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[Shock] Gerald is a boy / Annette is married

Started by Ron Edwards, May 11, 2007, 03:28:02 AM

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Ron Edwards

One of our crew, the usual host, couldn't make it, and my wife was in Hawaii for the week, so I had Tim A and Tim K join me at my house for some game time. I didn't even plan what game we'd play, although I had a few in mind. We'd all perused Shock and liked the vision very much, and Tim A had run aground in trying to play it in the past. I'd run aground trying to understand how it was set up, even after asking questions in the forum. But we were determined to see if it could be understood and played.

All right, I must now deliver a brief polemic: science fiction is a distinct form of fiction. It is always concerned with today, or rather, the date at which a particular story was created. It is snapshot fiction, using exaggerated elements and codes ("future," "alternate dimension," "aliens") to generate some viewpoint regarding today (the date it's created). Whether the author's motivations concerned any such thing, or whether the themes involved are critical and nuanced vs. simple and brightly-colored, are totally not part of the definition.

The commercial and subcultural labels that go by the name "science fiction," on the other hand, are artifacts and of no special interest whatever except as artifacts (causes include bookstore categorization, investor jargon, and product placement). Suffice to say that of material published under/within that label during the last 10 years, I would be surprised if even 5% were admissible as science fiction by the above definition.

It's fun to say all that and now to abuse my moderator position to deny all debate. Because I'm totally not interested in anyone else's viewpoint about it, at all, ever. Ha!

Anyway, to someone whose thinking inclines in the above direction, Joshua A. C. Newman is bucking for hero status. He is the only person with the guts to tackle this issue in RPG terms. All other science fiction role-playing games have been written in the sense of the commercial and subcultural trappings rather than the core concept. Shock is a first, a de novo, an innovation. But more than merely an innovation, it's not only what I wanted, but what I needed. In this day and age, I am not going to get science fiction consistently anywhere else. The person typing this post is Shock's target audience.

(Ooh, I can't stop ranting. All that polemic up there? I must spew more! ... which speaks incredibly badly of the design community since RPGs first appeared; it speaks of our collective intellectual spinelessness, our fascination with trappings and bogus pastiche, our complete loss of political awareness, and our willingness to buy things because they remind us of something good ... which, also, reflects most of my thinking regarding science fiction as a written and film medium since I entered my teens in the late 1970s, and for which I'd like to snarl, at the whole SF fandom culture, "thanks a lot, you fucking imbeciles," and oh yeah, pausing to kick Harlan Ellison a good one in the ass on the way. Talk about co-option. Graaaarrrhhh!)

As I recall, I was discussing Shock. Well, there's a problem: you can't figure out how to set up play. You have to wing it. In a recent thread in Publishing, Eero is mistaking his own rules/solutions for the game "being OK." It's not. You cannot run it as written; you can't even skip easily over the missing bits. So here I am, and so here are a whole bunch of other people (I have found), in a state of pure frustration, banging heads against the wall about 100 times.

Well, based on a couple of assumptions and what amounts to local game design based on group discussion ("how the hell can we make this turn out the way he seems to say it turns out"), here's my group's unofficial set-it-up play protocol for Shock. It may not be the original intent, but it works.

1. Have a free discussion of issues and shocks, and write them all down. More is better, because some may not get used. A lot of minutiae may crop up in discussion at this point as well, which is good; write them down. I find that negative minutiae are important (i.e. "cars and malls are all totally normal, modern-day," or, "we don't know whether it's the future and the issue's never mentioned").

2. Arrange all the issues and shocks all into a matrix, shocks across the top, issues down the left side. The ordering is unimportant. Do write the name of the person who proposed each shock with the respective shock. Do not do the same for issues (important).

3. Anyone who wants to (it can be any number, from one person to everyone, doesn't matter) claims an issue and identifies the shock it intersects with; i.e., they choose a cell in the matrix. The only constraint is that you can't choose a cell which intersects with a shock you proposed. (Both the text and forum sources tie themselves into knots with this concerning conceivable exceptions. Better to say, "no exceptions" and move on.) Note that it's fun not to play a protagonist too.

4. Cross off all the empty issues and shocks; they are lost or become minutiae.

5. Continue to write down minutiae which almost certainly cropped up throughout the whole process.

After that, then the book kicks in without any problem! As written, the group can make up protagonists and antagonists; from there, the seeds and scene framing and conflict resolution are all 90% lucid and wonderful. There are some aggravating errors and artifacts of version-control, e.g., protagonists don't have Credits, but they're mentioned a couple of times; it's hard to parse who can do what with their d4s; and the Links rules look like they've been semi-re-written at least a couple of times. But if you're used to RPG texts' general opacity, Shock isn't too bad.

The initial discussion came together quite rapidly. Our game's issues were: the meaning of work and gender identity. The shock (utilized by both protagonists played by Tim K and myself, proposed by Tim A) was mental neutering of gender. In this story, people literally do not know their genders. Their physical equipment is all there and all functional, but they simply don't think about it. They are sexually functional and have kids and the whole nine yards, but for instance, two same-sex people might fall in love and get married, and happen never to have kids, and maybe even gripe or mourn over that, but not notice or think of why not. Also, work has no direct or obvious basis in the actual mechanics and processes of society. Everyone has a job and takes it very, very seriously, but there's no real way to see whether the widgets you make or the papers you push actually do anything.

As we worked these out, various minutiae appeared along the lines of a relatively featureless world, kind of a suburban version of THX-1138, not quite so starkly surreal but definitely more 2-dimensional than 3. We didn't want any sort of direct explanation for how our present turned into this future, or even whether it was our future, or anything like that. One of the most fun bits of minutiae was that all records-keeping, labels, or indicators of any kind used color-coding, and only color-coding.

The Praxis scales turned out to be (1) Active Harmony over Lasting Discord and (2) Rage over Submission. The first pair needs some explanation: they are not necessarily outcomes, but they are any means which typically lead to such outcomes or are associated with them - basically 'work with the other person' vs. 'exploit conflict with the other person.'

We were seated with Tim K to my left, Tim A to my right, so Tim A was Tim K's antagonist and Tim K was mine.

Tim K and I each made a protagonist. His was Kim; we quickly decided that a gender-neutral name meant we, the players, would keep our minds off the character's physical gender, whereas a gendered name would in fact indicate that character's physical gender (even though he or she, obviously, would have no idea). Anyway, I don't have Kim's sheet with me at the moment, but as I recall, he or she was better at Lasting Discord and Submission, or maybe was middling in one of them. Kim's job concerned child-care, and her story goal was "learn to love to a child." His or her antagonist, played by Tim A, was a truly obnoxious Proctor or kind of a mood-meds-happy cop type. My character, Gerald, had 3 in both, favoring Active Harmony and Rage; his Features included Prefect of the First Seminary and Brilliant Smile; his Link, which I really looked forward to seeing in play) was a guy with exactly the same job (which never happens! it was due to some glitch. so we basically pretended it didn't happen and used each other to get out of things. His story goal was to accomplish something memorable, which for this setting isn't vague at all.

I just remembered something to complain about in the text: the term "Features" is used for both Protagonist and Antagonist, and it means something mechanically very different in each - for a Protagonist, Features determines the number of dice one uses in a conflict; for an Antagonist, they don't do anything mechanically but basically define the character into the setting and situation. I really don't think the term should be used for both; it confused people repeatedly as they kept trying to figure out how dice-number Protagonist rules applied to playing an Antagonist, then said "shit! I knew that" when it was explained to them again, and then it would happen again.

(Datapoint: everyone I have played this game with is frustrated and contemptuous regarding the textual choice of gender pronouns, sometimes skidding out of play to bitch about it. My suggestion of it as an issue in this game came directly out of such a bitch-session, although we did not treat it parodically in play.)

Unfortunately, we only had time for one scene, with Kim dealing with some test results and weaseling her way out of being drugged or re-programmed or whatever. It was a lot of fun ... and as you'll see in a minute, one of the most fun things is when you do not play a Protagonist or Antagonist in a scene. If you don't play a Protagonist at all and don't sit to the left of someone who's doing so, then you'll only do that fun thing during play.

Conflict resolution is fun and almost fully well-explained. I won't explain every bit of it in full here, but with any luck, the following outline will help make the rules text a little easier.

1. If you're the Protagonist, grab d10s and d4s, to total to the number of your sheet that tallies up your Features (3 to start). d10s are what you roll for the Protagonist to succeed; there's an over-under mechanic based on the number you've chosen for each Praxis pair. d4s are what you roll to modify the Antagonist's d10 result, up or down as you desire.

If you're the Antagonist, spend some Credits to grab that many dice. The only difference in the rules for dice use is that your d4's, if any, must diminish the success of the Protagonist's d10-based result.

(Complaint: the graphic for the Praxis scale does not work. There is no horizontal identity to the two pairs, and people continually scan left and right, seeking some kind of meaning to the middle, as if it were some kind of slide.)

If you're neither, then grab a d4. Technically it's just an option but it's too fun not to miss it. So let's say there are five people playing; that means two have some combination of d10s and d4s, and every other person has 1d4. The uber-cool thing is that to add in that d4, the person has to incorporate some bit of Minutiae. This is excellent, in fact, probably my favorite rule in the game.

So, then everyone rolls. First check over the Protagonist's situation, because it's (at this point) fixed in stone by that player's d10 outcome and the Antagonist player's d4 outcome. Then check over the Antagonist's outcome, and see which way the Protagonist player wants to adjust the d10 outcome with his or her d4(s). Now, with all that stated, the other players can chime in and state whose current d10 outcome they want to affect, individually, with their single d4s. As you can see, often the tertiary input is extremely consequential.

Now, here's my only major point about the actual role-playing and dice usage in Shock: don't pre-narrate outcomes, prior to the roll. All you need is the information that you utilized to establish the conflict in the first place. Don't "set stakes," which has hideously evolved into a stupid, abstract, no-fun exercise. Before rolling, don't talk about how the roll will determine how a given character will feel about the outcome. Don't bring in stuff like "well, then, if I win, then the villain is your mother." Don't extend the consequences beyond the scope and characters' experience of that conflict, right there at at that time. If you're interested, I wrote a little bit about this in [Sorcerer]Questions about stakes. It's a really big deal. If you want to enjoy Shock, follow this advice strenuously.

And, I also want to praise the fine story-ending countdown rule, based on Story Goal and on the Antagonist's Credits. The neat thing about it is that you only use it if you have to. If a given conflict ends up resolving the Story Goal anyway, well then, it does. But if you get to 5 Credits left and it's not resolved yet, well, it just means get that stuff in there per conflict from now on. It's really a great example of a clear yet also loose-relaxed rule.

I can't wait to play Gerald and see what happens next.

The neat thing is that I got to play Shock again, too. More about that in the next post

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Well then, as it happened, I was driving home from Ralph Mazza's get-together last weekend, with Julie and Tod. It's a bit of a hike: Peoria to Chicago, just over three hours on very flat, boring express highways. So we played Shock! Julie did all the heavy lifting of writing and most of the dice-rolling.

In this instance, we had a more extensive discussion because I now understood that issues and shocks could be proposed and not used. We came up with a lot, but only used one of each because in the interests of time constraints, only Julie made a protagonist. She chose the spot in the matrix at which the issue was overmedication, and the shock was the bio-engineered soldier caste (proposed by me). The issues of war and resource-crisis, forced medication, and the shock of a newly-discovered unlimited energy source, became minutiae. Other starting or just-out-of-the-gate minutiae included that most everything that wasn't shock-ish looked really, really normal, not futuristic at all, and an important one, that newsfeeds (very Fox-ish) were present in every room.

The Praxis scales for this game were (1) Violence / Negotiation and (2) Anger / Obedience. We played the whole story, with 12 credits for the antagonist. I was to Julie's "left" (she was in the back seat, I was driving; we are in the U.S.), so I played the antagonist, Annette, to her protagonist, Lt. Barbara Herz.

Barbara: Anger over Obedience, 3; Violence over Negotiation, 4. Features included Commanding Officer (her rank), Bio-modification for combat, and an Alternate, non-official source for medication. Her starting Link was her husband, and her story goal was to remain married.

Annette was First Lieutenant of the Second Battalion, and her other Feature was "misdiagosed." I found a way to play her that was rather unusual and extremely satisfying to everyone, which I'll try to explain in a minute.

As we went on, all sorts of minutiae got added, including the visual effects of the soldiers' combat engineering, various ramifications of the over-cell-phoned, news-saturated lifestyle, and very, very scary scenes and ideas for the hospital material.

We did three conflicts based on using 12 credits; I used 4 at a time but ended up using another during the second conflict, so it went 4, 4 + 1, 3.

Hey, in the post I forgot to mention something, mainly because the text is nice and clear about it. Basically, the Protagonist and Antagonist intents, in a conflict, must be orthogonal - i.e., they can conceivably both occur at once. You can't state an Antagonist intent as "stop Protagonist intent" - that's what your d4s are for, and your Antagonist intent is what your d10's are for.

Now, here's something you really need to know about the resolution rules. It takes a little parsing to work it out and some of what follows is necessary interpolation. There are two ways in which you can "do-over" a roll, and they are really not the same.

1. You're playing a Protagonist. All the dice have finally been totted up, and guess what - you fuckin' lose. Most of the time, this is not a problem and fits very well into the unequivocal goodness of necessary failure for a protagonist. Let's say this one time you don't wanna lose. OK, you put one of your Links at risk, and you roll again. This is technically a wholly new conflict, with its sole constraint being the same intent per character. So it's best to think of it as an extension, not a re-roll. It's handled just like any other conflict, and (the rules are silent on this) I presume that the Antagonist player must spend new Credits. That's where the +1 comes from, above.

2. You're playing either a Protagonist or Antagonist, doesn't matter which. And the number you end up at, after all the various d4s are considered, is neither over nor under the number on your sheet. Say Barbara is using either Anger or Obedience, and her outcome's value ends up being 3. Here's what you must do: (a) narrate a block or "not get your way," then (b) narrate to escalate the conflict-situation in terms of violence or similarly extreme stuff, and (c) roll only your d10's and your opposing player's d4s, if any, for the new conflict's outcome.

Now, the text causes some problems with this one, because it describes the situation as if both the Protagonist and the Antagonist experience this "cusp" result simultaneously. That is confusing and unnecessary. It makes far more sense to consider the "cusp" in terms of one person's roll, relative to that character's intent, and absolutely nothing else.

I liked our story a lot. With one Protagonist, basically, every scene was me as Antagonist and Julie's responses as Protagonist player, with Tod as d4 man.

1. Brutality at an anti-war, anti-bio-soldier demonstration. Annette basically went berserk and went after the lead rioter; Barbara did manage to control the situation but Annette ended up shooting a protester (after a cusp roll and an escalation).

2. Escape and confrontations at hospital (a very creepy one). This scene was the most complex. It involved brain trauma that the battalion had experienced, Annette lying there all doped up, and Barbara being essentially imprisoned for treatment and probably lobotomy or something similar. It also involved Barbara's husband trying to find her, which Julie brought in when she lost the roll and put her Link at risk. A lot of stuff happened - for instance, the medical guys discovered that Barbara was taking off-prescription meds, and it even ended up with a bit of a hostage situation.

3. Counselling. This proceeded over no less than two escalations, because Tod discovered it was fun to use his d4 to put either the Protagonist or Antagonist on the cusp, when he could. In this case, Annette is "cured," smiling vacantly, as Barbara and her husband are oh so nicely encouraged to undergo treatment - apart, of course, as part of the therapy. See, I was down to 3 Credits now, so the conflict had to highlight the Story Goal. Boy, did this one escalate ... and despite a brief period in which the spouses were emotionally united against the System, as it turned out, they were gunned down as the final solution to their refusal to be medicated into submission.

I really got a lot of mileage out of playing Annette in a very, very interesting way. See, in each case, her being (a) a combat bio-soldier, (b) medicated into amnesia about her combat experiences (like all of them), and (c) misdiagnosed, let me play the effects of her fucked-up brain with absolutely no reference at all to what she, Annette, the actual person, was like. It was really tragic, and a couple of times, someone said, "Poor Annette!" because you know, we never got to see or even got to think about her - she was played only as a chemical deformation of herself, in three distinct ways.

There you go, that's Shock! I would like to urge Joshua to change the book for its next printing. The changes would be (1) to fix all those weird-iffy rules statements I complained about, (2) to add the missing information (which may of course not be "Ron's version" because we had to wing stuff and might not have it vision-perfect), (3) perhaps to fix some of the sidebar text which I suspect does not really reflect actual play dialogue, and (4) to keep an eye on that conflict resolution point I made in writing-up some more examples. In that case, Shock would not only be worth every penny, it would be priceless, in the sense that The Pool is priceless.

I'd expect it to be played by every group out there, many, many times. I'd expect it to be a hit winner social event that I could play with any group of people at my house, when someone asks, "So, how these weird games you do work, anyway?"

And selfishly, it'd be what I not only wanted, but badly needed.

Best, Ron

Joshua A.C. Newman

Thanks, Ron. That's some nice stuff you said.

You fundamentally played correctly, except that, when Escalating or risking a Link, the Antag doesn't spend more Credits. There was a point in the rules where they could, at their option, to increase the number of dice rolled, but that's not in the rules right now. I'd like your opinion (and from anyone else who knows the game). I don't remember why I took it out, but I think it was because it decreased the impact of the choice: it meant that, if you risked a Link, you were probably going to lose again, and that didn't seem like a valid option. I want the Protag player to want to risk it.

The way you did it, though, I think it decreases the risk too much; the Antag can suddenly be running out of Credits and not be ready to deal with the Story Goal, so the number of Credits spent will be small (as in your case).

I'm working on a rewrite. It's very important to me that I get it out exactly as soon as it's done but not at all before. I'm not publicizing 2.0 soon, though my bounty offer stands (which you've earned, by the way — expect 2.0 in your mailbox as soon as it's done).

I really like the single protag technique, by the way. It opens up a whole pile of paranoid stories, like the Twilight Zone or PKD stories.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Ron Edwards

Hi J,

H'm - I like that rule about the extended (for lack of a better word) conflict. The Antagonist simply rolls the d10s and d4s already chosen, and spends no Credits, so for that player, it's a technical re-roll.

Textually, we were guided by the understanding that since it is (in SIS terms) a new conflict with the intent of the old one, we needed to apply the conflict rules from scratch and spend Antagonist Credits. So that's another margin note ...

Am I right in remembering reading that no one else rolls either, at that point? Others' d4s are, uniquely, silent at this point? I think that's a good idea too - kind of a "scoping in" on the exact who-on-whom going on at that moment.

Best, Ron

Joshua A.C. Newman

Quote from: Ron Edwards on May 11, 2007, 01:30:19 PMTextually, we were guided by the understanding that since it is (in SIS terms) a new conflict with the intent of the old one, we needed to apply the conflict rules from scratch and spend Antagonist Credits. So that's another margin note ...

Yeah. I think it's already phrased much more clearly than it was in 1.0.

QuoteAm I right in remembering reading that no one else rolls either, at that point? Others' d4s are, uniquely, silent at this point? I think that's a good idea too - kind of a "scoping in" on the exact who-on-whom going on at that moment.

No, the d4s kick in there, too, but I like this suggestion so much that I'm keeping it for the future. It solves a funny technical problem and focuses the attention of all the players on the Link being risked.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Joshua A.C. Newman

Oh, I just reread your first post, Ron, and I saw something:

Quote2. Arrange all the issues and shocks all into a matrix, shocks across the top, issues down the left side. The ordering is unimportant. Do write the name of the person who proposed each shock with the respective shock. Do not do the same for issues (important).

This is a fine way to do it, but you don't have to own a Shock you proposed. Sometimes, someone proposes Space Travel because they're hot and bothered about a Das Boot society on a generation ship, and sometimes they just like space stories and want to own an Issue instead.

But, again, totally fine. What you're doing happens sometimes anyway.

Here's an important counterexample (and this is the way Shock: works in general): I was playing with three other people. One of them proposed the Shock, "Furries". I said, "Furries?!? Fucking furries? We could live on Mars or have face-melting powers or have nine genders and you chose furries? Fine. Fine. If that's what you want. I'll own Furries."

That variation happens a fair bit, too: people get jazzed about something that someone else things is disruptively lame, and they take ownership of it to make sure it will actually work.

Oh: Protagonists have Credits when they exit a story. When you get to the end of a story, you get Credits as a player. You'll probably get one or two. It's my little way of making sure people kill or retire Protags when their stories are over. See page 39.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


I think I'm missing something.  I don't understand what it means to "own" a shock.  So, when Joshua says above, "I'll own Furries."  What exactly does that mean as far as game play?


Joshua A.C. Newman

It means, in the example above, that I get to say "Furries are animals with human nervous systems and secondary characteristics designed for exoplanetary life."

I get to say how the Shock works. If it's Rocket Boots, I get to say, "They look like platform shoes. People deck them out with jewels and ribbons and pictures of unicorns." You, as the owner of the Issue, "Imperialism" get to say, "Rocket boots are used by militias to keep out the army."

The Shock owner gets to say how the Shock works. The Issue owner gets to say how the Shock impacts their Issue.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Ron Edwards


Procedurally, the key mechanics/rules impact of owning a Shock is that you should not play a Protagonist at a juncture with that particular Shock. (yes, there are some exceptions, if you really want to play a Protagonist and such a cell is the only one left, but again, my recommendation is simply not to permit it).

However, if I understand correctly, during play itself, the Antagonist player is the one who literally "shocks" the Protagonist with it by altering the initially-framed scene for that Protagonist, and that person may or may not be the person who owned the Shock to begin with. Joshua, do I have that right? I presume the Shock-owner, during play, expresses ownership merely by exerting rubber-stamp authority over suggested Minutiae or other details pertaining to that Shock. Is that correct?

Best, Ron

Joshua A.C. Newman

Most of the time, I play with a single Shock to keep things out of Tomorrowland. So usually, the Shock owner winds up owning the Shock that they're on. It's not that big a deal; its value is mostly aesthetic and not moral in the way Issues are, so I've not found it to cause trouble.

You are right about everything else.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Ron Edwards

Sorry man - you totally lost me with that post. I cannot tell whether you are saying up, down, blue, or Tuesday.

Best, Ron

Joshua A.C. Newman

the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Joshua A.C. Newman

Nah, I's just fuckin' witcha.

Those paragraphs I wrote are in response to their respective paragraphs in your previous post.

Let's try a question and answer:

• How many Shocks are you playing with?
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


I am still baffled.  Especially with this:

Quote from: Joshua A.C. Newman on May 15, 2007, 04:40:38 AMSo usually, the Shock owner winds up owning the Shock that they're on.

I simply do not understand what you are saying.  My first parsing is that Shock has somehow morphed into a board game. 

I'm going to start over.  Above I asked what it means to "own" a shock.  You responded that the owner gets to say how the shock works.  Ok, I'm with you so far.  Is this happening only during the phase before protagonists are created, or does the shock owner also have authority over narrations that depict the shock during play?


p.s. I've only played with one shock.

Joshua A.C. Newman

The Shock owner gets to say how the Shock works forever. If we don't know what The Aliens look like until three quarters the way into the story, the Shock owner gets to say what they look like.

By the way, it sounds like you guys were playing just right. I think we're just having a typical Ron/Me noncommunication.

Ron, tell me if this is what you're saying:

QuoteThe owner of a Shock should never, ever have a Protagonist that addresses that Shock.

If so, this is what I'm saying:

QuoteThe owner of a Shock can have a Protagonist that addresses that Shock because it doesn't matter nearly as much as owning an Issue does. Changing the color of a situation (the Shock) does not have nearly the impact of changing the very concerns of the players. Avoid it when you can, but don't sweat it.

Is this clear? Or are you asking (or saying) something else?
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.