The Black Swan: Review

This post is divided in two: the book with what I think of it, and then how this book has impacted my game design. I don’t recommend taking one part without the other.

Part One

There are very few times in my life when I feel relief. Part of that has to do with my emotional baggage; I’ve not been given much to feel relief over, it’s not a muscle I’ve gotten to exercise much. Another part of it is philosophical. I flat out refuse to think things are inherently likely to get better, and find the ideal of progressivism not just needlessly sentimental, but actively destructive to my mind. So I am usually not only not surprised when things get worse but usually have a moment of “Shit, I was right”, when things do go south.

I didn’t say this was a healthy inclination. I am what I am.

But the problem is that I can tell I’m not wrong, I’m just not right. And that’s a more complicated problem than just being wrong. How do you correct what’s lacking while keeping the good part? How do you honor and move on?

The Black Swan was one of those times I felt relief. It’s been a chance to correct my worldview. I keep trying to make it stick. Maybe it will, one of these days.

The Black Swan was written by Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese who can remember what Lebanon was like before it fell. He recounts his experience of the nation before… everything: a prosperous and multicultural Mediterranean home. It had been that way for a very long time. It was perceived as stable.

That changed overnight, bloodily. Taleb and his family had to flee.

No one saw it coming. But, looking back, there were signs. They just so happened to be in that nebulous gray area, where people don’t know they don’t know. And so they don’t look. And so they’re surprised. Kinda like when folks came to Australia, thinking that being white was essential to being a swan.

Hey look, a Black Swan!

Overall, a lot more catchy than “Downfall of the Middle East”

A Black Swan is not a sudden twist. It is something that was there the whole time, but you weren’t aware of it. It’s been developing, outside not just your awareness, but in a spot where you didn’t think to look. Why would you? It’s a blindspot, after all. You either think to check it or you don’t. And Taleb breaks down why he thinks we don’t. He gets a bit into evolutionary biology, probability, and just plain ole human experience.

It’s a generalist work, so it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. And some of those trees are pretty ugly; I don’t have a very arithmetic-based mind, so the chapters where Taleb gets extremely technical flew right over my head. But I think Taleb is right, in a general sense. He’s describing that moment when you realize something you thought was an immutable rule not only isn’t, but never was.

So, at least for me, The Black Swan is an ideal to aspire towards. To go from nihilism to skepticism. To aspire to let go of the emotional baggage of the repeated failure of humanity, and to simply accept what I know, to acknowledge that I can’t know everything, and that my knowledge of what I don’t know is not only the most important but the most difficult thing to grasp. And that I will fail in this most important task. Routinely. Hell, I will probably fail to accept even that much.

But if there’s anything that humans do, it’s fail to live up to what we want to be. I’ve never seen that not be true.

Part Two

So I think Black Swans are essential to describing reality, nevermind that good stories seem to use them all the time. I’m gonna put them in my design. But how? How do you model something like this?

I’ve gone through more than a few iterations, but here’s what I’m currently doing, in Crescendo. Crescendo has a journaling mechanic to it. Players write any action they spent metacurrency on down, as well as Visions and Dreams, as well as previous Black Swans, not to mention their characters’ backstories. There’s a lot of material in these journals, so I just have Black Swans reference your journal: you open to a random page, put your finger down with your eyes shut, and read whatever you selected. Careful what you write! It will come back to haunt you.

But what if you don’t want to journal? That does add work, something that Crescendo is deliberately designed around. Most games aren’t. And that’s fine! Referencing journals was a later part of Crescendo’s design. Originally I just had everyone bring their favorite book, preferably something with a narrative, although someone joked about bringing a dictionary. They didn’t, so I can’t tell you if it works. If someone tries it let me know how it goes!

When do you have Black Swans happen? Critical failures are probably a good spot, hard moves in PBTA, spots where “bad” failures are expected in other games. If you have a moment where everyone winces then it’s a good time to have a Black Swan. Whatever you should decide, I think it should be a matter of public knowledge. You can’t just spring a Black Swan on folks. It’s a mechanic. People should know when it will happen and what they need to do.

Whenever a Black Swan comes up, everyone cracks open their book and puts their finger down on a random part of the page. Everyone reads their random passage aloud. The GM, with the input of the players, then constructs a narrative that was occuring in the background, just outside the players’ perspective. This unknown narrative then comes crashing into the shared fiction, changing things and taking their story in a new direction.

Now, the temptation is to use these as random events as a one off thing that just so happens to interrupt your narrative. It’s easy to do. Don’t do that. Stick with this other story a moment. Build something that’s been happening in parallel, just off-screen. Broaden the scope of your story, jump into someone else’s shoes for a minute, and make something that will enrich everyone going forward. I use the differing prompts from the players to construct a plot, adapting them to the setting and commenting on the players’ story. And then there’s the sickening CRUNCH as both stories collide at a thousand miles an hour. No one thought that would happen. Everyone was focused on their own story, and couldn’t have known the collision would happen.

But it did.

Now what?

If you try a Black Swan in your game let me know how it went! If you’ve got critiques I’d be more than happy to hear them. I’ve been using them for a few months and I’ve found they inject tension into the narrative pretty regularly, allowing you to relax a bit on coming up with twists and when to put them into the narrative. It makes my GMing easier, and the players enjoy having some input on where it all goes, even if none of us necessarily know when they will occur.

If you want to see what a game designed to use Black Swans looks like, head over to Apophatic Game’s Discord server, and download Crescendo’s alpha test! Stay a moment. Chat. We’d be happy to have you.

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