Play Dice with the Universe

This little random generator here  will make you a weird planet, a region, the weirdos that live there, and their relationship with the weirdos nearby. If you run a game that involves jet-setting from planet to planet, you might have use of such a thing.

It's a cleaned-up and digitized version of these tables here.

Why play as kids?

Children are trapped in a set of rules they can't understand or control.

"Why do we have to move? All my friends are here." Well, because dad needs to switch jobs, because the company's downsizing, because profits are down, because the economy's fucked up, because the intricate invisible system that controls us all is shuddering and breaking.

Adults don't have much more knowledge or control, but we're tied into systems that we trust to understand things for us. We don't actually understand any of the crucial gadgets and systems that our lives depend on, but we can rely on the news, ads, other people to tell us that they're working fine. We can trust that everyone isn't lying to us.

Kids do not have this luxury.

Kids aren't smart enough to understand the Global Financial Crisis, but they are smart enough to know that you're lying to them about it. Inevitably, you'll lie to them. The truth is too complicated and terrible to explain, so you give them simple, clean lies until you think they've grown up. We teach them that 0 is the lowest number possible, then we reveal a hidden series of doppleganger numbers lurking underneath the system they thought was everything. A million small betrayals like this teach children that they are not being told the real rules.

So: Children don't understand the rules, can't control them, and they know everybody's lying to them about what the rules actually are. This creates a very specific and interesting mindset. Making a world that's a literal expression of an interesting mindset is a recipe for greatness. For instance, spy fiction has always presented a literal manifestation of a paranoid person's fantasies, a world where everyone really is out to get you.

In a million fairy tales, people are thrust into a world that works according to an intricate set of strange, often malevolent rules that are never clearly explained. This is the world kids live in every day, fishbowled around a child's perspective in the same way that spy fiction is fishbowled around paranoia. In the fairy tale, kids come to understand the rules, navigate them, and exploit them to their own ends. This is the heroic fantasy all children aspire to: attaining control and understanding over their lives.

Pan's labyrinth deliberately exploits the link to reality: The fairy-tale rules Ofelia has to follow directly symbolize the rigid laws of fascist Spain. In the real world her evil stepfather lectures on austerity measures. In the fairy tale world she is told not to take the food under any circumstances, for fear of the monster at the head of the table.

Here's a classic example, Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa finds something that works in a strange way: Skulls that glow with inner light. Like the badass she is, she rips off a skull and uses it to light her way through the forest. She has come into contact with a creepy rule, understood it, and used it to achieve her goals.

Of course, she still doesn't know what makes the skull glow. A kid may not be able to understand why their parents are fighting, but they can learn the patterns it runs by; what signs lead up to it, how to avoid it, and what usually happens afterward. In the mind of a kid, there's little difference between these rules and fairy-tale commandments like "Don't look behind you".

In comparison, Scooby-doo is the purest wish-fulfillment. Not only do you come to fully understand the hidden and terrible forces behind the world, you kick them into the light to be humiliated and destroyed. It's like punching the GFC in the face. Even here, though, there's some melancholy. There are no vampires, werewolves or ghosts. There's never any real magic or forces of evil. In the end, it's always just a bunch of assholes trying to make a quick buck.


  1. When summoning demons, have the players actually draw a salt circle around them. If the circle is ever broken, the demon gets in.
  2. When a giant, braindead monster comes out, put your cat in the middle of the table. Translate anything she does to the monster's actions. If she knocks over a miniature, they're destroyed. If she goes and sits on the player, they've just had the thing crush them. Poke her with miniatures to simulate the giant's handlers spurring it to action. 50% of the time she might just go to sleep, which is fine.
  3. During character creation, get every player to drop a coin over a map (Ideally all at the same time, in a big jangling heap). Wherever it lands is where their character is from. I'm making a game where this determines your race.
  4. For a super attack, roll a cricket ball through the battlefield. Any miniature that gets knocked over is crushed.
  5. A wizard has shrunk your players into pieces and trapped them in a sadistic board game. Actually bring out a board game, and interpret every event as some kind of encounter. Say, chess: Each piece is some force they can command in any way that makes sense.
  6. Arrange a feast in-game, and play it out with using a feast in real life. The players chat in-character as they eat, with you playing all the rabble. Pick one dish: anyone who eats it in real life is poisoned in-game. (Credit to zak)
  7. Get some old wooden toy as the Golden Idol. Scratch a clue somewhere on the underside, where it won't be found easily. 
  8. Get an old teddy-bear, open it up and stuff a heavy "Gem" inside, then sew it back together. Give it to them as the golden idol. If they notice that it's weirdly heavy and has a bad stitch-job, they can rip it open and find the real prize.
  9. If someone's been Silenced, tape over their mouth and force them to do Charades to communicate.
  10. Take everybody down to the basement, then turn out the lights and tell them that their torches have blown out and they hear something terrible coming. Flick the lights back on suddenly after there's been some panic: wherever they stand is they are when the monster attacks. (Credit to Gary Gygax - can't seem to find where I read about it, though). 
  11. "Dance, dance!" froths the mad king. No, really, dance. Unsatisfactory dancing will result in death.
  12.  Get a bunch of lego pieces and blocks that you can stack. Each piece represents one item: The bigger the item, the bigger the piece. You can carry as many items as you can stack. If the pile falls over, you've tried to carry too much, tripped, and scattered everything all over the place.
  13. Roll for random encounters every two minutes in real-time.  
  14. Get a bunch of matches. These are all the torches you have: You only have light for the time it takes for them to burn.
  15. For a sneak attack, throw a dice at your player when they're not expecting it. If they don't get hit, they dodge the attack. 
  16. Give them a sealed letter to deliver. If they rip it open, the recipient will know. If they steam it open and re-seal it, no-one will be the wiser.
  17. They're caught off-guard in an inn. They only have the items that are around them in real-life to defend themselves.
  18. Pick a song for a monster to hum to itself, like this. Put it on loop. Turn it down until it's almost inaudible, then push the volume up higher the closer it gets to the party.
  19. To complete a pact, you have to actually cut yourself and smear the blood on a piece of parchment.
  20. At the bottom of the worst pit in the world is The Speaking Gun. If you shoot anything with it, throw out that miniature, crush it, burn it. That monster has been completely unmade, now and forever. You can never use it in a campaign again.
  21. Man, actually go outside. Write your character sheet on your arm. Trek through a creek, roll dice on streetcorners. The terrain you're going through is the terrain in-game; just point out where the monsters are. 
Inspired by Patrick Stuart.

Some Negadungeons

In my last post, I summarized the content theory. Simply put, many game reduce everything you can experience to "Content", which is meant to be consumed and reward you for consuming it. Designing a game-world to make the protagonist happy leads to games with a naive and solipsistic world-view that is often at odds with their serious stories. Here are some games that reject or oppose that.

You take control of a girl in her room. She can sleep, play video games, work at her desk, or go out to her balcony. She refuses to leave.

However, if you go to sleep, you enter a version of your room where you can open the door and walk out. If you do, you find yourself in an enormous mega-labyrinth of interlinked dream-worlds. The core sense of horror and surrealism in these dream-worlds comes from the feeling that they are not made for you.

The game is about wandering, lost, through enormous broken levels. Some force you to walk through giant black voids without landmarks. Others confuse you with cyclical layouts that loop endlessly. You might find the exit by walking between two stones, or interacting with a flower an odd number of times. There is the feeling that you've fallen through the map, into broken geometry you were never meant to cross.

There are many pieces of content that were clearly designed never to be found: Genuinely secret secrets. One monster has a 1 in 47 chance of being summoned whenever you flip a certain light switch. One door opens if you pass it three times, then turn back.

More thoughts here.

Colorful little micro-worlds suspended in a terrifying black void.

Earthbound was one of the first games to capitalize on the casual surrealism of JRPG's. It discovered a rich vein of weirdness that has since been mined by everything from Space Funeral to Anodyne. The quests are bizarre. Like in a dream, your reasons for doing anything dissolve when you try to explain them.

At first this dream-like atmosphere feels warm and charming. Slowly, though, over the course of hours and hours, you begin to get a sense of deep malice. It's not something you can put your finger on - most examples I can give will sound like trivial frustrations. But as you go on, the logic of the dream world slowly transforms into a nightmare that you feel trapped in.

At one point, you are suddenly transported to Moonside, a  inverted version of the town you're traveling through. The buildings glow neon, the inhabitants slur broken speech at you, and pieces of abstract art constantly attack you, even indoors. Being trapped there is nauseating; even worse is the way you have to follow the broken logic of the place to escape it. Internalizing it's crooked rules feels somehow corrupting.

The game suddenly and randomly transports you to a terrifying inverse world like this twice in a short space of time. The effect is a feeling that this darkness underlies everything, everywhere. Later, as you navigate the dream logic of another quest, you start to feel like you never really escaped Moonside. 

There are flowers in the forest. A counter on your screen tells you how many you've collected, out of 144. If you collect all 144 flowers, absolutely nothing happens.

That is vicious. I can't defend it.

The "Good Ending" of Spec Ops: The Line is to turn off the game. The longer you continue, the more you descend into increasingly horrific and unnecessary war crimes. The content you consume is repulsive: the combat itself is deliberately designed as an endless slog that slowly numbs you to all sensation. The game wonders aloud whether playing it is a morally questionable act: "To kill for entertainment is harmless," reassures one of the loading screen tips.

It largely exists for people who play Call of Duty without questioning its values. The game was marketed as a straight Military Shooter: The box offers no indication that it will slowly and surely become a nightmare. I can imagine that it reached a lot of COD-playing twelve year olds, who must have been traumatized to find their escapist killing suddenly become messy.

A 50,000 word long discussion of Spec Ops here.

Horror games in general

If a horror game is at all successful, you won't want to consume content. The genre expectations completely invert the philosophy of modern game design. As soon as you realize that a game is a horror, you expect that consuming content will not be traditionally enjoyable. You judge that the game has succeeded if you don't want to fight the monster or enter the new level. This means horror games are celebrated for things that would be seen as terrible game design anywhere else. Thank god they exist.

Silent Hill 4: The Room in particular

You wake up in your apartment. The door is locked: There's a hole in the wall that leads to a nightmare. You slowly explore this nightmare world, returning to your room as a safe place to rest and heal. At one point, someone offers you an item. You can take it, or refuse it. Obviously, you're going to take it - that's the way games work. Items are there to be picked up. 

If you do, a nightmare creature invades your room. Your safe place is violated. Nothing is sacred, nowhere is safe.

More on Silent Hill 4 in The Gamer's Quarter, issue 1, page 26. The magazine is now sadly defunct, and I can only find a download on that website. 

I use this game as a modern stand-in for every classic RPG from fallout to the OSR way of running D&D. If you go to certain places, you will find monsters too terrible for you to fight. These places are not made for you: you are not welcome here. This feeling is temporary, of course: The games pretend that a place hasn't been designed for your benefit so that it feels all the more satisfying to come back when you're at the right level, and slot into your correct place.

The same feeling is captured in Metroidvania games. Classically, you'll have to jump around lava pits before unlocking lava-proof shoes. When you get that item, you've suddenly turned the world into something that's designed to be convenient for you. It's like turning a jungle into a department store with the flip of a switch.

More here.

The world is made for your enemies: You have to skulk around the edges of it, distort it to your own purposes, and penetrate it. 


I worry that I haven't expressed this anti-content idea well, even after these two articles. It is, essentially, the idea that a game shouldn't make you happy: that the things in a game should not feel like they've been made for you; that the sickening feeling that you've done the wrong thing is just as valuable as a pat on the head. It's an advocation for games that are bewildering, broken, twisted and immoral. It stands alongside the philosophy of fun games, not against them. These ideas might be obvious, but they're important to the way I think about games. 

The insidious theory at the heart of games

The majority of modern game design is motivated by the Content Theory. That is:

"The goal of a game is to deliver entertaining content to players as smoothly as possible."

This basic assumption underlies everything about a certain philosophy, and it has some insidious implications if left unexamined.

I define content as everything that the player can experience. There's two types. You interact with  Gameplay content in order to achieve one of multiple outcomes. Based on that outcome, you unlock Reward content. This includes mechanics (A new spell, a shotgun), narrative (a cutscene), and art and sound (the enemy explodes in slow-motion with a satisfying "SPLURCH"). Content is entertaining if the player wants to keep experiencing it.

A game designer's job is to make sure the player experiences as much entertaining content as possible, and as little unsatisfying content as possible. To ensure this, content should be delivered smoothly, to make sure that the player is motivated to keep consuming it. Game designers strive to eliminate downtime, backtracking, and filler content. Losing is generally not entertaining content, so save systems minimize death and repetition. The game should be carefully designed to make sure no-one gets frustrated, lost, or confused, carefully guiding the player through either direct orders, physical walls, or subtle environmental cues. The ideal is that every playe experiences every piece of entertaining content. Addictiveness is the holy grail.

The direct effect of this theory: Everything is made for you. 

Obviously, the goal of almost every work in every medium is to make the audience glad they experienced it. The difference that comes with games is that the audience is also the protagonist. In a movie, comic, book or play, everything is made for a third party watching in from
 the outside. In a game, everything is made for the main character.

Everything you (the main character) can possibly do is content. That means everything you can do will be fun and rewarding, and you should do as much of it as you can. There are no secrets you're better off not knowing. No relationship will ever be bad for you.  There's no enemy that you shouldn't attack, no place you shouldn't go to, no goal that isn't worth achieving. You should kill every enemy, fuck anyone who's available, talk to anyone who'll talk back, make every promise they'll let you make and pick up everything they own when their back is turned. All these things are content, and the purpose of content is to be consumed and reward you for consuming it.

Geraldine Gamer travels to Death Mountain. The villagers at the base warn her that it's a terrible place that she should stay far away from. She knows they're full of shit: because it exists, it was put there for her entertainment. Now, a movie audience might well be entertained by seeing Geraldine become hopelessly lost and only barely escape with her life. In a game, because Death Mountain is made specifically for Geraldine herself, she knows it will be tailored to provide an entertaining experience for her personally.

They tell her it's a long and arduous journey up to the peak. She knows that the journey was tailor-made to offer a smooth, enjoyable experience to someone with her exact abilities. If she doesn't have a jump button, there will never be a need to jump. If getting up the mountain was long and arduous, the game would have failed to smoothly deliver content.

The villagers wail that all who enter come back broken and twisted. Geraldine knows that everything in the world exists to reward her personally. If she can enter Death Mountain, then it must be gameplay content, which means that she'll be rewarded for completing it. Including something that didn't exist to entertain and reward the player would be bad game design.

Thus, game designers must constantly bar your way with their left hand while waving "Come hither" with the right. The left hand tells you that the way is dangerous, that this enemy is too terrible to fight, that you're a crazy maverick who's breaking all the rules. The right hand reassures you that you're actually doing the right thing. That enemy was made to be killed by you. This is the way you're meant to go.  Keep going, you'll be fine - nothing can actually hurt you.*

Part 2: The alternatives.

*A piece of directors commentary on Half Life 2 muses on how hard it was to convince players to drive through a bunch of "KEEP OUT" signs on the side of a cliff.