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: http://www.allocosm.net/2015/01/19/what-i-learned-from-conlangs-part-1/. 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.

Seeds

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.

BenJamin (Jamin) Johnson and the Brooding Language

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

The Riddlesbrood Touring Theatre Troupe​ has a blog post up about language developer BenJamin Johnson and his work on the Brooding language, which will be featured in their upcoming show “Harken – A Game of Phones”.

Not only do I like seeing more conlangs out there and more conlangers getting recognition, this particular project is special for me. I created the original Brooding langauge for Riddlesbrood, but never had time to expand it (due to my work on the Unwritten RPG​). Jamin has done a stunning job of taking my original ideas and expanding on them in new and interesting ways!

If you are in the NJ area, you should check out the Riddlesbrood show. Mr. Riddlesbrood and his cohorts put on some incredibly imaginative shows. Check out the linked blog post above for places and times.

What I Learned from Conlangs – Part 1

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

Constructed languages are a big hobby of mine, even if I am far from the expertise of conlangers that tend to inhabit places like the CONLANG-L list. However, conlanging has taught me a huge amount about language. Here are a few things I’ve discovered.

(Hopefully, I will get the details in this post correct. Please comment with corrections.)

Linguistics is a descriptive science. Linguistics doesn’t tell you how language should operate as much as it tells you how it does operate. A lot of the structures linguistics comes up with don’t model what is actually happening, but rather the result. There is a lot of effort put into developing theories that account for that behavior, of course. But very little of linguistics is predictive.

For example, Navajo has this incredibly complex template for its verbs that has 11 slots in which affixes can appear in various combinations. But there is no evidence that any speaker of Navajo is actually conceptualizing that 11-slot template in their mind at any level.

Language is statistical. There are very few universals in language. For every rule of language, there is almost always a few counterexamples; there are outliers and exceptions all over the place. So rules in language are often tendencies and trends. Patterns are more clear when data is taken in aggregate. A single counterexample isn’t necessarily definitive proof.

Language is what you can get away with. If you talk and people understand you… ta da! You have engaged in communication! That means language is not definitive system, rather the aggregate of millions of people just winging it with the tools that they have at hand (at tongue?).

This is the reason why I am rabidly anti-prescriptive grammar and am inordinately bothered by grammar nazis. In my opinion, prescriptive rules have less to do with successful communication and more to do with cultural control and conformity. For example, English rules like the prohibition on the split infinitive, or the bias against the passive voice, are not really based in the language itself – they are cultural markers. (For frak’s sake, the passive voice has a perfectly legitimate role in language. This is why I will never be a ‘real’ author…)

Language is like an onion: it has layers and when you take it apart it can make you cry. Layers are an important metaphor for language in many ways and many areas. Language operates in several layers at the same time. Simultaneously, language is operating on the level of individual sounds, perceived sounds, syllables, words, clauses, sentences, discourse, context, and meaning. All of that, all at the same time. Several of those layers are interacting and affecting each other on the fly, as well.

To further apply the layer analogy, language evolves in layers. Each subgroup and generation of speakers is layering its spin on the language onto the previous one. Languages have built up, layer after layer, for thousands of years. This is why language, when you just look at it on the surface, seems like such a chaotic mess. When you look at a language over time, all the weird ass irregularities start to make sense – they all came from somewhere.

And that is why it can make you cry. The complexity is immense, and you have to pay attention to many different levels if you try to dissect what is going on in a language, and then deal with many things for which there are nothing but fuzzy boundaries. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of specific skills to accomplish. (I’m lucky enough that what I do with language just requires me to reap the fruits of all that labor.)

You can say anything in language. (This is also known as the “Screw Newspeak” principle.) Despite what generations of speculative fiction authors would have you believe, language does not limit your ability to think about or communicate specific concepts. Anyone can communicate any idea that they can conceive in some way in any language. A particular language may not have discrete words for a particular definition, but all the tools are there to articulate it in some manner. And words are cheap – you can create new ones when you need them, as long as you can explain them. Humans have been doing that constantly since language began.

Actually, I have a lot more to say on this. This post is getting long, so I’ll continue in another post.

Aspect Case Study: Total Darkness

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming

On the Fate G+ community, someone asked a question an aspect on a scene named I Can’t See the Back of My Hand. After thinking on it, I feel there’s a lot to be learned by giving this some careful consideration.  So, let’s look at the aspect Total Darkness (to be more generic).

Most importantly, an aspect is true. Because it is true, that leads to justification. So, if your characters are in Total Darkness, that means they can’t do things that involve sight. That’s it. It does not require a penalty to their actions, nor does it require a compel to affect them.

That last point is requires some clarification. Fundamentally, compels need to fall forward, that is the complications that they create need to generate drama. Compels should be interesting. Something that simply says “no” to the players does not fulfill that purpose – it’s just a blank wall that players that bang their heads against.

In this way, Total Darkness is an aspect as an obstacle. It is something that is preventing the characters from taking action in a particular way. The obstacle remains in place while the aspect does, that is, as long as it makes sense. If a character turns on the light, the aspect goes away – no more obstacle.

Sometimes, though, obstacles need to be overcome. Maybe the character needs to search for the light switch, or they have to pull its location from their memory. This is where you can break out the dice and do an Overcome action.

Even if there is an easy solution to overcoming an action, consider an Overcome roll anyway. Rather than using the action to simply remove the obstacle, you can use it to determine the effects of an action. For example, one of the characters has a flare in their pack, which they pull out and light. If they fail, rule that they drop the flare. Or if they choose a cost to succeed, choose that the flare catches something on fire. If they succeed with style, the sudden light blinds the ninjas that were sneaking up on them in the dark, giving the characters a boost.

This underlines an important nuance to actions in Fate – they don’t really tell you whether you accomplished something or not. Rather, they tell you whether your action resulted in complication, success, or an unexpected benefit.

Okay, back to Total Darkness. As I said before, you don’t need to compel it for it to affect the characters – it affects them because it is reality. However, you can compel it. Once again, compels need to fall forward, so a good compel of Total Darkness creates more problems: a character knocks over a priceless vase (pronounced ‘vaaz’), or they hurt themselves by unexpectedly walking face first into a wall.

Hello world!

Author: allocosmadmin  /  Category: Administrivia

That is what the default page on a WordPress Site says, right? In this case it is particularly apt, however. ‘Allocosm’ means ‘another world,’ and this particular little world is mine.

My hope is that I can use this little space to write on various topics in a more focused way than I might on a social media feed. Some of the topics I plan to write about include:

  • constructed languages
  • gaming (video games, board games, tabletop RPGs)
  • reviews thereof
  • random bits of philosophy
  • whatever else strikes my fancy

For now, please don’t mind the dust while I get the layout of the place set up.

Hopefully you will find something of interest here.