of the puzzles, or talks about things like logical fallacies displayed by the players. The coverage of the two teams seemed pretty balanced and there weren’t any bits of ‘dead air’ in the show. The voice over and bumper scenes are not really important, but luckily they aren’t intrusive or super cheesy.

But onto the meat of the show: the puzzles. As a veteran puzzle enthusiast, I was generally impressed by the puzzles. Very few of the puzzles presented to the players were cliche. No “Oh look, they have dressed up a sudoku puzzle” moments here. There was one sliding tiles puzzle in the pilot, but it distinguished itself both by being a physically large puzzle and hidden in the floor itself.

The puzzles made good use of the space and physicality of the room. Some required players to physically search the room for items. Players had to interact with the entire space of the room as well. For example, one puzzle had the players following a trail of paintings around the room indicated by people in the paintings pointing at other paintings.

The solutions required a variety of lateral thinking challenges. Players had to be aware of all of the room and be willing to discard fruitless ideas quickly to keep up. Solutions were outside the box and none of them seemed overly obscure. I found all of them to be creative and interesting. There were no truly repetitive puzzles, nor were there any puzzles that just required players to sit down and work things out on a piece of paper, which definitely wouldn’t make for good television.

If I had one criticism, it is that there was a puzzle or two that required a little bit of ‘guess what the designers were thinking’. The clue for the last puzzle in this pilot episode in particular was more of a riddle – you just had intuit what the clue meant. This was the make-or-break point of the game. One team sped ahead very early, but could not generate the ah-ha moment the final puzzle needed. While they spun their wheels, the other team caught up, had the epiphany quickly, and won the game. My criticism is really a nitpick, however, coming from the perspective of someone who has done a lot of puzzles and has created more than a few for others.

Overall, I found the show enjoyable with a good pace. The puzzles were creative and interesting, and it was fun to watch people work through them. The combination of puzzle design, good choice of players who actively engaged with each other aloud and good editing made the entire episode entertaining. There is not too much of a reality show feel to it (no trumped up drama or anything), just people working together to play the game. If you are people watcher and you find puzzles tickle your fancy, I think you’d find it enjoyable as well.

Review: Worlds In Peril RPG

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Reviews

Worlds in Peril is a tabletop RPG that is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), that is, it uses the basic structure created originally by Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World RPG (trigger-based character moves, etc.). This puts it firmly into the ‘narrative game’ category, one that is much more concerned with making up a story rather than lots of number crunching and lots of granularity when dealing with minutia of damage, position, power balance, and such.

But instead of post-apocalyptic adventure, Worlds in Peril is about super heroes – what they do to protect the world and how they actually fit into that world. So you get to explore both the awesomeness of super-powered duels in the streets, and how fighting the good fight affects their mundane lives.


Like many PbtA games, Worlds in Peril does not come with a default setting. Instead the game is intended to model a type of setting in a particular way. The details of the setting are worked out during character creation and during play.

Worlds in Peril does make several assumptions about the superhero world, and the mechanics of the game reflect that. It assumes that the there is more to the hero’s life than what just happens in the fistfights in the street. Who the hero is outside of their secret identity is important, and how they are connected to the people they know and the city they protect is key to their power and motivation. There is also an assumption that the more powerful a superhero is, the less they can relate to the rest of the world. That makes growth and recovery more difficult.

The relationships in comics and movies are modeled nicely here, whether they are to sidekicks, loyal servants, or the boyfriend you have to keep in the dark for their own protection. In playing various superhero games, this common trope gets lost quickly, in my experience. By centering a key mechanic on those relationships, it forces players to pay attention to it and reclaims that as part of the hero’s story. I think the game is the better for it.

Beyond just the hero’s personal connections, the game also makes their connection to the city (popularity among the residents and the local government) and law enforcement in particular part of those relationships that affect them and that they have to pay attention to. How a hero deals with the city and the police is another typical element in comics and movies, and it’s nice to see it reinforced.

The Basic System

For the uninitiated out there, PtbA is based on something called a move. Most of the time, you are just describing what you are doing in a free-form role-playing way, and the GM (called an Editor-In-Chief) responds and reacts; it is an ongoing conversation. However, what a character does may trigger a move, and dice get involved. You roll to see how well you do, and the move specifies what happens as a result. These effects are often very broad, in which you and the GM then decide on the details.

For example, if I am running across a plaza to get to the little old lady trapped in the burning car and I’m dodging plasma blasts flung by Dr. Evil Antagonist, that triggers the Defy Danger move. I roll to see if I do, in fact, defy the danger. Or, I may be able to defy the danger but pay a cost doing so, or the GM gets to stick it to me. Once I get there and try to save the little old lady, that triggers the Serve and Protect move, etc.

Moves are really the heart of any PbtA game. How they are defined determines what types of actions are important (and thus need dice) as well as well as what sort of consequences the game is built around. You understand and evaluate a PtbA primarily by its moves.

The moves in Worlds in Peril are very intent-focused. The same action can trigger one of many moves depending on what you are trying to accomplish: if you are trying to avoid an unpleasant consequence then you are Defying Danger, whether you are using your athletic skill to dodge bullets or you are trying to convince the cops to not haul you in as a dangerous vigilante. Players who are used to games that are very action- or skill-focused (“I use Dexterity to fire a bow”, “I use my Charm to fast-talk the guard”) may have a bit of trouble wrapping their minds around it at first.

The standard moves of the game reflect the superhero world: Defy Danger, Serve and Protect, Gather Intel, Take Down, Aid or Interfere, etc. There are a few that add some nice touches: Use Environment is for all those superheroes who pick up cars or rip parking meters out of the ground to use as weapons, for example.

Moves are traditionally formulated in a very simple “when I do X, I roll dice and the resulting situations is Y” format. However, Worlds in Peril does a very good job at explaining these moves and their effects, with discussion on what all of the possible effects mean and when you would use them. There are several well-written examples with each move as well. For that reason, I would suggest Worlds In Peril as a book for people new to PtbA games to get a good sense of how such a game is played.

There are a few moves where Worlds in Peril really shines. First, lets talk about the Fit In move. Your relationships, called Bonds, can be used to boost dice rolls and represent how those NPCs will react to you. The Fit In roll is triggered when you spend time cultivating your Bonds: creating new ones or increasing the strength of existing Bonds. In addition, Fit In is the only move that allows you to recover from conditions that are inflicted on you. So dealing with your normal life is vital – it’s the primary way you ‘heal’.

Next are the Last Chance and Dead For Now moves. If you get taken down by a villain, it triggers your Last Chance. Depending on the roll, you might be able to keep going, or you might be able to keep going only if there is someone in danger that you could be trying to protect. Or, if you get the villain monologuing. If you do go down, it triggers the Dead For Now move. You have a chance to just come back in a few sessions, or possibly come back but changed somehow or with some other challenging, drama-inducing problem.

While the game as a whole does a good job of reinforcing the feel of the superhero genre, this combination of moves is what really clinches it for me. These tropes are classic comic book, and weaving them into the game like this is brilliant.

Let’s Talk About Powers

So, superheroes need powers, right? This is where you get all the fiddly bits in most superhero games: lists of powers and tables of effects. I like fiddly little things like that (I am the proud owner of one of the original Marvel Super Heroes books called the Ultimate Powers Book, after all).

Worlds In Peril handles it in a completely different way, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me.

You describe you power set narratively with a Power Summary (like “Olympic-level athletics; pinpoint accuracy” or “psionic knives; telepathy”). For specifics, you fill in some details in your Power Profile. First, you describe if and how your powers are dependent on stuff which could be taken away from you. Then you describe a number of power effects in terms of how difficult the effect is to do. This defines the things your character normally does with their powers, how hard it is to do those things, and what they can’t do.

It sounds a little basic and loose, but it’s actually pretty clever. Once again, Worlds In Peril mechanics are focused on effects. If what you are trying to do with your powers is in your power profile, you can just do it. That doesn’t mean you are automatically successful; the action may still trigger Defy Danger, Seize Control, Serve and Protect, etc. like any other situation. Spiderman swings on a web – it happens. If he’s swinging between oncoming heat-seeking missiles, he’s got to Defy Danger and deal with what that move dictates.

However, if you try to do something with your powers that is not with your Power Profile, it triggers the Push move. If you make a good roll, you add what you did to your profile – congratulations, you just figured out how to do that! If you roll poorly, well, things could go badly. Comic book heroes do this sort of thing all the time, and this is a great way for your actions in game to directly cause your hero to grow and advance. A similar move, Burnout, is triggered when you go for broke with your powers – it’s a high stakes move with potentially high cost. World in Peril once again does a great job in baking the feel of the four-color comic into the basic rules of the game.

Character Creation

Making characters in Worlds in Peril is a fairly collaborative process, as is typical for PbtA games and the current wave of indie games. You get to define details about the game universe, how common heroes are, what city you are based in, and how and why you are working as a team. You also decide on your initial Bonds and create a few Bonds that connect you to the other heroes. If you are familiar with the games that already do this sort of collaborative brainstorming, this will be old hat for you. You’ll also define common resources like the all-important superhero base, because heroes have cool bases.

PbtA games usually have a set of classes (playbooks) that define archetypes in the game. Worlds in Peril does not provide classes, but rather asks you to choose from a list of Origins and a list of Drives. These reflect how your character got their powers and what pushes them to be a superhero. Each option gives you a few special moves that your character can trigger based off of their history or motivation. For example, the origin I’m A Freak has a move called That’s Right, I’m a Monster. It triggers when you use your freakish nature to intimidate someone into doing what you want.

Drives also form a narrative framework for advancement. Each drive has a prerequisite condition; if you fulfill the condition in game, then the Drive becomes available to you. Then you unlock Drive moves by doing specific things related to your Drive. When you unlock a Drive, you get points you can use to improve your stats, add things to your power profile, and so forth.

If I have a problem with anything in Worlds In Peril, it’s in this area. In terms of the text itself, the details and discussion around Origins and Drives are really sparse. Gone is the depth of discussion that made the basic moves section so useful, and the examples are minimal and not very enlightening. The description is muddy and vague in a way that the rest of the book is not.

Also, the point-based advancement system that comes out of unlocking Drives feels really out of place given the narrative nature of the rest of the system. The rest of Worlds in Peril is a wonderfully-textured story game that is based on qualitative differences rather than numbers. Suddenly, there is a point-buy system plopped in the middle of it.

But, I think there is something really awesome hiding in the unlocking Drives idea. In fact, it gives me ideas about alternative forms of growth in RPGs that I will probably play with if I write any other games myself. There’s a kernel of genius in it, but it doesn’t get developed at all. Hopefully any supplements that come out for Worlds in Peril will delve into that more.

For the GM

The latter part of the book is your GM advice section that is standard for most books, so I don’t have as much commentary here as I do have on the rest.

As a PbtA, it follows the structure of GM Agendas to promote, and Principles to follow. Also here is the list of GM moves and discussions of choosing moves and responding to players. GMs familiar with PtbA games will know that the details these sections are really important for getting the hang for the tone. I’m a big fan of this structure in general (it inspired my approach to a few sections in Unwritten).

There’s nothing revelatory in this section. There is a lot things you see in every other PtbA book, as those form the core of the GMing philosophy behind this style of game. There are bits that do address the genre of superhero games as well, and they are nice reminders. But I don’t think there is anything there that someone familiar with the genre won’t know anyway.

What does make a return appearance is the helpful discussion. Each of the points raised have are talked about and provide useful insights on how to apply them. This is another thing that would be useful to GMs unfamiliar with the style of game even if they don’t like superheroes.

There is also discussion on how to prepare for a Worlds In Peril game. This can be different from traditional games because so much of PtbA games are improvised. The book talks about how to prepare the setting and how to develop threats and challenges for heroes to tackle. The list of common tropes is a little scatter shot, but it does provide a lot of inspirations if you get stuck.

You’ll find good advice on how to develop your super villains and how to develop their master plans. Worlds in Peril provides a good structure for various levels of opponents, one that is tuned to superhero games. You’ll find a few helpful examples as well.

The Verdict

Worlds in Peril is a good game and one that I think is worth buying. I wish I’d backed it on Kickstarter when it came up.

It captures the feel of the superhero game without tying you to a particular setting. If you like looser games, you’ll find this one interesting. If you like a lot of numbers in your superhero games and a lot of ‘crunchy’ rules, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to try a different way of doing things, you might find something you really like here.

The writing is clear and helpful, though it does drop the ball in one particular area. But even there, you’ll find diamonds in the rough. If someone were to ask me for a game that would be good for people who are unfamiliar with Powered By The Apocalypse games and want to know more, I’d suggest Worlds in Peril as a good option.

You’ll be able to play a diverse set of superhero games using this game. I could see playing four-color campaigns, as well as games like the Marvel movies or even grittier settings like Watchmen (though you’d need a few tweaks here and there for that). If you wanted to play in existing universes or even existing heroes, I think you won’t have a problem with using Worlds in Peril for it.

For you game hackers out there, the game is also a great source of ideas. Its take on super powers is interesting; it could be ported easily to any other PtbA game or used as a basis for a game which has ‘abilities’ that are diverse and resist quantification into specific moves. The Drives concept is just begging to be developed more as well. Get on that, Internet.

A Prog Rock song in Ithkuil

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

John Quijada, who I think is one of the grandmasters of modern conlanging, has posted a video for his progressive rock song Ozkavarkúi (lyrics).

The lyrics are in the conlang Ithkuil, and they are sung by David Peterson, creator of languages for Game of Thrones, Defiance, Dominion, The 100, Thor: The Dark World, Star-Crossed, Penny Dreadful, and an ever increasing list of other nifty things.

What makes this exceptionally cool, in my opinion, is the fact that Ithkuil is one of the more exceptional conlangs out there. It’s not intended to act like a natural human language. It’s a philosophical language designed to reflect more aspects of human cognition than natural languages do, and reduce the ambiguity that is common in language.

Here’s what I think is a great example of it, taken right from Quijada’s introduction to the language:

Tram-mļöi  hhâsmařpţuktôx.
On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.

That’s two words for a 19 word English sentence. It’s all built off of a single root for ‘mountain’, and includes tones (like in Mandarin Chinese) and word stress that has specific meaning to the words.

The morphological analysis of the lyrics for the song (in the link to the lyrics above) is just insane. It looks like there are all sorts of shades of meaning in the lyrics that the English translation does not quite encompass.

As you can see, Ithkuil is quite a singular language, which is why this video has extra helpings of awesome. It’s a full artistic work based in a language that is incredibly unique, and honestly is not the sort of language project I’d have expected music to come from.

Some Unwritten RPG Developer’s Notes

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Unwritten RPG

While I don’t have an official set of developer’s notes, I thought I would write up a few things that readers might find interesting about the development process for Unwritten, some of the things that happened during, and why I made some of the decisions I did when writing the book.

Missing the original deadline

During the kickstarter, we set a very aggressive publishing deadline, which we managed to miss by a year. In the annals of Kickstarter, this actually isn’t that bad, but it always bothered me quite a bit. I had a draft of Unwritten done by the end of kickstarter, and released it to the backers not long after the kickstarter ended. So what took so long?

I had the good luck to be able to hire Leonard Balsera, developer of FateCore and all around hoopy frood, to give me a development review. Lenny is a big Myst fan (one of my favorite quotes of the development is Lenny saying, “Kadish? Yeah, f**k that guy.”). So, he brought a love of the game to the review as well as his extensive expertise. To paraphrase his general comments, while my first draft was a serviceable example of using FateCore to run a D’ni game, it wasn’t a Myst game. He felt that Myst deserved something better, something that captured the essential nature of what Myst games are about. He felt I should double-down on that.

I realized that Lenny had really hit the nail on the head, and after a few brainstorming discussions and long evenings talking over ideas with my lovely wife, I had some ideas about how to put those themes front and center. And thus began a complete rewrite of the book. There are still some chunks of the old draft in the final product (as well as bits of the Fate SRD), but everything was reworked. Many chapters were rewritten, others were cut apart and rearranged, sometimes sentence by sentence.

Add in some life traumas (which seems to happen in a lot of Kickstarters for some reason; Kickstarter creators are very unlucky people it seems) and underestimating the amount of time layout would take… well, it added a year to it all. I was very worried that I’d become one of those Kickstarter horror stories and that I’d have backers tracking me down for legal action. Luckily, my backers were very generous in their understanding. And I think they got a much better product in exchange for their patience.

Differences from FateCore – Non-violence

I began writing the book before FateCore came out. Once FateCore was available, I quickly adapted what I had to it. And then, ultimately, I departed from it in major ways. I think that is the intent of FateCore in a way, to provide the grist for hacks and adaptations.

The biggest change from FateCore was both thematically and personally motivated. One of the reoccurring comments about Myst games is on their non-violent nature. You don’t solve things with violence, you solve them with cleverness. You rarely actually ‘die’ in Myst games (this was a big difference from adventure games of the time). So, I wanted to emphasize that aspect since it felt so fundamental to the experience.

Thus, I removed the Attack action. What better way was there to de-emphasize violence than to remove the mechanic that is all about it?

Suddenly, I found that a lot of other mechanics fell apart. Stress tracks were entirely dependent on the Attack action as it is the only real way to take stress. I didn’t like stress anyway (I have some fundamental issues with the stress track mechanic that are too complex to get into here), so I decided to remove it as well. The nature of conflicts (that is, the scene mechanic explicitly named ‘conflict’) in FateCore were based around the traditional RPG combat scene (turn by turn, initiative, etc.), as well. I can still see places where you might need that really structured blow-by-blow scene, but without the tactical nature of combat it really wasn’t necessary – it was no longer a central feature of the game. So I just yanked it out in favor of challenges, contests, and just free-form actions.

Without stress, being taken out no longer made sense either. But I felt that it was still a key mechanic – sometimes things simply remove you from the scene. But I needed a way to get there besides beating on each other. I still used consequences (though less as damage per se, rather emphasizing their nature as lingering effects), so being taken out by filling up your consequences made sense. I just needed ways to take consequences. One was the sacrifice, in which you exchange consequences for fate points (an idea cribbed from Fred Hicks). The other was give players a way to place consequences. Extending Create an Advantage so that you could place a consequence on excel/success with style seemed natural as well. If you really wanted to ‘do damage’ that way, it would work.

It felt like there wasn’t quite enough on the line, however. I picked up the Firefly RPG by MWP and they had the concept of dangerous actions, where if the situation just seemed dangerous inherently, you just made it so. I really liked this, so I stole the idea and adapted it (not that it took much). That rounded off what I feel is a rather neat little method of amputating the Attack from FateCore.

Difference from FateCore – Discovery

Whenever I asked a Myst fan what the point of a Myst game was, I got a consistent answer: exploration. Myst fans love to figure things out. Unwritten had to reflect that. Where a fight scene would be the fall back or even the center piece of a traditional RPG, discovery would have to be at the core of it. Non-Myst fans always said ‘puzzles’. But here is the thing: explicit puzzles in RPGs rarely work. Either people are annoyed by them, or they are engrossed in them. Either way, play slows down or even stops.

I remember spending a lot of my time in Myst games figuring out things worked, which reminded me of the scenes in CSI where everyone is doing overly-technical tests in a montage with a snappy song in the background. I imagined that doing things in Unwritten should feel like that – enjoying yourself by finding things out.

The first element to that I hit on randomly in an alpha test. Players were rifling through a library and I didn’t want them to spend the whole game doing it, so I said “Roll and I’ll give you as many questions as you get shifts.” This worked really well and became the Discover action. It shifted the mechanics from doing points of stress to earning ‘points’ of information. At my wife’s suggestion, I added in a hint mechanic for those people who do really well on their rolls.

The second element involved the Investigate skill. Besides, say, Notice, it seemed like Investigate would be used all the time. I mean, it’s about figuring things out and the game is about that. So I decided that ALL skills are Investigate skills. Any skill, when appropriate, could be used as a way to collect information. That made the Discover action universally applicable.

The third element is that we needed something to explicitly be that CSI scene I discussed above, one were characters were looking around, asking questions, poking at things to get more info, etc. So since I’d taken out one type of action sequence (conflict), I added one based around asking questions. It’s not all that different than a challenge, but I added the first look (inspired by GUMSHOE) and limited each person to one roll unless they actually did something to merit another discover action. My hope is that people will use that to simulate all those times in CSI when they bring in another device, set up another test, or look at the scene in a different way.

Finally, I wanted something where players could be creative, something that simulated the Sherlock ‘ah ha’ moment and exposition. I tried several different things here and none of them really worked. Ultimately, I asked the makers of Atomic Robo if I could steal their Brainstorm mechanic, because it seemed to embody the concept just as I wanted. It’s turned out to be a really powerful option.

Other Differences

There are a number of other little differences. For example, there is no explicit Trouble aspect for characters. This is pretty traditional in FateCore games. However, I felt it was unnecessary. Requiring that one of the character’s aspects be a trouble is really just a way to ensure that the characters generate drama. I feel that the game has an implicit way to do that: by presenting mysteries. If you want, you can think of all Unwritten games having a default universal trouble of I MUST KNOW.

There are a number of little changes, especially in terminology. Not anything major here; I just wanted to shift the feel a little bit. “Excel” sounded more Myst-like than “success with style”, and “overwhelmed” felt less violent than “take out”. That sort of thing.

What about lore?

Myst fans will notice that there is a lot of lore that is not in the book. This is intentional, for two reasons. The first is that the main book is more about getting started, getting into the feel of the game, both from a rules and a lore perspective. I tried to keep the lore to things that all modern explorers would know, and those things which would be most useful to someone building a game. This is why we have a chapter on D’ni civilization, as the nature of D’ni informs a lot of the choices about what modern explorers would discover. There’s a little detail about what happens in the Myst games, because I figured people who were not Myst fans would want to know where that fit with the default setting.

The second reason is that I wanted people to fill in their own details in many places. While the supplements will have more details, there really are a number of better places out there to get all the details of the games and history. Rather, the game is supposed to encourage people to be creative and take chances with the setting. Veteran gamemasters will do this anyway, but I wanted to get across the openness of the possibilities even to the hardcore canon-loving fans. Just like your Relto is your instance of Relto, so is Unwritten your instance of the D’niverse.

How The Voice explained Affirmative Action to me

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

One of my guilty pleasures is watching The Voice. You know, reality TV singing competition – it’s essentially American Idol without all the needless mean-spirited embarrassment. Anyway, so I watch this show, and there are a lot of good singers in it. And they have all sorts of musical backgrounds. Some have been doing gigs forever at local venues, others claim to have really never sung anywhere except church (or maybe YouTube). Some of these singers are really really good. So I think to myself, “Why are those people sitting in the judge’s chairs successful, and those on the stage not?”

The answer is, of course, opportunity. These judges on the show, they are very good singers and entertainers. But so are a LOT of people. But these musicians attracted the attention of people who could give them chances to be seen, chances to practice and perfect their crafts, resources for publicity and networking. The winner of this year’s Voice was a kid who lived on a farm. Without the opportunity of being on this show, he’d still be on the farm instead of being seen by millions of people.

That’s really what affirmative action is about: opportunity. Here’s the fact: for whatever school opening or whatever that is out there, there are a ton of people who are smart enough, who have enough merit. There are lots of very smart kids out there, of every race, creed, orientation, shoe size, whatever. The difference is that the opportunities are very different. A poor kid from an inner city is much less likely to have the opportunity to even be told about some of these possibilities, much less apply or work towards getting them.

Affirmative action, and social justice in general, isn’t about enforcing quotas or anything like that, it’s about looking for merit in places (and in people) that usually get missed.

Saying “These things should be based on merit” isn’t racist. But when someone says “That kid got in there because of their race and not their merit”, you aren’t championing merit; you are saying that you don’t think there are any people of that race who are capable. You are saying, “None of THOSE people could have merit.” And that is racist.

I knew all of this, but it occurred to me that this was a good way to explain it.

Human, and more

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

I am human. I am spiritual software running on the most advanced processors that my ecosphere has ever produced.

I am made of matter and energy, of tissues and bioelectric pulses. I am a robot built of a network integrated systems of mind-numbing complexity, given form through the elegant technologies of flesh and bone and nerve in dynamic protean harmony. From the molecules that form my chemical components, to the DNA that guides the growth and transformation of my cells, to the schemas and and heuristics on which my psychology is built, I am feedback loops made real. On all levels of my existence, I am self-modifying code.

I am a mechanism that builds upon layer after layer of complexity and abstraction, until something wholly new, something which is greater than the sum of its parts, appears. I create that and I embody that. I am an engine of synergy. I am emergent behavior incarnate.

I connect with others and in doing so create systems of relationships and relative frames of reference that interface with one another, that affect each other and thus influence the biocybernetic systems that are our lives. As I live, think, and communicate, I tie myself into larger and larger feedback loops, participate in systems larger than myself. I log into an abstraction layer of context that creates reality that is more than mere fact.

I co-exist in shared experiences that occur without the permission of space. I inhabit webs of causality that correspond to no actual thing in the universe, and yet exert motive force on us and the universe through us. We create places out of nothing; we create places that are nothing. We are avatars of our essential selves, living in dynamically bootstrapped multi-user virtual environments. We are virtual beings by our very nature.

I am a thing, if a smart thing. But I am also a creator of paradoxes, of things that do not exist. I create things which are beyond reality, simply by nature of the very real thing that I am.

I am human. And, I am so much more.

What Conlangs Taught Me – Part II

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

This is a continuation of my previous post: While that post focused mostly on what I had learned about the nature of language, this one will be a little more scattershot. If there is one theme to this post, however, it would be that few people actually understand how language works.

So let’s start off with that: Everyone uses language, but few people understand language. Language is basic fact about being human, right? But our personal understanding of language works on a cognitive level very different from our intellect. It’s more like an autonomic system that runs despite our conscious minds, not because of it. People have very little understanding about what they are doing when they use language – they simply do (which is very Zen, now that I say it that way….)

As a corollary, native speakers are the definitive experts on how to produce a particular language, but are horrible sources for understanding how their language works. If you want to know what is right, or if something would sound ‘off’ to a native speaker, you ask a native speaker. (In fact, that seems to be a lot of what linguists do – they spend their time asking native speakers how  they would say something.) If you want to know the mechanics of what they say and how they are saying it, most native speakers really have no clue.

People think they know much more about language than they actually do. People have lots of opinions about language, but most of those opinions are based off of cultural baggage or just random ideas they have. Authors are, surprisingly, some of the worst offenders. They think that because they are adept at manipulating language that they are experts at how language works. Really, their skills aren’t about language – they are about storytelling.

Even science fiction authors, who generally pride themselves on at least knowing where they are departing from established science fact, make wildly inaccurate assumptions about language. Because we as a reading community don’t understand language itself, we don’t notice. As Suzette Haden Elgin once pointed out, authors who would get raked over the coals for inaccuracies about physics or engineering can be completely off the mark about language and get no response.

Written language is very different from spoken language. When a lot of people talk about language and words, they are often talking about written language. But the real source of language is the spoken word – it’s about what we say. Written language is really an afterthought.

We conflate what we are saying with what we are writing: the sounds of the language are not the letters of the language, words are not things separated by spaces. Some of our language arguments involve spelling or punctuation (such as the never-ending parade of condescension about using apostrophes or the oddly fetishistic adoration of the Oxford comma). Spoken language really doesn’t care  – what those signify are either handled completely differently in spoken language or completely ignored.

One could argue that a spoken language and its written counterpart are not the same language, but rather different dialects. Heck, you could probably make an argument that they are different languages entirely. Think about it, a fluent speaker still needs to learn to read, and often has to learn separate rules for how the written language works (punctuation doesn’t exist in spoken language, the style of how you write is very different from the style of how you speak, etc). And people can learn to read a language, but actually not understand it if it is spoken (especially in the Internet age, where we learn a lot of information purely through text). In that way, written English and spoken English are not mutually intelligible – knowing one doesn’t mean you can understand the other. I’m overstating the idea a bit, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

There are not 40 word for snow in Eskimo. Really, there aren’t. The story, which people seem to love, is a great example where people latch onto something because it sounds interesting. There are just lot of bad assumptions in there:

  • ‘Eskimo’ doesn’t really mean anything specific – rather it is a term born out of misunderstanding the languages and culture involved. There are a lot of different languages that you could paint with the overly-wide brush of ‘Eskimo’. Many of these languages are not all that related, if at all.
  • The concept of a word is misleading. Many of the languages people are trying to refer to with this myth have different definitions of what a word is and how words work. In the so-called polysynthetic languages, words are built up with a large number of affixes where, in English, we’d use phrases with a number of separate words. And there is still the argument to be had about what constitutes a word.
  • It implies that having lots of words for snow is uncommon. English has lots of words for snow depending on the context: snow, powder, sleet, slush, flurry, blizzard, snow drift, snowflakes, graupel, etc. And what if you count related words: snow, snowing, snowy…

Really, a lot of our clever commentary about language is not born from an understanding of language, but from creative misunderstandings of it.


Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

It is the task of the mindful person to tend a garden of truth.

For our gardens, we gather seeds from life around us. In each thing is a kernel of truth, a seed from which truth may spring. They are weathered by time, ideology, passion, and apathy – but they are there. You can find them if you look.

A seed is a small thing. Your seeds will be small things: pictures, symbols, sentences, songs, stories, movements. But it is from a seed that fields and orchards are born.

Your seeds… they are your reminders of truth. They are mnemonics, ways you remind yourself of the way that you have lost. When your garden is overgrown from neglect, or destroyed by calamity – return to your seeds. Clear your garden, and grow anew.

Gather your seeds.