Fix All The Things!

I know some of you want to hear what my time at PAX was like. I intend to write that post, but you'll have to wait a little longer. I have a crapload of work to do, including but not limited to:
  • Write Torment conversations
  • Design Torment conversations for others to write
  • Review Torment conversations others have written
  • Fix a number of problems created by the most recent round of Torment cuts
  • Finish a novella by October
  • Write a newsletter by October
  • Give the Thai government a bunch of documents they asked for while I was in the US (timing, man, seriously)
  • Fix everything that broke around the house while I was gone
  • Parent several children...
  • ...while my wife takes her own trip to the US
So my already ridiculously over-tasked life got turned to 11 for a few weeks. I will tell you about PAX, but not yet (fair warning: I fail at pictures).

However, you can hear me at my panel, wherein I and several awesome designers talk about what makes a classic RPG. There is no video recording, but the audio is here:

What I've been doing since 1999

On Friday, the Torment team released the first Alpha Systems Test, a look at the opening scene of the game and its most essential systems (conversation, mostly).

Shortly after I tweeted that out, some folks wondered what I've been doing, game design-wise, since 1999 (other folks wondered what happened in 1999 which, you know, that's fair).

Here's a very brief look at what happened since:
  • 1999 -- Planescape: Torment was released to high critical acclaim (and low sales).
  • 2000 -- I got married and left my awesome-but-crunch-timey game dev job for what I commonly refer to as my Office Space job.
  • While I was at work (sometimes literally), I designed D&D campaigns and board games, drew crappy comic strips, wrote stories, and programmed games based on those stories.
  • 2003 -- I decided I wanted to actually finish something I started, so I put my other projects aside (fourth question down) and focused on writing a novel.
  • 2005 -- My wife and I moved to Thailand. I kept writing, but I could no longer pay attention to the game industry (among other things) as much as I used to.
  • 2006 -- We took in our first child, and over the next several years would increase our family to include ten children, both foster and natural. Meanwhile, I kept designing RPGs and board games (that never got played outside my house).
  • 2008 -- I sent my first novel to agents (and also started this blog).
  • 2010 -- I wrote a story that somebody actually paid me for.
  • 2011 -- I got an agent and began the search for a publisher (that search is still ongoing, though we've updated the novel it is going on for).
  • 2012 -- I started working for inXile and "researched" what the game industry had been up to since I left (read: I played games again and wrote them off for tax purposes).
  • 2013-2015 -- I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for game dialogue and systems design. I also wrote a novella, a Pathfinder story, and a number of other things I hope you'll get to read some day.

So there you go. That's what I've been doing instead of (or in addition to) designing games for the last 15 years. Hopefully that also explains why my tastes in games tend to skew oldschool.

Wells' Lair on The Flash is Braille?

I don't actually watch The Flash (lack of time rather than inclination), but my sister pointed out to me that the secret lair of Harrison Wells is covered in bumps that look a lot like Braille.

But is it really Braille? And if so, is there some secret message hidden in the walls? Since this aligns with my interests (i.e. ciphers, linguistics, Braille), I decided to investigate. There are some answers on the internet, but not enough to satisfy me or my sister. I'm fixing that now.

First, a little Braille primer. The Braille alphabet encodes the 26 English letters into 2x3 grids of dots, like so:

Braille also encodes numbers, punctuation, and other formatting marks (like capital and italics) in that same 2x3 grid. However, the only markings on Wells' wall that fit any of those Braille markings are the letters n and z.

But Braille also has a cool and ridiculous number of shorthands and contractions. The dots on Wells' wall match these. Specifically, every 2x3 grid of dots on Wells' wall is one of these orientations, rotated either vertically or horizontally:

So the answer to our first question is yes, this is definitely Braille. I didn't see a single screenshot that showed any markings that broke the 2x3 grid pattern, nor that represented any word but those above.

But does it say anything? I'm gonna say no.

That conclusion does come with a few caveats though:
  1. I only know the basics of Braille. It may be that a fluent Braille reader would be able to see a pattern that I'm missing.
  2. Because the characters are rotated, it's hard to tell what orientation they are meant to be read in. I assumed a specific orientation and stuck with that for the image above.
  3. My translations assume English Braille. A lot of other languages use these grids for their own characters too (e.g. here are the Thai consonants).
With those caveats in mind, I would call this "decorative Braille." It's possible that there's a secret message hidden in some other language or character orientations, but I doubt it.

Even if there was, I'd never find it. You start doing this long enough and Wells' face starts to look like this:

Classic RPGs Panel at PAX

Hey, all! If you're going to PAX Prime next month, I'll be on a panel there.

The panel is "CLASSIC RPGs FOREVER!" (yes, in all caps, apparently), and it'll be on Sunday, August 30th at 11 AM in the Sasquatch Theater.

We'll be talking about resurrecting subgenres of classic RPGs that were once thought dead. I'll be joining veteran game developers Annie Mitsoda, Josh Sawyer, Mitch Gitelman, and Swen Vincke, with Penny Arcade's Jeff Kalles moderating.

I'm super excited and super terrified. This will be the first time I've ever been on a panel (or even seen a panel, or gone to PAX, or gone to any convention of any kind). It'll be awesome to talk games with a bunch of developers I admire, but yeah, combine a thousand unknowns with enormous crowds with nigh-clinical introversion and you get something that's even scarier than what I already do all day.

But hey, I'll manage. I always do.

So if you're going to be at PAX, let me know! It's possible I might be able to do something about that information without crawling under my bed in terror.*

* That's a joke. My bed is a mattress on the floor. I can't crawl under there without straining something.**

** Unless I crawl under the bed at my hotel. Hm, there's an idea....

Q: Big Pot Cooking Recipes?

Erik says:
You're a foster father of 10. Got any good big pot cooking recipes to share?

Actually, I do! Here are two of my favorites (my kids like them too, as it turns out).

Note that, as far as I'm concerned, cooking is essentially magic. So these numbers aren't exact (as evidenced by the ranges below). I usually try different amounts of things each time until I figure out what feels right. Tasting as you go also helps.

CASHEW CHICKEN (ไก่ผัดเม็ดมะม่วง)
Roast 1 1/4 cup of cashew nuts and 1 1/4 cup of chopped green onions (actually, I tend to fry these in oil nowadays, but you can do what you want). When they're nice and brown, take them out and set them aside.

In 2-3 Tbsp. of oil, fry 1 cup of dried chilis. When they get dark, take them out and set them aside. (IMPORTANT: Take them out before they start smoking, lest you fill your house with face-melting, eye-scalding chili smoke. My children hate me for the times I've done this. They still won't let me forget it.)

In the chili-infused oil, fry a bunch of garlic until it's brown, then add all of this stuff:
1 kg of chicken
1 green bell pepper
2 onions
1-2 big carrots
5 Tbsp. soy sauce
5 Tbsp. oyster sauce
5 tsp. sugar

Cook that for a few minutes, then add 1 cup of chicken broth. Cook it some more until it's done (see? magic).

Turn off the heat, and add the cashew nuts, green onions, and the fried chilis (the latter is optional -- most of my kids complain when I leave these in, so now I just put them in a separate dish for the spice-immune teenager).

Serve it on rice (we make 7-8 cups for our family). Feeds at least 12 people.

YELLOW CURRY (แกงกะหรี่)
I loved this stuff as a kid. It's even better now that I live in a country where the spices are native.

If you can get yellow (or Indian) curry paste, then use some of that with an appropriate amount of coconut milk (it'll probably say on the package what proportions to use).

If not, here's how I made my own curry sauce:
3-5 Tbsp yellow (or Indian) curry powder (sadly, if you can't get this, I don't think I can help you)
Lots of garlic (I put in like 10 cloves)
1-2 Tbsp red chili pepper
2-3 Tbsp ginger
2-3 tsp salt
1500 mL coconut milk

Pretty much just mix that in a pot, then throw this stuff in:
1.5 kg of chicken (or whatever meat you want, really)
4 big potatoes
2 big carrots
2 onions

Bring it to a boil, and then leave it on low heat for like 30-60 minutes. Serve it on rice (we make 7-8 cups for our family). Serves at least 12 people.

Anyone else have any good big pot cooking recipes to share? I only cook like four things. It wouldn't hurt to discover other options.


Got a question? Ask me anything.

Q: Which is harder, game writing with a team or solo-writing novels?

I actually got this question on Twitter, but I thought it deserved more than 140 characters. Although if you're into the tl/dr version then here you go.

So which is harder? Writing a game or a novel? Writing solo or on a team?

Game vs. Novel
First, you should know that I've never written for a non-Torment game, and Torment has lots (and lots and lots) of words. It's entirely possible there are games for which writing is a piece of cake. I wouldn't know what that's like.

What's difficult about game writing is the lack of control. In a novel, the characters do exactly what I tell them to (my characters do, anyway). But in a game, the player can do anything he wants (within the rules of the game). So a character I intended to be major might die before he gets a single line, and the writing has to handle both options equally well. So a dialogue that would be 150 words in a novel becomes an enormous branching, interlocking tree.

Novel writing has its own challenges, of course. For one thing, it's more than just dialogue. A lot more. A Torment game has more descriptive prose than most, but it still doesn't come close to what you need in a novel. The novelist has to let the reader into the protagonist's head, to feel what she's feeling. In a game, that's done for you -- the player's already in their own head -- but in a novel, that connection is a lot of work.

(As an example of how much work... By far, the biggest critique note on my Ninjas novel was, "Not enough description and emotion." It took me two months to revise that critique away, increasing the size of the novel by more than ten percent -- 10,000 new words almost exclusively adding description and emotion!)

Solo vs. Team
The best part of working on a team is that I don't have to write all the words. Torment has several writers working part- and full-time, so most mornings I wake up to finished conversations that I never wrote. It's like having an infestation of word fairies!

The hard part of working on a team is trying to agree on everything. We have strict conventions and pipelines to get everything to an equivalent level of quality with minimum fuss. When I'm in a writing role, I need to follow those conventions and get the approval of (usually) at least two other leads.

Even in my role as a lead, there are sometimes disagreements on how we should handle certain things -- anything from what the jargon of a town should be to the voice of a player companion to whether we should use one dash or two in place of an em-dash. Fortunately, we have a pretty great team, with a high level of professionalism and a low ego average, so even difficult decisions are rarely Difficult.

And really, the decision-making as a team is a lot of the fun. When I'm writing a novel, I have to make my own decisions, second guess myself, and be my harshest critic. My novel has no awesome story meetings with people I enjoy and respect (it's just me). And it is really, really hard to be objective about anything you make yourself.

Which do I like better? I like them both. A LOT. Honestly, if I had to choose only one of them, I'd probably rebel and just keep trying to do everything.

Oh wait, that's what I'm doing.


Got a question? Ask me anything.

How you can be part of a cybermob and not know it

Cybermobbing is getting ridiculous. I mean the entire spectrum here: public shaming, online bullying, harassment, and the general dickery that goes on all over the internet everyday.

The existence of this crap is not news (well, actually it is, like every single day). But it's often assumed that the people engaging in these activities are sociopaths, sadists, and trolls -- people who get high off wrecking other people, or who just have no conception of empathy at all. To be fair, parts of these mobs are exactly that.

But this post is about you, and how even the most innocent, well-meaning person can get caught up in mobbing someone and wrecking their day, if not their life.

An author recently posted the gif below, saying simply, "I don't claim to know s--t about soccer, but I know this women vs. dudes gif amuses me."


His point -- the point of the gif -- is that women athletes can be just as badass and worthy of celebration as men, if not more. Not really a point worth arguing against (unless you got a thing against badass women, I guess?).

The responses he got, though. Last time I checked, almost 50% of them pointed out that the woman in the gif is a rugby player, not a footballer.

They're not wrong. And that's not harassment nor bullying, and so far as I know the author in question was over it before I even had these thoughts. Most of the people correcting him even went out of their way to support his point (though there were a few who thought the mistake meant his argument was invalid which is... a different point, I guess). Taken individually, none of the comments would be a big deal, but when you get 20 replies like that, it can wear on you, literally.

It seems innocent. Each individual is thinking, "I have an opinion that he should know." But the recipient is thinking, "Dear God, MAKE IT STOP."

My point? Think before you post. You are not the only person to have the thought that you had, and you are likely not the only person to express it. Think, and then think again, and then maybe check to see if anyone has said the same thing before you do.

Too much work? Then don't post. Nothing bad will happen if you don't correct that person. But bad things become more likely each time you do.

"But I'm not correcting them. I'm really upset about what they did!" That's fine. There are things you can do, but being a dick shouldn't be one of them.

Social media is real life, guys. The people on the other end of those data packets are real people, and the words you type hit exactly the same as if you said them to their face.

The internet is a powerful thing. We are the ones who determine whether that's good or bad.