Asimovian Diplomacy

Art by David Kyle. May be found at the following website:, Fair use,

The war in Europe — and specifically the tack the West has adopted to oppose it — reminds me of ideas I first encountered in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how much influence Isaac Asimov’s writing had on me. After reading Asimov’s Foundation series in the fall of 2008, the series kindled my interest in the science of linguistics. The siren song that a marriage of cognitive science and inferential statistics could unlock a pandora’s box for manipulating the course of human history offered an allure too tantalizing to neglect. In fact, Foundation influenced a wide spectrum of social science intellects. People from as diverse orientations as the liberal economist Paul Krugman to conservative ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have cited the influence of Asimov’s seminal space opera.

But in the first book of Foundation, Asimov sets up a series of incidents that exemplify the theory of “soft power” before it became popular with political scientists.

Wikipedia defines “soft power” as follows:

In politics (and particularly in international politics), soft power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce (contrast hard power). In other words, soft power involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

Soft power. (2022, March 18). In Wikipedia.

The concept of soft power and its role in a nation’s arsenal of public diplomacy has occupied a prominent role in academic literature since Joseph S. Nye published his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). Moreover, several Asian countries, including South Korea and China actively pursue avenues of influence that rely on soft power (Cull, 2021; Weissman, 2020). However, fans of science fiction might note that Isaac Asimov introduced the principle in his Foundation (1951) series before serious literature began to discuss it.

Moreover, because the West is relying exclusively on soft power, the theory is undergoing a vetting rarely seen in soft sciences.

The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.

Isaac Asimov. Foundation and Empire (1952). Doubleday.

In the first installment of the series, Asimov concludes with one of his numerous protagonists — Mayor Hober Mallow — averting the martial threats of a nuclear-powered world — Korell. Like most of Asimov’s heroes, Mallow employs principles of economics, psychology, and sociology to overcome threats of violence and brute force. This theme recurs throughout Asimov’s literary oeuvre, and he states it explicitly in his famous quote from earlier in the book:

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Observe the following passage in which Mayor Mallow explains himself to his assistant Jorane Sutt:

“This is a Seldon crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.

“In this case,—trade!”


“Trade alone! It is strong enough. Let us become very simple and specific. Korell is now at war with us. Consequently our trade with her has stopped. … Now what do you suppose will happen once the tiny nuclear generators begin failing, and one gadget after another goes out of commission?

“The small household appliances go first. After a half a year of this stalemate that you abhor, a woman’s nuclear knife won’t work any more. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn’t do a good job. The temperature-humidity control in her house dies on a hot summer day. What happens?”

He paused for an answer, and Sutt said calmly, “Nothing. People endure a good deal in war.”

“Very true. They do. They’ll send their sons out in unlimited numbers to die horribly on broken spaceships. They’ll bear up under enemy bombardment, if it means they have to live on stale bread and foul water in caves half a mile deep. But it’s very hard to bear up under little things when the patriotic uplift of imminent danger is not present. It’s going to be a stalemate. There will be no casualties, no bombardments, no battles.


“a general background of grumbling and dissatisfaction which will be seized on by more important figures later on … The manufacturers, the factory owners, the industrialists of Korell. When two years of the stalemate have gone, the machines in the factories will, one by one, begin to fail. Those industries which we have changed from first to last with our new nuclear gadgets will find themselves very suddenly ruined. The heavy industries will find themselves, en masse and at a stroke, the owners of nothing but scrap machinery that won’t work.”


“Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects’ welfare for what they consider honor, and glory, and conquest. But it’s still the little things in life that count—and Asper Argo won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.”

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Asimov may have overstated the influence soft power can exert. Nevertheless, it’s not every day that we see a science fiction theory so vetted.

Header image by Braňo on Unsplash.

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

Level-Based Systems Emulate the Monomyth; Skill-Based Systems Create Worlds

A paradigmatic dissonance exists in the roleplaying game community regarding the most popular roleplaying game — Dungeons & Dragons. Consider the following quote from the blog Generic Universal Eggplant:

When you read a D&D book, your mind always concocts various situations, encounters, plotlines, or ways to weave something into the world. Then you realize that it’s all very gamified – as soon as you reach a certain level, hordes of orcs stop being a threat, taking on a dragon stops being an undertaking that requires careful planning and a lot of resources, various minor abilities become useless, and the world suddenly feels much less magical, evocative, and believable.

Enraged Eggplant. (February 23rd, 2022). Why Play D&D in GURPS? Generic Universal Eggplant [web]:

The dissonance to which I refer exists between gamers who profess a preference for sandbox campaigns and the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons — which employs a system that defines characters by levels, as opposed to skills — does not provide a sandbox experience, however, and it doesn’t set out to. D&D emulates the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The system doesn’t create a world you live in, but a narrative you play out. Characters don’t go back and fight those “hordes of orcs” for the same reason Luke Skywalker didn’t go back to the cantina on Tatooine and use his force powers on Jawas — doing so would result in anticlimax, which would distract from the narrative.

Games such as GURPS, Mythras, or Traveller do, however, create worlds that are lived in. Nevertheless, if you want to emulate a hero’s journey in a game like GURPS or World of Darkness, the Game master will need to incorporate some railroad tracks — which, looking at the popularity of D&D — might not be such a terrible thing.

Featured Image: Photo by aisvri on Unsplash

Roleplaying Games

The Syntax of Games — Why Rules Confound

Gamers — myself included — perennially seek that new system that hits the right knobs and switches — the system that can deliver the game that exists in the mind yet eludes your actual (or virtual) game table like the proverbial “one who got away.”

Why do our games often fail to realize the goals we conceive?

First, I need to disabuse you of a cherished delusion — You cannot multitask. Yes, I mean you. Of course, you’re special. I know. So, let me tell you again — unless your neurobiology works differently than everyone else’s, you cannot multitask. The surety that you multitask well is one of those little white lies our brains tell us — the unconscious’ way of saying “Of course those pants make you look thinner” — or that you could write a book. Sure, we all could. Right up until the moment someone puts a pen, typewriter, or computer keyboard in front of us with a blank sheet of paper. Perhaps someday a writing tool that works in the shower will exist. But I digress.

Back to multitasking. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sampling of what the field of neuroscience has to say. The following appeared in an annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society:

… there is a central cognitive bottleneck that operates to limit performance and that control between two or more primary tasks must be passed through a queuing mechanism.

Brumby, & Salvucci, D. D. (2006). Exploring Human Multitasking Strategies from a Cognitive Constraint Approach.

Here’s a similar idea from the peer-reviewed, scholarly journal “Neuron”:

When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision making operations from being concurrently executed.

Dux, Ivanoff, J., Asplund, C. L., & Marois, R. (2006). Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI. Neuron (Cambridge, Mass.), 52(6), 1109–1120.

Or to put it in language for a more general audience, we can look to the field of education. The following quote comes from the journal “Educational Psychologist”:

When thinking or conscious information processing plays a role, people are not capable of multitasking and can, at best, switch quickly from one activity to another.

Kirschner, & van Merriënboer, J. J. . (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183.

So how does this relate to gaming? I’m getting to that.

I earn a living teaching people who speak English as a second language, and believe it or not, game systems share a lot of ground with languages.

Game systems and languages operate as a function of rule sets. That is to say — syntax. These rule sets operate together and at the same time to achieve an external goal. In language, speakers employ rules to communicate. In games, players employ rules to simulate outcomes.

The important thing to note, however, is that no single rule poses a challenge in and of itself. A child can understand any isolated linguistic rule and reproduce the pattern, from wh-question interrogatives in English to imperative tense in Spanish. The same is true of games. The rules in Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, or GURPS don’t lack clarity.

And there’s the rub — the simplicity of the tree conceals the complexity of the forest. Which is to say, the rules themselves don’t cause the problem, but the cascade of rules that occur in tandem (something I’ve already demonstrated our brains struggle with). Complicate the situation with an external goal that occupies that one thing our conscious brains can process, and a bottleneck occurs.

Have you ever wondered why languages always come quickly at first, yet few achieve bilingualism? Or why that mechanic for grapples seemed so simple when you read it yet never comes off in your games the way you planned? Now you know.

Here lies the reason you cannot grammar your way to language fluency. The conscious mind can’t do two things at once — communicate and process grammatical rules. As a GM, you can’t focus on running the game and process mechanics you haven’t internalized.

So, What’s the Point?

Simply this — Don’t underestimate the challenge of mastering game syntax. Expect fluency will require more time than your first impression affords.

Secondly, set yourself up for success by taking advantage of all the player aids the system provides. GM screens? Use them. Web sites that let you pull up quick reference tables? Yes. Apps on your phone? Even better.

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

Heroes, or Vikings?

As a games master, an assumption that the players’ characters behave as “heroes” has rooted itself in the gaming zeitgeist. However, not only does that need not be the case, but it may deviate from the origins of the hobby.

To put things in context, let’s consider some history. A lot of narrative on the topic of “Dragonlance” and its influence on tabletop gaming focuses on the “intriguing story intricately woven into the play itself” part of Tracy Hickman’s Nightventure requirements:

The first two of the four requirements that NIGHTVENTURE endeavored to meet – a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing; an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself – certainly can be seen as containing the seeds of what we now know as the “Hickman Revolution”.

Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution | The Mule Abides (

Or, consider James Maliszewski’s comments on his blog Grognardia:

 … the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they presented not merely an entire campaign story arc — what we’d today probably call an Adventure Path — but, more importantly, it was an arc written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to bemoan “railroading,” but few adventures were as railroad-y as Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in advance.

GROGNARDIA: How Dragonlance Ruined Everything

However, the moral imperative “a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing” raises my eyebrows more than the railroad. For me, this presents a shift in tone that influences the character of the game as much, if not more, than an overly plotted narrative.

In the now famous, “Appendix N,” creator Gary Gygax cited 28 authors who inspired Dungeons & Dragons. While J.R.R. Tolkien appears on the original list, he is outnumbered by writers noted for their contributions to what came to be known as sword and sorcery. Later, Gygax confessed some writers provided more influence than others:

TSR – Q&A with Gary Gygax | Page 49 | EN World | Dungeons & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Now consider the following excerpt from Howard’s Conan stories (underline my own):

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” — The Nemedian Chronicles.

Howard, R. E. (December, 1932) “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Weird Tales.

Or consider Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser traveling to the tower in the forest to pilfer its riches.

Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart), on Flickr
Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic” (CC BY 2.0) by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart)
Two warriors with Nordic armor and weapons on the cover of the RuneQuest Deluxe Edition
By Avalon Hill and Chaosium, 1984 deluxe box edition, Fair use, Link

The fact emerges that much of the source material from which Gygax and Arneson drew inspiration followed the exploits of non-heroic protagonists. Couple this with the fact that both Conan and Fafhrd represent warriors from a barbarian north, and the connection with Vikings emerges.

From a gaming perspective, Viking PCs present distinct advantages. For instance, the “killing monsters and taking their stuff” phenomenon with which the Hickmans took issue doesn’t present a problem but a roleplay characteristic of the adventurers. Moreover, “dick-paladins” will not come around and spoil the party’s fun (and if they do, they will represent adversaries to overcome, rather than goody-goody nannies to endure).

But best of all, your Viking player characters will never pause the action to lawyer out how killing the trolls and taking their treasure will factor into a Rawlsian ethical paradigm.

Roleplaying Games

Why Cthulhu Excels in Gaming

EN World reported the results of its RPG podcast of 2021 on episode #181 of Morrus’s Unofficial Tabletop RPG podcast, and you can see below that Cthulhu dominated the top spots of both “Talk” and “Actual Play” categories:


1 Miskatonic University Podcast
A podcast dedicated to Call of Cthulhu and other Horror and Lovecraftian roleplaying games.

2 Modern Mythos
A podcast about the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, writing, game mastering, and playing — presented by the hosts, Jon Hook and Seth Skorkowsky.

3 Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff is the podcast of authors and game designers Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws. Stuff talked about includes hobby gaming, history, occultism, chrono-travel, food, cinema, narrative, art, politics, food, maps, Cthulhiana, and in fact any matter subject to jocular yet penetrating erudition.

4 Frankenstein’s RPG Podcast
Frankenstein’s RPG. By Dave Paterson. In each episode as selected guests run through their RPG history and try to construct the perfect Role Playing Game.

Actual Play

1 Sweden Rolls
Four actors play the best of Swedish RPGs with one of Sweden’s most experienced and appreciated podcast GMs.

2 Ain’t Slayed Nobody Podcast
Call of Cthulhu comedy-horror podcast riding through the American Old West. Saddle up as we turn femurs into mist and canteens into grenades. Tombstone meets The Thing meets The Adventure Zone.

3 The Old Ways Podcast
It’s a weekly Tabletop RPG show in an actual play format where a group of great role-players serve up their character’s experiences in new and published scenarios. We are currently recording our Call of Cthulhu group, but in the future we will invade other universes!

4 Grizzly Peaks Radio
An Actual Play podcast covering Call of Cthulhu, Tales from the Loop and others. Join me Andy Goodman from Expedition to the Grizzly Peaks and our rotating cast of gaming luminaries.


Given the ubiquity of fantasy settings in the RPG market, that Cthulhu plays a role in the top talk podcasts and top 4 actual play podcasts astonishes. Nevertheless, as someone who has run Cthulhu campaigns for years, I attribute part of this success to how Cthulhu orients players toward the gaming environment and avoids some of the pitfalls that arise in the more common science fiction & fantasy campaigns.

By orient, I’m talking about player expectations. To put it bluntly–players expect bad things to happen to their characters. Someone sitting down to play Call of Cthulhu does so expecting his character to either die or go insane. In fact, some players might feel a Call of Cthulhu campaign that doesn’t result in either of these outcomes has failed its endeavor.

While this might strike you as obvious or trivial, it makes all the difference in the game dynamic. A player who expects his character to die or go insane will not bristle at each instance of failure–will not be put off when the character acquires maladies during his adventures–and will not become demoralized when that character dies.

When someone spends hours crafting a character for D&D, GURPS, etc., he does so with the hope that this character will do great things. In the extreme, he might hope that his character will go on to feature in fiction the player will write later or that his friends will come to associate him with the character in an iconic way. In short, the character is a vessel for vicarious experience. In game terms, every time the GM afflicts that cherished totem with adversity, he threatens the aspirations of said character. But afflicting the characters with adversity is precisely the GM’s role in the game. Still, no matter how much your players swear they don’t mind bad things happening to their characters, some of them will wax ornery about it.

In sum, Cthulhu succeeds in the gaming industry, even beyond the success of the source material in popular culture, because it establishes a frame of mind that facilitates enjoyment rather than disillusion.

But hope exists! Of course, I mean for your other campaigns, not for CoC investigators–there should never be any hope for them. Other games can capture the Cthulhu dynamic if the players approach the game with a Call of Cthulhu mindset–that is, the characters do not represent you–the characters exist to suffer adversity (the creative writers might recognize this mindset 😉).

That said, maybe a clever GM should advertise every campaign as Call of Cthulhu.