Saturday, January 19, 2019

23rd Class: Conventions

Early in the course, in describing how a Novice DM handles the processes behind running an unfamiliar, complicated role-playing game, we discussed Stuart Dreyfus’ proposition that the Novice relies upon conventions, a set of if-then instructions. We did not, at that time, discuss what those conventions would be … so let us today take up that subject and investigate what we might include.

It would be preferable not to base our list upon conjecture or opinion, particularly because we ourselves are not Novices and are therefore easily led astray by those axioms we’ve developed for ourselves. The class will remember that we differentiated “axioms” from conventions, the former arising from personal observations that we accumulate through playing the game. Axioms are substantially reflective of our value system ~ the peculiar way we think that we should play the game. Conventions, on the other hand, should reflect the manner in which Novices should play ~ specifically because they are Novices and therefore lacking in the experience necessary to create their own axioms.

DMing is Scary

Therefore, upon what should we base a list of conventions? For that, let’s examine the viewpoint of the Novice when first sitting down to run the game for the first time, or at any time early in their game history.

By far, the easiest part of any role-playing game to grasp is character creation. Everything about character creation is linear, the process is usually established, a character sheet of some kind is usually included so we can clearly see all we have to do to complete the process and with character creation the rules are their most clear. Moreover, character creation can easily be practiced by the Novice as much as need be. If

the Novice wishes to save time in early runnings, because the creation time might be very long and depend on much looking up of rules, that is a convention that would be fair to suggest.

We could also argue that repeated rolling of characters with the players helps build familiarity for both DM and players at the same time, with the amount of time contracting as repetition occurs; but we could allow that to become a personal axiom for the DM once they gained personal experience with rolling up characters (thus making the DM expert for a group of novice players if that’s how it shook out).

IF there are a great many character types, and IF there are excessive numbers of skills, powers or equipment options to choose from, that in turn makes joint DM/player rolling of characters excessively drawn out, a rational convention would be to have the Novice selectively curtail the number of choices in the short term, until more personal experience is gained. For example, early D&D had less characters, less skills, less spells to choose from and a shorter equipment list. Even if more of each exists, as a convention the DM could say, “For now, you can only play these four character classes, we’re limiting the skills to this list, you can only choose from this group of powers and here is a minimal equipment list.”

Then, as the DM gains familiarity with the content, each list can be expanded piecemeal as is practical within the DM’s capacity to handle those expansions. This greatly reduces the number of elements, ideas, points to be remembered and manners in which the players can influence the campaign. While not optimal for a Competent DM with several years experience, it would be more feasible for the Novice DM who is already overwhelmed by the magnitude of these lists.

Additionally, with a greater direct knowledge of the limited player character attack forms, because it is easier to memorize less material in the short term, this empowers DMs, letting them grow familiar with those classes, skills, powers and equipment choices, encouraging confidence, a sense of control and time to expand the parts of their world they want to expand, when they are ready to do so.

We can then apply a similar convention to combat. With fewer classes to manage, we can see that the main difficulties for the Novice will be management of combat; knowing what dice to throw and when; making judgment calls on player innovation; making a measured assessment of how strong the enemy should be; plus knowing how much treasure and reward to give as compensation. Early combats can be daunting; there are many rules and exceptions to remember; players tend to get over-anxious and even upset over results; it is easy to kill a whole party, or to have the players dispatch an enemy with disappointing ease. It is very difficult for a Novice to refrain from fudging die rolls for psychological/emotional reasons, and very easy to self-justify such behavior rather than acknowledge its duplicity, again for psychological/emotional reasons. The process of judging combats is a hill to climb: how the enemy arranges themselves, how they approach the party, how they respond to success or failure, whether they are entitled to call for back-up, whether they should flee or fight to the death … all of these things temper the experience of the players, who are making the same decisions but with less resources.

To help the DM, we offer the convention of using a limited range of monster, those largely dependent on physical attacks, particularly humanoids. We suggest limiting the use of magical attacks, or don’t use them at all … at least until both the DM and the player grow used to combat and there is an increase in the DM’s ability to gauge what’s strong enough to kill the whole party too quickly. Then, again, as experience is gained, a wider range of monsters can be incorporated; and a wider range of monster tactics and defenses. It is best, in the beginning, that the Novice run all monsters as rather dense; later, these same monsters can develop intelligence and begin to act as supportive teams, while the player characters learn to do the same. As the Novice notices what the players are doing, situationally the DM can reflect that behavior in the monsters also.

By narrowing the amount of experience the DM has to have in order to run the bare necessities of play, shortening the list of character attributes and the possible types of monster enemies, we can then apply the same convention to the overall setting and the player character’s place in it. The creation of an entire world is overwhelming; even a detailed rendering of a single province, or even a complex detailing of a city, would quickly overwhelm a Novice who has never run anything like this.

Therefore, to enable the DM to have more control over the game setting, we suggest conventions such as viewing “the village” with a very simple eye. It is essentially a collection of houses surrounding a market, a tavern and a few officials or knowledgeable persons the players can turn to in times of confusion. The space around the village is filled with farms and exists primarily as a buffer between the village and any “dungeon” that might exist outside that circle. The players are led to understand that they must travel between village and the nearest adventure set piece in order to encounter foes that can then be dispatched, before returning to the village. These effectively become the focal points of our Novice setting.

It is not a “world” but is serves the base needs for a Novice’s campaign. The players require the anticipation of going to, then arriving at, a place that offers a threat to get their blood up. The intervening neutral space between the adventure and the village becomes, by default, the player characters’ moment of privacy from both risky challenge and the comparative responsibility of behaving a certain way in the village. With experience, as the village becomes a town, that sense of propriety the characters must observe becomes more obtrusive. The open road suggests freedom from convention and yet rapid proximity to return to the fight if need be.

Initially, this can be enough for a Novice. The village/town relationship to various adventure spots, with lines drawn as roads between population centers and various adventures can support game play for a few years, until such time as that convention becomes tiresome and the DM begins to crave something more three-dimensional. By that time, of course, the Novice should have advanced considerably in their knowledge of game play, combat, small location design and character building, and will be ready for a more elaborate campaign structure.

Finally, then, we have the player’s worldview, to which the Novice DM must support and empower. This can be extremely difficult for the Novice, particularly as the player’s worldview itself is rarely seen in concrete terms by the player, much less understood by the DM.

We can assume the player wants things, and we can suggest that the DM gives the players those things – but the manner of giving those things can easily break a game if the things are given too quickly or only after too much price is paid by the player. As a convention, “Give the players what they want” can easily create an uncontained nightmare of a campaign.

We do better to tell the DM, “Give the players some of what they want,” with the added caution that the DM should always leave the players wanting more. This is not, however, a particularly useful convention. For example, what wants should be given? What wants shouldn’t be. WANT is itself a very difficult philosophical conundrum in its own right. People often want things that will not satisfy them and are often surprised to find themselves satisfied by things they did not immediately want. “Always wanting more” is more often than not a recipe for disaster. More than one DM, Novice and Competent DM alike, has tried to please a party’s wants only to create dissatisfaction and resentment.

The player, apart from the intricacies of the game, is at the table seeking many things: a positive game experience; fun; a sense of community; and validation from their peers. None of these things are something the DM can “give” to the players; and are, in fact, things the DM also wants. However, while the players’ actions can obstruct these returns, the DM is ever more so in a position to undercut the overall experience of the campaign, through trying too hard to grant things or disallow actions that my fruitfully contribute to the gaming experience.

Therefore, we often hear it said that a Novice DM shouldn’t take a hard line on rules, and should feel free to “loosen up” and “have fun.” The logic for this as a convention seems sound. DMs who take the game too seriously, particularly in their early history, do sound like the sort who will block players from the good, fun, communal and social activity they’ve come to avoid.

The difficulty with the “loosen up” suggestion is, “How much?” There’s no clear cut measure for what we can define as loose and what we can define as hard line. A Novice DM may have to take a hard line against players who choose to ride rough-shod over the campaign, potentially because they feel the DM is a Novice and therefore easily manipulated. The “loose” DM might become so loose that they’re handing over to the players everything that’s asked, resulting in a campaign so short of challenge that it quickly becomes either silly or boring. In all cases, we should keep from conventions that encourage behaviour that cannot be readily defined, especially by Novices.

Because a Novice has little conception of what consists of the player’s worldview; and because any action the Novice might take towards addressing it is bound to be overcompensation or wildly guessing, it is probably best not to take any action regarding the players’ worldview at all … until the Novice acquires a clear, conscious idea of what this is. Players will want things. The Novice should take note of what things. The players will want too much and on those occasions where the Novice sees the player has been overpowered by some possessed item, the Novice should take note of that and resist the temptation to give things like this again.

The Novice shouldn’t try to take a hard line or adopt a light stance. The Novice should by convention do what seems best in the moment and what seems fair to everyone. What is best and what is fair can be determined clearly through discussion and consensus ~ which is the best way to make meaning of any campaign. DMs should not take the position that they are responsible for the players’ game experience; all participants are responsible for the game experience of everyone present. By convention, the DM should concentrate on providing an honest, clear description of the setting, with the intent of fairly responding to the players’ choices about that setting. And that is all.

By no means is this a complete list. But these are conventions we can fairly offer based on the Novice’s immediate relationship to a game form the novice does not fully understand. Any proposed convention that does not take that fact into account is very much missing the point.

Very well. We can elaborate further on the subject of Novices and Beginners with our next class.

Friday, January 18, 2019

What is D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons is a game in which a single presenter, called the Dungeon Master (DM), describes an imaginary setting to the remaining players, complete with physical features and inhabitants.  The players then adopt a mental image of a fictional character that exists inside that setting.  The character may act in whatever way the player decides, but the character's limitations are determined by rolling dice that define the character's attributes, capacity for survival, skills and possessions.

Through play, the character, by interacting with the setting as maintained by the DM, seeks to increase their advantage in the setting, and to alter or modify the setting as they are able.  This is most commonly done by pursuing "adventures," the end result of which increases the player's possessions, opportunities, skills and hardiness, while causing small but satisfying alterations to the DM's setting.

The setting can be as elaborate as the DM is willing to present; the player's ambition in accumulating power and wealth, or in making a change to the setting, can be as willful as the player wishes.  The convergence of the DM's presentation and the player's will produces the effective quality of the game.  If the player fails to immerse themselves in the adopted mental image of the character, the DM lacks an enthusiast for which to present the setting.  If the DM presents an inflexible, unrealistic setting that acts contrary to the player's will, the player quickly loses the enthusiasm necessary to play.

Game quality, therefore, centers upon finding the correct balance between the DM's motive for producing the setting and the Player's motive for participating in the setting.

That is the Holy Grail.

The setting is usually a mixture of medieval and fantasy, but is not necessarily so.  Technology is typically 12th to 15th century European or Asian, lacking gunpowder, global economics or politics.  Magic, in the form of spells or physical artifacts, supplants the limitations of the technology.

For those who have never taken the position of the player, the process for creating the character, which identifies the limitations of the character, can be managed as a methodical, repeatable process that becomes familiar, so that the novice will adapt quickly to this part.  Interaction with the setting, which consists primarily of communication with the setting's natives, exploration, investigation of clues, confrontations leading to hand-to-hand combat with period weapons, this latter referred to as combat.  Combats are the primary cause for potential character death but are not the only cause.  Character death enables the player to roll a new character and begin the process from scratch.

For those who have never presented in the position of DM, the procedure is daunting, demanding the retention of considerable information at one's fingertips, the ability to manage players who may stoop to gamesmanship to gain advantage, the creative capacity to imagine, describe and alter the setting as need be, often demanding spur of the moment decisions that may alientate players or soften the setting's capacity to offer the player a meaningful challenge.  The DM must often keep much of the information about the setting a complete secret; the preparation of the setting from week to week can be a time-consuming project; and much of the DM's experience separates the DM from receiving empathy from the players, who often see the DM as an adversary.  Simultaneously, the DM's power over the setting can induce delusions of grandeur, an obsession with the maintenance and exercise of power, fear of the player's circumventing the DM's plans and a sense of wasted effort spent in preparation for players who fail to appreciate the DM's efforts.

As such, the DM's role is usually the reason that the balance between the setting's motive and the player's enthusiasm tips, causing the gathering of DM and players to scatter, ending the exercise.

The players, too, are sometimes to blame; but not nearly as often as the DM.  Bad players in a group are often tempered by good players; but the DM, who stands alone, has no other entity to temper errors in judgement or failings in the effort necessary.

Therefore, if we are to understand how to make the game of a greater quality, we must understand the role of the DM better; to understand what that role is; how that role affects the players; what the players have a right to expect; how to recognize players who are over-indulging in gamesmanship; and ultimately how to locate and maintain that balance that enable consistently good play over a long period.

That is my description of what D&D is.



Cacophony

Thinking on the last post, I was reminded of the basement suite I had back in 1985, back in the dark ages as it were. I had no computer then, but certainly an ongoing game that I’d started in high school and had followed me into university. I would sit at my small, cheap dining room table filling out ordinary paper with notes, lists, encounter tables, monster descriptions and so on … much like now.

I had no one to share it with except for my players; and my players could only share it with others by description. I did not have copies. We played every Friday like clockwork. Apart from my players, there were no voices in my head. Apart from what was written in the books and a few Dragon magazines, there was no advice. My players did not play at game cons, they could not watch others play and … for the most part … they didn’t have the time to play in another campaign other than mine.

Apart from the lack of a computer ~ that I would really miss now ~ I suppose I was very lucky. I could follow the advice I gave yesterday because there was no other way. We were all going it alone in those days. Clubs would form (the university had one, so did the games store) and then fall apart, because apart from needing space and a table, there wasn’t anything to talk about between campaigns. You had yours and I had mine … apart from boring war stories, what were we going to talk about?

People did not stand around bitching for hours about the things they do now. There were no other editions, though there were other games: Tunnels and Trolls, Rolemaster, stuff that’s all gone now. We looked at B/X as just more content for our advanced worlds and no one played or even mentioned the White Box set. I played it briefly in 1979 before Advanced became available and no one called it that when we were playing it. I never heard it called the “White Box” until after the internet.

I hear now from people that there was a hue and cry for a 2nd Edition; but I remember none of that. I remember that when the edition came out, the response was surprise; then the first echos of the later edition wars, as people started to shake out if they were going to play it or not. My players didn’t ask me to change. The subject of my embracing these new rules never came up; my players were happy. They were invested. The rules were established and everyone knew what they were. A new edition seemed like a silly idea.

That lack of a culture was a blessing, I guess. It didn’t feel like one at the time. There was a hunger for some kind of approval; it always felt like we were morlocks, furtively hiding our dread secret about role-playing in the dark. We didn’t talk of it with outsiders, not because of the Satanic Panic but because we didn’t want to be judged as sissies. We rarely met anyone new ... and most new people we did meet had never played the game at all.

It must be hard coming into the game right now, with the cacophony of voices. Naturally, like anyone with a yen, a new player is going to rush to youtube to find out how D&D is done … but unlike doing something like building a shelf, there is no agreed upon template. There are hundreds of channels dumping their values on the new enthusiasts, sometimes repeating the values of others and sometimes slagging them off. I think I would be a hard site for a new player. I don’t explain my references to content, I assume the reader already has played and knows what they’re doing … and I disagree with everyone.

It isn’t about a backstory; it isn’t about making up a story at all. You don’t make a world by drawing a map. Most maps you will ever draw for your game will never produce any results at all. Don’t play with people who are rude, indifferent, inconsiderate or dull of mind ~ and be up front about telling them to get out of your campaign. Miniatures, pen and paper … burn those things and get a computer. Pre-made characters, empty room dungeons, mega-dungeons, modules, splat books … don’t use them. Make house rules. Stop using game puzzles. Break the fourth wall when your players overthink. Live-play sucks. 4th and 5th edition aren’t only bad choices for systems, they are literally poisoning the water.

I just had a fellow this morning explain how it was possible in his game for a rogue to hide behind the leg of a fighter during a full-on melee, then climb the fighter’s back and leap at enemies from above, attacking them from behind in the process. Then it was explained that it’s possible to sweep attack and kill three opponents with one blow. Then it was explained that if you’re on the edge of dying from lack of hit points, you get a saving throw that enables you to survive. Then it was explained that when the player rolls a fumble, the DM can just make up any sort of story to explain what that fumble means, entirely arbitrarily, from throwing your weapon deep into the woods where it won’t be found to being told that you have handed your weapon to the enemy and given some money from your belt pouch as well. In combat. Which then continues unabated.

So. Not my game. But out there. A kind of poison that flows furiously through the game community, enabled by the collection of voices, noises, insistences, arguments, flame wars and shit knows what else on bulletin boards set up by fools and poisoners.

To be a new player in this culture … jeez. All I feel is pity. Not sympathy or empathy, just the utter pathos for the hopelessly damned. It must be hell to exist in this culture without a solid background of playing this game intelligently.

I wouldn’t know how to help. I’m one DM. I run maybe 15 people semi-regularly, on and off line. That’s not enough. I could maybe stagger 14 different games over a three-week cycle, with five people a campaign, if I had the money to do that and nothing else, and an aid to help me prepare the campaigns … and that still only 70 people. It isn’t possible for even a small, rational gathering of people who still remember how to play to teach this psychopathically poisonous culture how the game is actually designed to work. The company is methodically enabling the shit I just described in the paragraph above through tens of thousands of players weekly all over the continent. There are rational DMs, but the mindset is fading fast.

It wouldn’t be enough to write a book for noobs. Even if they read it, even if they embraced it, they’d still rush to the net to read what they could find and they would still be poisoned by the culture. No one who starts this game today is free. They all have the ridiculous over-dramatization of Matt Mercer echoing in their heads, with the goofy, continuous spattering laughter of streaming play, telling them that the game is supposed to sound like this, look like this, present like this: the slurred, mumbled speech of people staring into splatbooks on a table as they piece out what powers they can declare between the DM’s over-the-top, incomprehensible descriptions of doors, rooms and physical features.

That is all they can see.

The poor buggers.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Freeing Yourself

The second half of the last post ought to be about the infinite game as it applies to D&D, which is not politics and therefore more comfortable for an afternoon read. Here’s what happens when you get all sense of competition out of your head.

See, a lot of the readers here will be in a headspace where they are thinking, am I a good DM? Am I running a good campaign? What am I doing wrong? What could I be doing right? And you see, all these questions make an assumption that most of you will never consider or even recognize. These questions all assume that there are better DMs out there; that better campaigns exist; that whatever it is you’re doing wrong, someone isn’t doing that, and whatever it is that you’re not doing, someone is.

You’re obsessed with the competition. And begin obsessed with other people, you’re obsessed with your ability and your value. These are bad things to be obsessed with, when you should be obsessed with how much you love your game, how much you want to run your game and how much you miss your game.

Most of your thoughts about the quality of your game are based on misinformation. You pull together players who get bored with what you’re doing; or one of your players stops showing up; or the game doesn’t seem to go as well as you expected. And you think, “What is wrong with me? What I am doing wrong?”

Here’s what’s wrong: you’re giving too much credit to the whims of other people. You’re trying too hard to please other people. You’re measuring yourself when you ought to be pleasing yourself.

D&D isn’t a competition. It’s a passion. And when you get rid of your worries that someone else is doing this better than you are, and realize that what matters is that you’re exploring, developing and enriching your personal experience with a game that you love more than anything, all that other shit will just go away. There is no such thing as good or bad; there is only what you do today, and what you’ll do better tomorrow.

Better, because you’re teaching yourself the way we talked about Situated Learning in the 14th Class. The reality of playing an infinite game, where you’ve settled into the idea that you’re going to create, run and play with the fabric of your campaign for the next ten, twenty, thirty years, is that you are that campaign's only measure. And here’s the thing with that:  if you keep working and designing your world, it is impossible not to get better.

Of course, if you slack, if you refuse to read the books, or ever change your mind, or ever build an adventure of your own, and run the adventures you buy as is, and keep changing up your game so you never get truly familiar with any rules system or genre, then yes, you’re going to keep face-planting for the rest of your life. You will have to commit if you’re going to teach yourself anything. You’ll have to settle on the one system that works for you, defined as the one you care about, as the one YOU love, as the one you’re ready to marry. Because it doesn’t matter what your players like, or what they love, or how they think the game should be run, or what game you ought to play. Players, sorry to break this news, come and go. You’re the one that’s going to be running this game long after your best players today fade away in favor of other players, who will be better because you will be better.

Your daily objective is to create the best game for YOU, not for them. At the end of the day, you’re going to be the one that is always here, always set up, always ready to play.

When your fears about your value as a DM go away, when you embrace the game for its own sake, life gets easier. Rather than pleasing many masters ~ your players, your doubts, the books you read, the voices you hear, the pundits that you read online (like me) ~ you please yourself and the feel of slavery goes away. The answers to the questions of what is your world and what does your campaign do become simpler. The goals become simpler. The design becomes simpler. The message that you send to those whom you allow to sit at your table becomes simpler.

You don’t have to be cold-hearted, or absolutist; but you can feel assured that the decisions you’re making day to day are the right decisions … because they’re right for YOU. You’re the designer. You can choose to adjust the design to please others, IF that adjustment fits with your motives, your agenda, your willingness to change.  But you never have to change for anyone.

Find that place. Push all the fears of good/bad right out of your head. You’re not trying to win the game design award today. You don’t ever have to win the game design award, because that’s what other people think you should be. And what other people think just doesn’t matter.

You’re the one in the saddle. Take the horse where you want to go.

D&D is for Sissies

It isn’t possible for me to remain completely divorced from politics; I’ve struggled to keep politics from this blog and I think I’ve done a good job. But … while I’m not going to talk about the American experience, I have some things to say about this.

We’ve all seen the male indignation. We’ve seen it in the comments section and in the rush of videos that have come out. Pro-male 4chan and reddit content creators live for this; the big company turning out a highly public woke film that enables them to scream blue bloody murder to their own kind, for the LOLz, for the views and the cash, for the entitlement and the promotion of a cause that relies on them creating injustice against males out of SOMETHING, whatever they can dig up today. Creating views means we have to write about something every day … and it is exhausting having to dredge up content from weak connections that can be put together from a Disney film or the latest contribution to the Joker universe.

Thank gawd Gillette decided to make a contribution that helps writing a rant about the vilification of males easy. The man-boys can coast on this for weeks.

I find myself puzzling, “Why did Gillette think this was necessary?”

My thoughts lead me to think this is the company thinking of the long game. There is a growing philosophy in business that recognizes the difference between the “finite” and the “infinite” game. For the most part, in the 20th century, business philosophy has argued that business is a finite game. We, us, our business, we’re going to win when we destroy the competition and establish ourselves as the last man standing. All the rhetoric that you’ll find for most of the big companies used to talk like this … and much of the rhetoric for smaller companies still does. Only, it is becoming painfully recognized that this strategy is impractical ~ and not only does it not work, it actually hurts the company. Beating the drum, beating the drum, beating the drum steadily causes the competitor to believe that “winning” is more important than “competing” … and in the process of shouting slogans and pouring money into the marketing campaign, to say how grate we are, the product doesn’t change and steadily market share diminishes. For example, professional sport.

The infinite game has no end. No one playing the infinite game thinks there’s an end that’s going to come. As Sinek says in the link immediately above, "... in infinite games, because there are no winners or losers, what happens is players drop out of the game when they run out of the will or the resources to continue to play."

So let’s look at the Gillette commercial again. This is not a “woke” video. Gillette doesn’t care about what offended males think … or what razors offended males are going to buy. They’re going to buy Gillette. Oh, for a little while, some of them are going to try another product, out of anger, but they’ll hate the other product and they’ll have trouble finding something as reliable as a Gillette razor; and a lot of them already own a shaver so they’re not going to throw that away. The threat to Gillette’s bottom line is minimal. Gillette has deep pockets, and it’s got Proctor & Gamble’s pockets, so it isn’t going to go under.

None of this was done without a lot of marketing experts looking at it, both by Gillette and by P&G. I think the theme of the commercial, the way it is presented, shows the goal here. Gillette is concerned about children who aren’t allowed to shave yet. The next generation. Who are seeing this commercial everyday, because they’re just as able to watch a commercial as any one else.

Go on, examine the commercial shot by shot. The men in the mirrors, shot slightly from below; the kids chasing the one kid, breaking through the woman kissing the man; the mother hugging the kid; the taunts of being a loser; the old cartoon of male wolves, sitcoms, videos, all on a television ~ depicted as a kid sees them, not as they occur in real life. I think we forget that once almost all adult life was seen only on a screen. Cut to bored male kids sitting on a couch; bored at this content. More sit-coms, bad television … and so on. And of course, we have Dads shouting over the barbecue.  These are all images a kid will remember.  A kid growing up in a world where loud, abusive men are becoming a less viable role-model.

Those shouting at the video are only emphasizing Gillette’s agenda. Children are watching this battle royale between feminists and masculinist and it’s not hard to see which is the bigger threat. Dad is angry and mom is giving you a hug. It’s what four generations of terrified fathers have called the sissification of America, as they watch their sons have feelings, lose interest in football, become gay, resist war for war’s sake, marry independent thinking women and give up the church. It’s been a hard century for generations of males who have died while losing their grip on Victorian-era attitudes.

This, however, does come around to role-playing games, as the reader might have guessed. I chuckle, thinking of fathers who once, in my lifetime, thought that any interest in computers was “sissy,” and those who played role-playing games doubly so. This, I will remind you, was the central theme that  arose for decades whenever D&D was depicted ~ that if you pretended to fight pretend dragons with your pretend sword, rolling faggy dice, etcetera, it meant you were sissy.  Of course, we’ve made nerdism cool now so that sissified men who don’t play football can pretend they’re just as strong as the real thing, carrying their two hundred pounds of extra weight just above the chair seat.

Sorry. Did that hit too close to the bone? You’re saying we’re not sissies?

Of course we’re not. I’m only stressing that four generations of males, the generations that raised the man-boys bitching online about a razor commercial that says, effectively, “We don’t like bullies either, use our razor” ~ those generations absolutely thought in their day that we are all sissies for using computers and playing dungeons and dragons. I just want to put this rhetoric in context.

It is the benefit of remembering a world 40 years ago.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Delusions of Teaching

Timothy Brannan and I don't get along.  I don't think there's resentment on his part; I can't say. He's commented on this blog a few times and I pretty much ignore his blog.  When I hear anything about him, it's usually second hand.

The second-hand in this case is a recent post by JB of B/X Blackrazor, in which he quotes Brannan, then goes on to talk about learning the rules of games.  I'd like to take part of that same quote by Brannan and go a different direction with it.
"Moldvay, Holmes and Mentzer Basics were all a product of their times. That is getting people (often read as "kids") to learn how to play. As someone who has been developing college curriculums for 20+ years I can tell you kids and young adults don't go to books to learn how to do something, they want a video or podcast (but mostly a video) and that's where they go first. If I were writing a course on how to learn D&D I'd first look at my video budget. BTW this is not a value judgement on learning, it is a different modality."

Newsflash.  People don't like to read books.

Let's get into the WayBack machine and visit 1975.  I'm eleven years old and taking advantage of my elementary school library staying open for 45 minutes after classes end.  The library has about 2,500 books and the school has about 310 students.  Number of humans in the library?  Two.  Me and the librarian.  That's a typical day.

Jump forward to 1978.  I'm 14 years old and in grade eight.  The junior high school library is open for an hour after school.  The number of books has increased to 7,000.  The school has 750 students.  Number of humans present?  Four or five.  Usually one of them is a friend of mine.

Jump forward again.  It is 1981.  I'm 17 years old and in grade 11.  My high school library is open for 90 minutes after school.  The number of books is now 16,000.  The high school has 1,750 students.  Number of humans present?  Fifteen to twenty, with two librarians and an administrator.  Most others are researching a paper.  I'm not.

One more time.  It is 1986.  I'm 22 years old and in university, after taking 3+ years to go work in the real world.  The library is open 15 hours a day.  The university library has 220,000 books, plus endless newspapers and magazines on microfiche, a whole floor of theses and about 50,000 physical maps.  Total students: 25,000.  Number of people I might stumble across on a given floor in the library when it is not a week before exams?  Three or four.

People have never liked to read books.

Videos, podcasts, whatever materials we want to point at that have been developed with technology in the last 20+ years have successfully filled a hole in the lives of people who 32 years ago were happy to remain dumbfuck ignorant.  We haven't produced less readers; we've just convinced those people who never intended to read that they can stop feeling guilty about not going to the library.  When I go to my local university today, I find the same number of people among the stacks that I found way back in the day.

These people are not reading books because they are "a different modality."  These people don't "prefer" books ... though a lot of them will say so.  They are reading books for specific reasons.

1.  For all the trillions of pages the internet produces, most of it, even the "academic stuff," is shit.  It is content that is produced without an editor, and therefore with research that either doesn't exist, is done poorly or is done with the goal of sharing values, not information.  Content on the internet, despite what the internet tells you now, is still very unreliable ... and if your goal is to actually learn something, it is necessary to pick up a tool that is specifically vetted so that it is not full of shit.

2.  The amount of pure, reliable, practical, meaty content that exists on any two shelves of a real library dwarfs the total valuable content of all that one person can locate on the internet in the space of three years.  The internet, for all the fun it provides, is like finding a single worthwhile volume that's been stored in a two-acre field covered with two million variations of "See Dick Run" children's books.  In a library that's run by academics (rather than a municipal city that only cares how many people we can stuff in the building in order to read popular novels and other crap), I can stand in one place and run my fingers along the covers of fifty books all on the same subject, each of which say different things about it.  This saves an amazing amount of time.

3.  When I read a book, I can pick whatever speed I want.  I can flip usefully through ten pages in a minute or I can stare for twenty minutes at one sentence, parsing out the exact meaning without the rest of my senses being cluttered by the presenter's choice of clothes, the set, the presenter's voice, the time wasted by sales and marketing the presenter has to do to get views and the real time delivery of the sentence that makes me either want to scream, "TALK FASTER!" or slow down the video, turn the sound off and the close captioning on, so I can reduce his point to text where it can be fully understood.

To the average person, a lot of these look like the same book.
They're not.

Now, I appreciate that Timothy Brannan would likely not dispute any of those points.  I've read enough of Brannan to believe that he probably feels about books exactly the way I do, and that he was probably one of the small number of people in his library after school when he was a kid. But if we are going to write a course on how to LEARN D&D, rather than reduce it to pablum so it can be spooned in the mouth of lazy mutts who don't really give a shit if your video teaches them the game or not, for the sake of feeling sure that your vlog views encourage your belief that you're reaching more people than you would with a book, then we have to stop thinking in terms of our video budget.

Our video budget is what we spend money on when we're ready to recreate the Boob Tube in the all encompassing internet framework.  It's a fucking joke to think your collection of videos is going to teach anyone.  We already have a hundred thousand hours of people pumping out videos about how to "learn" D&D ... and in my 20+ years of sitting on the internet having these conversations, I have yet to meet anyone who has fucking learned anything.

So let's not pretend that making a video is a great act of education.  Go on, make your video, count your page views and subscribers, and maybe you can push out enough pseudo-educational material to equal the income stream of Matthew Colville.  Good on you if you can, it's a nice financial boon to you and yours.  But it ain't education.

Never will be.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

22nd Class: Player Function & View

Good day. I’ll start with apologies for the trouble that disrupted the last class. Let’s begin again by first re-examining some of the things that I said at the beginning of this course, regarding how, for some games, the quality of play does not determine it’s nature. At that time, we established two parts of the game that did not require experience or expertise from the players of role-playing games: the character creation and combat.

I’d like now to add two more core parts of the game that do not require expertise and yet ARE absolutely essential to play. The first is “role-playing.” I don’t mean “character” playing and I don’t mean acting or speaking in character. Those elements can be a part of the game but they don’t have to be a part. By “role-playing,” I mean that the player must assume a function inside the game setting that’s presented – not necessarily a “class” or a “skill-set” as we often argue about, but simply an animated force that exists inside the frame of the setting.

This means that if the player dictates that their character crosses a street in the setting, we can envision the actuality of that fabricated character changing its imaginary physical position. The essence of moment-to-moment game play consists of that character’s “physical” relationship to everything else. We cannot play without this.

This, as with character creation and combat, does not require expertise either. Anyone can state they are crossing a street, going to the next town, speaking to an NPC, waving a sword in the air or anything else we might specify our character is doing.

The other element is the player’s “world view.” We talked about this with our last class, with relation to the DM, but the player also has a world view. This view is central and absolute where it comes to the player’s perspective of the game. How the player sees the setting, and the DM’s manipulation of that setting, determines the player’s investment, immersion and enjoyment of the game. If the player’s worldview is challenged, frustrated or abused, the player will not be able to play.

That is because the role-playing game happens in the player’s head. Where a first-person shooter enacts upon the player’s senses, so that game success depends upon a reflexive response ~ fast enough to kill without being killed ~ the role-playing game can be paused at any time, for as long as we like, without any effect to game play. We might argue that a disrupted game full of dead time lacks momentum ~ which can be a problem ~ but play itself is unchanged no matter what momentum we adopt.

This kitty can take its time figuring out which
d20 it wants to throw.
If players want to view a moment in “slow motion,” they can. The combat round for the player characters may last only 12 seconds, but the players can spend any amount of time deciding what they want to do in those 12 seconds. Any dictate that rushes the player is arbitrary and is not a necessity of game play.

We make this point because we want to understand why a player feels an attraction for this game. I want to argue that the attraction is inspired by, but is not specifically dependent upon adventures, dialogues, characters, enemies or any other specific element of any particular setting. The attraction is the challenge the player feels when faced with a conundrum regarding whatever might be encountered in the game setting.

This is the central facet of the player’s world view, or view of the setting. Are we intrigued? Are we compelled to investigate, inquire, organize, prepare ourselves, seek new situations and so on. In short, are we as players interested in manipulating our functional game pieces through the complexity of this game board for the sake of untangling the difficult problems or questions that arise in our minds.

If there are no problems or questions, if we are not vexed or puzzled by what’s happening, if everything is plain as day and therefore lacks any need for us to involve ourselves with a solution, then there is no game.

As a DM, I know how the world works. We spoke about this in our 21st class. But as a player, I don’t know how anything works. I know what I see, I know what I want … I can sort of figure out some predictable frameworks and I can watch the DM’s face as I interact with someone in the game world to learn information about something. But constantly I am thinking, “What does this mean? Where does this go? If I choose this option, what happens? Should I prep this, or would that be an over-reaction. Should we risk going forward or is this the time to turn back.” I am constantly in the midst of questions in my mind … and each step forward I make is accompanied with thoughts like, “Okay, I hope this works, I’m not sure, I can’t think of anything else, this should be the right answer” and so on. I am testing, being frustrated when my hypotheses fail and thrilled when my hypotheses turn up factual information that advances my movement forward in the achievement of my goals.

The easiest, simplest arrangement of this thought-process is a linear arrangement of puzzles that, if the player figures them out, creates a trail of successes that lead to an overarching singular goal ~ what narrative writing calls “an adventure tale.”

The most complex, agonizing arrangement of this thought-process is a cacophony of uncertain and discontinuous clues that suggest no definite right answer, piled against a host of unavoidable consequences deriving from nothing but poor choices all ending in some kind of painful sacrifice ~ what narrative writing calls “a tragic drama.”

Both, plus a lot of other narrative options besides, are perfectly viable for a role-playing game … but one is vastly easier to construct, run, interpret and sell than the other, particularly for any DM who has little to no experience with character creation, human motivation, life experience, dilemmas, ethical doubts, real pain and personal loss, sacrifice or triumph. Describing, naturally, every person who learned to play their first RPG at an age less than 16 … and every person still playing an RPG who believes that the first games they ever played were the “best” games.

It is unlikely we will ever encounter a game module revolving around, say, the trials and loves of Anna Karenina, for purchase, that can then be adapted by a neophyte in the facts of life, then properly run for a group of players whose world views don’t include deciding whether or not to ostracize a family member who has been deleterious in her actions as a wife and her hedonism as a degenerate wife and mother. Nevertheless, there is not one element surrounding such a set of circumstances dictating that a role-playing game based upon conversations taking place in salons between participants in that drama would not exist as legitimate player activity.

We only say that “role-playing games are about running adventures” because so many of the participants have a very narrow conception of what makes human activity interesting.

Very well. Let’s consider these four elements of game play: character creation, character function, character worldview and combat as four intrinsic elements of play that no player is ever expected to master. There is no need for a player to master them. If the player fails, the player is allowed to play again. Most players DO expect to become better at the game; and all players who consistently play in well mastered games will get better through situated learning.

The only participant expected to master the game is the DM. The notion is right there in the title. This therefore brings us back again to the process of transforming the DM from a novice to an advanced beginner and so forth. That is where we will begin our next class.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Three Writers

Today I would like to share three great posts with you from three great writers in the role-playing blog genre, each of whom is on a quest for answers, not self-aggrandizement. Each of these three writers tries to take the game and the culture apart just as I do. I’d like to push them into your attention because they deserve the recognition for the work they’re doing: asking and addressing questions.

Being who I am, I’m not showcasing these people because I think it’s my responsibility to give what I can to others. That shit is bullshit. I’m pushing these people because I read them and I mostly agree with them, their battles and their ideas. And I think you ought to agree with them also. They are all readers of this blog from the same motives.

The first is JB of B/X Blackrazor. Recently he wrote an excellent post called We Don’t Care, challenging role-playing beliefs that characters need backstories, family, allies, enemies, all of that. His argument is firmly founded in the D&D game version that he supports wholeheartedly, that’s in his blog’s title. Death happens, people. That’s why we don’t get involved with characters at 1st level, we get involved with them when they’ve lived some.
“Playing D&D is not the theater. I have no need to understand my character’s background or motivation because I am not acting out a script and I am not reading someone else’s lines."
“Playing D&D is not about delivering an “authentic performance;” that isn’t the objective of game play. The objective is to have one’s character survive and thrive in the imaginary environment provided by the DM. And if the DM is pressing the players hard, providing situations that make survival difficult and thriving complicated, then the player is likely to experience the immersive type of game play that is unavailable in any other medium, outside of certain “First Person Shooter” games (and those only provide a similar experience in a limited, restricted sense). When players experience this type of game play, all the pseudo-storytelling write-ups in the world have little impact on how a PC behaves.”

This is a little understood truth about modern gaming that is not being vouched for by the company and is thus completely missed by thousands of players. D&D is a GAME … not a script. It is only about the character insofar as that character lives and breathes and has actual motivations in the world. Just as we live and breathe. Real life isn’t a script either. Most of us don’t imagine ourselves “role-playing” when we’re talking to our family and friends, going out for a beer, figuring out how not to confess something to the boss or asking the librarian to find us the book we want. When we do this for REAL, we’re invested in a lot more than what words or emotions we express when we ask for that book ~ we just want the book. We want to get past that thing with the boss and we want to relax over a beer as we bitch about the Seahawk’s last season. We’re not play-acting, like kids pretending to play house ~ we’re actually running real lives that produce real challenges to our survival and success. D&D isn't fun because we get to play nonsense characters with nonsense motivations; it’s fun because the challenges get to be HUGE, with world-shaking consequences and enormous triumphs.

JB hits all these beats bang on with his post and as a reader of the game, you’re starving yourself in the desert if you don’t go read his post and take something away with you.

Next, I’d like to bring your attention to Simon T. Vesper’s blog, ‘Crossing the Verse. I’m going ahead and out him here, as he’s already done it several times, and point out that he posts comments on this blog as Ozymandias. He’s been pounding out posts seriously on his blog since April 2017 and he’s really beginning to hit his stride; if you read his blog last year, go read it again. He’s stepped up his game and the posts are well worth reading.

Not too long ago, in November, he published On my disdain for the popular, a post he built on Innuendo Studios video about Phil Fish [link in Simon’s post]. Simon connects the argument made there about Nickelback, which we all hate, with the iconic footprint of the now much-lauded Critical Role … and does so brilliantly.

He patiently deconstructs exactly why, if Critical Role was your campaign being played out, it would suck. It would be boring. It would be frustrating.
“Eventually, ‘something’ happens. The players spend time doing ‘research.’ Amateur. Fucking amateur. I’m still waiting on anything that’s even remotely interesting. And not just as an audience member: as a player, I would be bored to tears. The wizard ~ a fucking wizard, someone who has spent literally years of his life in academia ~ knows fucking nothing about local politics or about the composition of a random bookstore. Like, this character should have taken one look at the interior of the shop and gone, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing here that will help me,’ and turned around and left. And that’s on the DM. ‘You see these books, you see the shopkeeper, you see the content and you’re like, ‘Deuces!'‘ And there’s a tiefling . . . rogue? bard? something like that . . . who does the ever-so-clich├ęd, ‘I mess with the library’s filing system,’ never mind the fact that there’s no way to physically do that without catching the shopkeeper’s eye because he’s there every damn day and what’s the likelihood that anyone is going to enter this shop, ever? Oh, but because it’s a skill check and you roll really freaking high, you get to do something that is literally impossible. All for the LOLz!”

Sure, I get that there are some people who do play games for the lolz. There are also trolls in the world who randomly decide to SWAT girls on the internet and think it’s really funny to build phone scamming programs that shut down city hospitals. Fucking around with skill checks is just the lazy version of dumbfuck horseplay for people who aren’t ambitious enough to be truly heinous … and for anyone who actually loves the game, they’re toxic, miserable shit-heels that aren’t wanted.

But on YouTube, they’re celebrities. Because, hey, they’re not bothering anyone.

Simon breaks it down piecemeal with a patient, self-reflective voice that is becoming his persona ~ really hating something but cognizant enough to question why he really hates it and if he should really hate it. As a reader you owe it to yourself to follow through his logic structures here and on other posts, to get to the same places you want to go.

Last, we have the inefficaciously named “Drain” of Cruel & Unusual Punishment. Drain is a patient, methodical writer and a thinker with a very sharp Occam’s edge to his ideas and arguments. I know him a little better as one of the players in my online Juvenis campaign, but the writing of his blog, though sparse (25 posts last year) is patient and principled. His latest post at the time of this writing was Rules Musings – Restrictive Skill Checks, a title that belies the viciousness of the post.

I loved this; Drain takes a hatchet, then a scalpel to the permissiveness of 5th edition rules that are designed to let any character do anything, regardless of their class or supposed limitations. It is an indictment of the first order against the game design of the company, as it has evolved D&D into a sludge of entitlement and license to side-step even the largest of obstacles.
“A prospective reading of the AD&D ruleset to learn how it handled tracking brought along an eye-opener: barring any optional rules, only Rangers were allowed to track, period. DnD was ever a game to shine the light on niche protection, which makes sense if one wants a disparate ensemble of characters to be able to contribute to more than just the swelling of the party’s number and have the group coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts; But whereas this was once enforced by some rather draconian (if arguably justified) strictures, with swathes of gameable content both accessed or walled off by a party’s play skill and the composition of its membership, the mainline currents of today’s no player left behind push for zero wasted “content” and are quite anxious that no detail, area, challenge or interaction be out of reach or missed amid the shuffle, so that a party should never fret for its lack of specialists: no one’s life is hanging in the balance, everything is perfectly and safely cordoned towards bringing you a warm, linear and comfy play experience.”

He continues thereafter into a breakdown of skill sets that players have, in an attempt to define categories as a means of avoiding the terror rabbit hole of trying to itemize every conceivable skill that any character in the game might possess. I confess, for anyone except the craziest person imaginable (and I have no idea who that might be, wink wink), it is far more practical to see skills in groups rather than the alternative. Drain presents his argument here not as a final solution, but as a guideline that might lead in that direction.

And this is the goal, I think, for anyone who wants to produce sound material about role-playing games and D&D. The answers that some of us want don’t exist out here on the frontier; they haven’t been built yet. We are doing no more than asking questions, just as questions were asked about any academic or worthwhile subject that has presented itself to human kind. Drain ends his post with the recognition that for the most part, though we ask, we don’t really expect an answer. There is no answer. But the question has to be asked just the same. The mental process has to be laid out. We have to examine what we’re doing here.

Quit reading the stuff you’re wasting your time with and work your way through Drain’s eminently worthy back catalog, taking the time to ask your own questions. That’s where it starts.

I am glad to find that I’m not alone out here with this philosophy.

Friday, January 11, 2019

5e: The Two and a Half Stumps of List Teases

“The adventure is the heart of the game, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. An adventure might be created by the Dungeon Master or purchased off the shelf, tweaked and modified to suit the DM ’s needs and desires. In either case, an adventure features a fantastic setting, whether it’s an underground dungeon, a crumbling castle, a stretch of wilderness, or a bustling city.”

The reader will find this quote on the top left of page 8 of the 5th Edition Players Handbook, beginning the fifth page of explaining what the game is without factually explaining anything about actual game play. The writers have found it very difficult not to launch into lists of game fluff, and they don’t hesitate to do it here in this passage which is part of the heading (beginning on page 7) called “Adventures.”

Whatever D&D may have been once, or however it might have been played, the goal here is to bake the “adventure” right into the meat and potatoes of the game. Though above it says the adventure is the heart of the game, we’re also told that consists of characters embarking on an adventure and that a campaign IS a string of adventures joined together. There is no mention at all of characters “doing their own thing.” The setting is not free-form, it is not three dimensional, it is not flexible. It is THIS. You, dear reader, are expected to understand this completely.

The reason why every character is different is so that they will complement each other. And they must cooperate. That is the only way the adventure can be completed. It is all here on the page, in black and white.

Moreover, NPCs exist as characters in the play, described as “patrons, allies, hirelings or just background extras.” Make no mistake. This entire system is designed, like a Hollywood movie, to move the actors into the celebrity frame so that they can be the heroes of this picture. The only other entity mentioned who might have an actual agenda is the villain! And why is there a villain? Why, to drive the adventurers (players) action, of course.
None of this is new. The company has been hammering this point for ages now and we’re all familiar with it. If there is anything to say here, it is only this: before the release of 5e, the company opened the game to player input ~ and the players popularly asked the designers to untangle D&D’s famously convoluted ruleset. I remember very well the many blog posts written on the subject, and flame wars besides, about this very decision on the company’s part.

Given the company’s choices, we must assume A) that so few people expressed any interest in open gaming that the company felt it wasn’t worth mentioning it at all; B) the company carefully skewed the inquiries so it was impossible to give any answer that wasn’t about adventure-based gaming; C) the company, having games to sell, doesn’t actually give a shit.

I’m going to go with C. After all, we’ve been very sure to include a line about purchasing adventures … and since every list describing adventures (it may be this, or this, or this, or this, or this) that’s appeared in the introduction so far sounds like a sales pitch for something the company is selling, I think my guess is likely.

Moving on. Still on page 8, we’re next introduced to “The Three Pillars of Adventure.” I’m beginning to love this sort of passage in this book, because … well, that’s not important.

Our three pillars are Exploration, Social interaction and Combat. The description under “exploration” is essentially a rehash of a description two pages back:
“Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.”

Not only have we covered this, we’ve been told that the play of D&D essentially IS this, in the “how to play” section. But now we’re going to be told something else, that play also includes social interaction and combat.

I have heard of writing a book by committee; I think this is the first example I’ve come across that reveals book editing by committee.

Social interaction is obviously role-play; but for whatever reason, confusion in using role-play to describe talking as your character and as the adjective to describe the game, we’ve decided to go with “social interaction” instead. Let’s have a read:
“Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.”

Another list of possible adventures ~ it is the only kind of description we know. Please notice, however, that there is something strange in this list of four examples: all three describe talking to creatures in order to GET something.

Is there no other reason to talk to creatures? Does it mean breaking bread with the scout and talking about friends and family back home? How about helping the rescued prisoner get over their shock and trauma by asking what we can do? Does it include spitting in the face of the orc chieftain while we tell him to shove his mercy? Though, okay; I’ll concede that last. There’s only one way to talk to magic mirrors.



If it's going to be adventure all the time, however; and if that adventure puts you in the star chamber and everyone else is basically a servant of the plot, then NPCs only exist to provide you with that crucial exposition you desperately need. So why not smack around a scout or hang a wretched prisoner from his ankles over a dungeon chasm? Why not grovel for your pathetic life in front of an orc chieftain, knowing he’s going to let you live (you are, after all, the star of this film – and the orc chieftain is supposed to die on page 41 anyway). Why not go Captain Kirk with a magic mirror until you convince it to give you the info you need and then kill itself in an apoplectic philosophical fit. Why in hell would you ever just talk to anyone? They can’t even remember that you said cappuccino and not latte.
“Combat … involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on ~ all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives or forcing a rout.”

Lists, lists, lists. So, basically combat is the ultimate in social interaction: getting what you want without having to talk. Good. Plain, simple, straight to the point … whether you’re doing this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this …

Combat, however, ends with this:
“Combat is the most structured element of a D&D session, with creatures taking turns to make sure that everyone gets a chance to act. Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.”

Um.

Uh, yeah.

I so can’t wait to see the “structured” rule that explains how surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield works. Or other wacky stuff.

It is bits and pieces like this that seriously challenge my willingness to take much of what I’m being told at face value. I appreciate that it is turn-based system; but was it really necessary to describe the system as “everyone gets to take their turn”? How is that visually helpful? Could we not have rather said, “To effect an ordered, practical system of resolving battles, the game employs a turn-based system similar to chess. While a mechanical departure from realism, the method enables many complex elements to be controlled by the participants of the game, while adding features that give the feel of immediate, simultaneous interaction.”

Nope. We “take turns,” ensuring “Everyone gets to play,” because what really matters with combat is that no one feels left out. Oh, and we get to swing weapons and kill every enemy.

This is what we call a “tone problem.” It’s a situation where your writing pisses on your own writing in a way that makes the emotional moment you’re trying to create sound very silly and squicky. Like letting your 73-year-old grandmother read excerpts from porn sites aloud in church.

That’s why my heart doesn’t race when the writer mentions “a mysterious lever” 17 words after using the phrase “wacky stunts.” It just makes me think, wow … you need a paper towel?

Sorry for writing another of these posts. I have to admit, I really wanted to know what the next part of the book was going to talk about and I’ve promised myself not to read anything of the book unless I’m going to write on it immediately upon reading. I want all my blog reactions be “in the moment.” So if I want to know what fucked thing the book is going to say next, I have to write the blog post as I read.
It’s a motivation technique.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Forward in the Opposite Direction

It is hard to stop on any journey and realize that to go further on, we will have to forsake the route we've taken and retrace our steps.  Yet that is a reality of adventuring on any frontier, where there are no guideposts or even a clear destination we can see.  That is what I've had to do with my former 22nd class for role-playing.  I've abandoned it and changed the title of the post.

Queerly, as things happen, I had been designing that post in my head for about three months before it came time to write it; and now, after a week, I've come to realize that I should have abandoned that line of thinking before I arrived.  But as I said, we hump our rucksack up a river valley, hoping we'll find a pass that gets us to the other side of this mountain range ... and then find there isn't one there.

The post rang off-key as I was writing it.  I've tried to consider the next post after and it feels like a worse derivation still.  I'm clearly moving in the wrong direction; and watching a particular video this afternoon put it plain and simple for me.  Or rather, it highlighted everything I'd already been thinking.  Brian Upton is a good speaker ~ I strongly recommend watching lots of his stuff if you're interested in game design.  This video features him at his pragmatic best:



And to this, I want to be sure to post the "Red Flag List" that's found immediately under the video:
1. I don't give a crap about your back story.
2. I don't give a crap about your inventory system either.
3. I'm not going to design your game for you.
4. Pillars are not hooks!
5. You never explained what the player does.
6. Don't use realism to excuse bad design.
7. You don't need a framing device if it's not necessary.
8. Is it really a game, or just a knockoff?
9. You never mentioned your glaringly obvious tech risk.
10. Your proof of concept does not prove your concept.
11. Having lots of shitty art doesn't make them less shitty.
12. I can't tell what's placeholder and what's not.
13. You polished too early.
14. Your sample dialog sucks.
15. You're pandering to the latest tech craze.
16. You just pitched a phone game to a console publisher.
17. You're making a Gone Home/Minecraft/PUBG ripoff.
18. You want us to negotiate a risky IP deal for you.
19. I know more about your monetization than your mechanics.
20. You have no idea how much money/people/time you need to make this thing.
21. You don't have a team.
22. Your business plan is based on outliers.
23. You seem like you'd be a huge pain in the ass to work with.
24. You expect me to know who you are.
25. You're annoyed that I'm asking questions.
26. We're trying to watch the pitch on your phone.
27. You brought a laptop, but no headphones.
28. You're hungover/drunk/high.
29. Don't trash other games/companies/developers.
30. You need to take a shower.

Look hard at that list.  I did.  As I listened to Upton break it down.  If we're going to make a game, or run a role-playing game, we're on the hook to answer every one of these questions, without handwaving.  Our players, and we ourselves, deserve real answers here.

While I'm not going to break down this list as I pick up a rewrite of the 22nd class, some of what's above is going to be in my mind as I rebuild my forward going outline.  I don't treat this as a failure; I don't treat this as anything except forward movement, even as I backtrack and reconsider.  This is how design happens.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

5e: Game Dice

"The game uses polyhedral dice with different numbers of sides. You can find dice like these in game stores and in many bookstores.
"In these rules, the different dice are referred to by the letter 'd' by the number of sides: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. For instance, a d6 is a six-sided die (the typical cube that many games use).
"Percentile dice, or d100,  work a little differently. You generate a number between 1 and 100 by rolling two different ten-sided dice numbered from 0 to 9. One die (designated before you roll) gives the tens digit, and the other gives the ones digit. If you roll a 7 and a 1, for example, the number rolled is 71. Two Os represent 100. Some ten-sided dice are numbered in tens (00, 10, 20 and so on), making it easier to distinguish the tens digit from the ones digit. In this case, a roll of 70 and 1 is 71, and 00 and 0 is 100."

These are popular posts, and as I don't have anything else ~ except monsters ~ that's ready to go just now, I'll venture into the world of dice from the 5th Edition Players Handbook.  If at all possible, I'll try to resist the nitpicking of the last post ~ but I have to say, it is very, very hard not to point out when people who are supposedly professionals have so little idea how to express their subject material.  Anyway, we're still on page 6, bottom right.

I just had to use this phenomenal, super-quality high-
resolution image from this book published by a
subsidiary of Hasbro four years ago.  We don't see
this kind of quality work from a former Fortune-500
company every day.
Two quick points on the above, and forgive me if I'm already breaking my promise to not nitpick.  Throughout the introduction, there are seveal points where the makers have clearly relied on the reader to know something about RPGs, since what they've said would make so little sense to a newcomer.  In the above, however, suddenly the reader needs to be treated as a pre-schooler.  Let's be honest.  Most people who have bought this book will be unable to see the wall of dice that surrounds every cash till in every game store, everywhere.  What gamestore clerk won't ask, "Do you want dice with that?" like a MacDonald's employee asking if you want fries?  I grant that some children will have this book bought for them ~ presumably by parents who already know their kids are into this ~ but still, I'm sure the dice will be in the Christmas stocking with the book.  The passage above, therefore, is written solely for the few people who are buying this book completely blind ~ who have no one to tell them what a d20 is.  I understand how that is a thing in 1979.  But today?  With the internet?

But I pity the makers of the book having to explain 10-sided dice "numbered in tens."  It takes a whole long paragraph to explain the d100 and it is agony.  From the moment I first saw them, I hated those fucking two-digit d10s.  I put up with them because they're everywhere ... but they absolutely fucking suck.  I am content to use two ordinary ten-sided and identify one as the 10s.  But we know ... we fucking know ... how these two-digit dice came to be.  Assholes.  That fucking guy who would dig in tooth and nail that on this one occasion, the green die was the 10s and the blue die was the 1s ~ though we knew as a DM that every other fucking time it was the reverse.  This two-digit tens thing was to subvert that bullshit.  Everyone knows it.

The book spends an entire page discussing dice here and says not one word about etiquette.  Now, I've deliberately not read ahead in the book.  I don't want to know what's next.  This is part of the fun for me, writing these posts.  So if we talk about dice cheating later, that's great, but it really ought to be here in this section.

After we learn how the dice work, we begin with the heading, The D20:
"Does an adventurer’s sword swing hurt a dragon or just bounce off its iron-hard scales? Will the ogre believe an outrageous bluff? Can a character swim across a raging river? Can a character avoid the main blast of a fireball, or does he or she take full damage from the blaze? In cases w here the outcome of an action is uncertain, the Dungeons & Dragons game relies on rolls of a 20-sided die, a d20, to determine success or failure."

I suppose it would be quibbling to say that we use the other dice to determine uncertain outcomes; I do think they're trying to say that where a physical/mental attempt is being made of some kind, we'll use the d20.  2nd Edition laid the groundwork for this and 3rd Edition went nuts with it.  Since what I remember from people playing 3rd Edition was how dependent the game was on this singular feature ~ and how annoying it was to calculate it ~ I'm surprised to find it remains part of the game.  This is part of what makes me think of 5e as the child of 3e, and not a return to the old game ... but admittedly, I haven't read the book yet so let's reserve that opinion.

I think in game terms, it's a mistake.  I see the "common sense" in thinking, let's make a random check to see if the ogre believes this ~ but in practice as a DM I've always taken the position, "Would anyone in this position, with their agenda and responsibilities, at this time, looking at these player characters, believe this mound of shite?  To which the answer ~ particularly if a bluff is "outrageous" ~ is NO.  Absolutely not.  But players, I know, adore the success of really ridiculous lies, and consider this one of the great triumphs of the game ... and so I know that when I say I'd slam that door, many readers would cry foul, DM fiat, etcetera.  But here's the thing.  If you reward a particular kind of behaviour with a die roll that has a reasonable chance of success, you encourage that behaviour.  And soon, every interaction with every NPC becomes a challenge in how outrageous can we make the lie.  That, for me, isn't the game.  For me, the challenge shouldn't be, can you pull your shit out of the fire with a poorly inspired yet die-dependent fabrication?  The game should be, can you avoid getting your shit in the fire.  If you need a brobdingnagian lie to get out, you've already fucked up ... and you deserve the consequences.

Yes, that is my word for the week.

However, for 5e, circumstantial bonuses and penalties are the order of the day ... because every action deserves a pass/fail die roll.  And that is based on some time-honored features of the game.  Combat was built so that there was always the chance that Bard the Bowman could hit the target he needed at that moment in time.  The fireball was built to do half damage to the lucky ones, because it was reasonable to argue that fire, and the way it behaves, would rush into existence as tongues of flames and not as a perfectly distributed gaseous cloud of eradication.  Fireball was built that way because it was a 3rd level spell and, while the inventor wanted effectiveness, it needed to be tempered in a way that would annoy the player's mage when the fireball didn't kill the adversary, and please the player when the player's character didn't actually die.

3e took that to the point where "chance" got, well, silly.  If my character can swim, the player argues, then surely there's a chance of swimming across this raging river.  The problem with that logic is that, *if you knew anything about swimming, you'd know better than to try.  You'd know that a raging river is full of kinetic energy and rocks, and if you plunge into that, you're gonna die.  It takes an idiot to think they can swim a river like that.

The player, however, will argue, "But lots of expert swimmers and skiiers drown!  That proves they thought there was a chance."  Actually, no.  We have a little thing in human behaviour called "hubris."  It is a disease very common among a particular kind of expert, who does get themselves into a place where, as a swimmer or a skiier, they think they can do anything.  If we're going to invoke it, we should understand how it works.  If your character looks at a raging river that is going to kill them, and thinks, "I can swim that," then go on, plunge in.  You will die.  Because there's no way that river isn't going to kill you.  But if your character thinks, "I think I can swim it," then you're not suffering from hubris.  As a DM, that's when I step up and so, you can't, because that river is going to kill you.

It is very, very rare for a swimmer to misjudge their abilities ~ because that's what being an expert means.  Knowing your abilities.  In reality, if it is possible for you to swim that river, and you look at it and ask, "Is it possible to swim that river," then the chance of swimming that river is 99.9% or better.  It isn't 50/50.

But these are fine points.  Too fine for most players, who want to handwave actions, thoughts, patters of behaviour, abilities, skills, limitations and what else, usually under the rubric of "fantasy" and sometimes under the heading, "fun."  The bonus/penalty pass/fail model was voted by the fans of 5e's launch because it is insanely popular with that kind of player that wants to play craps with a character's life and win.  For all the people who claim "role-playing" and not "roll-playing," this one overarching feature gets a pass.  Don't tell me MY character can't swim that river.  I have this strength, this dexterity and +5 of that!  Give me a die!

Nor can we solve the problem by making the rivers placid and slow, or the animal's skin marshmallowy and paper-thin, or the bluff plain and iron-clad in its logic.  We still have to roll.  That's the humour of it.

Those examples, however, are not nearly as much fun to quote when discussing how the dice work.

Bringing us to Advantage and DisadvantageI can't say much.  I've never played by this rule; I've heard it expressed hundreds of times in online game play.  The sheer proliferation of the skill makes me suspicious.  I will have to wait until chapter 7.  But ... in case I forget to mention this later ... why isn't there a chance to have a super-advantage, where you roll 3 dice?  What about a hyper-advantage, where you roll 4?  Or a mondo-excessive-adjectival-califragilistic advantage where my character gets to roll twenty 20-sided dice.  That would be cool.

I'm winding this down now.  There's this passage that follows ... it has nothing whatsoever to do with dice, but the heading indicates it is included in the dice section of the introduction.  So, editorial faux pas there.  Anyway, it has the quote, "If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins."  There's no attempt to define the difference between a "general" rule or a "specific" rule; just a reference to each.  The example given: "... many adventurers don't have proficiency with longbows, but every wood elf does because of a racial trait," isn't actually a conflict of any kind.

I can write a grammatically similar sentence: "Many people don't know how to cook, but every qualified cook does because of education," and it can be seen immediately that what many people don't know how to do is irrelevant.  No rule has been broken.

The next example is the same: "... an adventurer can't normally pass through walls, but some spells make that possible."  Yeah.  They're spells.  That's how technology works.  People can't normally fly, but airplanes make that possible.  Magic isn't an exception.  It's a feature.

I know I haven't read this book.  Did the writers?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Monster Writings

This is sort of human.  Doesn't really need
it's own monster page.
About writing these monster descriptions.  I've been considering a series of guidelines that I've tried to follow throughout.  Some readers might get some value out of such a list, so here goes:

1. Create a simple chart with details that will largely matter when describing the combat ability, size, shape, intelligence and location of the monster.  The chart should be simple to read and should not skip information that will appear in the text ~ especially the special attacks!

2.  Explain the chart.  Some things do not need explanation; some things can be codified and then explained on another page expressly for that purpose, such as describing what a "scattered" distributiion is or what is a "wet/dry tropic" [it's coming, I swear].  It's most important to explain the special attacks, how the monster fights and the general shape of the monster (height and weight plus the picture are not enough!).

3.  Describe the monster's habits.  What is it doing when it is not eating player characters?  When is it out and about, how does it get along with friends and family, where does it hang on Saturday nights and what rings its bell?  The monster has a motivation; it needs describing past how it uses its body to kill things.

4.  When appropriate, skip details about things that the players ~ and even most people in the game world ~ simply won't know about the monster.  A lot of monsters are so rare, or so powerful, that what it is doing on vacation is way out of general knowledge.  Drop a hint or two about the missing information, but don't feel every detail has to be hammered down.

5. Avoid getting cute with the amount of detail.  It sounds fun to give the monster additional nick names or describe how a particular culture worships the monster as a god, or even to go into detail about how it gives birth to others of its kind, but in game terms this is just useless information that needs to be plowed through when the players are waiting.  Describe the monster in sharp detail; the extra details can be added later, during the adventure or if the players actually witness such a birth.  Those details don't need to be in the rules.

6. Make the description match the picture.

7. Your players read, so expect them to read your monster descriptions. which is one more reason not to add too much color to the description.  Remind your players that your monsters are a guideline, because ...

8. Monsters have species.  Just because this manticore happens to have a long tail with spikes doesn't mean every manticore does.  A manticore can have a scorpion's tail, too.  So when the players think they've got a monster pegged, remind them that size, body type, peculiar habits, intelligence and motivation can differ.  The description is a guideline.

9.  Add pertinent details once the players become familiar with a particular monster.  The next monster I mean to write up is the killer frogs, or froglings, the online.  Since the players already know the creature, this is a good time to include all the additional information that has come up ... but since it doesn't mean its the last time that they'll find these things, so I need to keep that monster universality in mind.

10.  Every monster is dangerous.  Perhaps in a very different way, perhaps obliquely, but nevertheless dangerous.  Some are dangerous because the players won't see them coming, some because of some annoying ability they have and some because they appear in frightening numbers.

Why is dangerous important?  Because they're monsters.  They're not paper targets.  They're the nasty, unpleasant, murderous side of nature and everything the players are supposed to be terrified of meeting in a dark, cold landscape.  For me, I don't believe in XP farming by killing, say, rats.  There are no "safe" monsters.