Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getting High

There are two attitudes towards the game with which I find myself with at odds lately.  I'd like to address them both evenly, with an effort to understand the premise behind either.

These two attitudes would be as follows:  those who become so wrapped up in the reality that is being depicted that they seem to forget that this is a game, and those who become so wrapped up in gamesmanship that they seem to forget that it is meant to be an emotional experience.

Without defending that is that sort of experience, and without needing to defend that it is a game, let's consider instead why or how these attitudes arise, without the usual Alexis-style inclination to superiority.

Gamesmanship seems to be a watchword of late.  Wikipedia calls it ". . . the use of dubious (although not technically illegal) methods to win or gain a serious advantage in a game or sport."  Please do have a look at the whole entry, and give thought to the fact that this is a circumstance that arises in every other game that humans play.  With that in mind, it's important to realize that the 'need to win' is a human condition, that arises from more than just want RPGs call rules lawyering or power play.

Where would that need to win come from?  First principles dictate that we examine the people who practice gamesmanship for an answer.  An obvious theory is that the individual believes that they're unable to 'win' without practicing gamesmanship, but I find that's a simplification.  As humans we are biologically programmed to seek not only success, but success at the least possible cost.  This means, you might be able to kill the mastodon with a spear, but it is a lot easier to make the mastodon walk off a cliff.  The fact that you do the latter does not prove that you cannot do the former, or even that you wouldn't do the former, if you were compelled to.  It does mean that you'd rather be somewhat farther away when the mastodon dies, as the meat tastes the same and your life was never in danger.

Thus, the player might be able to play on an equal level to anyone - it's only that they've found it easier to WIN by 'breaking the flow' of the opponent, messing with their head, etc.  Technically, the 'gamer' (if we can co-opt the term for the basis of this post only, as someone who participates in gamesmanship) has merely evolved a better set of practices in order to win the game.  If winning games defined the survival of the species, gamer clans would out compete non-gamer clans.  Which is actually what prehistorically occurred.

But, this is not survival, this is real life.  So we must assume that somewhere down the line, the gamer skipped over the social compact of playing the game in a polite, pleasant manner (quite a lot of gamers, I'm sure, have been punched out and dumped in the alleys behind pubs because they won't shut up while their opponents throw darts).  Why does the gamer not view the social compact as more important than winning?

Because the gamer does not feel the compact.  Of late I've been parsing out the brilliant content of this video, which goes into the differences between endorphins, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin.  While the reader should get a look at the video (yes, more homework!), I'll cover this quickly.  Oxytocin is the good feeling you get from being with friends, from hanging with them, from the sense that you're safe and that they are your people.  You feel good.  That oxytocin.

Seratonin is a drug that your body produces that makes you feel good when you've achieved control, or status, or that you've done something to be proud about.  It's the feeling you get as a DM when the players tell you that you're amazing, or when they're all listening closely to your every word.  Feels good, doesn't it? That's seratonin.

When you are at a table playing the game for the sake of the game, and having a really good time because you're with your friends, and the game is great and the chatter is good, and you feel like this is what the game should be, you're looking for that oxytocin high.  But when you're with one player who's trying to play the system and make it work their way, to get the items they want and the things they need, to feel strong and powerful, they're not looking for oxytocin.  They're looking for a seratonin high.  And that's why it feels wrong.  You, me, all of us - we're just bags of chemicals.  And when the chemical you're wanting isn't the same chemical they want, things go bad.

Now, it's no one's fault.  Some people get a better high from seratonin than they do from oxytocin, because they're built that way.  And the reverse is true, too.  When you're telling the seratonin-user to relax and not make such a big deal of the game, you're essentially saying, "Hey, stop using your drug; use mine."  But the seratonin-user has probably tried your drug, and the high they get from oxytocin isn't as HIGH as the one they get from seratonin, so from their perspective you're really saying, "You're not allowed to have as much fun as you can."

And when you, the seratonin-user tells the others, "Hey, you gotta play harder, you gotta go for it," they don't agree, because they're getting a way better hit from oxytocin than they've ever gotten from seratonin. So they don't get you.

And that's how it goes with humans.

So let's look at the other thing, those players - mostly DMs - who are more interested in the reality of the game than they seem to forget that its a game.  What are they getting high on?

Dopamine is a drug your body provides you with when you found what you're looking for, or if you've accomplished something you've set out to accomplish.  Video games are huge dopamine providers. Everything in a video game is designed to trick your body into thinking that it has done something that will contribute to your survival - and whenever you do anything that will contribute to your survival, your brain activates the hormone that produces dopamine, and you get HIGH.

The reason why the coins make a little sound when you grab them in Mario?  Dopamine.  Your eyes, linked with your hearing, reacting to a sound that is similar to the sound of a stone chipping off a bit of flint on an Acheulean hand axe, which our ancestors chopped and made for perhaps a million years or more.

You grab that little coin, you hear that little *ding* and . . . dopamine.

We get our dopamine hits in all kinds of ways.  I make maps, for instance.  And fundamentally, there is an equation between making something realistic in the game and getting a really solid dopamine hit.  The more 'real' it is, or the more 'real' it seems, the bigger the hit, so we feel something really profound when we realize that weapons hitting shields should splinter them, and we make rules for that.  We think weapons should hit different parts of the body, so we make rules for that.  We think healing plants don't all grow at the same rate, so we make rules that say these plants will heal as much as this, and those plants will heal more.  Then we ask the players to lay out multiple pages of notes and accounting in order to compensate for all the rules we've just made.  At some point we've forgotten that we're making a game in favour of making our own personal Acheulean hand axe.  Because we get a WAY bigger high from dopamine than we do from oxytocin.

This is a sort of DM thing.  Oxytocin is nice, but the dopamine high mixed with seratonin is better.  Except that when we have a player that's got a seratonin fix, the DM's leadership is challenged, undermining the DM high, and conflict erupts.

Yes, like I said.  You're a big bag of chemicals.

Some of you might be asking, what's the answer.  Well, there is none.  A seratonin-user isn't going to get as much from oxytocin as someone else might, and that's biology. That's out of our hands.  All these chemicals arise out of the body's autonomic response system, the hormones, which is a form of evolution that predates the spinal cortex, but which we've inherited because we ultimately descended from worms.  We are stuck with these chemicals.  We can't think our way out of them.

We might, conceivably, take a stand that we're willing to relax our personal need to get as high as we are able for the sake of the general interest - but that is going to mean establishing a general interest that embraces everyone at your gaming table, as well as yourself.  For example, that this is a game.  That it is meant to be played as a game, by rules we all agree on.  We need to agree that our individual dopamine, seratonin or oxytocin highs might need to be acknowledged and managed.

But let's admit something.  Oxytocin is the good drug.  It's the community drug.  It's the drug that doesn't depend on serving yourself (like dopamine) or pronouncing your dominance over others (like seratonin). Oxytocin is the drug that makes us feel glad just to be together.

We need to get high on that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Healing Salves

Returning to the subject of D&D, I wanted to record some of a conversation I was having last night with my own smart life partner, about recipes or formulas for making potions and other magic items. In particular, the making of something I use in my campaigns, called healing salve.

This is a very simple sort of magic that I allow to be purchased.  I don't like the purchase of magic items, but there are a few very minor ones that I consider to be common enough that they would exist in abundance, without overbalancing the power structure that I consider delicately reflects that of the real world, circa 1650.

One such item is the healing salve.  This is a simple packet, typically a liquidy powder, that can be eaten or poured directly into a wound, which restores 1d4 damage virtually instantaneously (call it half a round, or about six seconds).  If the wound is bleeding, the salve will close the wound up immediately, even if it only heals 1 point.  It takes a character one round to administer the salve, either on themselves or on others.  Typically, depending on where the party is in my world, a salve can go for as little as 75 to as much as 200 g.p.  It is often not available, or available in small amounts, and parties will snap up all they can find if it turns up on an equipment list.

On the list of things that an alchemist could fabricate, from yesterday's post, is the healing salve, and there's no question that someone will rush to make it as soon as they are able.  So the subject of 'how it is made' is bound to come up.

The first notion that we're likely to have is that it is made from some part of a given creature's anatomy, so that the party has to rush out and kill the creature, probably in a careful manner, to get the blood or ichor or fingernails of the beast, whatever seems most annoying.  This would then send the party on an endless quest to kill trolls (regenerating makes an obvious healing ingredient), flesh golems (reconstituted life), giant slugs or worms (most sponges, annelids and the like heal rather easily) and so on.  Unfortunately, doing so would make the game into Quest for Worms, which the party would probably pursue endlessly.

Another idea that we had last night was more interesting, practical and most importantly game-friendly.  Suppose that the seeds for the medicinal plants needed to create the healing salve were fairly easy to get, and fairly inexpensive (say, a gold coin per seed).  The seeds could only be planted during a 10 day period late in the spring, and had a 63 day growth period before harvesting.  During that time, they would have to be watched very closely by the druid, which would restrict the druid from doing anything else for 2 months.  Each week, the druid would have to make a roll for every plant, to see if the plant died.  The roll would improve as the druid's study points improved.  There'd be a limit on how many plants a druid could conceivably manage, perhaps a hundred, and attempts to manage more would drastically increase the likelihood of plants dying.

At the end of the 9-week period, the remaining plants would be harvested.  To transform these plant into a packet of healing salve per plant would take three weeks, which wouldn't be expensive but would require intensive effort by the druid (nothing could be allowed to interrupt the process).  At the end of the effort, the druid would produce perhaps 60-80 packets, depending on the success of each operation.  Cost, as I say, would be about 1 g.p. per packet.

However, having now created these healing salves, the party could do nothing to make more of them until the following spring!  That means, although they can make a ton, for 12 months, the number is limited, and they have to be reserved.  Each one that is used is used with the recognition that these have to last.

Moreover, as planting time approaches, the party must somehow return to one of those parts of the world where the plant grows, or miss a whole year of crop growing.

I really like this system, as it encourages freedom for a lot of the year for the party, so they are not endlessly hunting some animal, while at the same time still offering a limitation to how much salve they can reasonably make.  It helps stabilize the party's wanderings, and promotes a community association for the months when the party returns 'home' to grow more plants.

This is game play on a very powerful, meaningful level ... and as I was told yesterday by Maxwell Joslyn, it does the heavy lifting for me.

Smart People

This will probably be the strangest post ever found on this blog, because it is a radical departure from every sort of post I've written; in another blog, the post wouldn't seem odd at all, but coming from me some readers will check to see if this is really Tao of D&D.  Rest assured, I'll be writing another brief post in about an hour, so try to overlook this one if it is just too weird.

I watch a lot of British Television.  This is partly because the British are willing to let people talk about sex openly, partly because people are allowed to swear and act like human beings, but it is MOSTLY because being smart, blatantly smart, on television is something that is celebrated and encouraged.  People willfully make fun of stupidity, they denegrate behaviour which Americans and Canadians tolerate, and overall there is an attitude that, on the whole, the people who act badly are not those pointing out that there are people in the world who act badly.

There are a number of shows on you tube that can be watched, which are so different from North American television as to be from another world.  These follow a premise that allows the presenters to speak in a non-scripted, witty manner, and to banter among themselves.  Shows like Q.I., You Have Been Watching, Eight out of Ten Cats, News Wipe, Would I Lie to You, Was it Something I Said, The Bubble, TV Heaven Telly Hell, and the Graham Norton Show, where Americans turn up on a program where alcoholic drinking is allowed on camera and even encouraged.  Watch Bill Murray get drunk on this episode as it progresses - after clearly being drunk at the start.  Be warned, however, that Graham Norton is extraordinarily gay and absolutely no one cares.  And, too, I'd like to throw in some radio programs, such as Heresy and The Unbelievable Truth.

Now, I like smart people.  I am a smart person, and sometimes I feel as though I am the only one that exists.  I also like very witty people, and very sarcastic people.  And this is why, for reasons that escape me, I find myself following closely the careers of two utterly remarkable people, neither of whom could be who they are outside of Britain ... namely, Victoria Coren and David Mitchell.  Who, after appearing on various panel shows after 2007, were married on November 17, 2012.

It would be impossible to explain how deeply vicious both individuals are, or how intelligent.  For me, this goes a long way to summing up Mitchell, but it really is only a bit of gathering how fast the man's mind works, which is evident from watching 10 O'clock Live, which features Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne as well.

Coren has to be understood partly through episodes like this from Heresy (where she speaks with Mitchell before they got married), her hosting of Only Connect, rants like this and her obsession with poker.

I am fascinated by these two people, and I particularly enjoy the occasional comment they'll make about each other as they appear on various panel shows, where everyone in British Television knows everyone else, and will occasionally tease either him or her.

The motivation for this post, which has nothing whatsoever to do with D&D, is from this excerpt of David Mitchell's biography, David Mitchell: Back Story:

No one in the North American media would ever, ever, be this genuine.  Smart people should only marry smart people.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Druids & Alchemy

I can't imagine there's anyone out there reading who hasn't come across this yet, but I had been working on redoing my sage abilities from ages ago.  The Work blog, that hasn't gotten that much attention, has new content, mostly applied to the cleric.  I've just put up a first one for the druid, which doesn't include as much as I'd like . . . but it talks about Alchemy, which I'd like to discuss here.

Here's the reprinted Alchemy section:

Amateur: distill liquid, identify substance, prepare ingestive poisons, smelt natural metals
Authority: fabricate minor acids, ointments & salves, identify uncommon substance, isolate gas, prepare insinuative poisons
Expert: fabricate & identify major ointments, paints & potions, smelt magical metals
Sage: fabricate exceptional elements

Each of the above presumes that the druid is in possession of the necessary space, tools, furnace, materials and ingredients required to create each of the above substances. It should also be clear that, unless the druid possesses other skills that may originate elsewhere, the various metals, earths, liquids and so on that are created cannot be then manufactured into items. For example, while the expert may be able to smelt mithril, it does not follow that the individual would then be able to process that metal into a sword or armor. Such would require an artisan with those skills. Similarly, while the druid might be able to create a potion of fire resistance, it does not then follow that this ability could be installed into a suit of armor or a helmet. The druid can create the potion, not the effect as it would occur in other mediums.

Moreover, note that none of the above is created by spell or magic, but rather by hard, difficult work. Some items, such as the creation of the portable hole (which is a pure elemental substance) would be subject to danger rolls, in keeping with the DMG’s discussion of such things. The creation of these things will take time, effort and coin, along with potential loss of health.

Distilled liquids would include pure water and alcohol, along with a host of other liquids that could be obtained from their source by the druid. Identify common substance gives the name for natural earths and liquids. Ingestive poisons must be drunk to be effective. Natural metals include those which may be obtained from earthly minerals.

Minor ointments and salves include quicksilver, gripcolle, prepared aloe and healing salve. Acids include all naturally occurring destructive liquids. Uncommon substances consist of natural concoctions or preparations. Insinuative poisons can be applied to weapons or otherwise introduced through the skin.

Major ointments include Keoghtom’s ointment. Paints are those with magical effects. Potions include all those listed among magic items. Magical metals include adamantium and mithril.

Exceptional elements include the lodestone or luckstone, the aforementioned portable hole, the smoke contained in the ever-smoking bottle, along with a host of other similar magic items where the substance itself is the magic.

And here the blog continues . . .

I must admit, from the point of view of a DM, the above is terrifying.  The idea that a player could substantially make a portable hole, and indeed more than one (presumably a second one would be easier than the first, as mistakes were skipped), seems like far, far too much power for a player to have.  And yet we presume these magic items must come from somewhere - though perhaps most DMs presume the means to make them is lost, or at least that it takes a god or something to make an item that powerful.  Perhaps it does.

The sage ability only means that the druid know HOW to make the item.  It could be that instruction #122 of portable hole manufacture reads, "Having fully prepared the mithril mesh fabric, stretching it to the tension described in point 43b, have a male demi-god of necessary strength (see Appendix K) insert his index finger into the center of the fabric and give a light stir (precise amount of agitation necessary is unfortunately unknown) in order to initiate the vacuuation process . . ."

. . . and so on.

Knowledge is only part of the battle - it must be noted that while yes, knowing something is marvelous, it is only the beginning of doing.  I'm not giving players the free ride the above would seem to be giving.  Still, as the player's character grows, it probably isn't such a big deal to let them have a reasonable number of minor magic items of their own creation, as the druid spends week after week in the isolation of a well-equipped cave . . .

The Selfish DM

Let me write something more upbeat.

There is an age-old argument against leadership that likes to use the following story.  The French Revolutionary is sitting in his house when he sees a crowd of people appear on his street outside, rushing along.  At this point he says, "There are my people; I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

The story is meant to be an indictment of politicians who spend their time pandering to their constituents, while presumably believing in nothing themselves.  And this sounds like a reasonable criticism.  IF you care what others think, you haven't the courage of your own convictions, and therefore you're a wishy-washy, flip-flopping politician subject to whatever way the wind blows.

I disagree.  I disagree because I believe it takes an amazing sort of ass to believe that the courage of one's convictions is automatically the best possible way to represent a lot of people while simulataneously ignoring what they tell you.  I would rather have a politician that listened to the people, and led in the direction the people willed, than a politician that said, "Yes, I know you have needs and ideas, but I know better."

I think both types turn up as DMs.  I think that there are DMs who do whatever the players want, and I think there are DMs who do what they themselves want, because they know better.

The argument for both politicians and for DMs is that the position suggests intelligence, motivation, education and ability.  No one could be a politician without ability (so it is opined).  The contituents don't have ability.  If they did, they would be politicians.  Comparably, the DM 'knows' more about the game than the players.  If the players knew as much as the DM, they would be running their own games.  Therefore, the players should shut up and let the DM run the game.

There are a lot of false arguments in the above, but going forward we'll just talk about how they apply to DMs.

The value in having a DM is that someone has got to have insight to the back-end of the events that are going on, who can pick the monsters and run the NPCs, and keep information secret that will yield a good game.  If a computer could do this, we wouldn't need - or want - a DM.  Unfortunately, no one can do it as well as a human, so players tolerate DMs to fulfill that role.

DMs have a tendency to view this toleration only in terms of the gratitude it implies, and very often will go one step further and presume that players are naturally obsequious louts who can be bossed around at will.  And so arises the theoretical nonsense that DMs are really the center of the game, and the players exist to service the DM's world, for worlds need players.

(this is something like Richard Dawkins argument that life is a process by which genetic codes reproduce themselves).

But ask yourself as a player.  What sort of DM would you want to play with:  a DM that views everything about the world as a gracious gift handed down from on high for the players to appreciate appropriately, as is their social position . . . or a DM who views the player's needs first and foremost, who builds the world in recognition that the DM is a representative of the player's wishes?

In the long run, if I were the first kind of DM, who demanded recognition for all my work, what sort of approval would I get from my constituents, er, players?  I may have a great world, but being a pompous ass, exactly how much loyalty will I acquire?  On the other hand, if I am the second kind of DM, where my players know that I'm designing the world to produce the very best response in answer to the input the players are giving, how important is it that my world is necessarily 'good'?

That is, wouldn't much of the goodness of the world be inherent in my treatment of the player's wishes?  And wouldn't the selfish DM's world have to be very, very good to compensate for the fact that it was all about the DM's wishes?

A bunch of players have just turned up at my doorstep.  Pardon me, I have to go find out what they want, so I can DM them.


Last week, Jeffro posted the following about Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, and I took the event to task for its appeal to nobility in the face of the bloody-mindedness that had been the Civil War. Whenever someone points out to me something noble about that war, such as Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top or pretty much anything to do with Stonewall Jackson, I find myself remembering Andersonville, Fort Pillow or the New York riots.  But then, I am built that way, and knowing it gets me thinking about Slaughterhouse Five.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is about Billy, who is unstuck in time, and thus simultaneously experiences different periods of his life without those things occurring in continuity.  One of those events is the mass bombing of Dresden, between February 13 & 15, 1945, which in the story Billy survives, written that way by Vonnegut because the writer himself was imprisoned in Dresden after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge - and survived the bombing with others in an underground meat locker that the German guards called Schlachthof Funf, or 'slaughterhouse five.'  Vonnegut's theme throughout the book is that fundamentally we survive as human beings because we remember the good and forget the bad things that happen to us.

I've always had trouble with that formula, but I don't deny it's what most people do, nor do I deny that it works.  It is much, much easier for the South to remember the signing of peace between gentlemen than the 30 thousand something prisoners who died under horrific conditions in Andersonville.  My mind, however, always goes to dark places.

It is the reason why I often do not get along with other historians, because it seems to me that historians more than anyone like to cherry pick the events of the past, particularly upon the subject of atrocities.  George Santayana's words, that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is sadly quoted to much by people who do not know that Santayana also said, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there."  I think truly the second quote hits closer to the mark.  To it, I will add one of my own.  The history we think we remember is a lie of omission.

Vonnegut's argument is that we do that because we would go crazy as a society if we lived too near the truth.  Perhaps I'm only dark in my outlook because I never have been that close to the truth.  I've never been in a war-zone.  I've never seen people blown apart.  I've never had a pistol pointed at my head.  Every idea that I have about the horrors of anything are second hand, at best.  The omission in my understanding of violent history is that I've never experienced any.

Perhaps that is why my dearest time is spent in one of two unreal dreams.  I am either writing, or I am designing, things that haven't happened to people who don't exist, for the sake of an ersatz emotion for deaths that cannot occur.  Perhaps it is my tendency to escape into a mock recreation of violence - rather than nobility - that drives the game world I fabricate and run.  I feed my dark side while admitting that I would not want to do so by travelling to modern day Liberia, Zaire or Afghanistan.  If I truly had a dark side, if my mind were truly driven towards comprehension and understanding, then surely the logical course of action would be to set aside the game and partake in the reality.

I omit that option, though, and cheat by getting upset over the brutal events of history.  I am no different than those who cheat by swelling with pride over the noble events of history.  It is two sides of a coin.  I am simply remembering the other side.  I only run a dark world, with dark people in it, because that is my particular fetish.

Doesn't make me better.  Only makes me different.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Replacing Work

I find myself at odds.

This last weekend I spent most of my available time re-writing the 10,000 word How to Play a Character post ... realizing, naturally, that the post on the blog is sort of in the ball park but is in fact an awful lot of shit posing as advice.  An awful lot.  But this is how writing is.  In retrospect, all the works of genius that we think we've written turn out to be just so much crap (if it doesn't, then I don't want to ever read anything you've written), so we rework it, rewrite it, clarify the bumpy parts and do a better job.  Good work is sometimes done off the cuff ... but good writing is a lot of good work done over and over again.

The question is, in reworking the How to Play post for the essay book, should I:  a) delete the original post from the blog; b) leave the blog as is; or c) update the blog to reflect the book version.

Sorry, I should explain about the essay book, for those who don't know.  In the interest of raising additional money for printing costs, I'm taking up Tim Brannan's suggestion of putting together some of the good blog posts from the past into an essay book, obviously updating and improving the writing.  This I am doing.

I don't think option (c) above would hurt my sales.  I know that many of you out there plan to buy the book just to support me, while many of the people I would be selling the book to have never heard of the blog.  It has the beauty of hiding my errors and making me look like a better writer.

(b), however, has the beauty of exposing my errors and proving that not only am I not perfect, no one has to be in order to be a better DM, or a better writer.  Plus it offers the opportunity to be genuine.  Which I like. Still, people could read the original and think, "Wow, the essay book must be awful," a fair assessment from how bad I think that original blog post is, now that I've looked closely at it.

(a), deleting it completely, is the really cheap option.  The business model option, to be honest, the option that Monsanto would do because corporations think along the lines of, if you take it away people are more likely to pay for it.  I don't like option (a).  At all.  I include it because someone is going to suggest it, and because I want to express my awareness that the option exists.  I frankly don't think the option is a good one.

The same three options exist, of course, for any other former blog post I'm going to work on.  I've identified six I plan to include; I need two more, which I haven't quite decided upon.  The Steamy Sex post, though very popular, will not be one of them.  I did consider it.

I'll have to decide upon some precedent for all of them.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Building a Market

Because I work in an extraordinarily normal setting, in a building with extraordinarily normal business-people (white males aged 25 to 50, white females aged 20 to 35), I had to make up my mind early about whether or not I was going to mention that I was working on a book ... considering the content of that book. If we want to talk about conservative central regarding whether or not anyone around role-plays, well, they've heard of it.  Some of their kids do.  They don't really get it.  For them, particularly the higher-status types, 'role-play' is that thing you do where a team of people on retreat try to cross a mock stream in the foyer of the company's hotel through cooperation.  It isn't what people would call 'a good time.'

My decision was do more than admit what I was doing, but to deliberately call attention to it.  If I'm asked by someone, "How are you doing" - that absolutely everybody asks - I tell them, straight out.  Full title, all the content, etc., as if they're going to understand what I'm saying.  And I get some interesting responses.

The first group absolutely has no idea what I'm talking about.  They've never heard of role-playing, they don't know what a 'player' is, much less a DM or D&D.  This people are utterly, completely clueless, and it is really quite marvelous that they still exist.  Incidentally, they also tend to be among the better paid lower-level executives in the 20-30 age range.  These are people who went straight from the prom-planning committee and fraternities/sororities into business school and employment with daddy/mommy's brother/friend/ex-college roommate.  There's no table at Las Vegas that gives odds on role-playing, so these people don't know what it is.  Real pity, though, as these people also have a lot of money that is virtually worthless to them.

The second group includes the largest portion - they've heard of role-playing, most often D&D, on television or other media.  About it, they know nothing.  Their eyes show a tiny bit of fear as you talk, as they are completely clueless and anyone knowing something they don't know is a bit upsetting.  Understand, these are sheltered, sheltered people.  They don't go to clubs, they have families, mostly with kids in the infant to ten range, and their lives are mostly taken up with school, events, holidays and social clubs to which they belong. Anything outside that zone of comfort tends to upset them, which explains why things like extra taxes and pet registrations give them the night tremors.  I must admit, I take a sort of pleasure in going on with them a bit over-long as they're taking pains to be polite, but one hopes they might someday meet someone, or have a child someday, that will also play, and they will remember I'm out here and that I am the master.  So goes networking.

The third group is more interesting.  Not only have they heard of gaming, they've actually seen it.  They haven't played, and they know just enough to know that it is something I ought to be ashamed of.  That's even better to see in their eyes than fear.  Once again, they're polite (though a little more abrupt, because they've been haranged before by role-players), and every once in awhile they'll ask something like, "So, do you talk about various games, that kind of thing?"  I have to love that, since then I can launch into the fact that no, no games, but an in-depth evaluation of how to obtain emotional responses from groups of people through dramatic presentation, reading people as you do so, dealing with stress among large groups and how otherwise to handle groups to encourage them to feel motivated and interested, etc.  That usually gets a sort of glazed-eye response, followed by quick excuses and a need to get away from the 'crazy person,' that being me.  It must be remembered, if I were writing an advanced account of the Ghibelline-Guelph conflicts in Florence and Tuscany circa 14th-15th centuries, the response would be about the same.  The same rule applies - these people might meet someone who plays.

Now, the fourth group used to play.  And conversations there go as expected, depending on what game they used to play and how much they remember.  Usually not much.  In six months of talking straight with business people, I've met exactly one fellow like this.  He's in IT.

The fifth group should be people who are playing now, but there are no people I've met who are playing now.  That doesn't mean they don't exist ... I can only speak for the monkey sphere that's closest to me, some 150, perhaps 200 people, who run across my path now and them in some capacity or other.

This is why occasionally on the blog I make some point about people being largely ignorant about role-playing.  I doubt there are more than two or three dozen people in my entire building, of about 4,000, who have ever played DDO or even Warhammer ... these people have money, and they spend their weekends skiing, playing golf, drinking heavily, etc.  They don't videogame.  I know this because when in a media discussion, about the media, or about the state of the media industry comes up, it is very plain that no one has a clue.  It's quite profound to see.  Yes, there are people in the world who do not know that video-games are a big deal.  A rather frightening number of people, actually.  Who have money, and who have control over a LOT of money.

Food for thought.

I intend to go on telling people what I'm doing.  Every kind of person.  I can't build a market by relying only upon the market someone else built.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Misers and Non-Problems

How long it seems since I have written purely about D&D here.  Yet every waking minute it seems I write about nothing else.  The DM, the DM, the DM, those are my waking thoughts, and about the DM I write and write.

A few days ago John Arendt of Dreams in the Lich House talked about The Vast Wealth of Dungeons, and I have from time to time been thinking about it.  The presupposition is, of course, that the DMG gives the 'right' amount of experience necessary to go up a level, or the 'right' amount of experience for monsters that are to be killed, such as saying that if I need 2,000 x.p. as a fighter, and I expect to get that strictly from killing goblins (speaking the Dungeon Master's Guide here, sorry to the later edition readers), that I must kill 137.931034 goblins to reach second level, on average.  If I don't want to kill all those goblins, of course I can supplement the experience with gold I find, an average of something like 123 g.p. per 10 goblins, or something like that, if we're basing the numbers on the treasure table generated by the Dungeon Generator in the index.

But what does any of that matter.  Why even state definitively that the fighter needs 2,000 experience? Several people at the Lich House talked about using silver instead of gold, and given experience for silver (which I did myself once, in the game I ran through the 80s), but why not simply give experience for very, very rare gold and cut the actual amount of experience down to 200, or 20?  It is only a ratio after all.  The important thing isn't how much experience in round numbers is necessary, but how the experience compares from class to class or level to level.  If the fighter needs 20 x.p. to get to second level, and to get 1 x.p. requires finding a gold piece that 1/100th as common as it is in ordinary D&D, or 1 x.p. requires killing an opponent of equal or greater strength (or a group of opponents of approximately equal strength), the system works precisely the same.  And it gets rid of all that gold choking up the hallways of dungeons.  Remember, the number "2,000" was just pulled out of the gamemaker's ass.  It wasn't written in stone and given to Father Abraham upon his departing Mesopotamia.

We have a strange habit of seeing problems that aren't really problems, they are merely issues of scale.  If the scale of coin is an unworkable issue for your campaign, than simply change the scale.  Does it really matter how much gold exists in the world?  Is that a creditable issue?  If it is the weight of all that gold that bothers you, remember that gold coins in the Roman era weighed only 7 grams.  That's a quarter of a troy ounce, or 64 coins to the pound.  Of gold.  And a pound of gold doesn't take very much space, you may believe that. The specific gravity of gold is 19.3.  These small coins didn't seem to confuse the Romans at all, and weren't of course entirely of gold ... which meant they were somewhat less dense than 19.3 grams to the cubic centimeter.  Still, it was mixed with other dense metals, namely silver and copper.  So you see, you could get a lot more into a sack that the rather silly 200 that's named in AD&D, so having 10,000 gold just doesn't take up as much space as you think.

And what difference does it make if a suit of armor costs 5 gold, 50 gold or 5,000 gold.  Don't you think that a theatre-goer of 1945, who used to pay eight cents to view a movie, would think you were silly for spending twenty dollars?  The cost of things is entirely relative.  You don't make something more 'realistic' by supposedly removing the inflationary price of things.  Where do you begin considering where the 'inflation' started?  Silent movies used to be a penny.  It was inconceivable that a movie would ever cost eight cents.

Much of your perception of 'too much gold' or 'dungeons filled with gold' are really only prejudices, not actual game problems.  As game problems, they are painfully easy to solve.  The difficulty isn't how much wealth exists, or how much coin, it's how much coin does he, an admiral, have compared to her, the madam of a successful brothel?  How much gold do 50 orcs have compared to three minotaurs?  Those are actual problems.  The distribution of coin compared to the relative difficulty in acquiring it.  If we're going to offer a bit of brain sweat, let's apply it there.

Let me just end with a small addendum, about those out there who might think, regarding the post from earlier today, that I'm wrong to put a cute girl on a T-shirt to make an impression. What exactly is this, an image of Ava Gardner from the 1954 film, The Barefoot Contessa ... bad thinking?

It is an awful shock, but people like beautiful people. All the insistence of others that we shouldn't has little weight where it comes to encouraging people to buy something. Moreover, I like Ava Gardner in this movie. I like the movie as well, and strangely feel the need to review what it says about wealth and success and purpose often. But the reality is that I am biologically designed to find Ava Gardner attractive, and her appearance in this film, which is about the attractiveness of a woman who nevertheless eschews her attractiveness, came about because film-makers at the time recognized that human nature is a better selling tool than guilt or finger-wagging.

Whatever you wish to do with the coin of your world, comprehend that biologically players are also inclined to like gold, and to want to pour it over themselves, and feel they have a lot of it, because it makes them happy.  And if you will take a stance that insists that your players be ascetics, you've got to realize that you're going against nature, and that in the long run you're going to lose.

One would have to wonder, why would you be such a miser anyway, with something that doesn't cost you anything to make?

Roll 'Em

Because we are setting up a fundraiser in June to pay for printing costs and the price of travelling to Toronto this August, we are looking for additional things to sell.  My daughter commissioned this T-shirt design, which we plan to have on sale within six weeks.  Let me know what you think of it, and make a suggestion or two about what catchy expression it needs:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bad Bubble! Bad Bad Bad!

If you're finding lately that people are giving you a hard time for your interest in role-playing games, or if you worry about how socially leprous they are, or whether or not you feel free to comment about them in the public space where you work or play, then you should have a close look at this:

This is a screenshot from a pro-anorexia website, in which people with eating disorders join together to share tips, give support and discuss their day-to-day activities in order to jointly pursue the practice of remaining true to their disorder.  Please take note, this is not for people who want to stop being anorexic.  This is for people who love it, who don't want to stop doing it, and who want to talk to others about that.  The general discussions forum on the website that I took the above image from lists 821,176 replies at the time of this writing.  3 replies came in over the time it took to write this paragraph.

What must be recognized is how this differs powerfully from the liberal sensibilities message that permeates the society, which rails that people must not take part in any sort of destructive activity, including self-destructive.  These people do not care.  They do not care about your opinion nor mine regarding activities they embrace.

I wish I could find an online group of role-players who were that dedicated about their passion.

Because I'm not a journalist, but a blogger, and I have no institution to which I must genuflect in order to write this post, I don't have to now provide a packaged sort of phrase about the morality of the above.  I have been a journalist.  I may again be a journalist, if a job ever materialized again for me in this paper-dead culture.  But I don't consider myself a journalist right now, and thank you, I don't want to be one.  That is because, partly for reasons I gave last Wednesday, journalism is a corrupt, institutionalized information-delivery system whose cracks have begun to show.

I do not know about the reader, but recently I have begun to notice how mythological the depiction of journalism is of late.  Here I am thinking of journalists as they appear in shows like Kevin Spacey's House of Cards or Antoine Fuqua's collapsed vehicle Boss ... in which journalists are still depicted as though this were the 1970s All the President's Men and not the modern ridiculousness of the New York Times, the lately corrupt and dead News of the World, or television's Fox News or CNN, where speculation and idiocy have replaced investigative journalism.  No one, anywhere, has the budget or the time or even the inclination for investigative journalism, which is more than evident in the total lack of useful foreign news that can be gotten from a North American vendor (I am including the Canadian press and media in this).  It is terribly convenient for drama to still imagine an editor who can throw on a coat and rush out to talk to a source, but it is silly in the extreme.  No one does this any more, and anyone who tried would quickly be fired.

I include Aaron Sorkin here with his completely out-of-date The Newsroom, which is a sometimes painful so-called political drama show where everyone ACTS like the world still works like it did in 1965, while simultaneously LAMENTING that the world does not work like it did in 1965.  It is a bizarre mix of cognitive dissonance, both of the writer and anyone who is apparently funding the show, to an audience clearly out of touch with the internet - but then, I said yesterday that television hates the internet.

Because I am not a journalist, I don't have to justify any of the above except to say, 'my opinion.'  The only value my opinion has is that it strikes a chord with people, who presumably are nodding their heads as they read along.  I am, therefore, preaching to the choir ... but there are worse places to preach.

One thing that the media really, really hates is the 'bubble.'  That is, the one you live in, where you only read the things that interest you, or that you agree with.  This is bad for you, very bad.  Mostly because it means you won't be listening to the advertising that funds the media, because the very WORST thing about the bubble is that you're not interested in buying things you don't like, either.  Basically, the media can't reach you, they can't preach to you, they can't program you and they can't put a bug in your ear to waste your money on their products.

This is bad for them, very bad.

It does mean, however, that you'll spend your morning, or your evening, floating around a lot of free content on the net that has been written today about D&D and other things that fascinate you, instead of watching a lot of bad programming and reading a lot of bad journalism that doesn't fascinate you.  Oh, the bad, bad bubble.

When someone tells you that something is bad for you, the first thing you should wonder is what are they selling?

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Miserable Plight of Producers Who Know Best

Right now, I would sincerely, very sincerely, like to write something on agile design, but as that is just too damn close to where I am in the book right now, I have to let that go.

The regular reader will have noticed that I haven't written a straight post since last Wednesday, and it would be fair to assume that that's because I've been busy and I haven't had time and that I've been putting my resources towards other things and so on.  That would be total bullshit, but it's a fair assumption.

The real issue would be that since Wednesday, I have been unable to stop thinking of new ways to write Wednesday's post again.  I am myself still geeking out over the philosophical premise I advanced ... and if I had written a post yesterday or Friday or any time before now, I would have hammered on the points I'd already made to no real purpose.

The best I can manage at this time is to discuss something else Clay Shirky said just five months ago, while talking about agile design and the crash and burn of Obama's .gov website for health care.  It was regarding the expectation of producing a program for the general public that would be perfect for launch-day, and how the idea that 'failure is not an option' is an idea that no engineer would embrace, as depicted in the film Apollo 13.  The error was that the government withheld everything about the .gov launch until the last possible moment, with the expectation that it would be 'perfect' upon launch, and of course it wasn't.  Public tests were not made, the disaster was augmented by the President's poor choice of speech on the day of the launch and the whole thing proved to be an unmitigated mess ... primarily because it was envisioned as something that would happen all at once, and thus make a sweeping change.

The alternative that Shirky argues, and indeed that most any engineer would argue, is that the process needs to be halted - however painful that is - as often as it needs to be halted, that failure IS an option, indeed, an expectation, and that ad hoc dates need to be suspended over the course of the product being made right.  As Shirky says, would you rather jump from the first floor forty times, or from the 40th floor once.  Too often, we're still thinking of product launches in terms of jumping from the 40th floor and hoping that we'll fly.

The reader should, from that, be able to conceive of the post that then goes on to talk about how the game world needs to be constructed in dimensions of one first-floor addition at a time, instead of trying to make the whole world at once and launch it, but I already said, I'm not talking about agile design.  Instead, I'm going to make Shirky's point again, pedantically, because damn it that's where I am right now.

The problem is, I think, that people perceive the launch of anything in the way that performances are prepared.  The cast is gathered, they're taught their lines, the scenes are blocked and the various aspects of the production are created and finished for Opening Night.  Before the curtain goes up, there is great tension from the need to give a perfect performance.  That is because everyone knows, from Hollywood if from no place else, that if the critics don't like the performance, the show will close and everyone will have to go back to dishwashing or drywalling.

It is actually a lot of shit, and particularly funny shit in the fact that Hollywood and the movies repeatedly portrays the theatrical stage in these terms mainly because the stage is competition.  It is, incidentally, the same reason that television and the movies are so repeatedly ridiculous about their depiction of the internet and computer games - there's a financial reason to downplay, for the audience, any reason to be interested in those obviously dumb and ridiculous things.  Movies and their portrayal of theatre is no different.

Remember that the movies are all about doing it until you get it right.  Thus it seems poignant to point out that theatre is obviously a lot less practical, because you can't do another take and if you don't do it perfect, the critics close you down and you all go home.

Plays in the good old days did not, however, actually open on Broadway (though they do now, which is probably why so many of them are so crappy).  What they used to do was open in Cincinnati, or Cleveland, or Buffalo, where presumably the hicks lived, and where the show and its cast could be tested.  Plays, particularly comedies, take more than rehearsing to an empty house to sort out and reach their peak quality. Timing, staging, the reliability of the performers and so on are things that can take months to smooth out ... and the best place to do that was in some reasonably sized city where an audience could be obtained as guinea pigs for an expected number of bad performances while things were improved.  Once everyone in Buffalo said the play was crap, the idea was then to move on and insult everyone in Peoria, Indianapolis and Schnectady, until the play started to get some positive local reviews in time for it to move to either Philadelphia or Boston, the last stop before it hit New York.

So, in effect, plays were, like computer programs, tested first, until they were finally put on stage in the only city that really mattered.  New York mattered because people came from all over the country, and from across the Pond, to visit New York, where they would take in a play.  People did not come from all over the country to see a play in Kalamazoo, so it didn't matter if the play bombed there.

Here's what I'm saying, that will not be included in the book.  If you're going to make a world, than what you want to do is drag your world over to some venue, preferably in Utica, because its a funny sounding name for a city, and have a bunch of people who don't matter, and about whom you don't give a fuck, play in it and give you feedback.  Then, make changes.  That's the critical part.  Make Changes.  When people in Syracuse or Waterbury didn't laugh at the neck-tie scene in the 2nd Act, they changed the necktie scene or they got rid of it.  They didn't say, "Well, the neck-tie scene worked in my opinion, the people of Waterbury just don't understand quality theatre."  Well, some people said that.  People who then went on to become plumbers and car salesmen after their producing careers ended in a sad, miserable, empty-theatre mess.

But, I know, the reader is not going to do that.  Because if there's any argument that's out there that will never change, it is that DMs know best.  Even if the table empties of players.  The DM always knows best.