[news] [forums] [wiki] [buy] [Steal Real Money]
On Self Defense
by jasonrohrerTuesday, August 6, 2013 [6:31 pm]

Much has been made of my position on self defense, mostly based on bits and pieces of my story taken from spoken interviews. But what actually happened to my family in New Mexico? I've never gotten to lay down all the facts, so I'll do that now.

First of all, why did we ever move there? To summarize, we had to leave our five-year home in Potsdam, NY because our house had an extreme moisture and mold problem that Lauren ended up being severely allergic to. The high property taxes in the village prevented us from buying a better house there (for most of our friends, the property taxes were more than their yearly mortgage payment---like having two mortgages, but one that you will never pay off). Since we had to move away, we might as well try the polar opposite, climate-wise. From damp and freezing to dry and boiling. And also still cheap! New Mexico.


Visiting Las Cruces by plane and driving around in a rental car, it seemed like a pretty nice place. Palm trees, cacti, and stunning views of the mountains from almost everywhere in town. A solid food co-op and a thriving farmers' market. A good library with a huge selection of films. A low crime rate (something like half that of Albuquerque). So, we bought a house with three pecan trees in a nice little neighborhood. We could see the mountains from our front yard.


Shortly after moving there, we had our first dose of culture shock: A guy in the shopping mall just walking along with a semi-auto pistol on his hip.


Next, the owner of the reptile store is nonchalantly wearing a .38 revolver on his hip. I'm standing there talking to him, and this guy's right hand is inches away from potentially blowing a hole in my chest. Weird feeling. I said something like, "Wow, you're, um, carrying a gun." He was friendly about it, explaining that lots of "crackheads" are into snakes, and he's gotta be careful. He also recounted that his store had been robbed in the past for a few $2000 snakes. I'm imagining a burglar running out the door with a pillowcase full of pythons.


Second culture shock: driving around Las Cruces is very different from walking and biking. When you're driving, you don't notice the trash that is blowing around everywhere. You don't notice the crumbling cement blocks or the rotting fences. What looks like a blur of palm trees, pastel houses, and navy-blue skies by car starts to look more like a sun-scorched wasteland when you're on foot. Most importantly, when you're in a car, you don't notice the dogs.

Now, I'm a dog lover. I grew up with dogs, so I generally know how to read them. I have no problem going up to a strange dog and introducing myself, because I can tell when a dog is friendly and open to that kind of interaction. But the dogs in Las Cruces are... different.

First of all, every block has at least one pit bull. When I say pit bull, you're probably thinking that I'm peddling over-hyped, negative stereotypes. This is a breed that has received all sorts of undue, negative attention in the media, right? I mean, we all know cute, gentle, lovable pit bulls:


But it's hard to sufficiently convey how different the dogs in Cruces are from the ones that you know and love. I wish I could show you a picture, but no image search turns up anything close to what I saw there. This is the best picture I could find, but it pales in comparison to what they've managed to breed in Cruces:


The most impressive specimen that I ever saw lived on our street just two blocks away. He had a head the size of a watermelon (the head pictured above is only 23 inches), an enormous jaw, rippling muscles, girthy, uncut testicles, and weighed well over 100 pounds. I'm not sure how they grow dogs to look like this, but I suspect some kind of hormone injections are involved. Still, the dog itself wasn't so much of a problem.

The problem was the manner in which the dog was kept: in the front yard all day behind a three foot high, broken cyclone fence that was right next to the sidewalk. That's the standard protocol for housing an animal that essentially looks as capable as a small lion. In the case of our neighborhood champion, his fence was bulging out, over the sidewalk, from years of him ramming against it.


And what is it like to walk on the sidewalk next to such a fence? Have you ever been actively stalked by a predator from inches away? These dogs are lightning fast, and some of them growl aggressively, but even more unnerving are the ones that silently pursue you. A few are behind higher, more reasonable walls, but that just proves how capable they are as jumpers. I've seen one dog in our neighborhood regularly get all four paws on top of five foot high wall before not quite making it over and falling back down. It would perform this trick repeatedly as you walked by.


Okay, so, obviously you just need to learn which side of the street to walk on. You switch sides a lot, as you start to remember which dog is where. For me, walking on the scary side of the street was always something of a heart-pounding thrill, but keep in mind that I was walking with a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old.

Contained dogs like these might frighten people who aren't used to them, but they generally aren't dangerous. A much bigger problem in Cruces are the dogs that escape.

No bicycle trip in Las Cruces can be completed without encountering a loose dog of some kind. For the most part, though, they come in the form of yapping chihuahuas, often running in a small pack, and comically brave for their size. Cute enough, and harmless.

Occasionally, though, you see a bigger dog on the loose. It turns out that bored dogs in front yards and insufficient fences don't mix well. Dogs squeeze under, push through, or jump over. Occasionally, we'd see a skimpy pit bull out, or maybe a rottweiler. We hadn't seen one of the aforementioned impressive specimens out, though. Still, the presence of these intimidating dogs, plus the frequency of dog escapes, seemed like a problem waiting to happen.

Our neighbors had a scrawny, nervous boxer named Ziggie living in their backyard. She would bark her head off whenever we came home, and she never seemed to get used to us. She also had a habit of jumping the five-foot wall that separated our backyards. She seemed mostly harmless, but when you have a one-year-old toddling around in your backyard, surprise visits from an unfriendly dog are nerve-wracking.

Still, we were navigating this place without serious incident, at least so far. Maybe it wasn't as dangerous as it seemed.

After living there for a while, though, we began hearing of stories from other cyclists. Most people had at least been chased by a pit bull while biking. One of our friends had been bitten on her shoe, and another fellow was tackled completely off his bike.

Our mail carrier, clearly a nervous wreck of a man after years of service in this environment, was armed to the teeth with anti-dog equipment. Sprays of various kinds (including official-issue from the Post Office), clubs, prods, and pipes. And did he have stories to tell? Dogs on top of him, pinning him to the ground, while he emptied entire cans of pepper spray in their faces to no effect.

And you'd rarely see people out for a walk, but occasionally, an older gentleman would stroll by. These guys would invariably be carrying a golf club with them on their walks. After asking around, we learned that this was to fend off dogs. Hmm...

Okay, but these were all just scary stories, right? Just other people's collective fears getting to us. Dog fatalities are exceedingly rare (something like 30 a year in the US), and while the majority of deaths are at the jaws of pit bulls, most of the people killed are the owners of those dogs (a nice parallel with gun fatalities there).

Still, the local wisdom was, if you're going to bike in Cruces, you're an idiot if you don't carry spray. So, we went down to our neighborhood self-defense store (yes, this is New Mexico) and bought ourselves a can of Saber.


Months went by, and we'd see loose dogs, but nothing would happen. So our can of Saber started sliding from our minds. First into a coat pocket, then into a bag, then left at home most days. Of course, only until the day came where we wished we had it out and ready.

We had seen and heard these two dogs before, many times. Every Saturday morning, we'd bike to the Farmers' Market together as a family, with Mez (7) on the back of my tandem and Ayza (2) in the baby seat on Lauren's recumbent trike. This trip would take us up Espina Street, a well-traveled through-street for cars. We'd pass a house with two huge, muscular boxers blocked in on their front porch. They kinda looked like this, but with more ear tissue cut off:


These two dogs would always bark to beat the devil at the sight of us, and they were pretty scary, but they were behind two fences (the porch fence and the yard fence), so they weren't exactly on the verge of escaping. It's funny that, given how they were pretty much always out there, the Google street view car managed to snap a picture of one:


One Saturday in May 2010, when Lauren was four months pregnant with Novy, the morning was unseasonably chilly, so we were slightly bundled up as we made our usual trip. As we biked up Espina, we saw a guy on the sidewalk ahead walking two dogs---guess which two dogs? We had never seen them off that porch before, but here they were. As we got closer, the dogs were jumping around him frantically and barking, trying to get away from him.

(Wow... three years later, my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I type this.)

Just as we passed by, one of them slipped off the leash and ran out into the busy street toward Lauren, coming face-to-face with her and tiny Ayza (on her recumbent trike, Lauren's shoulders are only three feet above the ground). After a brief encounter with them, the dog turned and ran at me and Mez. As it came toward me, it's face had a blank expression, and the cut-off ears made it even harder to read. Feeling totally helpless, perched on my bike in my shorts, I stuck a sandaled foot out to deflect its head away as it came near. At that point, it ran back to it's owner on the sidewalk. I just sat there for a moment in shock.

Then Lauren turned toward the owner and screamed, "YOUR DOG JUST BIT ME!" Her voice was strained and panicked.

And then irrational adrenaline kicked in and shook me out of my stupor. Mez was strapped to the back of my bike, and I was keeping him upright from my seat in the front (a rather committed, helpless position for me), but the owner was still struggling with his dogs on the sidewalk. I laid the bike down in the middle of the street with Mez still strapped in place and put myself between the dogs and my family.

The owner was still trying to grab both of them as they leaped around him. As I came closer, I saw that he didn't have leashes at all. Each of these formidable dogs had a thin loop of blue, frayed twine around its neck, and the owner was struggling to put the twine back on the dog that had escaped. Not rope. Not clothesline. Twine. What you might use for lashing a bundle of newspapers together.


I shouted over to Lauren, "Where's your spray? Give it to me!" She didn't have the spray with her. At that point, the owner pleaded, "Oh no, sir, there's no need for that." I'm not sure if he thought I was going to spray the dogs at his feet, or spray him, or what.

A woman was hanging out with her two small children in her driveway nearby, having a yard sale. I shouted over to her, asking her to call the police. "He just lives right over there, we don't need to call the police." I asked a few more times, but she was still trying to talk me out of it. At this point, more people had started to gather at the scene. A young man stopped to direct traffic around Mez, who was still stranded in the street. An old man on a Jazzy Scooter pulled up and offered us his cell phone. I used it to call the police.

We were pretty close to the center of town, so the response was quick and ridiculously overblown. Fire trucks arrived first (yes, the full hook and ladder), then some EMT vehicles, and finally animal control. The owner seemed to have more of a handle on the dogs and was starting to lead them away toward home, so I went over to Lauren with the EMT people. The dog had bitten her on the upper arm, but fortunately, her thick, padded coat had absorbed most of the impact. Her skin was bleeding slightly, and she had a huge red welt, but that was all. The EMTs were trying to take her to the hospital anyway, especially after she told them she was pregnant, but she explained that we were uninsured, and she refused to go. They examined her wound closely, and determined that no dog saliva had contacted her blood. At some point, she looked up at me and asked, "Is Mez still in the middle of the street?" Oh gosh! I ran over, unhooked him, and helped him up.

After that, Lauren and I were interviewed by the animal control officer. It turned out that, because no saliva met blood, the dog wouldn't be taken in (they are quarantined for 7 days of observation only if they could potentially infect someone with rabies). The officer was going to issue the owner a ticket for having the dog off-leash.

What?! Yes, the officer explained, there's no law against dogs biting people. I had a long discussion with him about this point. What if a dog severely mauled someone? Well, only if they mauled people several times would they be labeled by a judge as "vicious," at which point the owner would be required to keep them in an approved fence and walk them with a muzzle.

I could not believe what I was hearing. If the human owner had bitten Lauren, he'd be arrested, tried, and likely put in jail for assault.

After we headed home, we had additional contact with Animal Control by phone. It turns out that the guy walking the dogs was the owner's brother, and he had very little experience with these dogs, because he had never walked them before, so he didn't know how to control them.

Later that day, Lauren was telling our family about what had happened by phone, when I looked out the window and saw Ziggie, the neighbor boxer, in our yard again. Lauren had just been bitten by a boxer, and this was too much. I crept out the side door with the spray and tried to corner Ziggie before she could make it back over the wall. I was way too slow, but tried to spray anyway as I ran after her. Ziggie made it back over the wall unscathed, but running while spraying is a bad idea, and I found myself running right into a huge cloud of brown mist. I had a split second to think, "Oh no!" before my eyes slammed shut in pain.

I crawled my way back into the house, totally blind and whimpering. "Lauren, help me!" She told our family that she'd have to call them back, came out to see what had happened, and found me writhing in a pathetic heap on the kitchen floor.

But this was not the only time the spray backfired. Another time, a particularly aggressive dog was sticking its head over the top of it's wall (which was alarmingly taller than my head, putting the dog's snapping jaws above me). After having this dog scare the crap out of us on multiple occasions, I'd had enough, so I decided to test out the spray a second time. The dog didn't seem to mind, but the slightest breeze blew the stuff right back at us, this time blinding both me and 7-year-old Mez.

These ridiculous anecdotes highlight two important points about self defense weapons. First, there's the strong possibility of blow-back (or, shooting yourself by accident). Second, having the weapon at the ready increases the chances of you using it when you're simply "fed up," even though it's not justified. Neither of these attempted dog sprayings were true, immediate self defense. At best, they were marginally preemptive.

These anecdotes also made us aware of one more, very important point: pepper spray sucks when you're in motion or it's windy. Maybe, as the package shows, it works wonders in nighttime parking garages. But on a bike? Even if it doesn't blind you into crashing, it's likely to be totally off-target. And even if you score a direct hit, the dogs don't seem to mind it. Humans are left sobbing in the fetal position, but dogs just snort a few times before going about their business.

But here we are, biking in a place where dogs are loose all the time, and now the threat is not just hypothetical, because Lauren has just been bitten, and it obviously could have been much worse (why it bit her instead of tiny Ayza, we'll never know). And Lauren was often going out with the kids alone, taking them here and there by bike and on foot. After she was bitten, she was even more afraid of all the dogs she had to pass every day. And now we realized that the weapon she had been carrying was probably not going to help.

Furthermore, the prevalence of pit bulls adds to the concern. You can say that it's just paranoid media hype, but if you crack open any pet-store book about the breed, you'll find a discussion of the necessity of "break sticks" for pit bull owners:


So, what's a break stick? It's a pry bar that the owner must carry at all times to get the dog to let go if it bites another dog or person. A pit bull's jaw can apparently be difficult to open without one. So far, we'd only been attacked by a boxer, thank goodness.

Back to the neighborhood self-defense store, this time for one of those extendable police batons for Lauren. Maybe bonking one of these dogs on the head would dissuade it from attacking. The baton opens via centrifugal force and gravity if you swing it downward with a violent flick of the wrist. Lauren had some trouble getting the baton to extend fully, because it was pretty heavy. We even had a practice set-up, where she'd sit down in her bike, and I'd kick a cardboard box toward her in place of an attacking dog, and she'd whack it. When she was sitting down low, opening the baton was even harder for her, because she didn't have room to swing it downward with the help of gravity.

Regardless, she thought that she might not be able to club a dog in the heat of the moment, and that it might just make the dog mad. Also, the dog had to get uncomfortably close before it was in reach of the baton. Still, it seemed better than nothing, so we built a makeshift holster for the baton on her bike.

But what else could we use to defend ourselves? What about a gun? When in Rome, right? So, I headed over to our local gun shop:


The guys running the store, of course, had huge revolvers strapped to their belts. I asked for their advice about attacking dogs. One of the customers in the store was a retired cop who'd had his share of run-ins with dealers' guard dogs while on duty, and he warned that very few low-caliber handgun bullets would stop a determined pit bull. There was also the concern about being on a bike in a public street and being unable to aim very well. And what about a ricochet off the concrete and into a neighboring house? One guy suggested "rat shot," which is like a mini shotgun shell filled with tiny pellets that fits in a handgun. It's non-lethal to larger animals, it's harmless from more than a few feet away, and it spreads out as it shoots.

I had never spent time in a gun shop before, nor had I checked out prices. Guns are reassuringly expensive, even the used ones. Like, $400 for a tiny one---you don't just buy one of these on a whim. If you're trying to get your hands on a "Make My Day" type gun, you're looking at $1000 or more.

I held a small, .38 Special Ruger revolver in my hand and dry-fired it. This was the first time I had ever touched a handgun. Heavy, with a solid, determined clunk at each pull of the trigger. Alarmingly, 7-year-old Mez grabbed the gun out of my hand and dry fired it too. He argued with me when I tried to get it back from him. Did I mention that I had Ayza asleep on my back in the sling? Yeah, we were probably an unusual sight for this particular gun shop.


When you hold a handgun, there is a frightening feeling of power. Power to end someone's life, with all that entails, in a split second. Power to end your own life in a split second.

I left the gun shop without buying anything, and Lauren ended up talking me out of this idea. Did I really want to live my public life with a gun at my side? How would I keep it away from the kids while I was out? Where would I store it while I was browsing the library----in my bike trailer? What if I tried to shoot an attacking dog, but hit a bystander instead? Thinking back to the time Lauren was bitten, there was a woman with her kids standing right off to the side, right in the potential line of self-defense fire.

So, with just the baton and the spray, we kept on walking and biking, trying to steel our nerves against the various dogs that would stalk us as we passed. Lauren had a painful bruise on her arm that healed with time. The two boxers on Espina Street seemed to go away for a while.

Then one day, again on our way to the Farmers' Market, we were passing that same house on Espina. The boxers were there this time, but they weren't on the porch like they used to be---now they were running freely behind the short fence in the front yard. As we passed, they barked and chased us intently. As Lauren neared the far edge of the yard, one of the dogs started squeezing underneath the edge of the fence, getting to the point where his head, front legs, and front half of his body were fully out, on the sidewalk, just a few feet away from Lauren. I saw Lauren ahead of me frantically try to extend her baton, but she couldn't swing with enough force to open it. I screamed at the dog with my deepest, loudest voice, and at that it squeezed back under the fence into the yard.

At this point, I was determined to have a word with the owner. Lauren pedaled ahead and waited with the kids, while I got off my bike and headed back to the house. The dogs leaped and howled at my presence. Of course, the front door was inside the fence with them, so I pounded on the mailbox and shouted for the owner to come out. I stood there for several minutes before he finally heard me and appeared.

I told him that his dog had almost gotten out, and he seemed unphased by this news. I explained that his dog had bitten my spouse a month ago.

"My dog didn't bite your wife. He just scared her," he said.

"But the EMTs came and everything. She had a big welt on her arm," I insisted.

"Nah, he didn't bite her. If he had bitten her, you'd know it, bud. There'd be nothing left of her."

At that point, he told me to get the fuck off his property, even though I was standing in the public street, and I walked away, telling him that I was calling animal control.

"You do that bud, you do that," he said as he went back inside.

From a pay phone across the street, we called animal control. Then we waited. We called again and waited some more. The owner came out, tucked the bottom of the fence back into the edge of the grass, and then drove away. We called again and waited more. After about 90 minutes, animal control pulled up. The dogs were on the porch this time, and the officer nervously examined the fence as they lunged at him. To his view, the tucked-in fence looked sufficient, and my report of a dog half-way out did not change his opinion. The dog wasn't all the way out, so it wasn't off leash. Later, the officer called us and reported that the dogs are usually kept on the porch, but that the latch was left open this time by accident, which let them get into the yard, and that the owner's friend had recently been mowing and had left the bottom of the fence untucked by accident.

This was the last time Lauren rode a bike in Las Cruces. She reverted to taking the bus everywhere instead. Our family trips to the market came to an end, though I still braved the streets on a bike with the kids whenever I went out with them. This worked out okay for a while. Lots of loose dogs sighted, no dog attacks.

Then, in December of 2010, two months after Novy was born, we had our final encounter. We were at the park watching the sunset, having a lovely time. As dusk stared to settle, we crossed the park to head home. Novy was asleep in the sling, and in the chilly night air, I had him zipped up under my hoodie. Ayza, almost three, was in a stroller, and Mez, now six, was holding my hand.


A guy was playing catch with his dog, one of these aforementioned impressive pit bulls---gigantic head, rippling muscles, the whole package. As we came closer along the footpath, he threw the ball again, and the dog caught it again, but instead of running back to him, it dropped the ball and started running toward us. "Oh.... god," Lauren muttered. I saw this happening and took out the spray. As the dog came closer, the owner started chasing it, and he jumped on its back to stop it when it was less than ten feet away from us.

At that point, I made my big mistake. I said, "Keep that dog on a leash. I've got my spray."

The owner went ballistic. I didn't know his dog, and his dog would never hurt anyone, and how dare I even think about spraying his dog. His spouse, who was pushing their toddler on the swing nearby, got into yelling at me too. At this point, he was so flustered that he let go of the dog, and it ran off. "It's illegal to have dogs off leash in the park," I told him. He's a member of three kennel clubs, don't tell him what the law is, and so on. The whole time, he's screaming. Periodically, he looks like he's about to punch me. Other times, he reaches into the back waistband of his pants, but then calms himself down and reconsiders. (Reaching for what, we wondered afterward. Imagine me being punched in the chest with a sleeping infant under my hoodie, we realized afterward.)

I tried to explain that I carried spray because my spouse had been bitten by a loose dog earlier that year. "I don't care if she was bitten! I don't care if she was raped!"

At that point, Lauren started tugging at me to get out of there, but I was still trying to explain, trying to get the guy to understand our position. She ended up walking away with the other two kids without me, all the way out of the park, before I caught up. As I walked away from the guy, I told him that I was calling animal control. "You go ahead and do that. I'm a member of three kennel clubs," and so on.

But as we stood there at the edge of the park, losing sight of the owner in the twilight, we realized how futile calling animal control would be.

When we got home that night, we reflected over all the close calls from the past year, and we decided to leave Las Cruces. Not prove that we were right. Not stand our ground. Just turn tail and run away. Yeah, you can't run away from an attacking dog, but cities are much slower than dogs.

And dogs are what brought self defense into focus for me. Yes, there was other stuff that happened around us in Cruces, from drive-bys, to burglaries, to police raids, and those things were scary, but the only things that ever happened to us directly involved dogs.

Yes, dogs are living creatures with feelings and rights, quite a bit like humans, but when attacking, they are way faster than humans and much less amenable to discussion and reasoning. They are explicitly after your body, not your stuff, so the strategy of "just give them your stuff and run away" doesn't work. In fact, running away is the worst thing you can do. Furthermore, if a dog has been bred or trained as a weapon by a human, both you and the dog are the victim of this practice. But still, there it is: a living, breathing weapon coming at you.

What is the passive, loving, Gandhi approach here? Maybe curl up in a ball and protect your jugular?

Okay, fine. But having small children with you during a dog attack makes the self defense question uniquely pressing. You are responsible for the safety of these other, small, helpless people. These people who have jugulars right at dog level.

"Self defense" sounds like a selfish justification for hurting someone else to prevent yourself from some perceived, potential hurt. But when you're dealing with small children, there's nothing selfish about it, and it becomes much harder to "wait and see" whether the threat is perceived or real.

What used to be simply a juicy, philosophical discussion for me was now a question in need of an immediate answer. What did I believe about self defense? Was I really a pacifist?

In the end, I decided that, though I believe strongly in non-aggression (as in, I'm never going to attack you, no matter what), I believe that I'm doing no wrong by defending myself. Furthermore, if force is helpful in preventing what seems to be a likely attack (like, your dog is charging at me growling), that force is warranted, and I'm doing no wrong by using it.

In other words, I don't have to wait until your charging dog is tearing up my child's face before I bonk it. The charging and growling part is sufficient.

Even so, I'd rather not have to face this question on a regular basis. I joked before about the Gandhi-esque response to a dog attack, but Gandhi would probably offer far more effective advice: "The world is vast, and surely these dogs are not everywhere upon it. Go to a place where these dogs are not."

Advice taken.

Discuss this post in the forums


Treatment of otherness in The Castle Doctrine
by jasonrohrerFriday, July 26, 2013 [7:56 pm]

There's a very rich vein in the realm of mutiplayer video game design that is not present in tabletop game design: our relationship to "the other."

This is possible because multiple screens can give the different players separate and distinct views of the same information set. The possibility space opened up by distinct views alone is vast, but for now, I'm just going to focus on how this relates to the treatment of the other.

Take my game Diamond Trust of London as an example. Two fly-by-night diamond trading companies compete over the final diamonds being exported from Angola before the advent of new international laws. One company is the titular London-based operation, while the other is the less central Antwerp, Belgium firm. The green London side is an endearing, mixed-ethnicity bunch who wear a variety of different, recognizable outfits and hop the Mediteranean sea in an old prop plane. The red Belgian side is austere by comparison, with their pale white faces, nearly identical tailored suits, and flashy Lear jets.


The obvious Hollywood trope here helps you instantly recognize "the good guys." (Irony noted, given that both sides are war-fueling diamond smugglers). The Belgians are intentionally alienating, and they clearly represent "the other".

But this seems problematic in an exclusively-two-player, symmetric game, because only one of the two players gets to experience this otherness, and it will form a slight discord for the player who is stuck playing as the other directly.

Why can't both sides play London? They're looking at different screens, after all. Both players can see themselves as inhabiting the left side of the map, and controlling the green London agents, and flying the prop planes. Both can likewise be presented with their opponent directing the red guys from the right side of the map. The code can handle the mirroring and the swapping invisibly.

With the way this is handled in Diamond Trust, players don't even realize that it's happening. They both just assume that they are playing green while the other must be playing red. There's a deep "aha" moment waiting for them during post-game discussion, when one says, "I decided to fly my guys back to London at the last minute" and the other player says, "London? No, I was playing London. You were Antwerp." After a bit of arguing, they resort to comparing screens and scratching their heads.

That's a neat trick, but what's the point?

Mutiplayer video games stand in a unique position in the way that they can tackle the issue of otherness. This example from Diamond Trust is a tiny, almost inconsequential demonstration of this, because it's not a game that focuses on otherness. But imagine a game about the distinction between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist", or about the distinction between "perpetrator" and "victim."

The other, as presented on the movie screen or in single player games, can often be held at arms' length as a dehumanized monster (or rather, from the modern shooter, a bandanna-faced thug). But in mutiplayer video games, you can stick the player into the role of the other without the player realizing that they inhabit that role, because other players can see the player differently from the way the player sees themself. This leaves a hard-hitting realization waiting for the player when they wonder who is controlling everyone they perceive as a brutal enemy. They become aware of how they, in turn, must be perceived by other players.


The Castle Doctrine represents a culmination of my design interests in this area. Every other player in the game is just like you, down to the pixel. Yet they inhabit your world only as robotic security tape traces and through the violent damage that they leave in their wake. You never get to interact with them directly. Most importantly, you never get to see them in their non-robber clothes.

In fact, you don't know anything about them, since no identifying information is given beyond a randomly chosen, 1991-government-database name that changes every time a given player dies.

Thus, if you're committing a harmful act against another player in the game (and we're talking measurable, real harm of hard work lost, because of the permanent consequences of your actions), the otherness of your victim is simultaneously amplified and subverted. On one hand, your anonymity grants you real-life impunity for whatever you do, and your victim is part of a faceless mass. On the other hand, your victim might not be as far-removed from you as you think. This is a game where real life best friends can harm each other without realizing it, maybe even while sitting right next to each other.

Similarly, because all players are cast into both roles as victim and perpetrator, there is a certain kind of understanding that is not present in most real world victimizations. You robbed me, and destroyed all my hard work, but then again, I just did the same thing to someone else a few hours ago. We're all in the same sinking boat here, and I can't really blame you for what you're doing. A karmic loop made visible.

Going back to The Castle Doctrine's inception, first and foremost, I wanted to make a game about vulnerability and violation. I was initially inspired by my experience on Minecraft multiplayer survival servers. Much has been said about the primal satisfaction of burrowing a home in a hillside to protect yourself from the monsters of the night, but a persistent multiplayer server adds a new dimension to that psychology. The threat extends to other players, who might violate your home while you are offline. Naturally, you try to hide your home so that other players won't even find it.


Upon logging back in, you venture carefully back to your secret hillside, when you're sure no other player is watching you, and then check to make sure that it has not been discovered and breached while you were away. You even check your storage boxes---Whew! All my stuff is still here. Adding to this psychological tension is the fact that stumbling uninvited into someone else's home in the game feels absolutely creepy.

Again, there's something very primal being tapped here, but it's not so ancient as burrowing or climbing a tree to ward off the monsters of the night. Instead, it reminded me of modern life as a homeowner, coming home after being away for a while. First thought as you come around the corner: "Well, it's still there. I guess it didn't burn down!" No frozen pipes? No broken windows? Computer still here?

When I lived in Potsdam, NY, the town culture was one of unlocked doors. I recall that some people didn't even know where their house keys were. We left our front door unlocked at all times, even when we went out of town for three weeks.

Even in such a safe place, there's still a certain, nagging nervousness when returning home. I don't think I ever felt this until I owned my own home and lived there for a while. When your children have been born there and grown up there, it becomes a special and personal place. You start to care about it and almost worry about it like a beloved pet, even if it's just a fear of frayed wiring, falling tree branches, or frozen pipes.

Living in New Mexico after that, where break-ins were common on our block, and many houses had bars on their windows, we were in a decidedly not-unlocked-door culture. Needless to say, the primal need to check for breaches upon returning home increases in a place like that.

And in the midst of living there, there was Minecraft multiplayer mode. But there was something a bit unsatisfying about this aspect of the game. You could go beyond hiding your house and build fortifications or even traps, but the reality was that almost everything could be cut through and bypassed, given enough grinding, with the weakest wooden shovel. And in a virtually infinite world, everything that cannot be cut through can be dug around.

It seemed like this primal desire for home protection was rich enough that it could make for a whole, concise game on its own.

More so, after seeing my family violated physically and feeling the resulting helplessness, it seemed like violation was a fresh, powerful aesthetic direction for a game (in a world full of games that make you feel powerful, blah blah blah), and that I could combine the aesthetic goal of "being violated" with the primally rich home protection idea.

Coming full circle, back to the issue of the other, if you're going to have a game where you feel violated, someone has to be doing the violating. Having that violation come from other players, who are also striving to protect themselves from similar violation, seemed like the perfect machine to make this happen, with the nice, empathy-generating karmic loop described above.

But what about the role of the violator? That's obviously a necessary ingredient to keep the whole machine running, but it initially seems like a jarring aesthetic side-effect. Like, "Oops, you can feel powerful in this game too." But combined with the treatment of otherness, where you're not just knocking down straw dummies, but actually hurting real people who are just like you, and furthermore violating the carefully-crafted personal space of someone else, that empowerment limps with resignation.

The result is a game about violation, where every victim is also a violator, and every violator a victim. It's a bizarre construction that permits the humanity of a completely anonymous, aggressive other to be brought into sharper focus than it could ever be seen in the real world.

Discuss this post in the forums


Addressing some confusion
by jasonrohrerWednesday, July 24, 2013 [5:28 pm]

Spoken interviews are a funny thing, because much of the context is stripped away. What did you and the interviewer discuss between the quotes that were chosen? What tone of voice did you use? And so on. Most of the time, this works out okay, but when dealing with touchy, hot-button issues, the result can be a minefield.

As a result, much confusion has arisen both about my creative goals for The Castle Doctrine and about my personal views that relate to the game. I will now set the record straight.

Of course, since the issues here are complex, I have to summarize. As the saying goes, if I could put it all down succinctly into words, I wouldn't have had to make the damn game.

The Gender Issue

Why can't I play a female character in this MMO?

First, though it is massively-multiplayer, it's not an MMORPG. Yes, a bunch of people play together on the same server, but that is all. There are no role-playing elements of any kind (character building, leveling up, etc.).

Like loads of non-RPG games, you play a specific character in this game. That character is a guy. In fact, he's the guy from this 1991 yellow page ad:


Or, more accurately, he's the guy this yellow page ad might be targeting. This game is a 1991 period piece about the social construction of manhood in that era. This is how I remember my security-obsessed father, and other fathers that I've met from that time share many of his traits. These guys were the burglar alarm generation. I suppose their paranoia wasn't completely unfounded, because the choice of 1991 is a loaded one (it was the peak of violent crime in the US---2012 was twice as safe, by comparison).

A lot has changed concerning gender roles in the past 22 years. But many aspects of the traditional, physical male role still lurk beneath the surface, which is why this topic is still interesting. Is a man still supposed to be a protector for his family? Is he supposed to be able to fight?

Disturbingly, even in a somewhat gender-bent, pacifist family like mine, that undercurrent is still there. As a particularly wimpy man (on the very-skinny end of the skinny bell curve), I'm not at all comfortable with that role. But that doesn't mean the role isn't thrust upon me anyway, especially when things get dicey.

Distilling all of this down, I amped up traditional, period gender roles in this game to the extreme. The girls even wear bows and dresses. The boys even have short hair. This is a cartoon of the iconic, nuclear family.

The Gun Issue

Obviously, no one is troubled by the presence of guns in this game, because then they'd be far more troubled by almost every other mainstream game. So, the concern is more like:

Do you really believe that guns should be legalized? That's crazy, man!

Yes, I do believe guns should be legalized. No, I'm not a gun owner, and have no plans to become one, but I have no desire to stop you from owning a gun. I also don't drink, but I don't want to stop you from drinking.

That's just my philosophical position. If you're not hurting anyone directly with your actions, I believe it should be legal. Thus, I think we should legalize guns, drugs, religion, suicide, fireworks, gambling, prostitution, all books, all movies, all video games, consensual sexual behavior of all kinds, gay marriage, polygamy, incandescent light bulbs, and on and on.

That might sound like a pretty whacky, incoherent list to you, but each of those things is currently illegal somewhere in the world, each involves consenting adults making their own choices, and each has no direct, third-party victim.

While the Germans don't get why Americans have such a problem with prostitution, the Americans can't imagine outlawing something like Wolfenstein, and so on.

But really, that philosophical discussion has very little bearing on The Castle Doctrine, which is not a game about legalizing anything, and barely even has guns in it. Guns are just a hot-button topic right now.

Discuss this post in the forums


Version 15 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 23, 2013 [6:39 pm]

This release fixes a few minor bugs, including an inconsistency in the way animals move next to dead animals. It also adds a visual status indicator for Ctrl-click (eyedropper) functionality.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

Discuss this post in the forums


Version 14 Released
by jasonrohrerSaturday, July 13, 2013 [12:14 am]

This release features a seemingly-minor change to animal movement (animals avoid walking in the squares adjacent to another dead animal, unless attacking) that has a huge impact on the game (a dead animal's body can no longer be used as a safe spot from which to lure and club other animals in many circumstances). This makes pit bull placement much more tactically rich.

A minor bug with house change cost computation has also been fixed.

The new animal movement requires that all existing house security tapes be cleared, because they are no longer consistent with the latest movement rules.

Discuss this post in the forums


Version 13 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 9, 2013 [5:41 pm]

This release changes the robbery end condition so that an empty vault that has already been robbed by someone else cannot be reached. This means that reaching an empty vault over and over can no longer be used to cumulatively add damage to a house (damage is saved when the vault is reached or family members are killed).

A "safe movement mode" toggle has been added (to help out in tense moments---this mode enables Enter-confirmation for each move that is made).

Discuss this post in the forums


Version 12 Released
by jasonrohrerThursday, July 4, 2013 [6:16 pm]

This release changes animal behavior so that they do not start moving until they have seen you. After that, they switch to their normal following or fleeing behavior, even if they can no longer see you. Thus, they can still follow you from behind walls, but only after they have seen you.

This is a tiny change, but the impact on house design is huge, because animals can no longer move mysteriously and invisibly behind walls to trigger switches. They must be visible at least once to the robber before they can start doing this.

As a result, all houses have been taken out of circulation until their owners re-edit them to work with the new behavior.

Discuss this post in the forums


Version 11 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 2, 2013 [5:24 pm]

This released fixes a minor bug in family death tracking (family member death was not registered until one step later in v10, causing several unexpected results) and adds a tape length statistic to the list of security tapes.

Discuss this post in the forums


Eliminating grinding (v10 released)
by jasonrohrerFriday, June 28, 2013 [6:20 pm]

With the release of version 9, I was trying to change the direction and feel of The Castle Doctrine, pushing it away from a puzzle designing-and-solving game and toward a tactical, Roguelike, designing-and-bypassing game.

The solution in v9 was unlimited backpack slots, and for the most part, it worked. However, there were a few existing negative dynamics that were magnified by this change.

As intended, robbers are much more powerful in v9, in that, with enough money, they can bypass anything with tools, regardless of their skill. However, money is scarce and always at risk of being stolen out from under you, so acquiring enough money to buy enough tools to brute-force bypass good security requires skill. Or at least it should.


These lingering negative dynamics can loosely be grouped together as grinding. Yeah, it might seem like players grind against their own best interest, because grinding isn't an interesting way to play. However, it's the game's fault for letting them do it in the first place. The game is essentially whispering, "Hey you, pssst, over here. You can play me in this skill-free way too. In fact, that's how I'm meant to be played." Of course, players listen to what the game is telling them.

Problem 1: Grinding past dogs

The first grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. You might spend this building a new house, but you might also spend this on tools. In version 8, $2000 would buy not very much house but quite a lot of tools---however, you could only carry 8 tools at a time, so starting tool purchases were not overpowered. In v9 where you can carry an unlimited number of items, tool prices were raised dramatically to compensate for this. For the v9 price of $100, that crowbar better be made in Switzerland out of forged titanium alloy. However, even at this ridiculously steep price, you can still buy 20 of them with your new-life allowance.


20 crowbars means 20 dead pit bulls. By exploiting the mechanics of dog movement (dogs refuse to walk over other dead dogs, and dogs keep getting closer each time you use a tool), it is possible to bypass loads of dogs with those 20 crowbars.

It turns out that dogs are the best way of protecting family members (the family likes dogs as pets, but they refuse to stand near mechanical traps). But if the robber is coming in with 20 crowbars, the family becomes impossible to protect, in practice, with your starting house budget no matter how you arrange the dogs.


Should the price of the crowbar go up even more? After all, the gun in v9 costs $1000. The idea is that the gun shoots safely from a distance, whereas the crowbar must be used while standing right next to your potentially perma-deadly target.

Note that 20 saws, which you can also afford with your starting $2000, are not as much of a problem. Yeah, you can cut through lots of walls with those, but you need to know where to cut. The crowbar is rather unique in the way that it interacts with moving threats.

But no, I didn't want to raise the cost of the crowbar. You have to be standing next to a target to used it. That should be dangerous. The crowbar should be cheap as a result. I decided to focus on making the crowbar more dangerous to use.

As it stood, dog positioning had little tactical impact. If a dog is next to you, you can use a crowbar on it. If a dog is an odd number of steps away, you can take steps toward it, as it steps toward you, and eventually be standing right next to it. If a dog is an even number of steps away, it seems like you're stuck, since taking steps away preserves the distance, while taking steps toward it will eventually result in a final step where the dog lands right on top of you. However, in v9, you could rectify this situation by using a tool somewhere---on a wall or anywhere---which would also trigger the dog to take a step without you taking a step. After that, the dog would be an odd number of steps away. What if there was no place to use a tool? You could always fall back on throwing the incredibly cheap drugged meat, which was supposedly balanced by turning a pit bull into a sleeping land mine. However, a sleeping pit bull is even easier to approach and club than a lively one in v9.

This all seemed wrong to me, because it rendered dogs useless as security in the game, where I had wanted them to be the most tactically rich part of the game. In v10, I changed the movement mechanics so that animals do not move when you use a tool. Now if they're an odd number of steps away, there is no simple way to change that. I also made drugged animals unkillable, so they really do turn into sleeping land mines. Yes, drugged meat is very cheap, but there's now a properly-huge trade-off, since you can block yourself in by using it carelessly.

Now clever placement of dogs can provide viable security for family members. Consider this simple device, which ensures that the dog is always one tile away from the robber, no matter how the robber approaches:


Yes, there are ways to bypass this device, but they all require careful, tactical play. You have to study the situation and find a weakness. Marching in there with 20 crowbars will accomplish nothing, even against this lone dog. There's no way to grind your way through dog-based security. Well, except if you've got thousands of dollars to waste on loads of guns. But there's no way to accomplish that without skill, right?

Problem 2: Grinding across multiple lives

The second grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. Yeah, that should sound familiar from above. However, this grind-strategy also exploits the way that death works.

There is a stiff penalty for dying---you lose everything, including your current house which you may have spent hours building. But what if you have nothing to lose? And when you start a fresh life with $2000, you have exactly nothing to lose, because dying at that point will bring you right back to another fresh life and $2000 more.


Thus, that initial $2000 is totally free of both cost and consequence.

In some ways, this is a good thing, because it creates at least two different classes in the player population: those who have accumulated wealth and become risk-adverse, and those who have nothing to lose and are still risk-taking. Both classes are needed for the game to function well as a whole.


However, I want all parts of the game to be deep and interesting, no matter what class you are currently in. In v9, since the fresh-life player faces no real consequences, they have no interesting or tense decisions to make. Why not just plow ahead into a dangerous house? If you die, then just plow ahead into the same house again. Keep trying. Maybe after enough grinding, you'll stumble your way through via trial and error.

The other factor here is that the player has $2000 to blow on each of these throw-away lives. Combine this with the fact that unused tools are dropped into the target house's vault upon robber death, and throw-away death robbers are motivated to carry a full load-out every time. This increases the payout if they ever manage to break through. You can easily do this many times per minute on a given house, which means that you can pump the value of a house up by $600K or more every hour. Even if the perpetrator doesn't break through for the payoff themselves, it still results in an unnatural economic spike that can be gratifying to create.

Furthermore, the same dynamic can be exploited on weaker houses that a robber knows how to bypass. Why not pump $10K into the house first, across a five lives, before finally bypassing it? Yeah, there is a risk that some other robber will come along and snatch the payout before you do, but if so, you can just repeat the same trick again. Eventually, you will succeed.

A fresh-life robber who pulls this off suddenly has way more at their disposal than the previously-mentioned 20 crowbars. How about an unlimited supply of guns? That was supposed to require skill to acquire, right? And guess what? Players were doing this all the time. It had become the way to play the game.

Both of these problems are related to the consequence-free nature of death when you have just started a fresh life. This issue has been discussed ever since v5, and for a while, adding some sort of static consequence seemed natural: maybe some kind of timeout (where you can't respawn for X minutes after dying) or maybe some kind of financial penalty (where with each new life in quick succession, you start with a bit less money).

(Umm.... yeah, they actually make these. Available in both navy and white.)

The problem with a timeout is---obviously---that it takes you out of the game. Perhaps you have an hour to play today, but you make a mistake at the beginning of that hour and die, and then you spend the rest of your available time waiting in timeout. The problem with the financial penalty is that it must be severe to properly deal with the issue of multi-life tool dumping (even if it's as severe as 50%, $2000 + $1000 + $500 + ... is still $4000). Both of these mechanisms could be tweaked through some kind of dynamism (where the amount of time that passes between deaths is factored into the timeout or penalty), but this is complex under-the-hood behavior that is hard for players to reason about and needs explaining.

Furthermore, both solutions are overkill, because it's not fresh starts generally that are the core problem---starting fresh immediately to work on your own house again with a full $2000 is fine and should be encouraged. The problem is starting fresh over and over to grind against the same target house.

The solution in v10 is to add a penalty for dying in a particular house: a timeout before you can re-enter just that one house. So, if you're trying to grind your way through across multiple lives, or you're trying to dump a bunch of tools by dying there, you'll be stopped right away by the fact that you have to wait an hour between such attempts. The tools you dump will likely be taken by someone else in that time, and trial-and-error grinding is impractical when it must be spread out over days instead of minutes (again, some other player will likely get through via tactical skill before your slow trial-and-error method ever pays off).

And thematically, the per-house timeout fits. After all, it was a little strange to be able to start new lives so burden-free in previous versions. Your previous self and previous family are gone forever, but you move on without a care? Now there is some trace of your previous life still lingering: a temporary chill that prevents you from re-entering the house where you died.


In previous versions, there was plenty of tension surrounding death when working on your own house (you stood to lose the whole house you were working on), but not enough tension on robbery death in many cases (when you had nothing to lose). Along with dealing with the multi-life grinding issues, this house-chill mechanic also adds needed tension to all robberies.

Which, when you think about it, is the same thing as eliminating grinding from robberies.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

Discuss this post in the forums


Changing the direction of the game (and v9 released)
by jasonrohrerFriday, June 14, 2013 [10:57 pm]

Several public releases and several thousand players later, I took a hard look at what The Castle Doctrine had become, and I realized that it had veered off in a troubling, unsustainable direction.

My original goals for the game were as follows.

I wanted to make a game where players generated content, but where that content actually mattered to gameplay. Where that content was the gameplay.

The house design side would naturally be whatever it would be: players would strive to design a house that would keep robbers out in the most effective way possible. Designs would evolve over time as players discovered this or that emergent combination. I always imagined that the house design side of the game would quickly blossom into something beyond what I could imagine, so I didn't spend too much time trying to imagine it (people have built working CPU logic in Minecraft, so the sky is really the limit).


But I had very specific goals for the robbery side of the game. Yes, the robbers would obviously be trying to overcome whatever fiendishness the best homeowners had devised, but they would be able to overcome it tactically. They'd sneak through a darkened house, peering around corners, and pressing their luck. A poke here, a cut there. Trying to find and exploit a weakness in the design. Cutting through in exactly the right spot and finding themselves behind the scenes, exploring the inner workings of the house, like going behind the walls at the end of Portal. With permadeath always one mistake away, this would be a tense experience. But with enough explorative poking and cutting, over multiple scouting trips, any house design would eventually be vulnerable to a successful break-in. "Aha! If I just cut through these wooden walls, snip this wire, and throw this brick across the pit to hit that switch, I can get to the vault."

And that's how I envisioned the two sides interacting. No homeowner would be safe forever. This would be a game about vulnerability and violation. Yes, some would rise to the top, but only for a short time, since being at the top would mean that the attention from robbers would increase. Through skill, opportunism, and some "right place at the right time" luck, a player might rob a few small houses, gaining enough money to buy tools to rob a few bigger houses, and so on, climbing carefully up through the ranks---a kind of meta-layer of tactical gameplay, a Roguelike where the dungeon-tower was built by other players. But they'd get to the top only to be knocked back down by another upstart with less to lose. Then they might climb again, building a house that would prevent the kind of break-in that got them last time. An endless, every-cycling arms race between robbers and homeowners, where the landscape is always changing and no optimum exists for either side.


As owners start building more wood walls, robbers start carrying more saws. Then some smart owner notices this and starts building metal walls. This trend builds, an then robbers start carrying more torches. In response, homeowners might move on to concrete, and robbers explosives. In which case owners would switch to dogs, and robbers to guns, and then back to wood versus saws, or pits versus ladders, or a mixture of dogs and wood versus a mixture of guns and saws.


The system would remained balanced by the fact that both obstacles and tools cost money, and money is scarce. Furthermore, since every homeowner needs to get through their security with no tools at all, every house would have certain vulnerabilities that skilled players could discover and exploit.

Okay, that sounded pretty cool to me! So, I tried to build that game.

It's pretty clear, though, that the current state (v8) of The Castle Doctrine does not match the above vision. So what happened over the past 3 months since the first public release?

Shortly after the initial alpha launch, things were pretty great. Homeowners were trying out this and that, discovering little emergent design combinations, and generally making really cool, clever, and interesting houses. Robbers were sneaking around nervously, poking this and cutting that, and eventually breaking through every house. Wealth and paintings were passing from player to player and different kingpins rose and fell.

But in less than a week, something very big happened. A rather wealth player made some wooden walls that were 9 tiles thick. Since a backpack only has 8 slots in it, and can thus carry only 8 saws, a robber cannot cut through such a wall. At first, this didn't seem like such a big problem. After all, every house has to be solvable without tools (as demonstrated by the owner). So, there's still a way to get to the vault in such a house---just not a way that involves cutting. Of course, the 9-wall-thick idea spread quickly.


Shortly after that, however, something else big happened. A rather clever player devised the first push-button combination lock. 9-tile-thick walls protected the internal logic, and a robber would be faced with pressing the right subset of 16 buttons in order to pass through a 9-door-thick corridor to the vault. Yes, it's possible to reach the vault with no tools. But if you don't know the secret pattern, it might take you 65,536 guesses. This idea also spread quickly.


Shortly after that, someone devised a 22-button combination lock (over 4 million possible combinations to try). This was essentially overkill, though, because the 16-button one was unbreakable, in practice (the top houses had a few hundred attempts, at most). You know, if each attempt takes even as little as one minute, you're looking at 44 days of non-stop, no-sleep trying to break a 16-button combination lock.

Finally, a very clever player figured out how to build an effective combination-style lock for only $1400 by exploiting an electric floor loophole. Given that each player receives $2000, for free, when they start from scratch after permadeath, this meant that unbreakable security was now available to even the least-wealthy players in the game.


A few weeks later, there were pages and pages of houses employing some variation on the combination lock, and they were all sitting there, unbroken. Yes, there were some lovely little innovations along the way, but they were all uncrackable, in practice.

For robbers, the experience of entering such a house involved very little sneaking, poking, or cutting. No tactics were employable. If you were foolish enough to even try, you'd push a few buttons before realizing hopelessness and facing your death (one lovely innovation: pushing any button at all traps you in the house, so you must enter the correct combination, or press nothing at all, to survive). The smarter players would see a combination lock and leave.

Thus, the robbing side of the game degenerated to picking away at the broken or abandoned houses lurking at the bottom of the list, and skipping pages and pages of houses to find them.

From my perspective, players had pushed the game in an interesting and unexpected direction: they were getting so good at the game that they seemed to be designing real locks, tile by tile. Security through puzzles. So this was a puzzle game, after all, and not a tactical game!

I was a little uncertain about this, but there seemed to be no way around it: even if I doubled the backpack size, puzzles would still be possible with 17-thick walls. And making the backpack even bigger than that (like 30, the width of the map) would be unwieldy and also completely subvert house design (if you could plow through any obstacle by cutting, what would be the point of designing a house at all?).

Still, there was a huge problem: hidden information (through limited visibility) meant that practically-impossible puzzles were easy to make.

Amid deep community worries about ruining the game, I thought about ways to reveal this information. I didn't want to spoil the "sneaking around a dark house" feel that the visibility shroud creates, so I wanted a source of information that was separate from the robbing view. Blueprints seemed thematically appropriate: suppose you could study a house design in its entirety, before you even stepped in the door?


Combination locks would be easy to bypass, since you could see the otherwise-hidden logic of their inner workings. But would this ruin puzzles in the game? I knew that the answer to this question was provably "no" through some very dusty memories from computer science classes long ago. Any suitably-powerful formal system can be used to encode expressions from other formal systems. Thus, provably hard-to-solve problems (from logic, for example) could be encoded into Castle Doctrine maps in a way such that reaching the vault on the map would provide a solution to the encoded problem. Essentially, there was no limit to how hard a Castle Doctrine puzzle could be, even with no hidden information.

And sure enough, with the advent of blueprints, top-house puzzle complexity exploded, getting harder as needed. At one point, a house remained at the top of the list for a full week before it was solved. So, the puzzle aspect of the game wasn't ruined by full information. At that point, I realized that puzzles rarely have hidden information, almost by definition. Hidden information turns a puzzle into a trial-and-error guessing game.


But something else happened in response to blueprints: the game world was split in two, with one small portion pushed way up, and the rest of it pushed way down. If you were clever enough to design a really hard puzzle (basically requiring that you be a practicing electrical engineer---even I had trouble doing it), then you could keep people out for a long time and prosper in the game. Everyone else, however, would design a house that would be broken right away through the reveal of its internals. These players, who were also unable to crack the hard houses, had nothing worthwhile to do and left the game. The remaining engineer-type players were secure in their puzzle-fortresses with too much to lose, so they couldn't even risk robbing each other.

Every once in a while, after time passed for sufficient study, one of these top houses would be solved. But doing so required days of painstaking work on the part of the solver. I'm sure those final moments of victory were some of their most exquisite game experiences, but that experience was out of reach for almost everyone, including me (I spent several hours trying to figure out one of the top houses, only to eventually resign to the fact that it was beyond my capabilities).


So, it was clear that something had to change, but what? I could remove this or that feature to limit puzzle design in this or that way, but it was clear that anything short of drastic limitations would still allow sufficient complexity for provably-hard puzzles to emerge. I certainly didn't want to make a game with no wiring, but even then, a maze with moving animals might be enough for provably-hard puzzles. Chipping away clearly wasn't going to work.

I was also uneasy about the way blueprints had changed the feel of the game. You were no longer sneaking your way through a mysterious house, coming around corners and being shocked by what you discovered. You saw it all up-front, so you knew exactly what to expect.

Still, without blueprints, combination locks would rear their heads again, right? And what about real puzzles, where hidden information has no place?

Then I realized something: I never wanted to make a puzzle game here. Looking back through my notes from the fall of 2011, the word "puzzle" does not occur. But the game grew into a puzzle game, and I fostered that. My original vision of a tactical, player-generated, Roguelike, every-cycling arms race was nowhere to be found, though. Was there some way to get it back?

The problem, it seemed, were puzzles. Puzzles aren't tactical and in-the-moment. They're about studying something from the outside and discovering the one, correct solution, and then applying it. But if players can design anything they want, won't they be able to make puzzles? Well, only if they can somehow force other players to solve the puzzles. The 9-thick wall trick was the first step taken in this direction: "You cannot bypass my buttons now. You must figure out how to press them correctly to pass."

What if there was some way to bypass anything, eventually? Then the keystone of the problem became clear: the 8-slot backpack (or the N-slot backpack). What if players had infinite backpacks? Well, then they'd just plow through everything and not even need to think. But what if there was a way to balance it so that there was an enormous cost to doing this?

First of all, what if tools were much more expensive? Then you'd certainly think before you'd use one. But still, you might as well fill the backpack to the brim for every outing. Then you'd have plenty of whatever you'd happen to need. You might think a bit in order to conserve tools, but every house would be crackable in one go, and you wouldn't make any hard choices about what to carry. No cycling arms race. That's what the original limit of 8 slots was for---to force hard choices. But house designers exploited that known limit to the point where tools became useless (no choices at all).

So, there has to be some cost to a brim-full backpack. What if unused tools are lost at the end of every robbery? So if you bring 100 saws, but there are nothing but concrete walls, you're really screwed. You'd need to scout, and plan, and think, and come in with just a few tools to scout some more, and then finally load up with exactly the right combination to get through the house (and then perhaps find that the owner made last-minute changes that screw you).

And thematically, this makes some sense. You need to empty your backpack to carry out the loot. And if you run out the door without taking anything, you're in such a hurry that you ditch your backpack. Even more interesting: what if the extra tools you ditch end up in the owner's vault?

This has the nice side-effect of bringing a cost to scouting that seemed to be missing. It also helps to grow the prize in a well-scouted house, and can leave a victimized owner with a little something as a bootstrap (the extra tools left by the robber who reached the vault).

Of course, there's a sticking point that prevented me from seeing this solution all along: an infinite backpack isn't realistic. But this game wasn't meant to be realistic, obviously.


Thus, with a great hopefulness, I give you version 9 of The Castle Doctrine. A game with hidden information and soft puzzles, where with enough money, you can buy your way through anything, but where money is so scarce that you'll end up thinking your way through most things. Where you'll sneak around corners, make tactical decision, and try to take subtle advantage of current trends. And where you'll die. A lot. At least that part hasn't changed.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

Discuss this post in the forums


[6 in Archive]