My Games

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Saker Tarsos: Weird & Wonderful Interviews

This is an interview with Saker Tarsos of Tarsos Theorem. He was one of the first people in the OSR blogosphere I became friends with, and I've always been a big fan of his. He's bringing some really interesting ideas to tabletop RPGs, particularly through his use of coding tools and generators, but also through various other kinds of alternative mechanics (which in retrospect we did not discuss as much as I would have liked, but goblin's henchman has also discussed one of these). Also, we talked about some heavier and more personal topics in a few places, and I really appreciate Saker opening up to me and being willing to discuss these things for this interview.

Max: You and I started our blogs around the same time, I want to say around Spring or early Summer 2018. We've had conversations of this kind at various points, but for the sake of this interview, I'd be interested to know how you think the TTRPG scene has changed since we started blogging? And I guess as part of that, can you explain where you think the TTRPG scene was a couple years ago?

Saker: I think the TTRPG scene has constantly had to adapt. We arrived on the scene right before G+ went down, so we've never really been around in a long period of normalcy. We've had to find new social media homes. Social justice in our TTRPG circles has come a long way. Technology is being integrated into our TTRPGs due to social distancing. It's all very overwhelming to be honest. And, to be honest, it's hard for me to think back to how the scene was a couple years ago, I'm always so preoccupied with what's next.

Max: I hadn't necessarily thought of it that way before but you're right, I guess there's never really been much of a status quo for us.

Saker: It feels like right when we get settled down, something big happens that gets us up out of our seats again. And a lot of innovation and change comes out of it. This time it's the pandemic, and it's spurred an increased interest into online/socially distanced games.

Max: Are there any settings, or systems, or other aspects of TTRPGs, that you think have specifically become more prominent as a result of these changes (e.g. the pandemic, the increase in social justice and awareness of social issues)? Or less prominent, for that matter?

Saker: I think online and socially distanced environments favor simpler systems. The energy needed to engage with a game system gets magnified the more distance (physical or informational) that lies between the players. A lot of my thought recently has been towards how to make games easier to engage with, and specifically, how can I use coding automation to achieve that.

Max: I knew we were going to get to that topic eventually :).

Saker: I could see the increase in social justice awareness affect game settings and premise. One think that has stayed on my mind for years is changing the narrative of domain play away from the player being some kind of king or hegemon fighting with other rulers over scarce resources. It's a struggle because that schema is very deeply coded into the genre of domain play, and because that situation, though colonialist, can admittedly lead to situations that my mind finds very engaging. I've been thinking of creating domain games around community survival in very harsh environments, which I hope will foster a sense of the players needing to overcome differences and work together in order to succeed. And ideally, that situation would have players look at other communities as potential allies against the harsh environment rather than potential foes to be "othered". I think the idea still needs a lot more refinement... I am very interested in how social justice awareness will affect changes in game systems and game mediums, but that might be a whole nother discussion in and of itself xD

Max: No I agree, violent conflict and those kinds of colonialist / dominance values are very deeply rooted in, not just TTRPGs, but all media, but I think especially in games (including videogames), and it can be hard to break from that. Personally, I think that's why I've tried to find ways to use what are traditionally combat mechanics in non-violent conflict situations, to sort of blur the lines between violent conflict and other forms of conflict, and normalize that.

Saker: It's made me think on how dependent RPGs (both tabletop and videogame) are on the concept on violent combat in order to work, thematically and systematically. Killing is the (mostly) unquestioned means by which new loot and advancements become available to the characters, and by interfering what is essentially the big progression pipeline, the designer causes sweeping changes throughout all aspects of the game. You're doing good work, and fighting an uphill battle, by subverting that. I think it's going to prompt stepping back further and rethinking the entire premises of RPGs. I think one promising direction change is to tie progression to exploration and discovery, (for example, research and discoveries in Zoa of the Vastlands). There's still some colonial themes in the whole exploration of uncharted lands concept, but it's a huge step in the right direction.

Max: I'm actually not familiar with Zoa of the Vastlands. I don't know if this is where it's from, but I think post-G+, it seems like you've gotten involved in RPG Twitter and certain other circles that I'm just totally oblivious to.

Saker: It's a sort of follow-up module to the Ultraviolet Grasslands by Luka, I think you'd get an absolute kick out of it! And its creature generator gets an A+ in my book.

Max: Oh ya, I haven't sunk too deep into UVG but Luka does good stuff. I'm definitely a sucker for a good creature generator...

Saker: I used it for ~80% of the creatures in Interdimensional Voyages

Max: Want to talk more about Interdimensional Voyages?

Saker: I think so. it's been so hard to put to words in a blog post. Every time I sit down to write one, I end up ADD'ing off somewhere else.

Max: Oh I get that, the struggle is real. It requires a really deep focus to write effectively, at a broad level, about real projects of that scale. Maybe it would help to focus in on a specific aspect of it then. We already brought up coding, let's swing back around to that. I've said before that I think the way you use coded automatic character creation is unlike anything else I've seen, and really interesting, and a great demonstration of the unique value that coding can bring to TTRPG beyond just as a convenience tool or simulation tool. Can you talk more about that?

Saker: Gotta give Spwack credit here, the prototype of the Interdimensional Voyages character generator is based on his INCREDIBLE Die Trying character generator. It then metastatized through several evolutions to become the monstrosity it is today! On coding in TTRPGs: for me, it is definitely a convenience tool. I got into coding TTRPGs because I wanted to make tools that would allow me to continue to run TTRPGs as my free time and energy dwindled for various reasons. Me and my friends back home, who were my original audience, are very busy, and stressed, and don't always have physical spaces available for us to play games. Coding these tools is a means to try and make games more accessible to people who are short on time, energy, and space.

Max: Oh that's true about Die Trying, and I even interviewed Spwack as well lol. Well in any case though, I do think you've carried that mantle alongside him.

Saker: I think there are, indeed, times where coding in TTRPGs can have inherent value in and of itself. Modules in mothership, for instance, have the unique opportunity to become immersive objects in the fiction itself. But I do think trying to code for its own benefit can miss the point, which is that it should be making peoples lives better, easier, or more accessible.

Max: I like that idea with Mothership. Speaking of moving away from violent combat, you could imagine a TTRPG where the game mechanics are basically just light coding- like even stealth-teaching people how to code. I agree that the coding should serve some purpose, but I do want to kind of push back on the idea that it should just be a tool of convenience. Again, I think even what you're doing with it, it's more than just a convenience tool, I really think it allows you to do things that wouldn't otherwise be possible, or wouldn't otherwise be fun. I do think it can actually change the nature of a game.

Saker: I could see that game being very helpful. The initial learning curve for basic coding concepts is... not optimal. But unfortunately I think such a game would be rather complex in nature (compared to the games I play, which are very simple and thus I have a very high standard of simplicity) and hard to introduce to new players.

Max: Ya... I do think it can be done, but would require some thought. Cryptomancer does that, to an extent. Kind of a tangent, but speaking of social justice in games, their game Sigmata is also worth checking out.

Saker: You are absolutely right to push back there! I would not be coding if it didn't provide me some sense of wonder that defies its utility. And when coding is capable of doing things that otherwise wouldn't be possible, it becomes very valuable. In my recent projects, I've been using coding to try and bypass a lot of the busy work in games, and to save a lot of time by performing calculations that would otherwise be done by the DM. This, especially, allows me to make games that are more complex than I could on paper, because the players will not ever witness the complexity itself, only its results. But, now that I think about it, I do think these cases still provide utility and usability above all.

Max: Well, it's sort of both, right? It's utility/usability, but as you say, it allows you to add a level of complexity that normally I would not find palatable for TTRPG, but do enjoy, but because it's automated, it works.

Saker: Pretty much, my project at the moment is to code a discord bot that will be able to replace a DM in a simple but detailed TTRPG.

Max: I've actually recently developed an interest in Solo RPGs. Haven't done much of them and only just begun to think about them, but I think there's potentially some shared logic between those two ideas.

Saker: I love me some complex games in theory, I just don't like running or playing them. Automation allows me to enjoy the fruits of complexity without having to actually labor for them, heh

Max: Absolutely. I really like the conditional logics in Interdimensional Voyages character creation, for instance, but I would not necessarily like to do that by hand.

Saker: Oh yes, that would be a nightmare.

Max: I found when I was making my character for IV, I'd just keep clicking the generate button to see what weird combinations I'd find. Those conditional logics felt like easter eggs. Then I just ripped your source code lol. But it didn't ruin the magic, if anything, it only enhanced it.

Saker: It's my hope that in future renditions, there will be even more of those easter eggs and conditional logics. My hope when tuning it was that things in the character sheet loop into themselves logically, making the character as a whole make thematic sense. I think the nicknames do a lot for that specific experience: the first thing the player sees is the character's nickname, which foreshadows one of their life path events. Then they see the life path event and go aha! and the connection is made that ties up the character. The more of those little tricks exist, the harder it is to see the character as a procedurally generated jumble of words, and the easier it is to see them as a fictionally realized being.

Max: Ya, on the one hand, with combinatorials, you can exponentially increase the number of possible unique results, but... for a character in an RPG, it's not necessarily the case that all combinations will be interesting. By adding conditional logics that tie certain parameters together, you do lose some possible combinations, but you gain in coherence.

Saker: In the book "Procedural Storytelling in Game Design", one of the essays (I forget which one) describes a sort of spectrum of procedural generation. On one end there are very focused generators, with relatively small design space to work with, that generate very consistent results. On the other side of the spectrum, you have very wide, wild generators that cover large swathes of design space and can output results with extreme variance. The goal is to find that sweet spot in the middle, where the results will be focused enough that they are useful, but varied enough that they can still continually surprise you. Conditional logics can be time intensive to program, but can help you stay in that sweet spot. And so the interesting thing is, I'm a Lit major. Not exactly the person you'd think would be coding, but all those writing and narrative skills come into play in weird areas in the coding process. Like working with combinatorial word generators. Or being able to tune a generator so it more consistently outputs results that make narrative sense.

Max: I'm a software engineer with a psych degree so I get that. My favorite peers tend to be those who also have atypical backgrounds like that, we're weirdos!

Saker: Yes! And that's a great example for people who might be interested in coding, but feel intimidated because they didn't come from a compsci background (aka me in early 2018)

Max: Oh I look back now on the kind of coding I was doing back then compared to now, i don't know how I was able to get anything to work back then lol.

Saker: Saaaaame!!

Max: Eh, honestly my understanding is that many people coming out of compsci don't necessarily actually understand the principles behind software engineering anyway, but that's a whole other conversation. But I do think, people who have both a liberal arts or basically non-STEM background but also know STEM... I think there's a sort of non-linear gain on that. The things I've learned about statistics, machine learning, and software engineering, have actually enhanced my ability to talk about, think about, and act on, my views towards cognitive neuroscience (my former work), but also society, literature, and all sorts of things.

Saker: Agreed, it feels like, rather than learning new things taking up limited brain space, that they expand the things you already know exponentially.

Max: I would really encourage everyone who can afford the time and effort, to really try to learn at least a little coding and stats. I really don't think it can be overstated just how valuable it is on every level, even if just intellectually, and you really don't have to be a genius. I barely passed my math classes even in college lol.

Saker: I'm actually going back to take a stats class once the current semester is over. It feels Necessary (in a good way). I've pretty much hijacked my library science degree into an information science degree so there are so many missing holes in my knowledge to shore up xD, stats being one of them.

Max: That's awesome! I'm really excited for you. Getting off the soapbox though, and maybe back on track, I think we should wrap things up soon, but do you have any other RPG-related topics you still want to talk about?

Saker: Hmm let's see, I think I did my Technology Is Good, Do Not Fear It soapbox.

Max: lol ya but if we reinforce each other on that we'll bore everyone away pretty quickly!

Saker: I guess talking about my current place in the scene? It's been hard to consistently post because the projects I have been working on have been difficult to describe in blog posts. Honestly ADD makes it really hard to keep consistent lines of communication through social media, and to be consistent in projects as well. That's something I've always struggled with when it comes to being part of an online community, and I'm starting to identify its source.

Max: I can imagine how that would be difficult. I've been trying to focus in on a smaller number of projects but going deeper and doing bigger things with them, but it is not easy to do even without ADHD.

Saker: As such, I feel like a comet. Occasionally coming back into orbit after long periods of time then hurtling off again.

Max: That kind of outsider-ness, of being like a comet, I think like we were saying with being someone with both a humanities background and an interest in quant, I think that gives you a unique perspective. I don't know if it's too personal, but when you say you're trying to identify the source- that's a sentiment I strongly agree with, when it comes to tackling any kind of issue, really. Maybe I'm not so much asking what that source is specifically, but I guess a better question is, how, if at all, do you think ADD and the struggle to overcome it, and so on, has affected how you approach TTRPGs or your creative efforts? For instance, you've talked a lot about wanting tools to make running games more manageable...

Saker: Yes. Absolutely. I would say it has always subconsciously defined my entire approach to TTRPGs. All my automation efforts could be seen as attempts to reduce the breadth of cognitive load that I would experience by running games. Let the computer take care of these certain areas (the computation, the details), so I can focus more on the stuff that matters to me (ideas, dialogue, having fun with my friends). And hopefully, by extension, other people with ADD and just other people who are busy and stressed in general.

Max: I just handwave those complexities ;), but your approach is perhaps a more rich and fulfilling one in the long run.

Saker: So far, ADD has proven a serious obstacle in my attempts to be a productive member in this community, but because of that, being part of an online community has helped me identify the ways it was, and is, affecting my life. And this community is providing me with the motivation to tackle it. So, thank you for being a very positive aspect of life!

Max: Well, that's probably a genuinely more worthwhile accomplishment than anything else I've done with my blog, and I don't mean that self-deprecatingly, so thank you very much! And likewise, my blog has been, and continues to be, a real source of personal accomplishment and value to me, and it has helped me through some hard times. Early on, when I was struggling to get the ball rolling and having real doubts and confidence issues around my blog, you were a very early source of support, and I can't thank you enough for that.

Saker: You're very welcome, and likewise! Seeing your blog was the inspiration that got me to start mine!

Max: Ya, wow, ok... I think that's a good place to end this interview haha, but thank you very much for your time and for the conversation. It's been an interesting couple years, I hope we have even more to discuss a couple more years down the line!

Saker: Indeed!


  1. Thanks for doing this interview! This is going to get me back to blogging, elaborating further on what we discussed! :D

  2. Very interesting read!

    Max, you mention using combat mechanics in non-combat situations. How exactly does that work?

    To complete the set, I'm a comp-sci + lit major, so there's definitely a pattern going on here... coding can definitely be an artistic/creative endeavour. Knowing how to code is like having paint and brushes, but knowing how to code does not necessarily mean you know how to "paint" with it

    1. It feels like an interview fail that I didn't already know that about you 0.o...

      If you're interested in the idea of combat mechanics in noncombat situations, keep an eye on Maximum Recursion Depth ;).

    2. Ha, not at all! And I'll definitely keep myself posted on that

    3. Wait wait wait wait you're a comp-sci + lit major too??? That's awesome! There definitely is a pattern here!