Monthly Archives: April 2013

Task Reset Without Bankruptcy

I try to maintain a decent level of productivity discipline. I use Getting Things Done as a baseline of operations, but like most every GTD user, I have shamelessly bastardized it to my specific needs, pulling in other ideas from sources ranging from agile to energy mapping to child management to god knows what.

It largely works well. It’s still a bit weak on the self-directed writing projects, where I can’t break it down into word count goals the same way I can with contracted work, but other than that, it generally keeps me moving, with a few caveats.

I tend to suffer from an accumulation of cruft. Tasks that I really intend to do but never get around to. Emails I need to keep track of. Just a backlog of stuff that slows down the system and makes me feel less on top of things[1].

In the past, I’ve dealt with the the cruft through bankruptcy. I archive all my mail, delete all my outstanding tasks, and restart with a fresh capture of what I need to do. This works ok, but it has obvious risks – it’s very easy to drop something on the floor if you haven’t been diligent, and the very nature of the problem makes diligence difficult.

This week I found myself in a similar situation, but I have approached it differently with two tricks.

The first is that I finally broke down and tried the mailbox app. This has been a big help for me, but it’s not necessarily going to be a similar help to everyone. It’s an ok email client for gmail, lacking in a number of features (robust tag support, search and the ability to mark as spam are the big ones) and if it was judged solely by that it would be a real dud. However, while it’s only so good at handling email, it excels at managing email. It uses really clever gestures, but just saying that helps no one, so let me describe it.

When mail arrives, swipe right to archive it, swipe all the way right to delete it. Good start, yes, but the killer app happens when you sweep left – a choice of times pops up (like, later today, this evening, tomorrow morning and so on). You tap one, and the mail message vanishes until the time you selected.

So, if you’re like me, and your email box is full of implicit to dos, you can get them off your immediate radar to come back when convenient. Yes, this totally lets you keep kicking things forward (which I do), but it clears your mind while you do it. I love this function, and it’s pretty much the sole reason I’m excited to use this app. I really hope that other apps (including maybe to do apps) start adopting this technique.[2]

So, that cleaned out my inbox in short order, but that left my to do list, which had gotten pretty sprawly. So I took a tip from a Marc Andreessen post[3] where he suggested maintaining only 3 to do lists, one of things you need to do now (DO), one of things you need to do at some point (REVIEW) and one of things that can wait (HOLD). This simplicity was pretty much exactly what I needed, and I ran through my tasks, dumped them in the right buckets, and carried on quite successfully.

Curiously, the only speed bump was when I chose software. This method seemed simple enough that I figured I’d just use OSX Reminders, since it has iCloud sync to my iDevices. Sadly, iCloud proved frustrating and unreliable, so I tried other things. Lots of good todo apps out there (and I own many of them) but surpisingly few of them worked well for this particular system. I needed syncing and the ability to easily move items from one list to another, and finding that combination was surprisingly elusive. The best match actually looked to be the things app (which I had on my phone), but if I wanted sync, it would have been pretty expensive to get it on desktop and iPad. Given that I had already shelled out for the full Omnifocus suite, I couldn’t really justify that.

Thankfully, I found a solution using Omnifocus (thouse three lists are now my working contexts) and I’ve since been very happy with it. I dunno how long it wil be before complexity creeps back in, but in the short term, this has allowed me to simplify my system without the kind of interruption that bankruptcy tends to entail. That’s a big win. It’s also useful to boil the system down to the smallest possible set from time to time, so that I can be thoughtful about what I add back in.

In any case, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and your system is offering you no relief, you might want to consider a similar paring down to essenetials. It might be just the thing to break th elogjam without sacrificing your work.

  1. And yes, I know, if I were a better disciplined GTD’er, the weekly review would address a lot of these things, but I’m not. I’m working on it, but I wouldn’t hold your breath  ↩
  2. If you live out of email, the Mailbox is not going to be an all in one solution for you. But it might be an effective doorman for when you’re managing your mail on the road.  ↩
  3. No link because the service it’s hosted on disapears in about a day.  ↩

Slow Menaces

(I turned on G+ linking, so we’ll see how that works with this post)

Dr. Who is has a Cybermen story in the pipe, and I guess maybe Neil Gaiman is behind it or something. I honestly have no idea. It’s not that I dislike Dr. Who, but I tend to be about  a year behind whatever current is. Just one of those things.

That said, I saw an image for the cybermen, and it’s very nice and polished, with a few Iron Man notes, and it got me thinking about fast cybermen (in the same spirit as fast zombies).  For the unfamiliar, cybermen are a villain cut from the very Dr. Who cloth of “Very terrifying, unless you do something radical, like run away”.

It’s easy to joke about this (insert a Dalek/stairs reference here) but it gets a little interesting when you think about what drives it.  Basically, this is something that allows for protagonists to not be combat monsters – having enemies who can’t practically be fought but can be escaped opens up a lot of leeway for character backgrounds. For a less violent show like Dr. Who, that’s very important. Similarly, when a zombie story is really about a mismatched collection of normal folks, it’s kind of silly to make them all ex military.  And in both cases, it promotes problem solving outside of combat.

Translated over to an RPG, this is pretty easy to model with high defense, low attack enemies. Build them in such a way that the best a fight can do is break even, and you disincentivize fighting.   Note, that this is very different from making high defense/High offense enemies – in that case, fighting is not only a bad plan, but it’s also pretty lethal.  The trick with slow enemies is not that they’ll kill you in a round, but rather that if you continue to engage them, it will sooner or later go against you.

Now, is this something that’s actually desirable in a game?  Sure, at least sometimes.  Slow menaces are really just disguised pacing and tension engines.  Because they are relentless but escapable, they can be brought to bear any time things slow down without the risk of ending play.  They drive hard choices through their presence, because “not running away” is always a possible downside.[1]  If you think of the menace as a meter that slowly fills, it’s easy to see the pacing laid bare.

That is, suppose the zombies have a 3 box meter.  When they show up, check the first box.  You can fight them, and if successful, the box doesn’t fill any further, but if you fail (or if you are trying to do something else at the same time), the second box fills. Run the cycle again, and if box #3 is filled, then someone is grabbed and taken down, simple as that.[2]

Now, the advantage of abstracting that is that it suddenly becomes a great way to handle any threat that can be escaped, but not vanquished.  It would, for example, be a great model for being on the receiving end of a manhunt, but it can be more abstract than that too, especially if you substitute in something other than running away as the deferral mechanism. For example, if you eat, rather than run, then it’s a model for starvation.

In a round about way, I think this may be coming back towards Skill Challenges and the way very old Fate handled long challenges.  Which mostly suggests I may need to dust off some of that thinking.

1 – Hell, if you ant to do a Talislanta/Apocalypse World hack, it’s easy to add “the menace arrives” as an extra option to all success-with-consequences outcomes. 

2 – Yes, technically, that’s an insta-kill, but note that that it can be *deferred* by fighting, so the badass can protect the technician’s back while he plants the bomb or whatnot.  It changes the role of the fighting dude, but not necessarily in a bad way.

An Idea I Don’t Get

There’s an idea that I see from time to time in setting design which I don’t entirely get the appeal of, and that is the idea of the lethal setting.  That is, there is some element of the setting which will kill or incapacitate characters unless they always do something arbitrarily dictated by the setting.

I’m not talking about merely dangerous settings, like the classic Dark Sun.  I completely understand the appeal of that (dangerous environments are an escalation on existing tensions).   Similarly, I don’t mean frequent threats, like radiation in Gamma World. Those have their place, and it’s obvious to me.

Rather, I’m thinking about ambient, ever-present dooms, like in the Red Steel setting, or some of the later (or maybe middle) Thoma Covenant books.  The details don’t matter a lot, as the underlying idea is the same.  Something inescapable (like sunset or the air) will DO SOMETHING HORRIBLE to you unless you [MACGUFFIN].

The exact details of the macguffin don’t really matter.  It might be behavioral (like, you must stay out of the light, or must stand on rocks when the sun rises) or a resource (you must carry a piece of magic rock with you), but whatever the deal, if you break the taboo, the price is basically death.  And, importantly, the macguffin is the only option – there is no way for a character to be clever or tough enough to get around this threat.

I can sort of faintly see why a setting designer might structure things this way.  It provides a constant threat, if a bad one[1] and it nominally introduces another thing to track and threaten (like fuel in a spaceship game), so you can introduce race the clock elements into play by occasionally taking away the macguffin and forcing players to run for it.  

That’s all well and good, but what I’m missing is the fun.

I don’t ask this in a snarky way – this idea is not a rare one by any stretch, so there’s something that that clearly resonates with some people, and I’m curious to know what it is.  Any thoughts?

1 – It’s a bad threat the same way the threat of an instakill is bad. Threatening player fun is a poor way to enforce fiction. Plus, any constant threat gets dull with repetition, and such threats are predicated on their predictability.

Crutch Questions

There are a category of questions in RPGS which are both tremendously potent and tremendously annoying to me. I refer to them as “crutch” questions because they are incredibly useful if you haven’t considered them before, but are potentially banal and technical if you already have.


A great example might be something about a character’s essential nature, such as “What would you kill for?”. If you don’t have a solid purchase on the character, then that can be a really interesting question to chew on to help you understand your character.


However, once you know the character, the question changes a bit. It’s still interesting, but because you know the character well enough that the answers come easily, but the answer will also probably be more nuanced than it would have been previously. The better you know your character, the more aware you are of the things that make them human, the things that make it very hard for a real question to have a single, simple answer.[1]


And that’s where the problem comes in – when the question is used initially then they idea is to get a clear answer which you can draw conclusions from. When creating from nothing, it’s useful, but once you’re past it, it’s reductive.


This would not be too big deal, except that newer games often hang mechanics off these questions and ideas. And they’re right to do so – starting from a blank piece of paper, it’s a fast way to get you to something meaningful and toothy, and though it may offer no route any deeper, that’s still not a bad bar to hit.


Which is why this is far from a clear cut issue. Crutch questions are absolutely a useful tool in the right situation, and if your in the position where they’re unwelcome, then you’re probably already doing ok, so it’s hardly a world-ender of a problem.


It’s something I have to admit bothers me disproportionately, largely because that space where they’re impediments is my *personal* sweet spot, so I can end up chafing in the face of them.


Anyway, I made a passing comment about this on Twitter, and realized it really wouldn’t make any sense without a longer explanation,



1 – Unless you really prefer that kind of clarity in a character.