Because of reasons, Drew and Pops don't pay their hotel bills

Because of reasons, Drew and Pops don’t pay their hotel bills

I don’t know what you’re doing here
When there’s murder on the street
I appreciate your concern
But don’t waste your time on me
I’m ashes on the water now
Somewhere far away

Dedicated Retribution Unit 471 (Involuntarily Demobilized), known colloquially as the Druid, is my character for an upcoming cyberpunk campaign. The Druid (who introduces herself as “Drew”) is a Solo on the path to recovery from a serious period of cyber-psychosis, who has formed a deep and tortured relationship with an ex-cop called John Hartigan. As a Solo she specializes in rifles and handguns, but her real fascination is cyberware:a fatal obsession that has seen her humanity degraded to the point that she has little remaining human warmth, or sense of her own worth. But this is during a state of recovery: during a particularly unfortunate corporate expedition she probably went cyber-psychotic, and was only saved for experimental purposes. Only Hartigan’s misguided mission to honour his dead daughter gives her any social connection at all.

The Tunguska Extraction

Don’t be surprised when daylight comes
To find that memory prick your thumbs
You’ll tell them where we run to hide
I’m already dead
It’s a matter of time

Things went wrong for the Druid in Tunguska. At the time she was working for a small New Horizon corp, a simple riflewoman in a squad sent to extract a geophysicist from some second-rate Russian mining interest. They spent a few days preparing in Vladivostok and the Druid, over-estimating her long-forgotten Russian, went cruising the fleshpots of the harbour looking for new cyberware to add to her increasingly humanity-rending collection. Some shady guy on the docks sold her what she thought was a simple adrenal boost, but either she misunderstood his explanations or he lied, because it wasn’t…

The Druid near the end

The Druid near the end

Unfortunately the extraction went badly wrong. Near the mining complex a Siberian separatist uprising had broken out, but the Druid’s corporation had not been notified by their informants. The team hit the complex well, secured their target, and were on their way out without major incident when the corporate troops detached to suppress the separatist movement turned up to support their colleagues at the complex. With reinforcements the raid went wrong very quickly, and the team soon realized they were trapped and facing extinction. The team leader selected an escape strategy that would require a small team to stay behind and hold a blockhouse while the rest fled, meaning certain suicide for the team; the Druid was selected for this team. During the blockhouse raid the Druid activated her contraband Russian implants, and … something happened… from that point she remembered nothing until she woke up in  a high security hospital, being questioned by a polite but persistent doctor. Accounts and video footage obtained by this mysterious doctor suggested that her team had bought the squad enough time, and the mission had been a success. While no news on the fate of the others in her suicide squad was available, she had somehow survived, and the video footage suggested she had done so in a brutal and disturbing way. The doctor told her that her new cyberware had induced psychosis but that they had a new treatment to reverse the process, and they wanted to try it on her. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t tell her who he worked for, and before she could agree or disagree he revealed that the treatment would require removing all her cyberware. She killed him and fled the facility, taking all her cyberware with her.

Drew and Pops

Tell me I’m mad
How should I know
Tell me I’m mad
I have been here for so long
Help me paint a picture
They say it’s a lie
Tell me I’m mad
You’re a fine one to decide

The company – the Druid did not know who they were, but assumed they were her own employer – sent a freelancer after her, an ex-cop called John Hartigan. Given explicit instructions to bring her alive to their facilities, rather than kill her, he was forced to confront and capture her in her capsule hotel. However, somehow during this confrontation she managed to convince him that she was not cyberpsychotic, and that he was being misled. Hartigan is highly skilled at killing cyberpsychotics but has no cyberpsyche training, and is in no position to judge her state of humanity – probably the real reason he made this judgment is that Drew reminded him of his recently deceased daughter, and triggered a protective instinct from a misplaced sense of guilt. He broke his contract and the two fled, entering the world of the street to escape her pursuers. Since they fled, Drew and Pops (as she calls him) live in a complex world of flight, risk and temporary roughhouse jobs for money. She is driven by simple motives, to escape from the people chasing her, because she thinks they want to experiment on her psyche, and also because although she can no longer activate that mysterious Russian cyberware she can’t find any evidence of its surgical removal – she wants to get it back, so she can again experience whatever joy it was that led her through slaughter and terror to escape from that blockhouse. In the meantime she will help Pops find the people who killed his daughter, and kill all of them – horribly but dispassionately. Dispassionately, because the Druid has no feelings except lust for more cyberware, and a desire for the world to slow down to how it was when that Russian ‘ware boosted her. She can often be heard muttering “too fast, too fast!” to herself, as she tries to cope with the mundane pace of a busy world. If it doesn’t slow down …

The trafficked girl

Alone in the city at seventeen
With the hollow and the lonely
The drowning and the drowned
I was made to feel worthless
The wretched and the mean
Beat me up like a weapon I can’t run away from or find a way round

Drew grew up as the only daughter of an Inuit crime lord, not a particularly high calling in gangster culture, living in a traditional Inuit community inside the arctic circle in Sibera. Sheltered from the ugly world of the gangster family she inherited, she was supposed to grow up outside of the cruelty and bitterness of gangster parents who smuggled alcohol to their Inuit brethren, and Inuit children to Russian parents rendered infertile by Russia’s environmental disasters. But her parents’ crime gang fell into conflict with a larger Russian mob, and they were completely destroyed. To avoid execution they sold their own children, and before she could even properly learn Russian Drew found herself a child of a corporate family in New Horizon, the vast island arcology in the Pacific that controlled all political, economic and military activity on the Pacific rim. Here she lived a troubled life, rebelling against the world she didn’t understand, until at 16 she went into debt for a set of $500 rippers. The lure of cyberware, the exhilaration of falling away from a humanity that was always more trouble and pain than it was worth, drew her away from quiet arcology life to a world of crime and brutality. Early brushes with the law brought her into contact with a kindly older policeman who set her up as a riflewoman in a corporate squad, and over a few years her addiction to cyberware blossomed. Too much, too soon … but good for the men and women of the Tunguska team who fled while she fell into madness…

Inhuman, cold, deadly

The blue pain
Fades to a point where it doesn’t fade
It stayed
Blue
Stirred her red coat heart to this strange engine

The Druid is stranded on the edge of humanity. She has only one interest in this world, the boosted clarity of the life of cyber, but she is near the point of tipping back into cyberpscyhosis if she installs much more of it. She is a unique person on this earth, someone who came back from cyberpsychosis – but she doesn’t feel like she has come back. Her anchor to this world is Hartigan, possibly the only person who has ever shown any genuine interest in her as a person, and as a result she has a deep and ferocious loyalty to him. Through his kindness she has regained the ability to feel some kind of human connection, but it is weak and always fighting the desire to fall back into the cold and undemanding emptiness of cyber. Drew’s efforts at the Tunguska extraction have earned her a reputation. It is not enough to make her recognizable in person, but people know the name “the Druid.” If Solos hear that name they will respond with rumours of her legend:

Oh, you mean the Tunguska Rifle? I heard she died there.

or

She pulled those corporate dreks out of the fire in Tunguska, right? I heard she had to chill real deep after that

or

Yeah, she’s the Tunguska heroine. Had a friend of a friend worked with her, said she’s colder, deadlier and more barren than the steppes in winter.

Usually, the Druid just introduces herself as Drew, to avoid incredulity at the contrast between her legend and her physical form: a tall, skinny, slightly gangly girl, dressed in whatever is the latest fashion, tottering on high heels and carrying a couple of shopping bags from classic brand shops, long tangled hair and heavy make-up, all the accoutrements and seemings of harmless femininity. Inuit heritage, cyber skin, eyes and hair mean that her racial background cannot be identified or pinned down – to white people she is Asian, to Asians white. Ambiguity is at the core of her being. Anyone who speaks to her for any length of time will soon see that there is something wrong: her social skills are disjointed and robotic, she lacks any desire or ability to interact socially and behind her eyes there is no soul or deeper personality – the ghost has been nearly completely consumed by the machine. Her femininity is worn like a mask or a shield, as unnatural as the awkward conversational pieces she uses to appear like she cares. Her cyberaddiction has worn her down to a shadow of a person, a few simple impulses wrapped inside a metal-adrenal shell. In place of feelings, Drew is driven by professionalism, loyalty, and a fierce devotion to Hartigan. Beyond that is an empty predator’s will to live, a woman stripped back to animal instincts and out of touch with her soul and her body. Hartigan is the only anchor she has to this world – and she lacks the social dynamism to treat him with more than a distant contempt. The Druid’s fate is marked: she will die, in some pointless gun battle or wasted moment of sudden bravery. Until that day, she is on borrowed time. If the corporation she escaped from don’t find her, or Hartigan, some incidental enemy will; or that brittle humanity will snap, and her comrades will have to kill her. For now, Hartigan has convinced himself she is still human, the phantom of his lost daughter; but at some point he will realize he is tethered to a monster in waiting, and cut her loose. Until that day, she is a cannon on a leash … and that leash is very tenuous … would anyone team up with the Druid? — Note: all quotes at sub-chapter heads are from various songs by Marillion.

Even sunlight is rationed down here ...

Even sunlight is rationed down here …

This is a kingdom I created entirely randomly for a one-off of Make You Kingdom, to be played in English this weekend.

Kingdom name: The socialist republic of disasters [yes I really rolled this randomly]

Map Position: E3

Kingdom level: 2

Lifestyle level: 1

Culture level: 1

Order level: 2

Military level: 1

Total population: 70

Consisting of …

  • 63 citizens
  • 4 Court members (PCs)
  • 3 Hurryfoxes

People’s voice (Maximum): 10

Facilities:

  • Royal Palace
  • Ranch
  • Staple [steel]

Background details

The Socialist Republic of Disasters is located in map square E3 of a random part of the labyrinth, and is ruled by Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God. The kingdom is remarkably stable and fortunate given its circumstances: though it only covers three squares of a standard 9×9 labyrinth map, its population is surprisingly large and it is allied with a distant kingdom, the United Dungeon Empire, that supplies it with steel. It is also home to three Hurryfoxes (Gonkitsune). Due to a loan that the wise Comintern President Mario took from the Subterranean One, the Republic is also in debt, owing a mighty 15 MG.

The Hurryfoxes live in the kingdom because it has a special property of being able to coexist with monsters: under the wise and benevolent rule of the Comintern President, a ranch was established, and people from all over the kingdom are happy to receive monsters and live alongside them, provided they offer some of their souls and material for use in the ranch, where any new monsters who join the kingdom can be cloned to produce more of their kind. The ranch is an ancient heritage, from a time before the enlightened rule of the Comintern President, when the kingdom was under a sorcerer’s curse that caused all its citizens to be undead. This time is long past, but out of respect for history the Comintern President has kindly allowed the cultural memory of this special lineage to linger, enabling all adventurers to learn any undead skill when they gain a level or a new skill.

Since the demise of the sorcerer and the end of his curse the nation has lived a long and peaceful life under the principled, firm but loving guidance of the comintern; as a result it has a larger population than many similarly-sized kingdoms (+13 population) and has a strong sense of discipline and order (+1 order level).

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

How it looks

This is ultimately up to the players, but given the name, the sense of order, and the sinister-sounding nation they are allied to, I can’t help feeling it has a slightly tatty-grandiose soviet-era feeling to it. I imagine it is not a particularly large kingdom, and is composed primarily of wide, spacious, well-lit tunnels similar to the tunnels in some of the Moscow metro, with the same sense of grandeur. These tunnels form a complex network connecting the living spaces, markets and royal palace (the Comintern Palace, I guess!) together in a soviet-styled warren. I even imagine there is an actual train, a rickety old coal-burner that connects the Socialist Republic of Disasters (SRD) with the distant Unified Dungeon Empire. Perhaps it takes a month to chug along on complex paths through the labyrinthine fallen world, eventually returning two months after it set out with a cargo of iron scrap – rubbish, basically – from the Unified Dungeon Empire.

I imagine the ranch as a somewhat sinister place, not a happy sunlit farm at all. The rules state that if you have a ranch, when you manage to bring a monster back to your kingdom as a citizen you can make a check to produce another one of them in the ranch. Given the speed this happens at, I see it as some kind of sinister magical cloning process, not a game of happy-monster-families. Sometimes, obviously, it goes wrong (which would be why the SRD has 3 hurryfoxes, not 2 or 4). I imagine this is some relic of the time before, and though the citizens know how to operate it, they don’t know how it works.

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

The court

The court consists of four PCs, described briefly here.

Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God

The President’s Job is Daedalist (迷宮職人, see the second from right in the illustration above), his/her sex is undecided, and his/her primary attributes are quest and warfare. He owes 15MG to the Subterranean one, and it is his mission to escape from the Subterranean One’s debt. Mario likes foppery and storytellers, and hates liars and apologizing.

Cocoa “Wise ears” Scarlet

A Knight with the job of Hunter, who came to SRD from the distant kingdom of Autonomic Dark Gotanda [square F1] as an apprentice and has the mission of becoming Mario’s lover. Cocoa’s primary attribute is warfare, and Cocoa has a horse, armour, weapons and a living drill (a stick with a mole on the end). Cocoa likes the countryside and smart people, and hates Citizens and elderly people.

Hairan Blademagnet

An Oracle with the job of thief, who came down to SRD from heaven in an elevator when he was a child, and whose nemesis is a deep sea monster called the Forneus, that it is his mission to thwart. Hairan’s primary attribute is charisma, followed by quest. He is a belly-god, so can consume food and drink without running out of supplies, so he’ll probably end up obese by the end of the first adventure. He likes receiving weapons, and the labyrinth itself; he hates beards and ogrekin.

Cookie the Involuntarily Anointed

Cookie is a ninja, who came to the SRD as a spy for the neo-superhero federation [map square B6], and has the mission of becoming Cocoa’s rival. Cookie’s job is Doctor, so Cookie has the skills of Monsterology and Anti-magic Formula. Cookie is powerful in quest and wit. Unfortunately for a resident of the SRD, Cookie hates narrow places and hospitals; but she likes stars and princes; Cookie herself carries a Blade of Star, a bomb and a trap collection. Really, she’s a perfect spy!

The adventure

This week’s adventure will start when an old associate of the kingdom, a kind of fence and all-round sleazy guy, arrives to tell Comintern President Mario that a debt collector [a type of monster] has turned up in a nearby kingdom, possibly looking to call in the debt that Mario owes to the Subterranean One. The characters will then set off to find this debt collector and … er … deal with him. Their oily friend knows the way to the neighbouring kingdom, though he doesn’t know the kingdom layout or the nature of the creatures that live there. Is everything as it seems, or is their oily little friend causing trouble …?

Our World of Darkness campaign, that we began by accidentally exterminating a native American tribe from history, ended today when we accidentally reset history to a parallel world ruled by a Thousand Year Reich built on justice and honour.

In the process we went from a group of ordinary mortals struggling to understand why we were trapped in a pocket universe with a genocidal spirit, to generals of a supernatural host, leading armies of magical beasts in a war against heaven. My character, John Micksen, went from a washed-up, ageing hippy sitting alone in a bar, to Winter Knight wielding a sword out of legend (Excalibur!) and leading an army of the four courts of faerie.

We did great things while we wound our ugly and complex path to this brutal ending. In the last session alone we caused an angel to fall from heaven, destroyed an army, killed a god, had lucifer sacrifice himself to open a gate into the primal stuff of the universe, and reset the world so that an evil god never existed. As we wound our way across continents seeking the keys to the destruction of the God Machine we did great things, and saw great evil. From the first moment we opened a door in the basement of a psychiatric hospital, to find an infinite space filled with chains and cogs, we knew we were up against something relentless and evil, and our actions had to be bold, powerful and often cruel.

We started small, rescuing children from paedophiles who were smuggling them to an evil corporation; we burned the paedophiles alive and fought a fatal battle with the petty angel they served. We crossed into the land of the dead from an abandoned concentration camp to save the children’s’ souls from undead scientists who were performing hideous experiments, and while we were there we liberated lucifer himself from a thousand years of captivity. We fled destroyer angels who laid waste to whole city blocks trying to find us, hid in anarchist squats in East Berlin and vegan fascist terrorist lairs in Chicago. We dealt in pride and babies with the courts of faerie, so that we could betray a demon to a vampire, in service to a cause we didn’t yet understand. We did a deal with an ancient dragon and crept into hades to kidnap its ruler in trade for a faerie queen; that same god of death we later saved from a hideous experiment that used his essence to resurrect Jesus – and that same queen rode back into the faerie land of winter on the back of a Russian T34 tank, that our demon violinist drove. We carved a kingdom out of faerie, and bought a mansion in Ireland to connect to it using gold stolen from hell. For a while Cerberus itself (an intellectual and arrogant beast if ever there were one!) was our mansion’s guard dog, but of course we had to flee when angels came to destroy our mansion – a destruction John Micksen watched while speaking of lost love with an angel more terrible and beautiful than the sun. “The Winter Knight,” he said, after fleeing from her wrath, “Tires of this shit.”

We tired of many things, because we were constantly fleeing from great powers. We destroyed corporations digging around for the answers we sought – literally, leveled their offices and killed their officers. Anyone who helped us or even met us died – bodyguards, wives, children, allies, friends, political fellow-travelers, anyone who sheltered us, anyone who did business with us, and almost everyone who crossed us. They died in fire, the rubble of apartment blocks razed by enraged angels who sought after us, in the pits of hell or in the snowy wastes of faerie, they died chained to a steering wheel in a flaming gasoline stand or savaged by berserk werewolves on vast fields of battle. Some of them were pounded into red mist by the Winter Knight, some left to experience an eternity of frozen pain in the deepest darks of the wastes of faerie winter. Some were tortured by our enemies, or just disappeared into nowhere by ancient powers we had angered. For every one of our allies or friends who suffered, our anger grew and our list of retributions extended. We were not patient, or careful, but we did all we could to destroy those who crossed us.

We were no match for our foes. An implacable god without emotion, possessed of infinite patience, sought to change the world to suit its cold mechanical whims, and the angels that served it felt no mercy, fear or compassion. They slowly reworked the political landscape of the world to suit the mysterious machine passions of their master, turning America  into a fascist dystopian nightmare, laying waste to whole nations with plague and war, exterminating races and cultures with machine precision that no human could ever master. They sought to tip the balance in every dimension. For a short time the courts of faerie waged war against each other and a strange machine god, and all the seasons were thrown into chaos – until we intervened to restore peace and kidnap a mad faerie queen wed to a despicable machine. But for every victory our terrible foes became more ruthless and more wrathful, so that we were forced to flee, and flee again, always running and hiding.

Some of us died three times. Some of us were infected by the God Machine’s sinister viruses, rebooted, cleansed and returned to us unrecognizable. Some of us were cast down from our powers and left to rot and die, before we rose up again to take on new and greater roles. Some of us tried to strike out for freedom and failed. Some of us had to dig deep and fight hard to uncover the secrets of our past, and strike a path into the future. Some of us lost everything, rebuilt, and lost it all again. We reached our wits’ end, burned our patience, rampaged through our enemies’ lairs in rage and anger destroying everything in sight. We stole a sacred stone from Mecca, and books of gibberish from under the noses of angels that could destroy whole armies. We were epic, and constantly terrified.

All of this came down to a final battle on a dusty plane in the American mid-west, to find a gate that would change the past and the future. Our Demon Violinist opened the gate, while armies fought to end the world, and we reset everything so that all our enemies were extinguished. We triumphed! And the world was restored to an order of peace and justice that could never exist in any boring, cold reality.

Truly, this was a glorious campaign of great deeds, terrifying struggle, mysteries unraveled and paedophiles flame-grilled. It was exhilarating, terrifying, deeply absorbing, sometimes incredibly frustrating, confusing and exhausting. I don’t think it had anything in common with a normal World of Darkness campaign, and the Demon book on which it was all based only arrived for the last session. But it was amazing in its scope, its power and its content. And it ended in glory. It was role-playing at its finest!

From Vox.com, a post summarizing recent findings about how well Obamacare is working on cost containment. There are two particularly interesting links in the post, one from the Kaiser Foundation about the expected 2015 health insurance plan costs, and an updated estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on the future costs of Obamacare. They both present slightly surprising news about how well Obamacare is working.

Falling health insurance premiums

The Kaiser Foundation reviews the cost of health insurance plans annually, and in 2013 it released estimates of the 2014 plan costs. This year it updated those estimates, using comparable methodology, and has found that the cost of some plans is going to fall dramatically, with a 0.8% drop in the cost of plans overall. The Foundation press release is available here, and includes a link to the report here [pdf]. This report is interesting because it looks at the cost of specific types of health insurance plan available through the health insurance exchanges (HIE) set up under Obamacare, so it is directly assessing the cost of plans that were introduced under Obamacare’s rules, operate within its mechanisms, and should be subject to cost containment and competition under the system established by Obamacare. The plans analyzed were the lowest-cost Bronze plan and the two lowest-cost Silvers. These plans are chosen because they are subject to subsidies, so the change in costs will directly affect the government’s budget bottom line, and they are also the plans poorer Americans are most likely to take up.

The system under which these plans operate is costly, but is explained fairly simply in the report. Basically people earning up to 400% of the poverty line are eligible for subsidies when they select these plans, which ensure they pay no more than 9.5% of their income for health insurance and as little as 2.5% for the poorest. Bronze plans get a stronger subsidy rule for people on up to 250% of the poverty line (I think). This is a kind of compensation for having been forced to take up insurance by the Individual Mandate aspect of Obamacare. Furthermore there is a nasty little competition-enhancer built into the act, which I didn’t know about and which is explained on page 4-5 of the document: if you are on a subsidized plan and some new insurer offers a cheaper plan of the same kind, your subsidy will be reduced by the difference in plan costs if you don’t switch plans. So as soon as a cheaper plan enters the marketplace, the insurer offering the more expensive plan will begin to bleed customers; and because there is now no way for an insurer to refuse to sell you a plan, the major blocker of churning (inability to switch plans due to pre-existing conditions) that used to exist will no longer prevent competition from being effective. As we will see, this nasty little trick buried in the law may have a significant role to play.

The Kaiser Foundation analyzed 15 plans from 15 states that included a major city and that have released their 2015 estimated premiums. It found major increases in the cost of plans in some states, from 8.7% in Tennessee to 0.8% in Los Angeles; and major falls in others, from 0.7% in New York to 15.6% in Nevada (page 2; unlabelled figure). Note that this means just in California and NY alone you are seeing no average change in plan costs in an area affecting a population of something like 60 million people. The average fall over the whole dataset was 0.8%; it’s not clear to me if this is a population-weighted average. On pages 3-5 you can see that these changes don’t affect people living on salaries up to 400% of the poverty line in most cases; all the changes actually affect is the size of the subsidy these people receive. It seems to me that this means all the competition pressure on health insurance companies arises from offering plans to people earning over 400% of the poverty line, to employers, and in attempts to grab market share through offering cheaper plans to the subsidized population. I think this is still a huge amount of competition pressure on the insurance companies, and the Kaiser Foundation offers some evidence that this competition is working. Vox.com is all breathless about how “premiums never fall” and “this is unprecedented,” but I don’t know if that is true or not; it could just be that the health insurance companies miscalibrated their plan prices in 2013, when the HIEs were first opening, because they (like a lot of people!) misjudged how popular the Exchanges would be, and now they are able to lower prices because they have a larger pool of low-risk customers than they expected. If that is the real reason for these falls, then it seems likely future falls in premium price are not to be expected; but even if this is the case, it still points to a huge win for Obamacare, since getting low-risk young people into insurance plans to push down prices was a core goal of the policy.

I have a caveat on the future progress of premium prices under best-case scenarios; see my final point below for more on this.

Reduced subsidy cost to the government

The CBO report can be accessed here [pdf], and presents an interesting picture of both predicted costs to the government, and insurance numbers. This report is also an update on a previous report, calculated using the same methodology, so enables comparability over time. Basically the CBO over-estimated the cost to the government of subsidies provided to people taking plans on the HIEs, to the tune of $100 billion over 9 years (that’s a pretty big overestimate!!) The main reason for this overestimate is that the cost of insurance plans is lower than expected, and is expected to rise at lower rates than previously predicted. The average cost now is $3,800, which is expected to rise to $6,900 over the next 9 years; the estimate for 2015 is $3,900 where previously it was $4,400 (page 6), indicating that greater downward pressure has been exerted on prices than was expected, and driving future savings.

The CBO also provides estimates and predictions of health insurance coverage rates (Table 2 on page 4), which show some pretty amazing figures. Most importantly from a coverage perspective, the number of uninsured has been calculated to have decreased by 12 million in 2014, rising to 26 million in 2024 with the majority of those figures being made up in the early years. That’s a huge achievement for health reform in the USA, and if it is sustained will truly be Obama’s great legacy. From the perspective of other nations with 99% coverage of universal insurance it’s a poor outcome, but from the perspective of the USA it’s the biggest social welfare achievement in several generations.

The CBO estimates of coverage include estimates with and without illegal immigrants included, because undocumented immigrants are not eligible for subsidies or access to the HIE, and will form a larger portion of the pool of uninsured as time passes. However, even after excluding them from the pool of uinsured, by the CBO’s calculations the problem of the uninsured will not be fully solved by Obamacare at any time in the next 10 years: insurance coverage will increase to 92% of non-elderly legally resident Americans by 2024 (Table 2 on page 4, again). The exact increase in coverage over a world without Obamacare is not calculated, but it appears to be about 10 percentage points. Now, in 2014, with Obamacare fully functional for 6 months to a year (and some of its provisions in place for a couple of years) coverage is still only 86%. For the sake of America’s poor and sick, I hope that the CBO’s projections prove to be an underestimate.

From the CBO’s projections it is worth noting that Obamacare is expected to cost the government about $150 billion a year a decade from now. That’s not small change! But the vox.com post has some other figures from other reports which suggest that actually there are major cost containment outcomes beginning to show, which is interesting and in my opinion unexpected – I thought cost containment would be one major area where Obamacare would fail. I also didn’t think competition pressures would be effective in lowering prices at least in the short term, so it will be interesting to see if Obamacare exceeds my expectations. Watch this space!

These two linked reports between them do give a fairly good overview of the function of Obamacare, how it works in practice and where its limitations are. Obamacare is a complex beast and it’s worth reading them if you want to get a better understanding of how the new system works from a policy and financing perspective. Reading them also helps to give a sense of how complex the US health financing system is, and how difficult and delicate a task it is to introduce a law aimed at moving towards universal health coverage that doesn’t use a top-down single payer system. The more I see of Obamacare in action, the more I appreciate the challenge Obama faced and the skill with which he developed his signature policy.

A caveat on the future of Obamacare: where the real costs lie

At the bottom of the Vox post is a link to this related post on eight facts about America’s insurance system. It has some interesting material about different problems with the American system, but point 5) seems most relevant to the debate about cost containment under Obamacare. According to this post, hospitals and health plans have very low profit margins compared to drug companies and manufacturers. Part of this is probably just statistical anomaly: major hospital networks and health plans in the USA are not-for-profits, and by design cannot be expected to contribute to calculations of profit margins. But the broader point is important: while Obamacare focuses heavily on competition through health plans, the companies providing these plans don’t have the ability to cut costs through their own operations. If they achieve cost containment, they are going to have to do it through pushing down the profits of the people they purchase drugs and technology from. But these are the people furthest removed along the purchasing chain, and hardest for a fragmented insurance industry to force price reductions from. This suggests that in future the health plans will not be able to further compete on price without further structural reforms to the way the industry works, most particularly some kind of cost constraints on the medical device and drug manufacturers. While superficially this might seem antithetical to the modern capitalist system, it’s pretty standard in most countries with good cost containment programs (Australia and Japan, for example) to have fairly strict price controls on drug companies.

The problem for insurers in America is that they don’t have bargaining power. They need to exert price controls on companies that can sell to their competitors, and because they are offering a service in a fragmented market they can’t effectively withdraw their purchasing power as a last-ditch negotiating tactic. In future I think this means a US administration is going to have to step in to directly fix some maximum prices, or use innovative policy instruments to give defacto joint bargaining power to the insurance industry. I suspect one way that this could be done would be to make the HIE a vehicle for price negotiation – so all insurance plans operating through an HIE can use the HIE as an intermediary for price negotiations with device/drug companies, kind of like the Wheat Marketing Board that used to negotiate prices on behalf of all wheat farmers in Australia. You can bet that the pharmaceutical industry will fight such a change viciously. Another possibility could be to exempt health insurance companies from racketeering or anti-competitive practices laws when they are negotiating with providers, so that they are able to openly collude to fix prices. This would likely also kick up a huge stink, and could have serious negative consequences if other sectors of the economy managed to successfully demand the same right (I’m looking at Microsoft, of course). Another option would be for the government to find ways to encourage (or force) mergers of insurance companies until they reach a large enough size that they can effectively negotiate with providers; but the size required would likely lead to monopoly providers in some states, which would undermine the competition benefits arising from exchanges.

I think this is a fundamental problem of a free market in health, that is going to be very hard to fix without substantially altering the amount of “freedom” in the free market. Obama has shown, I think, that carefully-constructed law has the potential (not yet achieved!) to guide a free market system towards universal health coverage without completely breaking its fundamental structures, so maybe future extensions of Obamacare to resolve these cost constraint limits are also possible. But when we look at how difficult it has been to get Obamacare through, and consider the unique properties of the person who achieved it, it’s really hard to believe that after Obama leaves office there will be another person with the same talents and traits, and the same initial popularity, who will appear in the next 10 years and be able to achieve the next steps in health financing reform in the USA. Maybe Clinton could, though I don’t know; but certainly things will be dire for Obamacare if the next president is a Republican. I really hope that Obama is able to turn Obamacare’s political image around, and use it to win the next presidential election. For America’s poor, the next couple of years will be crucial, and the outcome far from certain.

In my recent post on principles for RPG systems I put dice pools near the top of the list, because I think they’re fun. Unfortunately, however, I think it’s hard to make a simple dice pool that doesn’t break several of the other principles in the list, and it’s difficult to make a dice pool mechanism that is satisfying. This is because of the way in which dice pools are related to skills and attributes.

Most dice pool systems are basically constructing a binomial probability distribution, with the probability of a single success determined by the success number on the dice in the pool, and the number of trials being the size of the pool. That is, in classic binomial distribution notation, if Y is the number of successes, n is the size of the dice pool and p is the probability of a success on one die (e.g. 5 or 6 on a d6=1/3 probability of success on one die), then

Y~Binomial(n,p)

The resulting number of successes is compared to some target number, that is either set by the GM or determined by the opponent’s attributes and skills. The problem here is that for every point of target number, you need more than one die to have a good chance of getting a success. For example in Shadowrun if the target number is 1 (the easiest non-trivial task) you have a 1/3 chance of hitting it with one die, just under 50% with two dice, and so on. Also you cannot get more successes than your pool, so if the target number is equal to n you can’t succeed.

The problem here is that typically your dice pool is constructed in a similar way to your defense target number when it comes to challenged skill checks. For example, if I construct an agility+melee dice pool and try to shoot someone, it will target a difficulty set by their agility+melee dice pool (or something similar). But because each point of target number requires more than a single die to have a chance of success, your attacking pool is not going to be enough to hit, in general. The systems I have played have several ways around this problem, none of which are satisfactory in my opinion. These are listed below.

Shadowrun

Shadowrun gets around the problem of equal target numbers by having both attacker and target roll their dice pool. Because the target pool will generate less successes than a target number based on the attribute/skill combination, this will always produce a lower target number than the attribute/skill combination itself. The problem here is that you have two players constructing then rolling and calculating a dice pool, and comparing results. This has the advantage of giving the player the chance to roll to avoid an attack (which gives them agency) but makes for a lot of rolls, which with large dice pools is trouble. It also introduces a lot of variation, especially at lower levels . You could simplify this by having everyone roll their defense alongside initiative, and then requiring them to keep it, but this would be unsatisfactory to many players, I think.

World of Darkness

World of Darkness (WoD) creates a whole range of problems for itself and then somehow gets around them in a bad way. In WoD your melee attack pool will be an attribute + skill, but your defense pool is just the lowest of two attributes, so it is usually much lower than the attacking pool. This solves the problem of overly-boosted target numbers, but it is deeply unsatisfactory. John Micksen, for example (my WoD Mage) has a defense of 2 (what can I say, he’s clumsy) but he has 3 dots in weaponry, specializing in swords, and he is carrying Excalibur. Excalibur! But his defense is 2! Excalibur is a +5 Holy Sword of Legend, FFS, but he gets no benefit. This is ridiculous: when magically boosted, wielding that sword, Micksen gets 21 dice to attack! But the same Micksen gets a defense of 2, three if he boosts his dexterity above his wits.

However, all is not lost! In WoD, your armour counts on your dice pool. John Micksen’s friend gives him Forces armour 5, so he gets 7 defense. Whew. The WoD rules get around the problem of unfair target numbers by having you subtract your defense from your opponent’s attack pool, and the opponent rolls the result. This seriously reduces the variance of the roll, but it also means that the imbalance of target numbers and attack pools is removed. However, what happens if your defense is greater than your opponent’s attacking pool? In this case, they have no dice left to roll! However, WoD has a rule for this: they roll a single d10 and hit on a 10. That’s right, they have a 10% chance of hitting you with a dice pool of zero.

So let’s imagine this scenario. John Micksen has a ritual casting on himself that gives him +4 strength and dexterity; another that gives him 8s again on his attack rolls; and his friend Andrew has given him Forces 5 armour. John decides he is sick of the paper boy making a noise at the gate of his mansion, so early one sunday morning he staggers out of his faerie-wine induced reverie and, leaving his lithe elven lover entangled in the bedclothes of the master bedroom of their faerie demesne, he wanders up the stairs and into mundane Ireland, picking up Excalibur along the way. He creeps up to the door unheard – this is not difficult, his Dexterity is 6, higher than most mortals (truly Faerie has changed him!), so the stupid paper boy won’t hear him. He hauls open the door[1] and springs forward, yelling obscenities, and takes a swing at the paper boy. “I am the Winter Fucking Knight[2], I do not get woken by paper boys!” he yells, rolling his 18 dice pool (he doesn’t bother wasting a point of willpower on a mere paper boy). The paper boy, however, is a cunning little yobbo and sneaky to boot, so he has a defense of 3,+1 for his woolen jacket, 4 defense for a mere villein! Now John rolls 14 dice, which with 8s again means he should get about 5 or 6 successes. This leaves the paper boy on 1 wound (that is a well-made Irish woolen jacket, not some crappy London fashion accessory!) So, the paper boy grabs his anti-dog club, and jabs it in John Micksen’s face. John Micksen has defense 3 and armour 5, for a total of 8, and the paper boy has a dice pool of 4. Result! The kid has 0 dice! He can’t hit. There stands the Winter Knight, resplendently bare-chested, but shimmering with the power of his friend’s enchanted armour, the snow-flake tattoo that betokens his position as Faerie Champion glittering cold blue light from beneath the silken radiance of the magical armour, armour that has been crafted for him in an arcane ritual by a wizard renowned throughout several planes of existence as a master of the elemental energies that bind the world together.

Oh but wait a minute, the paper boy has rolled a 10 on his one die. His anti-dog club slides through that armour like a hot knife through butter, and jabs John in the ribs, leaving a nasty bruise. The kid pulls a stupid face, yells “‘Ave ‘at, you fuckin’ pervo!” and scarpers up the path and away [well, scarpers as best he can for a kid who has just been stabbed in the face with an Ancient Sword Out of Legend by the Winter Fucking Knight, boosted to superhuman strength and speed].

This ridiculous scenario occurs because the lowest success probability in WoD is 10%, for people with an attacking pool less than their defender’s; followed by 30% for people with at least one die left in their pool. This scenario would have been the same even if John benefited from the +5 of his Ancient Sword that Unites Kingdoms. I think that’s a pretty crap rule. But it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to find a way to give some chance to people with zero pool.

Warhammer 3

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) gets around this problem by adapting the Shadowrun approach into a single roll, using a dice pool that is as complicated as possible. Basically, the target’s defense (which is calculated in an arcane and annoying way) is used to add challenge and misfortune dice to the attacker’s pool. These dice can roll failures, which are subtracted from the successes that are rolled by the good part of the pool. The challenge and misfortune dice have different probability distributions to the dice that the attacker puts in the pool (attribute and expertise dice). This system has the excellent property of giving the defender a highly variable target number, along with various side effects and it completely eliminates the problem of balancing defense target numbers against attack target numbers where both are derived from attributes and skills. It is also, as far as I know, the only RPG system I have played (except Rolemaster?) that actively incorporates training into defense (in a variety of overly complex ways, of course). It also only uses one roll. The downside is that constructing and evaluating the dice pool are both complex, requiring a lot of time and effort until you’re really familiar with the system.

Some possible simplifications

The Shadowrun system could be simplified to work in one roll by adding d6s of a different colour to the attacker’s dice roll, and having 5s and 6s on those rolls cancel the 5s or 6s on the attacker’s dice. This is basically the WFRP3 single roll, without the complex dice. Basically this is what WFRP3 needs: a simpler way of constructing and calculating dice pools. You could set up the game table with a large pool of white and red d6s in the middle of the table. The attacker grabs his or her number of whites; the defender grabs his or her number of reds and then passes them to the attacker; the dice pool is then rolled, and the result counted. Alternatively, dice pool construction in WFRP3 could be simplified by leaving the roll of challenge and misfortune dice for the GM; the player only sees the dice he or she rolled, and the GM then calculates the result.

Another possible simplification is to find a way to make attack rolls have more dice than defense targets. For example, if you could add your level to attack rolls, but not to defense target numbers; or if your defense target for any challenged skill check (including combat) was your attribute divided by 3 (round down) + skill, so that most attack pools are larger than target numbers; and also make sure there is a method for boosting attacks (e.g. Edge/Fate/Willpower) etc. Note that with larger dice pools these boosting methods tend to be a waste of time (see e.g. John Micksen), but if you are striving for more contained dice pools, then it probably would work. Of course, no one likes dividing numbers in play, but most character sheets have a place ot write defense; you could have a “defense” section after each attribute, which tells you the value it applies when being used for a defense target.

Another possible dice pool mechanism I thought of yesterday but haven’t done any calculations on, is one in which there is no target number, but the target’s skill+ attribute determine the minimum number required to hit. For example, if attributes start at 2 or 3 points, and skills at 1 or 2 points, then target numbers would range from 3-5. The attacker could then roll e.g. d10s, and get success on any die that rolls above this number. If the target were above 9, then success would only be possible on rolls of 10. So for example you have a dice pool of 5, and your opponent has a target of 5; you roll your five dice and need to get over 5, which basically means that your outcome will be Binomial(5,0.5), giving an “average” of 2.5 successes. Were your opponent’s difficulty 9, you would need to roll 10s, and the chance of getting 1 success would still be pretty good, but little chance of a big success.

I have also been thinking about a concept of what I call success pools, which incorporate post-attack damage values into a coherent framework for all skills and challenges, and could be used to fine tune some of these dice pool mechanisms. I will have more to say about that later.

I don’t think any of the systems I have described here, or their simplifications, are ideal, though the Shadowrun and WFRP3 mechanisms are pretty good (aside from their cumbersome aspects). Shadowrun is fine until you start calculating damage, I think; WFRP3 is fine if you make sure that the only complexity in it is the dice pool (i.e. you drop most of the rest of the game). But they show the difficulty of making a balanced dice pool mechanism, and how there always seems to be a compromise somewhere on the way when you try to introduce a decent random number generation system based on dice.

fn1: With his ritual on, John Micksen has strength 7, so he doesn’t so much haul the door open as launch it into orbit

fn2: John Micksen has some rage issues.

Over the past few years I’ve looked at a lot of the probabilistic and statistical aspects of specific game designs, from the Japanese game Double Cross 3 to Pathfinder, including comparing different systems and providing some general notes on dice pools. I’ve also played various amounts of World of Darkness, Iron Kingdoms, D&D, Warhammer 2 and 3, and some Japanese systems, that all have quite diverse systems. Given this experience and the analytical background, it seems reasonable to start drawing it all together to ponder what make for some good basic principles of RPG system design. I don’t mean here the ineffable substance of a good RPG, rather I mean the kind of basic mechanical details that can make or break a system for long term play, regardless of its world-building, background and design. For example, I think Shadowrun might be broken in its basic form, to the extent that people who try playing it for any length of time get exasperated, and this might explain why every gaming company that handles Shadowrun seems to go bust.

So, here is a brief list of what I think might be some important principles to use in the development of games. Of course they’re all just my opinion, which comes with the usual disclaimers. Have at ‘em in comments if you think any are egregiously bad!

  • Dice pools are fun: everyone likes rolling handfuls of dice, and the weighty feeling of a big hand of dice before a big attack really makes you feel viscerally there, in comparison to a single d20
  • Big or complex dice pools suck: Big dice pools can really slow down the construction and counting parts of rolling a skill check, but on top of this they are basically constructing a binomial distribution, and with more than a couple of trials (dice) in a binomial distribution, it’s extremely hard to get very low numbers of successes. So large and complex dice pools need to be limited, or reserved for super-special attacks
  • Attacks should use a single roll: Having opposed skill checks in combat means doubling the number of rolls, and really slows things down. Having cast around through a lot of different systems, I have to say that the saving throw mechanism of D&D is really effective, because it reduces the attack to one roll and it makes the PC the agent of their own demise or survival when someone attacks them. On the other hand, rolling to hit and then rolling to damage seems terribly inefficient
  • Where possible, the PC should be the agent of the check: that is, if there is a choice in the rules where the GM could roll to affect the PC, or the PC could roll to avoid being affected by the GM, the latter choice is better. See my note above on saving throws.
  • Efficiency of resolution is important: the less rolls, counts and general faffs, the better.
  • Probability distributions should be intuitively understandable: or at least, explainable in the rules – and estimates of the effect of changes to the dice system (bonuses, extra dice, etc.) should be explained so GMs can understand how to handle challenges
  • Skill should affect defense: so many games (D&D and World of Darkness as immediate examples) don’t incorporate the PC’s skills into defense at all, or much. In both games, armour and attributes are the entire determinant of your defense. This is just silly. Attributes alone should not determine how well you survive.
  • Attributes should never be double-counted: In Warhammer 3, Toughness determines your hit points and acts as soak in combat; in D&D strength determines your chance to hit and is then added again to your damage. In both cases this means that your attribute is being given twice the weight in a crucial challenge. This should be avoided.
  • Fatigue and resource-management add risk and fun: Fighting and running and being blown up are exhausting, and so is casting spells; a mechanism for incorporating this into how your PCs decide what to do next is important. Most games have this (even D&D’s spells-per-day mechanism is basically a fatigue mechanism, if a somewhat blunt one), and I would argue that where possible adding elements of randomness to this mechanism really makes the player’s task interesting. But …
  • Resource-management should not be time-consuming: this is a big problem of Warhammer 3, which combined fatigue management with cool-downs and power points. Too much!
  • The PCs should have a game-breaker: we’re heroes after all. Edge, Fate, Feat points, Fortune … many games have this property, and it’s really useful both as a circuit-breaker for times when the GM completely miscalculates adversaries, and as ways for players to escape from disastrous scenarios, and to add heroism to the game
  • Skills should be broad, simple and accessible: The path of Maximum Skill Diversity laid out in Pathfinder is not a good path. The simplification and generalization of skills laid out in Warhammer 3 is the way to go.
  • Wizards should have utility magic: the 13th Age/D&D 4th Edition idea of reducing magic to just another kind of weapon is really a fun-killer. The AD&D list of millions of useless spells that you one day find yourself really needing is a much more fun and enjoyable way of being a wizard. It’s telling that D&D 5th Edition has resurrected this.
  • Character classes and levels are fun: I don’t know why, they just are. Anyone who claims they didn’t like the beautifully drawn and elaborate career section of Warhammer 2 is lying. Sure, diversity should be possible within careers but there should be distinction between careers and clarity in their separate roles (something that, for example, doesn’t seem to actually be a strong point of Iron Kingdoms despite its huge range of careers). At higher levels characters should really rock in the main roles of their class
  • Bards suck: they just do. Social skills should be important in games, but elevating them to a central class trait really should be reserved for very specialized game settings. Bards suck in Rolemaster, they suck in D&D, they suck in 13th Age and they suck in Iron Kingdoms. Don’t play a bard.
  • Magic should be powerful: John Micksen, my current World of Darkness Mage, is awesome, but mainly because he is cleverly combining 4 ranks in life magic and 3 ranks in fate magic with some serious physical prowess and a +5 magic sword (Excalibur, in fact!) to get his 21 dice of awesome. Most of the spells in the Mage book suck, and if you made the mistake of playing a mage who specializes in Prime and Spirit… well, basically you’re doomed, and everyone is going to think you’re a loser. Mages should be powerful and their powers – which in every system seem to come with risk for no apparent justifiable reason – should be something that others are afraid of. You’ll never meet a World of Darkness group who yell “get the mage first!” What’s the point of that?
  • Death spirals are important: PCs should be aware that the longer they are in a battle, the more risky it gets for them. They should be afraid of every wound, and should be willing to consider withdrawal from combat rather than continuing, before the TPK. Death spirals are an excellent way to achieve this combination of caution and ultra-violence. Getting hit hurts, and players should be subjected to a mechanism that reminds them of that.

I don’t know if any game can live up to all these principles, though it’s possible a simplified version of Shadowrun might cut it, and some aspects of the simplified Warhammer 3 I used recently came close (though ultimately that system remains irretrievably broken). Is there any system that meets all of these principles?

Will Self has declared war on George Orwell, anointing him the “Supreme Mediocrity” in a mediocre essay distinguished only by its needless use of the word “lucubrations.” For those of you Americans out there who know of Orwell but have never heard of Will Self (I wonder how that came about?), Self is a novelist who is something of a darling of the British “lovie-liberal” inner city late-sipping champagne socialist set (and Guardian readers, where those two don’t overlap), who is famous for a pretentious writing style that uses too many fancy words. If you doubt the quality of my judgment, try anything from this extract from his new book:

Claude experiments, turning his whole head because his eye sockets …are filled with gritty sand, – he sees the sea green to aquamarine to cobalt blue to silver blue to silvery to silver white then vanish completely as …I push my head up her skirt… Mm–mm, finest ear-protectors a fellow can get – flesh-filled nylons fitted snug to the head and dried with talc… The kid is maybe forty feet down now, yet his dancing plummeting body can still be clearly seen

Unadulterated bullshit, or quality literature? You be the judge.

Will Self, of course, is emblematic of a vanguard of … how can we put this nicely? … dickheads who have managed between them to kill much of the joy of the English novel over the past couple of decades. Over that time I’ve met a few people – some literature majors – who have told me they’ve basically given up on reading novels, because for example “I couldn’t give a toss about another rich white person’s shallow imaginary world,” or because “it’s all showmanship and self-importance, there’s no joy in it” or just because “Oh my god what a pack of tossers the literary world has become.” The Man-Booker prizelist is an example of this: supposedly composed of the best writers of English in the Commonwealth, it is actually a shortlist of writers to avoid if you want to read a good book, and for all the reasons those who eschew the modern novel have given me. The Man-Booker prize winners are a small clique of stuck-up novelists who write to impress each other, rather than to extend the joys of the English language. That’s fine, soggy sao is a fine public school tradition and if that’s what gets you off then by all means, do your worst … but must you demand a prize for it? Will Self, of course, has been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and if he keeps randomly resampling his thesaurus, eventually he’ll win. He’s a pretentious writer who knows how to use long words and wide vocabulary to hide a lack of ideas or talent.

In short, the antithesis of everything George Orwell stood for. With a new book out, so of course it’s a prime time to lay the boot into one of his dead idols.

It’s telling that Self opens the essay with a quote from Chesterton, an author who would very much fall into Orwell’s camp where opinions about pretentious writing are concerned. He then lays out a rather petty theory of why British people laud mediocrities, against all the evidence that the real heroes of the British are not mediocre at all (Churchill and Thatcher, mediocre? “Individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality”?). This is an example of the kind of theorizing a vapid writer-at-large can pull out of thin air, gloss with a few fancy words and toss about without regard for truth or sense, but it is certainly no kind of comment on Britain or how the British construct their idols. So from this lead-in to the conclusion that Orwell is a mediocrity, we have a logical failure built on a failed premise. He then manages to find two paragraphs of his entire essay to actually discuss what might be wrong with Orwell’s work, though again here he bandies his opinion about without any evidence or logic. No support for the claim of “obvious didacticism” and no discussion of what makes an “unadorned Anglo-Saxon style,” or indeed what might be wrong with such a thing. Make no mistake, this is how famous people troll – with fact-free assertions they can get away with because they’re given free rein over the BBC’s essay pages.

But it’s from this piss-poor effort at criticizing Orwell’s actual written work that Self then goes on to make his biggest fail in this essay. Citing Orwell’s famous essay on straight English, Self spends several paragraphs showing exactly the extent to which he failed to understand that essay. He says first of all that it is wrong, and then explains why: because language grows and mutates, and is defined by how people use it and why they use it, and attempts to dictate centrally how language should be used are morally wrong, whether enforced by George Orwell or the Ministry of Truth.

The thing is, Orwell’s essay has nothing to say about how language mutates or is reformed, he doesn’t give a toss about “African American Vernacular English” (oh Will, why did you choose such a pathetically PC-baiting example?!) or how much English consumes other languages and reconstitutes them to feed its voracious needs. His famous essay is about the dangers of using whatever language is at your disposal in disingenuous or deceptive ways, to hide what you mean rather than to say it. Furthermore, the primary value of the essay is not in what it says to authors and fiction writers, but to all those other users of English who are clearly beneath Self’s gaze: scientists, bureaucrats, business people, journalists, politicians and the like. Of course Will Self doesn’t have to actually work, except inasmuch as he is overpaid for occasionally dressing up shallow and simple ideas so that they look interesting. But for the rest of us – those of us for whom English is important to express to others the content of our real jobs – the ways in which English can be abused to hide meaning are very important and require a lot of skill to grasp.

For example, if you’re going to be paid a crapton of money to talk about some dude watching a kid drown while imagining going down on his nanny, it frankly doesn’t matter how much florid language you use, you’re just trying to make a dumb non-sequitur look interesting. But if you’re writing a textbook on Bayesian statistics and you have to explain the interpretation of a Bayesian credible interval compared to a frequentist confidence interval, you already have a lot of jargon to juggle and you need to think very carefully about how to calibrate your prose so that it is comprehensible between all the technical language. If you have to polish your language down to a couple of thousand words expressing a huge research task, you need to be very careful about when and how you embellish your language. And conversely, if you want to reassure the American public that you aren’t water-boarding innocent people when in fact you are, but you don’t want to be caught lying, you need to very carefully use language deceitfully in order to get away with it. Orwell’s concern is not with whether someone lies in the Queen’s English or Ebonics; his concern is with the deceitful use of language to lie or obfuscate, or the accidental embellishment of language in a way that makes it incomprehensible.

That Will Self didn’t understand this fundamental point of the essay he presents as evidence for the mediocrity of Orwell’s writing style would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. And roping in a poorly-understood version of Chomsky to help in the task of getting it wrong is really not a good look either. Nor is mistaking the clear elucidation of a terrible dystopia as “didacticism” just because you think that making a thing clearly understood is the same as talking down to someone like an authoritarian teacher. This says more about Self’s insecurities than it does about Orwell’s writing style.

Self finishes his ignorant little rant by talking about how poorly he views “those mediocrities who slavishly worship at the shrine of St George.” For a lot of people, Orwell’s essay on how to use English has been a guiding light in a world of business jargon, weasel words, dissembling and deceit; many of us work in jobs where English is important for expressing the actual content of our work, rather than as a way of dressing up our shallow, imbecilic imagination for a sycophantic crowd of fellow-travellers. For us, work like Orwell’s essay on politics and the English language is a clear guide on how to improve our writing so that we can express complex ideas clearly and accessibly; and also a workbook on how to identify when people are lying to us through creative use of language. To Will Self, however, we are “mediocrities.”Faced with a choice between the “Supreme Mediocrity” and an advanced thesaurus-user who can’t even win the Man-Booker prize, I think I’ll stick with Orwell for future writing advice. And I suspect that 50 years after Self’s death, the majority of the English-speaking world will be making the same decision as me.

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