Tuesday, August 22, 2017

DevOps as a critical investigation of our fucked up business culture

I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and we were talking about a bunch of things, including the state of the current culture of the Technology Industry, which is where we all work... me, my friend, my spouse, most of my social circle, etc. And we were talking about definitions and the corporate tendency to take interesting philosophies and turn them into undifferentiated pablum designed to keep labour fighting amongst themselves. Take, for instance, "Agile". It started, I understand, as a philosophy to help developers work together better as teams instead of a mass of individuals, as the modern codebase has for the most part moved beyond the idea of the artisanal coder, carefully banging away at his (almost always his) codeforge to craft the perfect piece of individual bespoke software for the discerning, carefully chosen consumer-slash-patron. As software development turned into a team sport, and the experience of coding became an assembly line function, the question was "how do we convince rabid individualists to work better together at a fundamentally creative process?" So the idea was to use this concept of Agile: light, nimble, heavily-communicated, careful processes that encouraged folks to work as teams and keep each other in the loop about what was working, what wasn't, and what they could do about it to get stuff out the door. There are a ton of tools that can be used to facilitate Agile methodologies, but the actual tools aren't nearly as important as everyone understanding the philosophy.

Of course, as is usual, the people who make the money and the people that have MBAs and the people who run the companies as a profit center for shareholders often don't understand (or can't be bothered to understand) this philosophy; it doesn't have anything to do with them (they think) and also their bottom line is "what shipped, when, and how much can we charge for it", not "are the people who do the work cooperating with each other to be creative in a way that minimizes difficulties and maximizes creative opportunities". Which often leads to the teams that are utilizing Agile methodologies to try and sum up the concepts in a 5 minute recap as part of a 30 minute meeting, and one-sheet recap emails, and "executive summaries" and then we end up with people who use "Agile" as a verb, and now Agile doesn't actually mean anything, it's just another buzzword to be tossed around during sales pitches and recruiting calls. And there are lots of people making moderate amounts of money by writing books and giving seminars and doing corporate training gigs on "how do to Agile" which is fine, I guess, if you can't be bothered to take it to heart and build the tools that help your team work best, because the philosophy and methodology is more important than the specific tools. "Agile: where the stories are made up and the points don't matter" isn't just a funny line; it's both a disappointment AND a core tenet of the methodology (and yes, both can be true, because the point of view on that core tenet is what matters). Context matters.

And that brings us to the Next Big Thing in labor cost reduction productivity: DevOps. This is a great one, because it sounds sexy and it's a portmanteau (and IT loves portmanteaus) and from the corporate perspective it means whatever they want it to mean, especially if it means "we don't have to hire those pesky Ops people because they're expensive and annoying and notoriously difficult when it comes to releasing the Big Feature Rollout". You are already paying for the developer's time, and a hefty amount too, so now you can just add them to the pager rotation and have them do support functionality, because labor costs are fixed and work hours are infinite. The thing is, that's not what DevOps is about.

My understanding (having worked in IT for a couple of decades) is that DevOps, like Agile, is a philosophy, rather than a concrete item. DevOps doesn't mean that all your coders should be sysadmins and all your sysadmins should be coders, and if you think that you're going to be perpetually disappointed in both. DevOps means that everyone in your organization has an understanding: that software must be developed in a way that is easy to support and maintain (especially in a degraded or failed state), and that deployment of software is a key step in the lifecycle of the success of a company. DevOps means a breakdown of the mythical wall between departments, and an understanding that that wall was always imaginary anyway -- that the teams working together are stronger and better off than the teams working against each other. It's not actually a new concept; the operational and development team being colocated in the same physical space (and sometimes the same physical body) goes back to the invention of mechanical computing and the work that Admiral Hopper did with the original thinking machines. The "tiger team" concept at NASA in the 60s was a definitive example of the DevOps concept. Not everyone has to know the same things or work the same way, but they do have to work together and they must have an understanding of the concepts and capabilities of the team as a whole.

Any organization's first principle after instantiation by default becomes 'secure the continued existence of this organization', or the organization itself fails. And so, sixty years later, we have the cultural mythos of the 10x software engineer deftly whipping up the perfect solutions to any given software problem and then dumping those brilliant lines of code onto the surly, recalcitrant systems administrator who either refuses to make the change, or does the change and somehow fucks it up. (And note, please, that the "creative" work is done by an 'engineer' while the "maintenance" work is done by an 'administrator', and let's not talk about salaries and job titles right now or this will turn into an even longer screed and I'll get distracted by the whole "full stack" thing and we'll be here all night.) But that's almost never how it works, on either end; it's a myth from soup to nuts. In my entire career, I may have known exactly one engineer who would be considered "10x", and he was always, always cognizant of the difficulties of deployment in a live environment. Conversely, I've only ever known one surly sysadmin, and he was so disruptive to the team morale that he didn't make it to his 90-day review.

DevOps, like Agile, is a philosophy. It's not something you can enter on a spreadsheet or write a purchase order for, no matter what the C-level executives would like to believe. It's an understanding that your managers have with their team members and your team has with each other and with the organization as a whole. It's not something that goes on an audit list and gets checked off during the rundown. And the failure of organizations to understand that is both costly and pointless in the long run.

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 22

Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

At this point, I can run FAE in my sleep. I can run a Savage Worlds game with 10 minutes' warning. I could probably run a 4E game with an hour or so to spare. The question isn't what I can run, it's what my players can and want to play; I'll run anything if I can find a table of players who want me to run it. Well, not anything, but pretty much whatever fits my idea (and my players' idea) of fun.

Monday, August 21, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 21

Which RPG does the most with the least words?

I don't do a lot of poking around with the one-page or 200-word games, but How We Find Our Way in the Dark is just about the most amazing game I've ever read. That and The Quiet Year are basically my favourite short games.

That's what I've got.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 20

What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

If I'm looking for something that's not currently in-print physically, and there isn't a direct-from-the-creator way to get it, then I generally will try to find it in PDF form via someplace like DriveThruRPG. Failing that, then I've had relatively good luck with my FLGS, which here in Portland, OR is Guardian Games, and sometimes I get lucky with Powell's Book Store here in PDX.

These days, I own more digital versions of gaming books than I do physical copies, for convenience and storage reasons more than anything else. Where do you like to find your games?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 19

Which RPG features the best writing?

This is the third or fourth time I've been tempted to scream "define your terms" at this list; "best" is such a subjective term anyway, but then we get into the "what do you mean, do you mean 'conveys the system' or 'sticks to the tone' or 'reflects the game's priorities' or what?" part, and everything gets really wobbly.

So I'll give you a few, and my take on them.

For sheer readability and enjoyability, CJ Carella's Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes out ahead; it was the first (and one of the few) RPG core rulebooks that I sat down and read from end to end, like a novel. The prose takes the tone of the show perfectly, and the layout and setup of the game parts are very well done. Other RPG rulebooks that are enjoyable to read: The Quiet Year, FVLMINATA, and Flatpack: Fix the Future.

For evocative tone and setting relatability, you can't miss with Maschine Zeit, Dogs in the Vineyard, or There Is No Spoon. Runners up include Psi*Run, Motobushido, and Monsterhearts.

And for possibly the best definition of "what is roleplaying", then you can't go wrong with Apotheosis Drive X. Runners up in this section include Fate Accelerated Edition and Breakfast Cult.

So depending on how you define "best", there are at least 14 answers to this question.

What are (some of) yours?

Friday, August 18, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 18

Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

If you count all the editions of D&D as one RPG, then the answer is D&D. I never was serious about 1st or 2nd Ed., but I was part of a 3E playtest group, and I started a 4E campaign basically as soon as I could.

If you don't count all of the D&D editions as one, then the answer is HERO system, specifically Champions 4th Ed, the Big Blue Book. I was part of a group that played with the BBB for quite a while, through two multi-year campaigns. I have to admit, there is something rather satisfying about chucking great fistfuls of d6s across the battlemat and being able to figure out the body damage basically instantly.

After that, I think it's GURPS, and then after that would be Pathfinder, and then 4E. I've dabbled so much with so many systems that the long-term campaigns basically swamp everything else.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 17

Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?

Depends on what you mean by "played"; does just the character creation process count? Or does it have to be actually playing in a campaign. This would have been a much more difficult question six months ago, before I cleared out my collection and pared it down to just the bare bones. So now the answer, if we assume character creation doesn't count, is Exalted. I've created several characters, but never managed to be at a table and playing for any length of time.

If character creation counts as playing, then Nobilis is the answer. I didn't own it until a couple of years ago, but I've never played it or even created a character in it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 16

Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

I actually am less interested in house-ruling stuff these days; I want games that work "out-of-the-box" because I don't feel like doing a lot of work these days. So these days I mostly just stick to using RPGs as-is with generally everything. But my favourites (right now; this may change tomorrow) are Fate, Savage Worlds, and Cortex. Fast, simple, narratively-driven, involving lots of player buy-in and participation, and not a lot of work for the GM.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 15

What RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

The most flexible and adaptable RPG that I know of at this point, and my go-to solution for any game where I like the world but don't like the mechanics, is Fate Accelerated Edition. It's fast, simple, narratively-driven, fun to play, engaging for both the players and the GM, and clever in it's use of both dice and "Fate Points" as methods of control.

That's my answer. What about you?

Monday, August 14, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 14

Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

Huh. This is actually kind of a tough one, since nowadays nearly all of my games are set pieces: six-episode miniseries designed to allow players to sit in (or sit out) as they want or need to, without feeling like they're being eliminated from the table. This has the side-effect of letting me try out a bunch of different systems to see what feels good to both myself and to my players.

That said, if you said to me today "OK, you're gonna run a 2-year campaign, what system will you use," my knee-jerk response would be Savage Worlds. Despite the problematic name, SW is a good, solid, abstracted system that fills nearly all of my needs. It's light without being too light for my players, it's got some crunch so folk can dig into the mechanics, it has a good character advancement system, it's got plenty of bells and whistles and levers for both creation and advancement, as well as getting the players involved and invested at the table, and there's plenty of support for various different settings.

"OK," you say, "but you can't use Savage Worlds, what else?" Well, then I'm probably going to get fussy about changing the rules after the question is asked, but if pressed I'd say that I'd probably use Apocalypse World in one of the powered-by-the-Apocalypse games/settings available (depending on my mood). I would also point out that if you're going to keep ruling out my choices after I make them then this exercise will get tedious, because it'll take a while for you to get me to say 'D&D', and even then I'm going to say 4E before I get to any other version. We'll have to get through 'GURPS' and 'Hero System' before we got to D&D, and I'm not sure there's anyone left in the world who runs GURPS.

But you asked, so there's my answer.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 13

(I don't know what you're talking about, of course I posted this on the 13th, it says so right there in the timestamp...)

Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I was running a 4th Edition game for a group of friends. It was supposed to be a lightweight, no-pressure hack-and-slash campaign; we're all pretty heavy roleplayers, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to kick back, not take anything too seriously, and do some old-fashioned murder-hobo-style gaming for a change. Of course, with my group, we couldn't just do that; this was the group where I ended up having portraits of all the characters commissioned because we all got pretty attached to the characters in question, and at one point a player convinced the rest of the team that clearing out the kobolds would be unfair and cruel to the kobolds, so they just scared them into returning the stolen items, instead.

Anyway, we were in the middle of a somewhat-drawn-out combat, and one of the players had just finished his turn, and I noticed the look on his face; it was pretty clear he wasn't having fun. So after the game, I asked him what was up, and he pointed out that he spent the entire night (including most of the combat) never having successfully rolled a hit on anything -- all of the damage he did to the enemies was at the behest of other characters' actions. He, himself, had never been able to roll a success. It had been that way for a while, actually, he said; it was why he had built his character with a lot of 'damage-on-miss' powers. It was still a good group, and it was still an interesting story, but the core purpose of the game had been to relax, roll some dice, and hit some bad guys, and that core experience wasn't happening. For at least one of the players.

I took this particular failure rather personally, because I knew that I disliked these kinds of games for specifically that reason: flat dice curves are unforgiving to someone who doesn't have great luck when rolling. And yet, I was running a game with a flat die curve, because it was something familiar and easy and tropish. I was doing something for my own convenience that was actively hurting the experience of the other players at the table.

It was after that when I got serious about how I run my table. I don't run flat-die-curve games any longer. I try to failure-proof my games as much as possible. Narrative interest and investment from the players trumps pretty much anything else these days. I use plot point / bennies in every system whether they support it or not, to make sure players are part of the building of the story and are feeling agency with their characters. And, mostly, I ignore or otherwise minimize the numbers on the dice. I want the people at my table to be having fun. I, personally, think petty failures aren't fun -- failures and setbacks for characters can be fun if it's narratively appropriate and the player agrees -- but rolling a 12 when you need a 15 is the worst possible thing at the table: it's boring. And boring is the enemy at my table.

There are many, many people who would see my style of gaming as antithetical to theirs, and that's OK; they don't have to play with me, and I don't have to play with them. But that experience, of watching a friend of mine get shafted by decisions I made, changed the way I run my games. I think for the better. You'd have to ask my players if I was successful.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 12

Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

This is another one of those 'define your term' questions, because inspiring to whom? Inspiring to what? Are we talking about me wanting to build a cool-looking character? Then I'm not sure anyone can beat Paizo's Pathfinder work, or the 4E core rulebook art. Inspiring to really get into the tone of the game itself? Then the particular aesthetic of the powered-by-the-Apocalypse games (notably No Rest For The Wicked, Dungeon World, and the core Apocalypse World book) are on-point for that, as is the incredible Flat Pack and Maschine Zeit. Inspiring to me as a player about the experience of playing RPGs? Then Fate's core rulebook, with the gamers of colour and the disabled gamers is really inspiring to my heart about the hobby, as well as Breakfast Cult.

What about you? What are you inspired by?

Friday, August 11, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 11

Which 'dead game' would you like to see reborn?

My 'joking-but-not-really-joking' answer to this question is always: D&D 4th Edition. I'd love to see it released as a general system, especially to be able to roll up a Superhero-style game which I think 4E is basically perfect for (they damn near proved it with the Gamma World re-release, honestly).  But everyone supposedly hated 4E, so I may be the only one.

Instead, now that we've seen RIFTS Savage Worlds, and it was successful (and fun to play, in a particularly RIFTS way that meshes strangely but well with the Savage Worlds system), I'd absolutely LOVE to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness get a reboot. Especially the mutant creation process would be fun in the SW system, I'm sure (especially if you get someone clever to write it, like maybe Rob Donoghue ) it has enough fans that it'd do pretty well in Kickstarter-land.

What would you like to see?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 10

Where do you go for RPG reviews?

Almost all of my information about new RPGs comes from word-of-mouth or personal recommendations, either at my home table or via Google Plus (yes, G+, again; I really need to write that screed down soon). Between Moe T, Sean's Picks, Brie's Five (or so) Questions, and my circles' recommendations and testimonials, I get pretty much everything I need to know. That being said, it's important to understand that I'm not really a big purchaser of new things, especially now that I'm "between jobs"; my interest in learning a new system has only gone down as I get older. But I do what I can to support new, different, and upcoming voices that I see as valuable both in the general culture and in gaming culture specifically, so I try to lean towards woman/queer/PoC creators when I do spend my money.

One place I don't go: Big Purple. It used to be my default destination for...nearly everything, every day. But it's moved on, and I don't feel like it moved in a direction I was interested in going. So I wish everyone the best there, but it's not somewhere I feel like visiting.

But that's a rant for another time.

Where do you go for reviews?

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 9

What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

As someone who has switched from multi-year campaigns to a dedicated limited-series model (all games limited to 6-8 episodes, quick turnover, many choices), I can't actually recommend anything for 10 sessions -- that's outside my experience and outside my wheelhouse. That said, I have a pretty good feeling that anything around Apocalypse World, Cortex, Monsterhearts, or Fate would work GREAT for a "mid-season replacement show" sort of game. Enough time for growth, but not enough time to become gods; careful management of time and resources without the "let's spend a session at the table shopping at the magic bazaar" problem of longer, more complicated games.

I can also tell you what systems probably don't work well for a 10-session cap: any flavour of D&D, GURPS, Hero System, Mutants and Masterminds... these systems are all, to my mind, "long-haul" systems -- games you sink a lot of up-front work into, so you want to play them for a while to get the value out of learning the system.

Your mileage may vary, of course; what do you think?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 8

What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2 hrs or less?

That's... actually a really good question; I don't know that I've ever had an RPG session that was under 2 hrs. The shortest game I've ever run (that wasn't interrupted) was a 6-hour one-shot, and most of my games these days run 4 hours or so for six or so sessions.

I bet, with the right group, you could do a good session of TOON in 2 hours.


Monday, August 07, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 7

What was your most impactful RPG session?

This is actually pretty tough for me, because there are several issues around this question. Including the definition of "impactful", which I imagine is on purpose, to get the biggest response. The thing is, my table has always been a place for interesting things to happen to the player, rather than the characters. Sometimes interesting things happen to the characters, but that's not the point of playing -- the point is to make sure that the players are having a good time. So 'impactful', in my book, means moments when the players all sit up and gasp/cheer/react in some way.


So I don't know about the "most", but I can tell you about the "latest": when one of my players, a normally-quiet and careful player, decided that his character would take center stage, make a speech, and pull everyone into talking out of trouble, instead of fighting. Which, given we're playing RIFTS, was a pretty awesome and impressive for the player (and, consequently, the characters).

The goal, as a GM, is to give at least one memorable or "impactful" moment to everyone at the table at least once a session. Sometimes, I'm successful. Sometimes, not so much. But I think it's a reasonable goal.

What about you?

Sunday, August 06, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 6

You've got a week of gaming, what do you do?

For ComeCon, I'd be really interested in doing stuff that I wouldn't do normally, and have people come and visit so they can be present and hang out and play as well. So that's my little fantasy in this, so bear with me.

Monday: My Love's a Blue, Blue Rose -- A short campaign where I can play with the new AGE mechanics in a familiar setting (which I love nearly-unreservedly). Rather than a standard swords and sworcery thing, I'd want something more palace-intrigue-y, with mourning coats and lace cuffs and rapier wits and duels at dawn.

Tuesday: Board Game Day -- The Horror! Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Arkham Horror, Elder Signs, Fearsome Floors -- a day to play those multi-person coop horror games that otherwise don't get pulled out of the library much.

Wednesday: Star Wars: The Edge of the Empire -- A chance to test out the new Fantasy Flight Games dice mechanic while playing a droid bounty hunter.

Thursday: Play Like A Pirate Day -- Plunder on the High Seas as we Savage Worlds or Seventh Sea our way from pole to pole.

Friday and Saturday: Intelligence Assets LARP -- dunno what system, but a two-day LARP where we all play Intelligence operatives trying to root out the mole (if there is a mole) and also avert the end of the world.

Sunday: Relaxation Day -- a quiet day of card games and drinks and snacks, to power down after the high-tension LARP.

So that's my seven-day mini-convention. What does yours look like?

Saturday, August 05, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 5

Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

Dogs in the Vineyard. I'm not sure there's a better cover out there, though Apocalypse World comes close, as does Monsterhearts. As much as I loved, loved LOVED the hardcover editions of the Player's Handbook, DM's Guide, and Monster Manual of D&D 3/3.5 (and they were beautiful and evocative, for sure) I don't think they conveyed anything of the game itself. And FVLMINATA  wasn't about the cover, it was about the dice mechanics (which are brilliant and if you get a chance to play, you most certainly should).

Although now that I've typed a bunch of stuff out and done Google Image Searches for a bunch of things, I'm actually inclined to say that The Quiet Year also has a fantastic cover.

So, tie: The Quiet Year and Dogs in the Vineyard.

What do you think?

Friday, August 04, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 4

What RPG have you played the most in the past year?

I'm GMing a Savage World game set in the RIFTS universe, so that's mostly what I'm doing this year. Savage Worlds has found the balance point at my table between my love of loosey-goosey narrative-before-everything rulesets and the desire of my players to be able to crunch down on some rules and roll a bunch of polyhedrals. And the RIFTS setting does add a bunch of random dicerolls and crunch to the SW system, which I've found is actually pretty damn simple and fast-flowing once you get into it at the table.

Before that I was running a Star Trek game using Fate Accelerated Edition for (mostly) the same group, which everyone enjoyed, but the major feedback was they wanted something "more concrete" which I suppose means I wasn't doing a great job selling FAE.

What have you been playing?

Thursday, August 03, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 3

Where do you find out about new RPGs?

I don't really have a "home" Friendly Local Game Store, since most of my purchases come from either Amazon, the publisher website, or Kickstarter; game stores have become less and less a part of my life as I've become more and more a homebody. Mostly, I find out about new stuff via Google+ (Yes, Google Plus -- it's my Social Media Channel Of Choice, for reasons I can rant about later); I have a number of "industry insiders" in my circles, as well as a bunch of independent creators, and also a social circle that keeps up on The New for me, and updates as necessary.

That having been said: as I get older, I get less and less interested in learning new systems, so mostly my interest is in either updates to systems I already know, or setting information for systems I already know. Especially now that Fate and Cortex Prime exist, two of my favourite generic narrative-driven systems that hit all or nearly all of my gaming needs, the idea of learning a new system just to play a game drops further down on my "Want To Do" list. There are some exceptions to this, of course.

But yes: Google+ for my RPG News. What's your channel of choice?

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 2

What RPG would you like to see published?

I would absolutely LOVE to see No Rest For The Wicked get some official love from 2K Games -- it's a note-perfect build for a videogame-to-tabletop translation. And I'm not just saying that because I helped to playtest the game.

I'd love to see a Fallout-branded game of some sort; I think Apocalypse World is great but I feel it's probably too dark and serious for Fallout. The Fallout series needs both a humourous, gonzoish twist and a willingness to buy into the alternate history of the universe that AW doesn't have right out of the box. That said, AW 2nd Edition is AMAZING and you should buy it now.

I'd be brilliantly happy if someone wanted to help me work up some rulesets to fit around my "Secret History of the Intelligence Services" idea that I tried to flesh out a couple of years ago, I would be really interested in that -- I'm terrible at mechanics but I collaborate well -- but I would fall over my own feet rushing to my wallet to buy a game that was based on the life and times of Mademoiselle Maupin.

How about y'all?

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 1

What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

This is an interesting question for me, because I'm almost always GMing these days. Most of my players are fantastic, but they're also dedicated players. I could probably get into a different game if I looked around, but at this point I'm really, really not interested in games with flat-curve dice mechanics, which rules out almost all of the "regular" sword-and-sworcery games available.

That having been said: I'd love to be part of a Phoenix: Dawn Command game as a player. I backed the game when it kickstarted and I've had a hankering to try it out for a while, but I'm basically the only person I know who liked it enough to pay money for it. Which is a shame: it's an interesting conceit and a clever retake on the fantasy games out there. Alternately, if we're looking at mainstream games, then I'd love to try out the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire system, with all the funky dice.

So those are my two that I'd like to play. Anything poke at your curiousity?