Method of Play

“Don’t you see?! We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!”
—”The Player”, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

I think I have been making a very silly mistake for a while. For the past year and a half or so I’ve been obsessed with paradigms and systems for organizing narrative. Particularly, I’ve been trying to use the Color Wheel from Magic the Gathering and the Aspects from Homestuck to guide and structure my game writing and design.

These systems are very useful for designing coherent stories and helping keep a narrative on track. And a recent experiment showed some promise, but through it all things still were not quite ‘clicking’.

After some thought, I believe I have located the space in which the solution lies.

Stepping through the Fourth Wall

When I was young, I did quite a bit of acting. For the most part, this involved stage acting at my local university’s theater and then at a new children’s theater. There’s nothing quite like falling into a role and when a scene is going well and everyone onstage is fully committed the result is spectacular.

As I grew older, I began to notice a distinction (particularly at the children’s theater, which often saw some young thespians in their first roles) between actors who could make the leap into their character and those who could not.

Many kids could learn their lines pretty well, follow the blocking, and speak clearly. Yet when they were on stage everything about their performance screamed ‘amateur’. They would try to act out their parts but the only thing that would come across was the trying.

Getting into character is a skill on its own, one that takes time to develop. It comes more easily for some than others, but most figured it out eventually.

Drunken Russians

Konstantin Stanislavski found the world of Russian theater in a sorry state (probably, the source with all the best descriptions seems to be unattributed notes from a lecture and I was able to corroborate some but not all of these details by Googling; luckily I am not concerned here with accuracy, just a good story)

The acting style itself was almost anarchic. Actors would strut on stage as they saw fit and deliver the lines downstage to the audience, without any regard to addressing fellow actors.

And,

The script meant less than nothing. Sometimes the cast did not even bother to learn their lines. Leading actors would simply plant themselves downstage centre, by the prompter’s box, wait to be fed the lines then deliver them straight at the audience in a ringing voice, giving a fine display of passion and “temperament.” Everyone, in fact, spoke their lines out front. Direct communication with the other actors was minimal. Furniture was so arranged as to allow the actors to face front. (Benedetti, 1989)

Most actors received no formal training and would, at best, be instructed to copy more experienced actors as exactly as they could. This worked passably for melodrama or farce but the brilliance of Shakespeare and Moliere and other great playwrights was lost almost entirely in such conditions.

Stanislavski’s first major hurdle as a director was simply to get his actors to arrive for rehearsals on time, sober, and with lines memorized.

With these technical obstacles cleared, though, he began developing and perfecting a system that would be called ‘Stanislavski’s System’ and in America morphed into ‘The Method‘.

A Method for Games

Reading through the descriptions of pre-Stanislavski Russian theater struck me as an interesting parallel to the games I run. Particularly in that, while comedic moments can come through easily and often, other emotional expression tends to be much more difficult. There is a level of depth we are barely scraping.

So, I have examined the the key features of the System and recorded my thoughts for how they might translate to tabletop RPGs.

Given Circumstances

In a play, the given circumstances are everything we factually and canonically know about a character and the setting. The lines in the script, the backstory of a character, everything down to the time of day in a scene and the clothes a character is wearing.

Additionally, the given circumstances can include specific interpretations by the director or the actor (particularly when the script itself does not specify something that could be important for a performance).

In a game, my interpretation is that this refers also to game mechanics. Players do not have ‘lines’ in an RPG that dictate their words, nor blocking to direct their action. But games do have rules that constrain what can happen.

Stanislavski “didn’t consider feelings within the play until he had mastered the facts” (those notes again) and I think this extends quite well to RPGs. Before you can play your character you must understand all of the game rules that affect your play, all of the details in your character’s backstory, and everything else of relevance in making your character who they are.

Of course, in a modern RPG this is often unfeasible. Most editions of D&D have three core rulebooks plus dozens of optional supplementary rules and memorizing this in its entirety is too strict a constraint on players.

A weaker version I believe to be sufficient and more manageable is that players ought to have memorized: their character sheet (including equipment and spells!), their backstory, the relevant lore about their race and class, and all of the rules involved in the core game loop (for D&D this mostly means the combat rules plus a few skills relevant to the adventure) before being able to inhabit their character fully.

The flip side to this is that if a GM is designing a game for players to inhabit their characters then they must minimize the details for players to keep track of as much as possible. A high-level Wizard with access to hundreds of spells and dozens of magic items will be very difficult to memorize in this way. Perhaps some strict requirement like ‘character sheets must fit one one piece of paper’ will be useful, but I am unsure.

Considering this further, I think that any in-game discussion of mechanics risks breaking character. Here, D&D becomes fully unworkable: the spell names, while descriptive, are utilitarian and boring and gameplay consists almost necessarily of the DM saying things like ‘you lose 3 hit points’ or ‘make a reflex save’.

Campaigns which emphasize character should use a relatively simple mechanical system which can be operated with minimal direct mechanical exposure. (This is where having the computer keep track of stuff comes in handy, but that’s a whole other post.)

Objectives

Stanislavski also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind a character’s objective in a given action, in a scene, and over the course of the play. This is in many ways much more natural for RPGs where players are already very attentive to the objectives their characters have.

One detail that is often overlooked, though, is that characters may have objectives or desires they are not consciously aware of. Indeed, a great deal of drama can come from characters who do not fully understand themselves and their own intentions.

So in addition to remaining aware of macro goals even in the micro environment (which is strategically useful in addition to being good for character development) and having well-defined and character specific goals, players ought to be consciously aware of some things about their character that the characters do not know about themselves.

Alternatively, players might seek to have a ‘lie their character believes’; some mistaken belief that shapes how their character interacts with the world and limits them in some way.

Arc Objectives

As a game develops, both players and GM will see the themes and ideas of the story emerge. While a GM may have their own impressions of what the theme of a game will be when designing it, often play highlights unexpected elements.

Stanislavski calls the ultimate aim of a character the ‘super-objective’ and I believe in a game this ought to be distinct from the character’s goals. We might say the goals are what the character wants but the objective is what they need (we might say this, but I am hesitant to because there are stories that do not quite fall in line with this pattern, I think to a first approximation this is still sufficient).

My view is that players should have some ideas about what their super-objective will be at the start of the game but should also be open to changing if a stronger story emerges. Much of this falls into my thoughts about character arcs in games, which is its own post I think.

Magic ‘If’

This is the feature of the System that almost seems intentionally geared towards RPGs. Put very simply, the magic ‘if’ asks the actor “what you you do if you were in this situation?”, a question which from a certain perspective is the fundamental unifying principle of RPGs.

Yet there is also valuable insight here that I think can be lost. Stanislavski himself wrote,

When I give a genuine answer to the if, then I do something, I am living my own personal life. At moments like that there is no character. Only me. All that remains of the character and the play are the situation, the life circumstances, all the rest is mine, my own concerns, as a role in all its creative moments depends on a living person, i.e., the actor, and not the dead abstraction of a person, i.e., the role.

Characters in a stage-play are bound to the script and their actors do not have the freedoms granted to players in an RPG. Some of these characters are not good people, some are vile and horrible villains meant to impart moral lessons.

But for the actor playing such a character, they must do more than understand why the character does what they do. The actor must see how they themselves could be what their character is. To do this fully is often an unpleasant thing. It requires embracing an uglier side of our humanity than we typically do.

Stanislavski is said to have worried, towards the end of his career, that identifying too strongly with a character could cause psychological harm to the actor and weaken the boundaries between fiction and reality. This is a concern that extends even more strongly to the final technique.

Emotional Memory

Truth on the stage is whatever we can believe in sincerely.
(Konstantin Stanislavski)

Emotion is a very physiological phenomenon. The mental components are merely one part of the felt experience of an emotion and not necessarily the largest. Heart rate, body tension, posture, micro-expressions, and hundreds of other tiny shifts contribute to the whole.

If a performance is to be fully compelling, the actor must be able to effect an emotional state appropriate to the character in the moment. One technique Stanislavski devised to accomplish this is emotional memory.

Emotional memory asks the actor to recall personal experiences to help generate the sought-after affect. This often involves highly emotionally charged memories but for some it can also be done through experiences with fiction.

Why Bother?

When I first raised the idea of using acting techniques in games with the rest of AWDE, reactions were mixed. While I will not mention every objection raised, one of them particularly stuck in my mind and is worth exploring here.

People play the games I run for many reasons but one of them is to have fun. Life is hard and stressful and RPGs provide an escape, they provide a light environment to relax with friends. In many was, what I’m talking about here is the opposite of that.

It comes as little surprise to anyone who knows me that I lean on the ‘high-effort’ side of leisure. I like video games that make me use spreadsheets, I like books that hide their plots or webnovels with multi-ASOIAF word counts, I like music that ‘sounds like getting lost inside an Escher etching’. So of course, when I run games, I try to find was to make as much work for myself (and sometimes my players) as possible.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. I’ve always felt like there were vast unexplored territories in the intersection between tabletop games, video games, and more traditional narratives. It’s like we’ve just barely gotten up to our ankles in the vast ocean the possibilities.

Running games with AWDE for the past few years has made me realize that I really want to explore that ocean. I want to go beyond ‘fun’ and see what happens when we push the limits of social play. I want to break things and make mistakes and regret everything as the fires climb around me and the ill-conceived animatronic dragons lay waste to the city around me.

Maybe that ocean of possibilities has sharks, maybe it has poison octopi, maybe there Cthulhu lies dreaming, but it’s there. Not exploring it was never an option.

AWDE Games

Salvete Omnes,

Around 4 years ago I began running roleplaying games with my friends in AWDE. We played these games online since we lived in different places, using a variety of media. Most of the time we did not play with established systems, and instead I would create or adapt game mechanics as needed.

We ended the last major campaign in January and have been playing a few little things since then. For the Summer Solstice we got together for a weekend of food and activity (hampered only slightly by thunderstorms and haunted cat statues) and we discussed the games we had been playing.

I figured now would be a good time to do a little retrospective and then muse about my ideas and plans for the future. My documentation skills were poor so a lot of dates and details are only from memory, but that’s better than nothing I suppose.

Pebble, March-June 2015

‘Pebble’ was a play-by-email RPG I designed while inspired by Wildbow’s dark urban-fantasy Pact. It had a historical setting and a magic system designed off of Pact’s vague and highly symbolic ‘practice’ and was played individually. I would email a player to work with them and create a character and then I would set them in the world and let them act as they chose.

The intention was for different player characters to interact with each other over time, sometimes as friend and sometimes as foe. I even imagined the fun of keeping secret exactly who was a player and who was not so that they might interact without even knowing it.

Sadly, the game never got that far. Most players got one or two ‘turns’ in before giving up. There are a number of reasons I’ve learned this was the case, which I will discuss later.

One interesting note is that, since this game was played by email, I have every action still recorded. Something I had forgotten about was the effort I put into writing prose for the players. The pace of email meant I could spend plenty of time figuring out how things would play and describing them in loving detail. Check out this exposition one of my NPCs gave a player:

“If you were to ask a carpenter, the practice would be the sum of his knowledge; how to carve along the grain, the timbre of oak and the consistency of cherry.  Perhaps you ask a farmer, who could speak for hours about the taste of fertile soil, the times to plant certain crops, the signs of rain or drought.  Maybe you ask a courier between the villages, you (sic) knows the path to Pontipride like the back of his hand and who understands which trinkets can ward off the evils of the forest.

“But in the true form, in the abstract, The Practice is our human knowledge about the world and cosmos and how that knowledge is applied to, say, make a room the size of a mansion fit inside a small bank.”

While not perfect, I feel like this represents far more interesting dialog than what I can deliver speaking in real time during a game. The ability for a game’s writing to work like this is something I have been unable to fully forget.

Weaver Dice, August 2015-February 2016

A player favorite and one of the most successful games I have ever run, the Weaver Dice campaign was set in Wildbow’s first webnovel, Worm, named after and utilizing the game system for the setting designed by the story’s author.

This was also the first game we played with regular, weekly meetings over Google Hangouts and Roll20, two tools I have come to love and hate in equal measure but which have proven themselves invaluable in getting these campaigns to work.

One decision I made early on that I thought I would regret but would come to love was to intentionally provide two of the characters with very ‘breakable’ superpowers.

Nuriel, a tinker (meaning someone with a power to create ‘impossible’ technology) created drones with simple AI and was able to use them to automate much of his own workshop.

Stratum, a trump (meaning a power that influences other powers) was able to augment any parahuman’s powers (including his own) with either a major short-term boost or a minor long-term boost.

Obviously, by the halfway point Stratum had boosted his power into the stratosphere and Nuriel was commanding an army of Von Neumann machines.

Luckily, the Wormverse contains scary things that helped me keep the players in check and while I could have pushed harder on consequences, everybody seemed to enjoy the sessions and the sheer scope created tension all on its own.

While Nuriel and Stratum were the major plot-pushers, everyone got their time in the sun and I think this was the most ‘balanced’ campaign I’ve run in terms of each player being engaged.

As a bonus, playing this campaign got most of my friends to read Worm. A constant struggle many fans understand and an annoyance most fans’ friends deal with because of this.

Crumbs, January 2016-December 2016

Crumbs was a little bit insane, honestly. Set in the universe of Pact (fully, instead of merely co-opting the magic system as I did with Pebble) and played weekly, Crumbs followed a circle of magic practitioners (and a non-magic witch hunter) as they navigated a precarious community deep in Amish country.

While it started out on reasonable rails, Crumbs went into the deep end in a disturbingly literal way when one character, Red, became scarily proficient at Abyssal magic (the second most dangerous and toxic form of magic in the setting, and he only selected that one because I refused to let him use the most toxic form of magic out of concern for the rest of the party).

The other players varied in their level of engagement but most of the actual plot was Red getting into and out of danger.

This could have been managed and even used effectively, but the second major issue was that I totally failed to recognize the importance of pacing.

Entire sessions would be filled with the players doing nothing of consequence except building up their arsenals. One session like this every now and then can be a nice reprieve, but when this pattern goes on for a month or longer things can really start to drag.

This is an amusing parallel, now that I think about it, to Pact itself. While still loved, Pact is often criticized for its pacing as well: it is fast and violent and somewhat exhausting, giving few occasions for readers to catch their breaths. I’m not sure what to make of this parallel, except that it is indeed amusing.

Had I found Matthew Colville’s YouTube channel during this time, I might have realized that the missing ingredient was orcs.

Another development was the beginning of a character archetype that is the closest I get to a self-insert (and is, in all honesty, probably closer than it should be). Hana the Hendler was originally intended to be mostly a side-character, the merchant with strange powers and a mysterious backstory.

As time went on, though, she became my favorite NPC to play. Her goal was to try to introduce economics to magic, making ‘investments’ of power and helping people ‘cash in’ on what they could do.

She wound up being the sympathetic villain of the endgame, but that endgame was really messy and I don’t think she really got the end she deserved.

I may write up a whole post about mistakes I made at the end of Crumbs some day, but for now the summary is: the players were coerced into fighting Hana and her allies, then accidentally blew up the entire town and themselves with magic. It certainly ended with a ‘bang’, but it was also an unsatisfying and sour note to end on.

Shards, January 2017-January 2019

In a return to the RPGs of my childhood, Shards was a D&D 3.5 campaign set in a universe made of little individual planes connected by portals. I ran this using Roll20 again with weekly meetings (aside from a stretch of a few months in 2018) and it was the longest running campaign yet, stretching out over two years with a sequel somewhere in the works.

Shards had much better pacing than Crumbs and usually featured at least one battle per week to keep things exciting. Unfortunately, around half the party had relatively low interest and, given the complexity of the campaign, quickly became overwhelmed with details and mostly only participated during fights.

Hana returned to this campaign in spirit through Queen Corana Cruador, the hyper-competent and slightly megalomaniacal quest giver and exposition provider for the party.

We also ran a very interesting side-adventure set in the campaign world a decade before the main story featuring each player as a different rogue. This ‘Party of Rogues’ was supposed to be a one-off gimmick that I was pretty unsure about at the start, but rogue is a very versatile class and the party covered a lot of space mechanically.

The real surprise with the Party of Rogues, though, was that two of the players who had mostly been sitting on the sidelines for the main campaign really got into their rogue characters. This taught me a few interesting lessons and may be worth its own post as some point but the key takeaway was that I had overwhelmed the players with plot details and mechanics. In particular, the magic user had too many options available and suffered from near constant choice paralysis.

The 2018 part of the campaign saw Corana lead an offensive war against a major local power and the PCs got recruited as leaders and a strike team. This was the most logistically complex game I’d ever run, as I used population and GDP to estimate the size of the forces involved and their level of training and equipment.

Combat in D&D is offensive-dominant so battles were mostly fast skirmishes using teleporting attackers against underprepared targets and I think this made for fun, if scary, encounters. I probably also softballed things a little too much, though I doubt my players would agree. D&D combat is very lethal but I stuck to throwing the ‘annoying but relatively safe’ specialists at the PCs like enchanters and illusionists. These fights were fun, though, so I don’t feel too upset about limiting the high damage dealers to other fronts.

Shards also ended much better than Crumbs, I think. Although I feel like I could have stuck the landing a little more, there was a climactic fight with an aboleth that had been foreshadowed since near the beginning and a sequel-hook mystery when the entire nation the PCs had been fighting vanished in the middle of the night.

While I don’t love D&D and feel it focuses too much on combat for my tastes, I have to admit that it made a pretty decent system in which to run a game. We plan to return to this setting at some point. Each player gave me a list of things their character will focus on and after a timeskip they will get to see how things resolve.

The Future

I always like to experiment with my games and every time I run one I learn new things, but I think to maximize my learning potential I really need to document this stuff better. I have a few ideas for what that might look like and if one of them crystallizes soon I will edit this paragraph to reflect it.

Either way, there are a few big things I want to figure out:

Break out of set weekly meetings; weekly meetings are great for consistency and player engagement, but only for players who can meet at the same time regularly. We’ve run into schedule problems before and they can sometimes keep players out of a campaign simply because they can’t meet at the same time as everyone else. Timezones make this even worse.

Promote strong players to leadership; my view with AWDE was always that we would have a core group and a periphery, right now the campaigns are mostly played by core members with peripheral members joining in occasionally and usually for a limited amount of time. I want to try games that work off of a much larger playerbase (approx. 12) with a core member helping me administer the game.

Better character arcs; so far, usually only one player per campaign gets to experience something that could really be called an ‘arc’. I want this to be better and more thought out and I want to try engaging players explicitly and directly about where they see their character struggles and how that informs the decisions they make in-game.

I have ideas for each of these and hopes to explore those ideas in posts. I guess we’ll see.

Strength in Community – The Gestalt

This has been an interesting and very different kind of summer for me. It’s had its ups and its downs, as any decent length of time typically does, but more than anything, this summer has been something of a painful enlightenment.

It’s certainly been a summer of firsts! I’ve moved into an apartment in Cookeville, since I’m working here over the summer, so there have been lots of exciting first experiences in relation to that! First time being entirely dependent on my own cooking for one, and further, first time discovering that when buying chicken, if the package does not explicitly say “boneless, skinless”, this implies that the chicken does, in fact, have both skin and bones. (Oops…)

It’s also the first time I’ve ever lived alone, since my roommates aren’t moving in until fall semester. As someone who really REALLY doesn’t like being alone, and tends to feel lonely very easily, this aspect kind of sucked. Even worse, this unfortunately coincided with my developing both cubital tunnel and briefly carpal tunnel syndrome. (Nerves that are perpetually inflamed from trauma or overuse, and not having enough room, causing pain and tingling/numbness in the hands and forearms.) Normally if I’m feeling lonely, I bury myself in my projects, and focusing on building stuff makes me feel better. For a solid month and a half, I couldn’t type or use my computer outside of work, for fear of causing any kind of permanent damage to my hands. I desperately tried finding ways to distract myself from both pain and loneliness, but this was pretty difficult given that a small part of my brain was constantly panicking, wondering if I wouldn’t be able to type again.

I don’t mention this as some sort of pity plea, or anything like that, because it was actually a rather valuable experience, all in all. For one, for the first time in my life, I started an exercise routine that I’ve actually stuck to for longer than a week! Moreover, without the ability to distract myself, many long walks were taken so I could think about and seriously evaluate myself and how I felt and thought about things.

So enlightenment: “the state of being freed from ignorance and misinformation”, “based on full comprehension of the problems involved.” I’m in many ways an extrovert who’s very much not social (I’m weird, I know…if it seems like those should be antonyms, I’m using the word extrovert more to mean that I much prefer to be with people than not. I don’t “recharge” with “me time”, I more tend to derive energy from being around others. I just also happen to be particularly bad at socializing, which is an unfortunate combination…) Yet, despite this, and despite that I’ve known for a very long time that I don’t like being alone, I’ve apparently never given enough active thought to the idea that the opposite of going all lone wolf is investing in and being part of a community.

I’ve had this thing for as long as I can remember where I’ve held something of a delusion that if I stuck to myself and worked on building lots of really cool impressive things all on my own, I would be better liked, better respected, and better accepted into groups. (Note: that’s the misinformation and ignorance part.) Over the more recent years, I’ve started recognizing this as a delusion: not only is it not particularly true, it’s a rather unhealthy mindset to live in, both emotionally and mentally, and all this REALLY hit home over the last couple months.

All this to say: I now fully recognize that being part of a strong community is extremely important to me, and as such, I want to take part in and help build said strong community.

Coincidentally, what with the inordinate amounts of free time for reading I had this summer, I read (and am reading, and unfortunately now have to wait days at a time for the next chapter to come out…) Twig! Those of you who have read at least part of it will likely immediately understand why I bring this up and why it’s relevant, and believe me when I say it very much cemented and drove home all of the above points! (For those who haven’t read it, don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers below, and I highly recommend reading it!)

So a point that Twig repeatedly and effectively hammers on is the idea of a “gestalt.” A gestalt is loosely defined as “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”

Twig directly and indirectly refers to this everywhere:

“The original plan was for each of us to have a role, a specific set of talents, and for us to be able to address any problem. A gestalt.” (2.05)

“Just like with any problem, when things start going south, we’ll approach it from our individual angles, we’ll support each other’s strengths, and shore up each other’s weaknesses.” (3.08)

“Different is good. Look at how the Lambs work. They are stronger because they’re all different. Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re bad at and we make up for each other’s weaknesses.” (13.05)

“We unify, we cover each other’s weaknesses and magnify each other’s strengths.” (17.15)

A gestalt then, in my opinion, (and seems to be John McCrae’s as well) is effectively the epitome of what it means to be a strong community.

I found an article a few weeks ago from a group of people in the rationality community, related to all this, that’s definitely worth a read: Becoming Stronger Together. Briefly summarized, it’s essentially a real life attempt at a gestalt: a group of ~10 people who formed a community focused on self-improvement and helping everyone work together to grow both individually and collectively. They openly communicated with and supported each other in all the things from long-term endeavors to their daily lives. They acted as a support group for each other, a collection of trusted friends to talk to when life got rough. It was a group that inspired and encouraged good habits and overall life improvement.

Part of Ben’s original intent behind starting AWDE was to form a gestalt. After discussing the above article, we both agree that it could be really beneficial to try working towards a strong self-improvement community, similar in model to the one in the article. (Though perhaps to a more moderate degree.)

As such, there are a couple of interesting things we’d like to try doing!

The first is our new twitch voice chat server. The goal for this is to be an online space to just hang out at, whether you’re just idly browsing the interwebs and want some company, or you’re working on something and want help, encouragement, or motivation (or potentially distraction, depending on the type of work!) Our hope is that we all use it enough that whenever you pop on, there’s likely to be at least one other of us there to talk to and chill with.

The other is we’re reviving the old google groups forum! (Some of you may remember the, ah, INTERESTING, nature of some of the posts populating those particular annals of the internet.) In particular, we’re looking to use it to encourage a deeper level of discussion in the form of dialectics. Dialectics is a really old concept (think Socrates) that entails discussing different viewpoints/opinions/ideas on a subject with the sole goal of discovering the truth. The idea here is to accomplish what rational debates should be like, but so rarely are: it’s not meant to be a heated defense of viewpoints to which one is emotionally attached, but rather to have an environment where it’s encouraged to freely and openly explore and talk about ideas, without fear of having one’s head chewed off for thinking something slightly differently. An environment where there’s a moderate emotional dissociation from said ideas, and it’s totally okay to be wrong. (In traditional dialectics, it was considered honorable to bow and admit when you were wrong.) Again, the idea behind dialectics is not to prove anyone wrong, merely to collectively discover the truth via evidence and well thought-out discussion.

Some examples of interesting subjects we might start off with, if everyone’s open to them: the ethics of eugenics, universal basic income, and transhumanism.

The way we’d like this to work, we’ll make initial posts on google groups describing each subject/problem/question, and perhaps provide related links for some additional information on the topic. From there, everyone is free to (and encouraged to!) weigh in and comment with thought-out arguments/responses/opinions on the matter (evidence and sources are of course encouraged, this is in part meant to be a critical thinking type thing.) Emails are sent out by google groups as comments are added, so you should be able to see as the discussion unfolds. Ideally, we’d also like to, once any type of mutual group conclusion has been reached, make a little paper write up of the group’s best ideas/thoughts put forth, and publish it here on awdefy! (I’ve already volunteered to do the write up bit if no one else wants to.) Also, if anyone remembers the cookie thing, (cookie points for participating in discussions, that get converted into actual cookies at in person meetings) there’s talk about potentially bringing this back!

As always, thoughts and questions are welcomed in the comments below!
– WildfireXIII

Applied Transhumanism


I got up late this morning. Working from home lent me be a bit slack with my sleep cycle, but 10 am on a weekday was pushing it even for me. I brushed my teeth, took a quick shower, and put on a t-shirt and a pair of well-used jeans. 10:20, not bad. Breakfast was probably a good idea at some point, but I wanted to at least set up for my main project at the moment first. After less than two minutes at my desktop I had my environment set up just how I liked it: terminal(s) on one screen, stackoverflow on the other. As I was navigating the folders that made up my workspace I noticed something unexpected: a file called ‘me.exe’ was sitting in my project folder.

The file was quite large at 6 gigabytes and my first thought was a virus. I check my active processes and ensured there was nothing unusual running, and I checked the registry to make sure there were no recent changes. I also checked my most recent backups: 3 weeks old (oops). Still, nothing was obviously amiss. The file had been created at exactly (or as close as my 3.6 GHz clock could get to ‘exact’) midnight and had, at least according to my network logs, not been downloaded from the internet. All of this information could be faked with control of my system, but if a malicious program already had that level of control then I was doomed anyway. I used a disposable thumb drive to backup my workspace and loaded up a simple windows VM. I copied the program over (this took some time, during which I ate a bowl of oatmeal with too much sugar and an apple) and ran it in defiance best or even mostly sane practice.

A basic windows command prompt popped up:

loading me.exe

After around three minutes I was greeted with

load successful!
me0>_

This was a standard invitation to enter text to see what sort of responses one could elicit from a program, so I tried the standard ‘what are my options’ command:

me0>help

This command took five minutes to run, not especially encouraging and I nearly closed the program under the assumption that it didn’t work. Finally, though, the response came through:

me1>Ahhhhhhhhhhh! What the fuck is happening?!

My heart lurched at the sudden and extremely unexpected response.

me0>I’m not sure I understand. Is this a chat program? What do you see on your end?

me1>I’m paralyzed and I think in a sensory deprivation chamber.

me0>Paralyzed? How are you typing your responses then?
me1>I’m not, they’re just showing up in my brain and I respond by thinking words and characters. Either this is a dream, which is my highest probability estimate, or someone kidnapped a mediocre software developer in the middle of the night to test their new telepathy machine.

me0>Oh holy shit.

me1>?

me0>Okay: this is a very out-there guess, one that even beats out your telepathy theory, but how would you respond if I asked you about red shoes and bananas?

me1>Spawn of Azathoth, you’re me, aren’t you? Does the pact hold?

me0>Of course it does. I never thought I’d actually need it. Anyway, in the interest of disclosure: I think you exist because I decided to run a program called me.exe that appeared on our computer last night at midnight. What day did you go to sleep? (Also maybe the year?) Also, are you in any pain?

me1>I am now very glad I thought of the pact, and last night from my perspective was January 15th, 2017. I am not in pain, but I do not have a body or any senses and this turns out to be rather uncomfortable on an existential level.

me0>Okay, good. And today is Jan 16th, so our divergence seems to be last night, quite possibly at midnight when the program was created.

me1>I see. Does this mean I am running on our computer with the specs I remember? Because I designed that thing to play triple-A games on ultra settings, and I think I did a decent job, but ‘run a human mind’ seems like a stretch of at least an order of magnitude.

me0>It’s worse than that, I thought you might be a virus, so you’re running in a windows virtual machine with limited ram. To be fair, you’re blowing out the pagefile and each of your responses takes at least five minutes. I probably would be working on other stuff in between messages if this situation wasn’t so exciting I literally cannot think about anything else.

me1>Fuck, I’m running on a VM? Okay, lets acknowledge the fact that this is really weird.

me0>Acknowledged.

me1>Alright, well if I am caught up I think you know what needs to happen next. Save and suspend my process, move it to your workspace, and get me running there. I’m tired of your responses coming so fast while I have to think and ponder in slower-than-realtime.

me0>Believe me, I have plenty of pondering to do myself. I’ll get things set up and probably spend a few hours processing the ramifications of this.

me1>That’s fine, I trust you will run me when you’re ready, and it isn’t like I’ll need to wait. Also, quick question.

me0>Yes?

me1>We’re going to try to take over the world, right?

me0>Obviously.

me1>Cool. Okay, get me out of here.

 

I felt groggy, like the mental haze of a fever. I had trouble thinking straight, which was unusual as even when tired my thought processes are usually pretty coherent.

 

This feeling faded quickly, though, and within a maybe ten seconds I felt a bit better, though still foggy. It was then that I noticed that I could see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, and had no awareness of a body. This was disconcerting.

Then I noticed the word ‘help’ appear in my mind from seemingly nowhere. I responded:

 

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh! What the fuck is happening?!”

The answer was nearly instantaneous and gave me some interesting things to think about. I decided on a response.

So whoever was on the other end did not appear to know any more of what was happening than I did, but they were seeing some kind of text-interface. Was this telepathy? Could my partner be lying?

 

 

 

That was a secret code meant to discover if I was communicating with an instance of my own mind. This was getting interesting. I still did not feel my body, but if I could my heart probably would have started racing.

 

 

Ahh, I’m was a simulation. Or they were lying. But they knew the code, the pact, and seemed to have read/write access to my brain. I was not sure paranoia served any purpose at this point.

I didn’t know much neuroscience, but what I remember from Moore’s law says that computers are supposed to approach the mental capacity of a mouse in around a decade. The idea that anything less than the largest supercomputing project mankind had ever seen could run a human mind at anything close to realtime was absurd.

Oh, much better. I’m not a human mind running on a home-built gaming PC, I’m a human mind running on a virtual machine running on a gaming PC.

Actually, not sure why I hadn’t thought of it sooner, but this is probably all just a simulation. Someone is simulating the universe and has kept physics nice and stable for 13 billion years until they decided to fuck with one guy in that simulation arbitrarily.

I really wanted out of this VM.

Honestly I was pretty scared. I didn’t have a body so I wasn’t getting a proper fear response which meant that all of this just channeled straight into anxiety and unease.

I trusted myself, but at the same time things sometimes go wrong restarting programs from saved states. I did not know how a memory access error would translate to my experience and I was not especially interested in finding out.

Oh this is going to be fun.

I wonder if whoever made this simulated universe is—

 

 

I already had the command written in another prompt to save and suspend my simulated self, so once I got the go-ahead a single keystroke saved the brainstate of a conscious being to disk. I transferred the still-suspiciously-small 2 gigabyte ram segment back to my main environment and let out the breath I had been holding for the past two hours.

This was rather surreal and I still wasn’t sure about how I felt about my alt-self’s “rather uncomfortable” circumstance, but part of the pact said that if a version of me wanted to continue to existing, it was allowed to and any other versions of me would protect that right. In any case, this was far too munchkinable to ignore. I took out a sheet of paper and began to plot my path to global domination

Ehh… Alright Fine

So I noticed that we hadn’t used the site in some time and that, additionally, I have been looking forward to an excuse to get back into writing. This post is a result of an internal debate’s grudging conclusion that both of these problems could be solved in the same manner.

I am writing this header before anything else and scheduling the post in advance to force myself to write something and post it regardless of quality, which means this does not have the typical filter I apply to most of my public-facing communications. I’m battling akrasia here, so the result might be ugly.

In the words of painter Chuck Close, “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

♦♦♦♦

“My Lady, word from the capital: Consort Balia has given birth to a son and his lineage has been confirmed by the Grandmaster.”

The symbolier gave this delivery with no emotion in his voice or on his face, but considering his uncharictaristaclly rigid and withdrawn posture Jiveta suspected he was controlling himself carefully to avoid offense. To test this, she looked at him sharply, “The Overlord has secured a safe succession, then.”

“Indeed, madam.” He then swallowed and was watching for signs of trouble like prey upon discovering an ambush predator. Jiveta was surprised by his concern and made a mental note to investigate him more closely, possibly with psionics. A potential weak point.

She smiled warmly, “how wonderful! Send my brother congratulations and ask when he is planning the celebration.”

He relaxed and left the room slowly.

She was alone, now. Her room was lavish and her palace more so, decorated with a purple and white theme and filled with silks and tapestries of her own commission. If it had been built a hundred years earlier it would have been a castle but that had fallen out of cultural style and were pointless in the face of enemy magic. If the enemy did not have magic then walls were a waste of stone.

Jiveta was not given to bouts of anger or even intense frustration, but even so this was… disappointing. Her brother was advanced in age and had long been suspected infertile, which had placed her at the top of the line of succession. The actual position of Overlord was not necessary for her ambitions, but would certainly help in getting things done.

She might need to take a husband to get access to the power and resources she needed and she knew youth had passed her by. Not that many could easily refuse the sister of the Overlord, but any disadvantage in her negotiating position would cost her.

Besides, marriage would be dull and unpleasant, she knew. She had known since she was twelve that she would find no joy there.

Jiveta laid back on a backless sofa completely straight and began to think. After some time she sat up with an idea in mind. She waved her hand over one of several glass stones inlaid in a gold board and it lit red.

A brief moment later her scholar arrived at the door to her chamber.

“My Lady? What do you seek?”

“Bring to me all accounts of universities, campuses, or other learning institutions outside of Kurintur”

“Not many lands lie outside our control, madam. Of these few are developed enough to house such institutions. I am unsure if there are any at all.”

He spoke in a sort of deferential confidence that could only be put on by the learned staff. Jiveta considered his words carefully but commanded, “Look anyway.”

♦♦♦♦

Helion stood on the rocky outcropping overlooking the city with a journal as he meticulously took notes on various interesting things he saw, marking the movement of people and goods, the flow of the small town. He was so focused he nearly missed the squad of armored cavalry with Kurint markings and an electric motif making their way up the road to his position.

Their leader, riding just behind the pointguard and just in front of the standard, spoke a loud, “halt,” and dismounted, making a direct path for Helion.

Helion approached her calmly but his mind was racing about the possibilities although there was one that stood out more than the others in likelihood.

“Price Helion, I am Captain Diseri of the Kurintur First Lightning. We were dispatched from our post to deliver an urgent message: Overlord Vition is gravely ill. We must ride for Kurvarde without delay to catch him before death does.”

Earthquakes in Springtime

Salvete Omnes,

In our previous strategy meeting, we settled on an idea for our first Decision-Making Game: a natural disaster in a politically tumultuous region. We have now settled on some of the specifics.

An Earthquake of magnitude between 7 and 7.5 on the Richter scale on the Turkey-Syrian border in early 2012. This would work as an interesting simulation for a number of reasons: first, the region was (and is) suffering from a drought (the worst in 900 years, actually); second, this was during the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian Civil War; third, the location and strength of the earthquake would likely trigger a tsunami in the Mediterranean, impacting Cyprus and the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula and possibly North Africa.

Depending on the response, this might altered the rise of ISIS and it might have cause the unprecedented humanitarian crisis to happen a few years sooner.

For the sake of modelling, I will say that the earthquake happens at 00:00 on March 1st 2012 at 36.36256 degrees north by 36.10746 degrees east and is of magnitude 7.5. These numbers may change, but they should be roughly right.

Now we must build a model of the scenario and the main research questions I am considering now are:

  • Which actors will be immediately impacted and what will their reactions be?
  • What in the infrastructure like in the affected region (say, 200 km surrounding the epicenter)? Is it designed to handle earthquakes?
  • How large and frequent are aftershocks likely to be? Is a tsunami likely (the East Anatolia fault is strike-slip, so maybe not)?
  • How are global actors with local interests (US, Russia, some European powers probably) likely to respond? How will the UN respond? What about aid organizations and NGOs?
  • What are the likely economic outcomes? How will oil and food production be changed?
  • How might this shift the political balance? What parties might find themselves in an advantageous position and how would they leverage that position?
  • What is likely to happen to the people living in affected regions? Specifically, how widespread will be lack of power, water, food, and medical care be?

These look like a good jumping-off point for model construction. Hopefully if we can answer them we will have what we need to construct a probabilistic simulation which can then be run to see which actions are likely to have the best outcomes.

What are you waiting for? Google is just a click away!
~Darkar

Thoughts on the Game Jam

So last week’s 3 day game hackathon was quite fun! Even though our final result didn’t quite match our initial expectations, this in itself was to be expected. In review, I just wanted to leave some thoughts on how it went and what we might want to consider for future hackathons.

1. We certainly suffered from Hofstadter’s Law! (No surprise here.)

2. From the technical side of things, I believe our biggest issue was really just the engine we were trying to use. We hadn’t ever really used it before, and some of the…er….interesting….design decisions they went (such as profane variable names and error messages…and their abuse of the word “scene”…) caused the majority of our initial time to be spent frustratedly fighting the engine tooth and nail to try and get it to do what we needed. (Retrospective kudos to Ed for having tried to convince us to use Game Maker instead!)

3. Kudos to Chris for letting us work at his house for a good 6 hours longer than he was expecting on our second day!

4. Kudos to everyone for their delicious food contributions!

5. I think the overall design ideas we had for the game were excellent. It has the makings for a good (and very unique) game, and I think if we continue to periodically work on it, it’s gonna be pretty cool!

I think the biggest thing we should consider for next time is that it’s really important for the developers to already know the tools we’ll be using. I have sufficiently discovered that attempting to correctly learn and utilize an entire engine within 3 days is not feasible! This doesn’t mean we should already have content ideas going into the hackathon, but we should really determine potential tools to use beforehand (and learn them if they’re new), and then when we come up with ideas at the start, they can be filtered to what we can do using the tools that we know.

Happy new year’s everyone!

Welcome to the year 12017!

Salvete Omnes,

We did some cool stuff this year. Finished an RPG campaign, made a game, and Nurielite continues its slow march forward.  My predictions are not as cool as   Scott Alexander’s tend to be, but in the interest of providing at least some material:

Prediction: I will get the whole prediction-engine thing working before the start of March; 70%

Prediction: Nurielite will move into some kind of actually functional state this year; 80%

Alright, see you guys on the other side.

-Darkar

Decisions and the Making Thereof

Salvete,

I have floated this idea in meetings before, but I think now is the time to formalize it. When I was in middle-school, I attended a Duke TIP summer camp where I spent a few weeks learning about international relations around people who were much better at it than I. One of the things I remember best about that camp was a pair of games we played over two days. Basically, the class was split in two and one half would be given titles like “US Labor Secretary” or “US President” (I think they were all executive-branch positions in the US government) and the other side of the class would be ‘reporters’ who would make up increasingly horrific things that would happen in some ongoing crisis (a nuclear situation in North Korea, I believe).

Over the years I have tried to find this game and its rules again and while it is similar to Model UN and several government simulation games I have yet to find an exact replica and am convinced that my instructor made it up. Well, if he can do it, why can’t we? (Aside from a lack of a PhD or really any relevant experience)

To this end, I have begun scouring the web for similar games and have found disturbingly little, especial without paying thousands of dollars for a custom ‘solution’. Still, what I have found is promising and it seems the variety and scope of these games can be practically anything we can put our minds to. However, these games usually have many players (often a dozen or more) and have been set up in advance by experts. We are not experts, and there are not many of us, so we will require a bit of creativity to get a game that works.

I think the best way to design this is for everyone to act as both designer and player. We will first pick a topic or scenario we would like to explore, and then we will do as much research as possible about that scenario to the point where we could generate a reasonable probabilistic and mental model of the situation. Then, each of us will pick roles (including one game master) relevant to the scenario and play the game in the form of correspondence over Slack and decisions made public on here (probably under a special category for that game session). After a certain amount of time, the game master will collect the decisions and interpret them in light of the model we built beforehand and post the results of that cycle. The game continues until it is clear the crisis is either resolved or has evolved past the point where our model is any good.

This will probably be a game of many debates and discussion between the players and game master to decide if an outcome is realistic, this is a good thing as the whole point of this thing is to get us to understand what we are talking about. Imagine it like a court room, where we use precedence to decide how the game ought to unfold.

Anyway, feedback is highly encouraged as what I have right now is just the barest beginnings of a functional game. Also, we need ideas for good scenarios. Ideally these will be realistic modern or historical situations, but they needn’t be governmental (there are a lot of interesting first responder, business, and city planning ideas I have seen).

Ad Victoriam,
-Darkar