Sunday, February 17, 2019

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own ..."

I should just leave this alone, but ... hey, when is this going to come up again, to this degree?  This time around, however, let's forget the particulars.  I'm resolved to examine and deconstruct the behavior I see going on, like any good anthropologist.  How are people reacting to the unfortunate Mandy's Letter and Zak's reprehensible Response?

[Yes, that's a judgement.  Anyone who does not see that response as reprehensible is ... well, reprehensible.  Look the word up]

Most of those who have accepted the most likely situation have divided into two camps.  We know these camps well; in our lives we've had hundreds of similar conversations about people, both personally known and in the celebrity spotlight.  Is this person aware that they are totally full of shit, or do they actually believe their shit?

I think this says more about the person landing on one side or the other than it does about the subject.  We know said person is absolutely full of shit; and we know that whether or not the person believes what they're shovelling or not, we're agreed that the shoveler needs to be told to put down the shovel and shove off.  So why does it matter to us as individuals whether or not the shoveller is lying or deluded?

It matters because of how we see ourselves.

On the one hand, we think, "I would never lie like that to anyone; I'm a good person.  Lying like that would be hurtful and abusive on levels I don't aspire to and would never consider.  I would have to be a fucking villain before I let myself do something like that."

And on the other hand, "I'd have to be fucking nuts."

Some of us can imagine being self-aware and devious on this level.  We've perhaps had moments when we realized we could seriously fuck someone over by saying the wrong thing or by giving away the secrets of others ... and we're concious of the decision NOT to act like a monster.  So we presume that when we see a monster, it's someone who has decided to throw away the rule book and embrace the evil.

But some of us cannot imagine that.  The tiniest tickling of the slightest possibility of having the vaguest notion of saying something cruel to someone has never entered their head, and when such things have been suggested to them their brain produces a null-program.  They can't remotely imagine such a thing.  When they see a monster, they don't see a human being moving the levers.  They see a monster.

There's plenty of evidence ~ oh, about 150+ years of research ~ that shows neither of the above are the case.  Sometimes the human inside the monster is pulling the levers and sometimes the human is fast asleep and the monster is rampaging at will.  Sometimes it's a matter of pointing the monster at the problem and then turning off and letting the monster handle it.  Yesterday, I had a long discussion about how to write a post about Mandy & Zak, decided I would write about the effects the MeToo movement has on invisible, hidden people ... and then the monster in me took over.

Then I reread what the monster had written about four times and decided to let it stand.  On this occasion, I agreed with the monster.

We see ourselves do this all the time ... and we see others make excuses for us, we see others vindicate our monster's behaviour, we have still others rake us over the coals and settle into grudges that never cease.  It is a factor of being human.

A simple scientist goes about his business of bettering
the plight of fellow human beings.
All of this is purely Freudian.  Call it the human at the levers or the monster, it is still the Id and the Ego ... and though we say over and over that Freud was all wrong and did not know what he was talking about, we continue to have ridiculous, pointless arguments about which was actually in control.  We continue to write novels based on Jekell and Hyde, because the question of "Who is really responsible, the guy who drinks the potion or the guy who acts on the potion?" continue to fascinate us much, much more than the actual damage that's done.

There's no debate in the damage that's done.  That's settled.  We're all in agreement.  There is only so much meat to eat in saying, "Wow, he was bad; what a bad guy he was; can you believe he was that bad?  I knew he was that bad; I should have known; I didn't know until I did; and can you believe others don't think he's bad?"  The real gristle, the bits we can grind in our teeth for days, is the why.  Why is he bad?  Well, me, I think he's just a monster.  No, no, I think he knows he's a monster.  Look at this sentence; it proves he knew what he was doing; actually, I think that sentence proves he had no idea.

And on it goes.

This is human.  It is a way we have of resolving the issue, of settling our minds about something that's upset us by making sense out of it.  Of course, we'll never know the real answer.  We could grab Zak and chain him down for decades and never get the real answer.

"Mr. Manson, why did you kill those nice people?"

There is no answer.  There's just the bullshit we tell ourselves, as we settle into the question of whether we're running the asylum of our own brains, or if the asylum is running itself.  When you shit, dear sir, how does it smell to you?

Zak isn't on trial here, dear reader.  YOU are on trial.  You and your beliefs, your decision-making process, your willingness to drink the potion and your tolerance of the Hyde that results.  As you point the bony finger at the criminal in the dock, are you ready to accept that you're pointing at a mirror?

We know we've done at least a little of what he's done.  All the people rushing about posting snippets of dialogue, celebrating his downfall with the same tactics and methods that Zak himself used to burn others who were posted to the pyre before it became his turn, all the commentors feasting on the bones and tearing through the gristle on Reddit, are just poor reflections of the criminal on trial.  Must I paint the image of the French Revolutionaries cheering in the stands as the guillotine dropped and dropped?  Is this post itself not just one more echo of those cheers, of Zak's cheers, of the cheers of every villain who has been executed in turn to the roaring crowds of the murderers who clap themselves on the back and say, "Job well done"?

So it goes. So it goes. Note that I've been careful to produce examples that predate the internet.  Note that I haven't tried to blame any of this on our ability to "live in bubbles" or receive "confirmation bias."  We, dear fellow humans, have always been like this; only we used to stand shoulder to shoulder as we laughed at the witches as they pleaded not to be burned, creating arguments with our words that they surely knew they were witches, they were only pretending not to be witches because they were obviously lying ... and pity in our minds as we thought, "The poor woman. She has no idea she's a witch."  But no matter which, the wood still burns.

I don't ask you to stop what you're doing.  I only ask that you stop pretending.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Welcome to the Punch

Today, as many of us find ourselves thinking of the MeToo movement, I'm wondering about the hole that is left behind when someone like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer or Kevin Spacey are suddenly shoved off the mountain.

Picture the lowly cameraman or desker working for NBC News, whose dead-end career ~ stifled because, for whatever reason, Matt Lauer didn't like them ~ suddenly found new life in the man's absence.  How many actors and crew are working today because Weinstein is gone?  Who has a chance to work because Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey or Mark Halperin have been let go by their employers and now find themselves without power?

Contrariwise, we should ask ourselves, who built their careers on the influence of these men?  And who now find they must earn their way ~ where before they only had to show up?  Who right now, unnamed, is struggling to produce work that has to fly on its merits and not upon the word of some megalomaniac who has been dispossessed of influence?  When these things happen, it leaves a hole.  It leaves an opportunity for persons of worth to excel; while the hangers on must now find another boot to lick.

Enworld has reported:
"DriveThruRPG has stated that it will sell no future works by Zak Smith.
"Veteran author Ken Hite has announced that he will not work with or share credits with Zak Smith again.
"The Gauntlet blog and podcast will no longer cover Zak S or his publications, or attend conventions that he is permitted at.
"WotC's Mike Mearls has noted that they have not engaged with Zak S since he worked for them as a consultant on 5E, although a previous statement from him in 2014 takes a different stance.
"Gen Con has tweeted a brief statement which says it has investigated, but the results are confidential."

And while voices rush forward to claim solidarity with Mandy and others, or arguing that accusation is not guilt, I find myself thinking how eager these entities were to throw Zak under the bus.  We like to think it's about protecting their good name ~ but business commitments are often more complicated than ending one's association with a counter person at MacDonalds.  Clearly, none of these are working with Zak anyway.  Their statement to unalign themselves is cost-free, with everything to gain.

Do I stand with Mandy?  Sure.  I'm not passionate about it.  I'm not infuriated with Zak.  If it's true, I'll contribute $5 to the committee to take him to a farmer's field and shoot him.  That's a dispassionate Russian's answer.  It's probably true, considering my personal number of flame wars with the guy up until I started to moderate this blog (whereupon Zak went away without being asked).

We knew what he was.  We saw it.  There were hundreds of thousands of words splashed on boards and blogs like the blood from a serial killer's knife ... yet it took years and years to ban him, block him or hate him.  It never takes anything like that long to get people to hate me.

This was a guy who built his castle on the fact that he could take pictures of porn stars to legitimize a blog name that produced readers from a click-baity internet.  In ten years of extraordinarily popular blogging I saw little of value in his writing, nothing I can remember now, certainly nothing that justified a blog that lasted eleven years (?) where most gather dust after three.  From my reading, I'm stunned and amazed that anyone ever sold works by Zak Smith, that anyone ever shared credits with him, that a reputable podcast ever covered him or his publications, that Maxim ever showed any interest, that the WOTC ever knew his name or that the leaders of GenCon let him speak.

Clearly, whatever he was offering, despite being a garbage human being down to his boots, it was what a lot of players and pundits considered respectable, "quality" content, worthy of praise, distribution and appreciation ...

... and that being the cold, bitter, brutal reality that most people just will not face: that Zak probably had his head up his ass the whole time, and that many, many people just would not SEE it.

Read through Mandy's letter.  Read through all the letters.  Read through the people posting sections of their discussions with Zak ... there is a ticking theme through it all.  "Zak was an asshole ... but I couldn't see it ... I was lying to myself ... it wasn't until after that I realized ..."

Welcome.  Welcome to what a few of us started to say on the first day.  Welcome to the argument that hundreds of ordinary, common, non-moderator bulletin board contributors recognized in the first hundred words of the first twattle that Zak spewed.  "This guy is full of shit.  Why do you like him?"

Welcome to the hundreds of times we were told, "Hey, you just don't 'get' him. Zak is a good guy.  Really."

Welcome to the Punch.

Is Zak a good guy today?  And as you shake your heads slowly, and recognize that no, Zak was never a good guy, take a moment and think about your complicity in this lie.  Think about your contribution to Zak's cause, Zak's fame, Zak's plans and Zak's ego.  Think about the responsibility you had over the last ten years to look at his words on his blog, and not at the porn stars.  Think about what you were responsible for spreading when you saw his videos with his DMing style.  Think about how you propped this artist up with your support and your fandom, blissfully drifting along until the day you learned that you were actually a shitty person for not doing your part to burn this little cretin to the ground.

For those who embraced this image in 2009, while
 some called it filth. What does it say to you now?
I feel for Mandy.  I do.  And I stand with her.  But she contributed to this shit too.  I can't vilify her for that; I believe she probably had to grow up a lot before she could get herself together to write the letter and I absolutely believe the people responsible over her in her childhood did not give her the tools she would have needed to let the cat out of the bag nine years ago.  She's the victim.

But all of you ... you people who are now SO righteous and offended ... I don't buy your victimhood.  I don't buy your feelings of betrayal.  You wanted to believe his lies were justified and now that your fantasy has been exploded, you want to believe in your innocence.

Fuck that.  People on the net have been saying, LOUDLY, that Zak S is a fucking shit heel for literally ten years and you ignored them. You cut them down, you burned them to the ground, in favor of your personal hero.

Well, look at your hero now.

Welcome to the Punch.

Me, I'm glad that a loud voice that used to say with remarkable arrogance that D&D is about "fun," and "fuck anyone wanting to raise the level of the game," has had his teeth kicked in.  Good.

More room for those who have something legitimate to say.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Visits from Tenkar

Forgive me, but I really must ask.  Of late, I cannot help but notice that a significant number of readers are drifting through my doors from Tenkar's Tavern.  This is up from zero just a few months ago.  I have no particular issue with Tenkar; he's a gentle soul and his podcasts are occasionally interesting to listen to, if juvenile.  But he is very definitely not the sort of role-player that finds me interesting.  Seems to me that I used to not even be on his blog roll as little as a year ago (but I could be mistaken about that).

Is there anyone who would be able to clear up the mystery?  Has there been some discussion about me, or is there one reader who has suddenly taken to checking my blog 20 times a day through Tenkar's site?  I'd love to know.  As I said, in October the traffic was non-existent but it has lately climbed into the third spot on a very regular basis.

Anyone?

Racism

This is a risky post to write.  I will start by saying that I don't consider myself a racist.  Yet I came of age in the 1970s, when much of the cultural dialogue about racism held that everyone ~ due to the unfortunate osmosis of culture and media ~ was, to some extent, racist whether they liked it or not.  It was bred into us, hammered into us and preached into us.  However much a white liberal might identify as non-racist, this does not rid us of a dialogue that reaches into our mind as we interact with others of another race.  I will be forever trapped by these thoughts, "Express yourself kindly, speak softly and considerately ... and do all that can be done to assure this person that you, in no way, am treating them differently from anyone else."

Thoughts I would never have speaking with a white person.  Aye, there's the rub.  I've been inculcated with that pollutant; I can only assure myself that I would never support a racist agenda, that I would not deny an individual their rights based on their race and I would not hesitate to lend my support to someone on the basis of race.  We fight racism by being conscious of it; but it is not a fight we win.

To a lesser degree, I can make the exact same argument about culture.  I'm Canadian. I have belief systems and ideals that are regulated by that culture and that were installed in me as a child.  The pollutant of nationalism is rife in my mind also ... though not to the degree of racism.  For many, the two are conveniently intertwined; but as I fight one, I fight the other.  Come live in Canada, come work here.  I welcome you.

For me, race and culture have become pariahs in the global identity because of those who would exploit them for power or for gain.  There are two ways of exploiting either: a) create fear, attack them, gather others who hate them, encourage violence and sell the products that hatred craves; b) create fear, defend them, gather others who will defend them, encourage violence and the products that solidarity craves.

A Russian, living in a Russian neighborhood, spreads fear that others hate Russians, so that Russians must stick together, encouraging us all to believe only Russians, to think like Russians, to have faith in Russians ~ and to believe that everyone who is not a Russian is an enemy.

I grew up hearing that.  I've heard gays talk that way, I've heard union workers talk that way, I've heard Canadians talk that way ... and I've heard a lot of people in the media talk that way.  It is just as racist and nationalist to rabidly defend a thing as it is to rabidly hate a thing.

Okay.  D&D.

Part of the appeal of free-form character systems is that the player is not driven to BE a thing.  Classes ~ and particularly "races as classes" ~ encourage us to buy into a product that we should rightly feel has that familiar pollutant we've encountered before.  Those who sell that product can only see the convenience of it: "See?  Being an elf gives you limitations; and limitations give you boundaries.  You know where you're coming from; it's easier to build a 'character' from that."

It's easier to build a cardboard character from that.  I, me, this writer, am not a collection of limitations and my pushing those limitations.  I have things I believe that are not related to what I do, where I came from, what I am, or what I want to be.  Those things were collected over time and ~ to be truthful ~ a great many of them were gained in the face of being told, "You can't do that" and "Oh, you're just trying to get attention."  Those are the watch-phrases of anyone who has boundaries and pushes boundaries.  We're told what to believe; and we're told that if we try to believe something else, we're either lying to others or lying to ourselves.

I don't want to encourage my players to see "fighter" or any class as a limitation or as something to transcend.  I'll take my own case: I'm a writer.  That is not a limitation.  As an identity, it is what I say it is.  My writing is what I want it to be.  If I want it to be something else tomorrow, that is not "pushing a boundary."  Every kind of writer I could ever want to be is well within the field of what I am.

Were I a soldier, and self-identified as a soldier, I feel pretty much that I'd describe it the same way.  I've known a lot of soldiers and I never hear any of them speak of the life or the mindset as a limitation.  I feel that most people who appreciate and obtain an identity in their profession can identify the same way.  A profession is not a limit.  It is a freedom to act.

A race, on the other hand, IS a limit.  I can be any sort of white man I want, sure ... but what does that mean, "Be a white man?"  White man isn't a profession.  It is a color.  It's a surface template.  It's not a process, it's not an ideology.  It's an obsession with a particular abstract effort at sorting me from others.  It means no more to me than the sort of hair follicles I have, the size of my pores or the width of my eyeball.  When I look at the back of my hand, the only thing that's interesting about it is the number of scars and cuts that accumulated over decades of cooking and heavy labor ... things I did.  I don't give a damn about the hands themselves ... except that it's convenient for writing that I still have all my fingers and that I've learned to ignore my arthritis.

We think of character classes as limits because we habitually slot what we do into the same category as what we are or where we're from.  That's a mistake of our upbringing.  We were abused by people with professions long, long before we began to understand anything about those professions.  The teacher, the doctor, the police officer, the sports star, the performer ... these were all fronts to us as children, just things people decided to be.  We saw them as surfaces, just like the color of my skin and the flag I saluted when I sang its anthem.  Many of us still see them as surfaces, when we're pulled over, when we see our hero do a car commercial, when the doctor is arrested and pushed into a squad car.  We have a terrible, awful habit of seeing everyone except ourselves as surfaces, just as though the soldier is a different race than we are or that the feminist is from a different country.  That's easy for us; that doesn't challenge what we think or what we believe; we don't want to see deeper.  Hell, most of us don't even want to BE deeper.

But a profession is not a race.  It is not a nationality.  Being a druid, a bard, a ranger or an illusionist is an opportunity, not a limitation.  I can appreciate how a lot of people can't see that, given their limitations as people.  It seems obvious to me.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Let the Thief Do It

I've heard this sort of thing hundreds of times and this is no reflection on JB ... but he repeated the theory for this post he posted yesterday, motivating me to write this post.
"... if we look at D&D as a 'successful' concept in tabletop RPGs, we can see that at least part of its appeal is how it draws the party together in cooperation for a common objective. And the way it does this is pretty darn simple: while there is 'strength in numbers' (to spread the attrition around), the limitations of each individual class (or, in the positive, the powers and capabilities of each class) provides an incentive to work together to solve the conflicts and problems being thrown at the PCs in their quest for treasure. Mechanically, they're semi-forced to get along with each other, because survival ... and success ... becomes much more difficult without cooperation."

Is that really the case?  Or is it just that we've heard this propounded so often that we take it for granted as something that sounds true?

For a moment, let's deconstruct those "capabilities of each class."  The first two that occur to me is the cleric/healer's ability to bestow healing points on a party and the thief/rogue's willingness to scout ahead.

I'll discuss these forthwith ... but first let me say there's nothing the mage offers that the party technically "needs."  It is nice to have those spells, and certainly the mage can end a fight quickly, but at lower levels a mage is just as likely to be pretty nigh useless in a fight.  But, yes, the mage does offer some informational talents, defining a magic item, comprehending languages, detecting magic and malevolence ... but if we think about it, these are short cuts to things the party is going to find out about eventually, without the mage.  And before the gentle reader chides me that it is better to find out soon than later, please hear me out.

That healing power that's offered means a lot less in the early versions of the game.  A 7th level cleric in 1979 AD&D was able to offer a total maximum of 25 hit points per day, through two spells: cure light wounds and cure serious wounds.  The average was only 14.5.  If the cleric in the party were another fighter, that fighter would easily have more than 25 hit points at 7th level ... which means that another fighter would soak up more hit points than a cleric could heal.  Statistically, the cleric's heal was more or less the difference between what the cleric could soak up at 7th and what a fighter would have.  The only difference is that it could be targeted to other people who got in trouble ~ but it wasn't actually needed.

And as far as scouting ahead ... most of what made this practical was that the thief was forced to do without armor, so that at least one member of the party wasn't crashing around in metal plates and chains.  In truth, in most situations, any elven fighter willing to sacrifice armor class could have done almost as well as a thief ~ and would have survived being discovered better if it comes down to that.

Here is the thing, however.  Because the module-makers and designers KNEW there were going to be thieves, mages and clerics, they designed the environment specifically to take advantage of those skills.  If you get rid of traps, there's no need for the find traps skill, or for renewing someone's hit points to make them battle-ready because some arrow trap sapped 5 hit points from the fighter.  If you get rid of the endless stream of languages, or runes and glyphs, or make the magic items recognizable, or simply get rid of scores of other "make work" features that we expect to find in every dungeon, the truth is that these other classes may have style and character, but they're not actually a "necessity."

I don't think that JB is wrong; in D&D, the player characters ARE semi-forced to get along with each other for survival ... but not for the reasons he proposes.

By creating these make-work processes for the various classes, D&D dupes the players into thinking they need Fred for his healing and Gary for his stealth.  That's let's Harold keep his armor and it lets him gripe that he's down hit points, as he knows Fred is there for him.  If there was no Fred or Gary, Harold wouldn't lazily rely on them.  And if there was no Harold, Fred and Gary would know they'd have to do their own fighting ... which would suck.

It isn't so much that four fighters in a world that wasn't tailor made for other class abilities couldn't get along ... it's that if they were four fighters, they'd squabble and bitch about whose turn it was to shuck off their armor and scout ahead.  They'd hold constant pissing contests about which was the toughest fighter and who did the best in the last fight, with three of them mocking the lowest of the four for having the least kills and for constantly tripping over his 20-sided fumbles.

A fighter can comfortably hang back while "his bitch" scouts ahead, waiting for "doc" to patch him up ... while the thief can hang back while his bitch fights off the orcs.  It isn't what each member of the party does.  It's about what each member of the party lets the other character do.

JB's post talks about how the superhero genre doesn't produce this effect:
"Supers tend to be fairly capable individuals, able to handle whole swaths of mooks and villains on their own, only being held back by individual flaws ... But for a team of heroes, such flaws rarely come up, because it would tend to throw one hero under the bus while her teammates heroically soldier on. Instead, the tendency is to simply throw one Giant Big Bad Threat at the team that requires the full might of the team to overcome: an Uber-Villain or a Villain Team (one foe for each hero!) or a Humongous Natural Disaster."

Effectively, we have to assign players roles in the fight so they know what to do ... because a typical group of players are unable to assign themselves tasks like grown ups.  This is why the army invented sargeants; because a group of extremely capable soldiers, left to themselves, won't get anything done.

I hadn't seen it before, but the class structure creates a series of jobs for each player to do.  Yes, true, another player or class could do those jobs.  The 7th level druid could (as the rules originally went) transform into a mouse for every single scouting ahead mission, which was certainly a lot more stealthy than a thief ~ but even though I ran such druids, this never happened.  Presumedly, because it wasn't the druid's job.

Admittedly, this isn't where I thought I'd end up.  I thought I was going to explode this myth of players working together because they were different classes ... and instead I've strengthened the idea that they have to be different classes.  Not because it helps the players work together, but because players don't like to work together.

If anyone has some memories of 3rd Edition, where builds tended to make players the same, where the problem of "who's turn is it?" came up a lot, I'd love to hear about it.

Somewhere, there's a party busy rewriting their characters while jabbering about seeing a
movie that opens next weekend.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Perception Checks

The DM describes anything: a room, an opponent, a landscape, the thorn in the player's foot ... and the player answers, "I want to make a perception check."

Effectively, the player is asking, "I want more information than you're giving me."  By using the perception roll, the player means to use the rules of the game to force the DM to give more information; or, in the case of looking for a weak spot in the armor of an opponent, a flaw in a non-player's argument or evidence of some kind, the player wishes to force the DM to give the player an advantage.

So DM's learn to describe part of what the player ought to see, knowing the players will make a perception check, so that the DM can then tell the rest of the story.

This is terrible, terrible game design.

My dictionary defines perception as "the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses."  In other words, if the player character HAS senses, they should already be aware of anything that they are capable of seeing or hearing merely by being present in a given space.  There should never be a need for a "check."  Can I see?  Then I see it.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

If, as a DM, I don't say that the enemy's armor has a weak point, then either A) you don't see it; or B) all armor has weak points, you always see it and it makes no difference to your ability to hit an opponent because it is assumed your level always permits you to take the best advantages of your enemies' weaknesses as you are able.

If, as a player, you are in a darkened room, and I don't describe the homonculous in the corner because it is hidden, then you don't see it, no matter how hard you roll the dice or how hard you skin your eyes in an attempt to see something you don't know is there.  If, on the other hand, you move forward, to where you will see it, then you will see it, and there is no need to make any sort of roll whatsoever.

You can't perceive something you don't perceive.  If you perceive it, then I am duty bound as a DM to tell you that you see it.  That is my responsibility, not because you rolled a die but because you see it.

If you see something and you don't know what it is, that is because you don't know what it is, not because you have inaccurately perceived it.  If you don't know what it is, all the perception rolls in the world will not give you knowledge you do not have.  If you do know what it is, there is no need for a roll.

If the thing has concealed itself so that it appears as something other than it appears to be, then that is a roll related to the thing's ability to conceal itself, NOT as a matter of your ability to perceive it.  If it can conceal itself as something than it is not, then you will perceive it as something it is not.

More information is obtained by changing your physical position; by using your other senses to investigate it or by poking at it with a stick of by some other test.  In other words, by taking an action, which the player designates.  NOT by looking harder or hearing harder without actually changing anything about the situation you've already perceived.

I'm sure I used this picture once before, but it applies so fuck it.
Occasionally, a character will be focused on something and may not see a monster enter a room, or may not notice movement of some other form.  Under those circumstances, I do use an intelligence check to determine the character's awareness or alertness to that change; however, this never applies to any situation where the player may come to harm.  Situations of that kind deserve a surprise roll, for which I will simply say, "Roll a d6," without explaining why.  I say it.  Not the player.  How would the player know to make a roll about something the player cannot possibly know anything about?

If the player is surprised, then it is too late to know why; and if the player is not surprised, I will say, "This happens [description] and you're not surprised.  Please take action."

Since I describe the new situation, there still is no need for a perception check.

The perception check makes no sense to me.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Hunting Will Good and Intelligently

Having some distance on the work I posted late Saturday, I can see I'm not quite there.  Close, but not quite.  Let me explain what I'm trying to accomplish.

The "breakthrough" was the realization that intelligence (and to some extent, all ability stats) needs not to be seen as an enabler but as a ceiling.  We tend to think of a high intelligence as a shortcut to information, circumventing the need to role-play the situation ~ that is, to skip having to play the game.  This should not be the case.

Fundamental to RPGs is the understanding that as players WE do the heavy lifting.  Our strength may give us a bonus to hit, but it shouldn't circumvent the need to step forward and take a chance.  A high dexterity does not guarantee that we'll avoid damage ... only that it should slightly reduces the chance of damage.  If it reduces that chance of damage too much, the game becomes too easy ... and therefore not a good game.

Intelligence and Wisdom are doubly troublesome for several reasons.

The first issue is that no one has a clear and consistent black-and-white concept of either Int or Wis.  The two stats were born out of psychology's erstwhile belief in nurture-vs.-nature, a theory that has since been exploded and which is not discussed much nowadays (except by non-experts who are unable to let a theory die, no matter how much evidence mounts against it).  Though I tried to rigorously define it on Saturday, even as I was writing the entry I kept drifting into concepts that I then realized I had defined as wisdom.  It is pesky problem.

Let's shelve that.

Cognitive stats absolutely should never be allowed to take the place of the players' thoughts and choices.  No matter what the character's intelligence, the player must be and should be the source for action and decision.  DM's that allow players to use their cognitive stats as a stand-in for their own gameplay might just as well be DMing computers.

[And here I will resist going on a tear about perception checks; I am going to address those, but I hope to wait until I arrive at that page of the 5e Handbook]

I propose that when the player asks, "Will my intelligence allow my character to solve the puzzle?"  The answer ought to be a flat, "No."

But if the player proposes, "My character wants to make a puzzle that would be difficult to solve," the answer ought to be, "Maybe."

My thinking starts with, "How much intelligence does it take to create a puzzle?"  We might agree that a meaningful puzzle requires an 8 Int or better.  Then anything proposed by someone with less intelligence ("low" according to the original definitions for intelligence, was 5-7 Int) would be instantly solved by any rational creature (5 Int or better).  This then answers part of our question: a creature with an 8 Int can make a puzzle.  There's no need to make a roll if your Int is above 8.

Next, my thinking asks, "Could a person of 8 Int make a puzzle that a person of 9 Int couldn't solve?"

I find that interesting.  Standard D&D thinking would say no, forever arguing that knowledge is always linear.  This is easily demonstrated as nonsense.  To use an anecdotal example, I was watching this completely moronic video recently [effing youtube feed] and came across the example shown on the right.  I froze completely and did not get it before the reveal.  I have no doubts whatsoever that I'm smarter than the group that proposed the puzzle, and let's face it ... words are my thing.  And still I fell down on this one.

Contrary to what people who continue to be steadfast believers in I.Q. (a group of non-experts who are unable to let a theory die, no matter how much evidence mounts against it), puzzles are not actually a good method for measuring intelligence or ability.  Everyone has, at one moment or another, even the very smart, seen something like this and just choked.  Then we tell ourselves, "Well, I'm stupid" ~ which is, in fact, a socialized prejudice that was hammered into us as children and also has not one thing to do with fact.  Our non-linear development as human beings is part of the reason why the player needs to solve the puzzle, and not the player's intelligence.

From there, my thinking takes me to a place, "How much intelligence is needed to make a puzzle that no one could solve?"

The answer is tricky, and for that I'll return to a comic I wrote two years ago:



I love this comic.  I haven't thought of it in about 15 months and I grinned when I reread it.  But does it demonstrate that Asif (in green) is highly intelligent ... or does it merely prove that he's well-read?  If the latter, that's evidence of his high wisdom and not his intelligence.  It takes far, far less intelligence to repeat something that someone else has already said than to come up with it cold.  For example, I'm smart, but I am not Hegel.  Once Hegel comes up with the concept, however, we must ask the question ... once I've read Hegel, am I as smart as Hegel?

Ah, that's tricky.  Let's go back to our original proposal about intelligence limiting a character.  "Mr. DM, when my character reads Hegel, does he 'get' Hegel?"

And that is an intelligence check.  I've read Hegel.  I get what he's saying, because I've read and listened to people who have tried to explain Hegel to me and others at the same time, but I don't "get" him.  He's over my head.  But then, he's over most people's heads.  To get Hegel, your intellect has to bend a certain way and then you have to spend nearly as long as Hegel spent getting to the place where Hegel arrived.

On the other hand, I've read Christopher Hitchens.  I'm definitely as smart as Christopher Hitchens.

Fundamentally, the point I'm trying to make is this: the game's intelligence stat is not about circumventing, it is about doing.  My character with a 7 Int reads this grade 12 textbook.  That's fair.  I took Grade 12 with others of about that intelligence and they were able to read the book.  Did they read it all the way through?  That's a choice and therefore that's a wisdom check.  Did they "get" the book?  Well, I'd say yes if the character had a 10 intelligence, but with a seven ... I'd say that was a check.

[I need to stress that my 7 Int is NOT based on a 70 I.Q.  Like I said with my last post, my intelligence is independent of I.Q.  A "7" would be a fairly typical person who would make it through high school but score in the bottom of their class]

How about a typical first-year university text ... I read Livy in my 1st year.  It's not nearly as dense as Thucydides or Tacitus, but words are words.  The "get" is different, however; the message is not simply, "This happened and then this happened."  There is a very definite theme at play and I took classical history with a lot of smart people who did not grasp that theme at all.  To be honest, I took courses from some profs who didn't.  I needed the them explained to me ... but once I got it, I saw that theme everywhere.

I'm arguing there's a threshold.  If you're of this intelligence, then there are these things you obviously understand, but there are all these other things you maybe understand.  The intelligence check is for the maybe stuff; it would be stupid to make a person of 15 intelligence roll to see if they could understand a grade-12 textbook [I am looking right at you, 5e].

Admittedly, however, this all gets to be a crap-shoot after the point where I stopped my post yesterday.  That is one of the reasons I petered out.  It is easy to understand low intelligence ... but at what point should a person of 15 Int obviously understand something that a person of 14 Int would have to roll for?

Not a freaking clue.  Not at the moment, anyway.  There ought to be those things, however.  The fact that we can't define them does not make a person of 14 Int equal to 15, and there would be things that all 15 Int persons would get that 14 Int persons might not.  But hey, give me a break.  It's not like this intelligence thing was easy to crack for everyone else who's taken a swing at it.  The very fact that I am taking a swing at it, or that I feel I can, is itself a definition of my intelligence, compared to a lot of readers who might now be thinking, "what the fuck for?"

Because it matters, oh ye who has blown their check.

I wish I could say I was done, but I'm not.  Because self-perception of intelligence is a thing, too.  That forces me to embed this awful, awful video ... which unfortunately makes a brilliant point that utterly, completely, absolutely and with all dispatch was totally missed by the presenter.



The presenter here, and many presenters on the internet who I have seen make many of these same points, thinks he is much more intelligent than he actually is.  His first example out of the gate is one of my favorites ... because it argues against what a stupid person thinks a smart person is doing, while the smart person is doing something totally different.  Right off the bat, 19 seconds in:
Cracked Host Guy: "... I've spent the day memorizing poetry because of this scene from Good Will Hunting."
College Dude: "... As a matter of fact I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social~
Will: "~Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinction predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth.  You got that from Vickers, Work in Essex County, page 98, right?"
Cracked Host Guy: "Because Matt Damon [sic] is a brilliant mathemetician, he has apparently memorized entire history textbooks, right down to the page number of certain important quotes.  Hence."  [shows poetry book]  "I figure if memorizing history textbooks makes you a good mathematician, memorizing romantic poetry will probably help me figure out how to escape from this YouTube bunker."

Face palm.  I've heard so many deconstructions of Good Will Hunting along these same lines that I'm beginning to think the movie itself should be the official I.Q. test.  To begin with, we might start by understanding that Matt Damon is playing a character, he's not a brilliant mathematian; and from there we might move onto the point that a character in a movie being able to do more than one thing is called "depth" ... you know, the thing that a million would-be online critics crave when they talk about how bad the acting in a film is.

Full disclosure: I would rate Good Will Hunting as a 2 out of 4 stars.  That means I'd watch it every three to ten years, but certainly not every year.  It is nowhere near one of my favorite films.  There are problems with it that don't matter here.  But several of the speeches do address intelligence in a way that seems to make people of less than my intelligence truly dumb as posts.

Will's demonstration of intelligence here has nothing whatsoever to do with memory.  The character is not a student.  That means he's reading Vickers for reasons other than, "This is my assigned coursework," which, we know, is why the College Dude is reading it.  Moreover, Will knows beforehand that the Dude is going to quote that part ... because clearly, there's a prof out there somewhere who LOVES that quote and every dumbfuck college student who staggers into Will's bar thinks that quote is a weapon that wins every argument ~ because some prof told them it did.  But unlike the student, Will read the text for reasons of his own; a poor person, reading a book called, "Work in Essex County," about farmers and fishermen from 1630 to 1850.  Will, in the movie, is bitterly hateful of little rich college students who think they can understand what it means to be on the bottom row of society because they read a fucking book; Will reads the book and feels the book, as an actual template of his actual life.

So when Will quotes the book, he's rubbing the Dude's face in the actual text, saying, you dumbshit, if you knew anything about what you were reading, you'd understand what the quote actually says, not what you think the quote says.

Now, compare this to what I was saying about making choices as a writer and presenter.  The writers here, Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck, had literally millions of possible books they could have pulled out as an example for this scene ... and they picked this one.  Do you, dear reader, think they stumbled across this book from a commercial they saw on television?  This film was released in 1997.  It was probably written by the two five to ten years earlier than that.  No internet.  Given that, they pulled it off a shelf somewhere.  Do you think they walked into a library, went straight to that shelf and found the book there?  Hell no.  Nor did two early twenty-year-olds chance upon a book with the full title of Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 and think, "Wow, that's going to make a great scene in a movie someday!"

No, they heard of the book because, when Damon was at Harvard in 1992, he heard the College Dude himself make this argument and, because of it, Damon went to the book and found out what the fuck that quote was all about.

And this ... AND THIS ... is what defines intelligence.  The unwillingness to see a presented argument as THE argument, ever.  The will to go and look for the work yourself, to dig, to do MORE than memorize, to demonstrate fact from fallacy by means of full disclosure of all the pertinent facts.  Exactly what the Cracked Host Guy did not do, and what I see every pundit on the internet not do when they discuss this movie.  Which, case in point, is also the goddamn point of the movie.

Sorry.  Went a long way around the barn there.

There is another demonstration of Will's intelligence that is missed by the Cracked Host Guy.  Will response is fast.  Now, this is one thing in a film, where everything is scripted, but wit and repartee has long been a demonstrative facet of intelligence.  Cyrano de Bergerac was right to see the connection between wit and swordplay, that Edmond Rostand reflected in the drama we know better than the real fellow.  Wit is biting, vicious, button-pressing and dangerous to display in common company ... and, as Christopher Hitchens often displayed, highly addictive.  Dumber people make wonderfully marvelous straight-men, which makes not letting free with the sarcastic barb that will get you killed seemingly impossible.  But again, it's wisdom that restrains the cutting tongue, not the intellect.

Hammering this hodge-podge into a rules set is, to say the least, beyond the pale.  But I can tell you clearly that one technique that will not work is to create modifiers and then roll for everything.

It takes a real moron to come up with that plan.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Intelligence Scale

Originally, I meant only to add a description of intelligence for character creation; and then I had a bit of clarity before falling asleep last night.  I picked it up this morning and had meant to carry it forward up to 18 intelligence ... but alas, I lost the thread of my intent long before.

The idea follows something I proposed long, long ago, saying I would need time to think about it.  Having got it this far, I probably need time again; or perhaps I've just lost my clarity in the midst of researching and trying to build a fluidity to the change of each intelligence value.  Here's what I have, transferred from my wiki.

Variously defined to include logic, understanding, self-awareness and reasoning, for game purposes I have chosen to describe intelligence as problem solving ability and alertness. In game terms this argues that seeing the answer to a problem is a question of intelligence, not wisdom; and that being aware of what is going on around the individual is also intelligence, and not dexterity. Intelligence as described here bears no similarity to "I.Q."

Ability checks are made against intelligence only when there is doubt that the character's intelligence is sufficient to reason through a set of variables or be alert enough to see the meaning of a given clue or detail. Players cannot simply turn to the PC's intelligence as an ability that lets them roll and instantly "know" things. Players must use their own intelligence 99% of the time throughout the game; however, very often the player will attempt an action or a plan that the character would be unlikely to conceive. In that instance, the player should make an intelligence check. If successful, the action can be carried out.

Take note; "learning ability" is often attributed to intelligence; in my game, that would be part of wisdom.

Intelligence is an important characteristic of mages and illusionists, and a minor requisite for assassins, bards, paladins, rangers and thieves. For mages, intelligence will dictate the maximum number of spells that can exist in the character's spellbook (qv). Furthermore, it should be understood that upper spell levels for mages cannot be employed at all if the mage has a minimal intelligence.

Chance for a spell included in the spellbook describes the percentage chance that is rolled for each spell in the magic user lists to determine if that spell is included in the mage's conceptual ability. This does not apply to illusionists.

Minimum # of successful rolls indicates the lowest number of successful rolls for spells that the mage can have. This does not apply to illusionists.

Maximum Spell level use shows the highest level of spell that the character can use with that intelligence. This column applies to both illusionists and mages.

Description of Values

Zero Intelligence (0 pts.)

Unable to think and lacking self-awareness, these creatures act without will, driven by hormonal responses. They are compelled to find food or to reproduce. Once engaged in combat they will not retreat but will always fight to the death. They cannot communicate with others of their own kind except through the release of pheromones, which may appear to create cooperation but in fact is purely reflexive in response.

Deficient Intelligence (1 pt.)

Sufficient to provide minimal self-awareness and bare instinct resulting in an innate behavior in response to outside stimuli. Creatures of deficient intelligence will experience fear and will herd together for defense ~ but will equally abandon others of their own kind, including their offspring, with self-preservation being more important than social bonds.

Reproduction if primarily sexual, with times of the year when instinctive competition to determine opportunities to mate takes place. Displays feature activities such as showing plumage or rutting. These creatures are always herbivorous and never hunters; they will exhibit some curiosity towards the offer of foods, especially those of a pleasant odor. Without magical influence, these creatures defy interaction and cannot be trained.

Domestic Intelligence (2 pts.)

Necessary for domestication as a creature. Take note that not all domestic creatures have an intelligence of this value; only that they must have at least this much in order to form an attachment to a more intelligent companion. Creatures of domestic intelligence will also show a fondness and loyalty. They can be angered and will become defensive if angered; they will not always fight, however. This defensiveness is often a show of threat before fleeing.

Creatures of this intelligence will form family relationships for life, care for their offspring, defend their lairs, display memory, play, act curiously if not threatened and will actively hunt (including tracking and returning to familiar hunting grounds). These creatures will also cooperate with their own kind, though often they will become aggressive and competitive once food is available. Primary motivations continue to be the pursuit of food and reproduction.

Sympathetic Intelligence (3 pts.)

Necessary for humanoid creatures (with much lower-than-average mental acuity) and commonly the intelligence for successful hunters such as canines, felines, suidae, ursae and a wide range of magical beasts. These creatures will hunt patiently and cleverly, will share food among their clans and will care for and adopt the young of others. They will form close domestic bonds with more intelligent creatures, particularly with tool-making humanoids.

They have strong memories, will form lasting bonds and cooperative relationships with humanoids (hunting and sheep dogs, cormorants, working animals, mounts, etcetera), are strongly faithful, will play and will defend creatures other than those of their own kind. They are able to recognize treachery and also display a wide range of emotions.

Humanoids will be minimally communicative and animal-like in their display of emotions. They will form staunch bonds with others and will sacrifice themselves rather than let those others come to harm (though the sacrifice is not self-aware; death is a difficult concept to grasp). Fighting abilities will be instinctive; they are limited to bashing weapons. Weapons may not be hurled, not because the creature is physically incapable, but because it doesn't not occur. They are limited to daily living skills and are limited in sage abilities to adaptive or instinctive abilities [no defacto list exists at this time]. All efforts to problem solve or be alert, as well as recovering anything from memory, requires an intelligence check.

Cognitive Intelligence (4 pts.)

Enables self-awareness so that the creature is aware of their own awareness, and in humanoids the ability to express consciousness of their own mental limitations. Creatures are able to comprehend money, the importance of some things over others and reasons why they are being asked to do things. Creatures of this intelligence include a wide variety of non-social monsters, many of them with inborn skills, primates and humanoids who represent lower-than-average mental acuity. No humanoid race comprises principally of members that are of this level of intelligence.

Creatures, both humanoid and not, will betray deviousness, be capable of lying, yet will remain naive of consequences for their actions. Play is often extraordinarily aggressive or excessively idle, such as repeatedly throwing a ball against a wall for many hours at a time, mesmerized by the patterns it forms. Memories are long and grudges are common. They are not likely to judge the actions of others except when those actions directly infringe on their freedom.

Humanoids will be haltingly but moderately communicative and expressive with their emotions. They will form highly loyal bonds with fellows and may even fall in love, though they will not understand the social mores associated with relationships. They are not able to rebel against requests from trusted companions without an intelligence check. When a check succeeds, being conscious of their own limitations, they will be enormously proud of themselves.

Fighting abilities are instinctive; bashing and stabbing weapons are permissible. Weapons may be hurled. They are able to do tasks made of two-or-three steps, such as sharpening a weapon AND putting it away or eating from a plate, washing that plate and putting it away. Such things are limited to busywork; tasks that require figuring the place for something unfamiliar, sorting, locating something that can't be seen or is in an unfamiliar place, or any more complex problem requires a check. The creature can watch and be trusted to be aware in that specific direction, but being alert for something unexpected requires a check. Sage abilities must still fit into the descriptions above or are not available to the creature.

Primitive Intelligence (5 pts.)

Minimum necessary for a humanoid culture. Creatures are able to perform all familiar tasks related to food gathering, hunting, raising offspring, sorting and sharing material wealth and rough hand-made tools without checks, but do not have interpretive-based sage abilities.

Though able to understand the spoken word generally, creatures have high difficulty understanding abstract concepts such as philosophy, mathematics, science, mechanics or distant geography. Religion and history is understood primarily through story-telling and art, with no real sense of theology or causality. Magic is appreciated and recognized, but the process bears no comprehension at all. Limitations on such things, or why there should be limitations, are unclear to the creature.

When in simple, day-to-day situations, it is rare that any checks will need to be made. However, the alertness needed to think a player character's way through unusual environments (dungeons, dangerous and chaotic terrains, cities or streets where sensory overload is constant) will require occasional checks if there is no one else to keep the character focused. One such situation is battle.

Should surprise occur, creatures of primitive intelligence are apt not to rely upon their instincts but upon their responsibilities ~ and this may cause the creature to freeze, similar in manner to a deer but for entirely different reasons. Because of this, unless an intelligence check is made, the creature will be unable to take any action except to defend themselves for one more round than is usual. This hesistancy can be overcome, however, if a more intelligent creature, unaffected by this hesitancy, is there to shout "attack!" or similar order at the right moment, spurring lesser companions to action. Thus a chief in a primitive clan or tribe will usually have sufficient intelligence to thus lead their people.

Primitive intelligence allows the use of most hand-to-hand and hurled weapons, but discounts use of the bola, the bow, slings and like weapons that have multiple or moving parts. Common implements with moving parts require a check to use; complex implements, such an astrolabe or abacus, are beyond the creature's ken.

Low Intelligence (6 to 7 pts.)

Though in the upper group for primitive cultures, for most civilized societies this indicates the bottom range of competent intelligence for social participants in daily life. Such creatures are able to work at repetitive tasks, raising food, maintaining domestic animals and other day-to-day social duties without intelligence checks.

They are, however, challenged to understand matters outside their immediate needs and positions. Even if they participate in religion, it is more mystery than belief. They are comfortable at festivals and sport; but discussions of current affairs and politics confuse them. They are apt to ignore the doings of the world. If someone should explain such things to them, it would be an intelligence check.

Low intelligence creatures have access to the full range of weapons and the use of common implements without needing a check. Surprise in combat operates normally.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Grumpy Grognard Guy

"Use of the NPC personality traits and characteristics [found on pages ] for player characters is NOT recommended.  The purpose of AD&D is to allow participants to create and develop interesting player characters who will adventure and interact with their surroundings.  If personality traits are forced upon PCs, then participants will be doing little more than moving automatons around while you, the DM, tell them how their characters react to situations.  It is therefore absolutely necessary for you to allow each player the right to develop his or her character as he or she chooses!"
~ p.11, Original Dungeon Master's Guide

I stumbled across this while considering an upgrade to my own character creation page on my wiki, and could not help noticing how well it contrasts with the content I wrote earlier today.  At the risk of sounding like Grumpy Grognard Guy, even though I don't use the AD&D DM's Guide for much any more ~ I've either replaced it, remembered it or redacted it from my game ~ I cannot help noticing the comparison of language from one edition to another.  5th Edition really wants you to like it; hell, it desperately panders so hard the player is forced to consider a restraining order.  1st clearly does not give a shit if you like it or not.  "The Game is This.  Fuck you."

I'm not sure my wiki needs an upgrade.  I don't strongly feel there needs a reason for my choosing to roll 4d6 [given as method I in the DMG] rather than some other form.  Games as a whole don't give explanations or justifications for their rules.  They usually give one opening paragraph with a little drama in them and then they get down to business.  For example, here's the first paragraph for the 1975 game, Wooden Ships & Iron Men:
"Wooden Ships and Iron Men is a tactical simulation of naval warefare during the great age of sail.  The game covers the period from 1776 to 1814 when the great square sail ships-of-the-line dominated the oceans and the speedy and durable American frigates gave world recognition to their young parent navy.  The game is played by two or more players each commanding a ship, squadron or whole fleet!  Scenarios depict the famous naval engagements of the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleanic Wars.  The game is also a kit from which other scenarios or any fictitious engagement may be designed."

Direct, to the point, here's what the game offers and how.  The immediate next paragraph sets the language for the rest of the manual (I won't quote it all):
"Each counter represents a single ship and covers two hexes of the mapboard.  Orders for movement are written for each ship on a 'log.'  Ships are then moved simultaneously over the mapboard.  Any which foul or grapple may attempt to form boarding parties to take possession of the enemy's craft ..."

We don't need a lot of flowery bullshit language.  "Grapple?  Boarding parties?  Take over the enemy's craft?  I'm in!"

No one thinks to explain why we've adopted a simultaneous movement scheme or why a ship is specifically two hexes long.  Because it works, that's why.  Because it's a game, we tested it, you didn't, so shut up and play.  And that's how people would have talked to you in 1978 if you sat down at a tournament to play the game.  There were such tournaments.  War games go back a long way.

Early along the way, however, where D&D was concerned, spines grew  rubbery and flexible among the designers.  Look at that page in the old DMG.  There are four methods offered for how to roll dice for the character and there is a namby-pamby effort to explain that characters rolling a straight 3d6 for stats tended to have short lifespans.  Even then, in 1979, the originators were already beginning to doubt their message.  That list of dice-rolling methods (it used to be famous, like Appendix N, but I suppose it has fallen into obscurity) obviously came about because the designers themselves couldn't agree on how much better a character's stats ought to be.

I am fine with saying this is the method and drawing the line here.  I have heard every kind of complaint a player can make about low ability stats.  And I've had my share of player suiciders ... that's why long ago I determined that the player's character had to meet two possible requirements.  If every stat except one was 14 or less, and that one stat was at least 17, even a grumbly player would make the best of it.  The same, I found, was true if no stat was 17 or better, but two were at least 15 and 16.  Two 15s weren't enough.  And a single 16, with everything else being 14 or less, wasn't good enough either.

Of course, I had players who would happily run with all their stats below 15.  Some players are just like that.  That can't be relied upon across the board; my minimums, as far as I can tell, satisfy everyone ... and even those disgruntled players who don't want me to let them roll their six stats again, because they're a masochist, will grudgingly do so anyway once they understand everyone in the game is held to the same standard.

It works.  I've tested it.  Those who don't like it, who don't feel the rewards equal whatever the hell 5e offers them, can keep walking.  Once we've established what the rules ARE, one thing we cannot allow ourselves to do is cave everytime some malcontent doesn't get their way.  Malcontents will always try.  Reason, effectiveness and the very course of civilization demands that malcontents not be given any power, ever.  Look what happens.

Civilization?  Look at any part of your culture that is falling apart: infrastructure, the law, the electoral system, the way people are treated in public ... it's all degrading because some group of people really, really didn't want to behave or act or contribute as they were meant to contribute.

And some dumbfuck group with real power said, "Okay. You don't have to.  Not if you don't really want to."

Cleaning up was such a bother.  [see the source for this image from Nix & Gerber]

5e: Round Holes

I'm writing another of these because readers are asking and because, just now, this is fairly straightforward deconstruction.  Unlike writing a class just now, or putting up content from my wiki (which hasn't been worked on), these posts sort of write themselves.

Let's continue with character creation in the 5th Edition Players Handbook.

The old Players Handbook in AD&D starts with a direct definition of the six main character stats, explaining what each are, how they affect your character and the specific adjustments they add.  Each stat works like its own piece; and those descriptions were valuable for investigating again and again the substance underlying the character's structure.  The designers understood that those six stats were fundamental in creating the character concept.

Right after the old P.H. dives into the races, again writing a passage about each, defining their relationships to each other and to the classes, without any effort at this time to pay attention to those classes.  We are discussing one thing at a time, rationally.  The language lacks any attempt at drama or building excitement. 

Then we are given a definition for each of the character classes, one by one, separated so the reader can chew over each with a clear understanding of what they do.  How the characters are created is not described at all; that is left to the DM's Guide, with the understanding the players would not be creating characters without being told how to do so by the DM. 

No effort is made to "interest" you in the material ~ but it is straightforward, direct and runs 23 pages.

The 5e Handbook gives one vague table to defining the stats, though how to use them comes up a lot of time later.  It spends 31 pages describing the races and 70 pages describing the classes.  Most of this is filler, campaign detail that may or may not work for your campaign (and will most likely be discarded).  Everything is overdramatized.  Nothing is straightforward and absolutely clear.  Much of the content boils down to, "well, you be you."  The content is wholly geared towards giving the players a vast hodge-podge of different powers in the hopes this will allow individuals to form of themselves.

If the common complaint about AD&D is that it was too detailed or too hard to understand, or that it's classes were too rigorous and unimaginative to be liked, I don't understand 5e's answer at all.  Being a fighter in AD&D meant you had weapons and could wear armor, and make yourself into whatever sort of unique person you wanted to be.  5e hammers the character into round holes, with the supposed benefit that, "You can pick the round peg you want."  Want to be a half-elf?
"Walking in two worlds but truly belonging to neither, half-elves combine what some say are the best qualities of their elf and human parents: human curiosity, inventiveness, and ambition tempered by the refined senses, love of nature, and artistic tastes of the elves. Some half-elves live among humans, set apart by their emotional and physical differences, watching friends and loved ones age while time barely touches them."

That was easy.
I can't help seeing this as anything but racist ... and illogical.  Do humans combine the best qualities for their two human parents?  Then why should half elves?  Perhaps neither of my human parents were curious, inventive or ambitious ~ must we assume that all elves are refined, loving of nature and possessing artistic tastes?  Perhaps I want to play an elf with none of those things.  If so, wouldn't that mean I was "set apart" by my emotional differences from other elves?  And why should half-elves in particular be described as set apart?  Are dwarves, dragonborn, tieflings and what have you also "set apart" by their emotional and physical differences?  Logically, in a world mixing all these races together, I would half expect the passage above to read, "Since you're pretty close to two other races, you can pretty much vanish into their numbers more easily than you could if you were, say, a half-orc.

These racial and class descriptions ALWAYS try to tell us what to think, what to believe, what our tastes are, who we get along with (something I really did not like about the original P.H.) and so on because the real differences between the races is harder to establish.  We ought to be discussing internal organs, diseases, brain function, soft and vulnerable spots ... do elves have a solar plexus?  If you whip a dwarf on his feet, does it hurt?  Do we all have just one heart, one liver, two kidneys and so on?  Do we require the same calorie intake for a 20-mile hike?  Do we need to sleep as long?  Does sex work the same way?

Admittedly, I've never wanted to touch any of those; and likewise, I have no interest in telling players how other elves think.  Presumedly, if they liked the way other elves think, they wouldn't be here adventuring with these dwarves, humans and half-orcs.

In the larger picture, none of the quote above matters.  Players aren't going to read it again, they're not going to follow it, the DM isn't going to follow it ... the pitch is just a bunch of bullshit filler where the writer thought, "I have to say something."  This is the typical spew that comes out.  It was probably lifted from someone else's description, that was lifted from someone else and so on going back into the mid-80s.  It's dreck and meaningless.  It doesn't belong here.

Yet it's always here.  Picking up on page 11, under "Choose a Race," we get the preliminary for it:
"The race you choose contributes to your character’s identity in an important way, by establishing a general appearance and the natural talents gained from culture and ancestry ..."

I understand why we might want to give the races a cultural ancestry, but why does MY character need one?  How is this "important" to me?  Apart from the monstrous plethora of special abilities that are going to be poured on my character like honey, what does my "identity" have to do with it?  Clearly, I'm expected to fit myself into this neat, round hole ... though as the book tells me, "Sometimes playing against type can be fun, too."

Is that it?  Have I only the two options?  I can be a conformist or I can be a non-conformist conformist.  Wonderful.  But what's actually fun and is not racist?  Ignoring the type completely and playing whatever character I like.  I don't have to be a half-orc paladin or a mountain dwarf wizard to be a memorable character ...

I suppose that's as far as most imaginations reach, however; assuming, of course, that we don't incorporate anything into the actual book to inspire imagination.

Both the races and the classes are little more than power lists; which presumedly is an answer to 3e's build system.  Every system going back to the original was a grouping of power lists.  My mage in AD&D, by the book, received 1 spell a day, the privilege of using the lowest-scale weapons and a few higher saving throws.  That's all you got if you were human.  As we were playing at 15, we could see the cleric nearly always got 3 spells to start because of their wisdom, so we agreed the mage should start with 3 also.  I still play it that way, though that's not how the rule was written.  Cantrips were added by the Unearthed Arcana and those seemed fair.  We did see there was a reason to beef up the characters in small ways; that's why I began with adding actual secondary skills like fishing or hunting, making armor or being able to sail.  That steadily morphed into sage abilities ... which I carefully manage so that at low levels they're useful without being powerful.

As I venture forward into this book, however, I gaze with suspicion on what's on offer here.  There's always a way to make the enemy more powerful than the player, no matter how many special abilities they get.  A part of me wants to argue that it shouldn't matter if the players are powerful or not.

Still ...

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Laid Off

I was told an hour ago.  Got into work and found the boss nervous as all get out, waiting for me, sob story at the ready.  He hasn't got the money, his online department isn't taking in as much as he hoped, he feels I'm a brilliant writer and he likes all my plans, but he can't afford me.

Nice of him to tell me after my being in my new place for exactly a week.  Before I took the place, my commitments were $700 a month.  Now they are three times that.

Catching my breath.  I have access to Employment Insurance, thankfully, I have money saved, I have all my limbs, the recession over the city is steadily lifting, I can always go back to kitchens and I'm glad to be rid of it, honestly.  Every kick in the teeth is an opportunity.

Wish I hadn't had to take a 90-minute one-way commute to be let go.  Glad it only takes 60 minutes to come back.

I plan to write some kind of post later.  Probably have some fairly bitter overtones.  Be warned.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

5e: The Company Sponsors Conceit

We begin this session of the 5th Edition Players Handbook with the top of page 11.  Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters.

This is the start of the book proper, with the Introduction finished at last.  With so much non-information and misinformation in the Introduction, we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves starting with an introduction to the first chapter ~ which again, says little of consequence.  Even with headers on the page that say, "Choose a Race" and "Choose a Class," the four paragraph introduction on the same page says in the first paragraph,
"You choose a race (such as human or halfling) and a class (such as fighter or wizard)"

And then in the second paragraph,
"Before you dive into step 1 below, think about the kind of adventurer you want to play. You might be a courageous fighter, a skulking rogue, a fervent cleric, or a flamboyant wizard. Or you might be m ore interested in an unconventional character, such as a brawny rogue who likes hand-to-hand combat, or a sharpshooter who picks off enemies from afar. Do you like fantasy fiction featuring dwarves or elves? Try building a character of one of those races."

It would make more sense to save these waxing poetics for the actual subject, but then we have a LOT of pages to fill and obviously not enough material to fill them, so ...

And what is it with always having to put a cliched adjective in front of each class?  I grant the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but must we insert a bias here at all?  If we want to help define the choice of these classes, wouldn't a descriptive be better?  A fighter trained in weapons and combat, a rogue trained in deception and finesse, a cleric with passion for others and the unearthly, a wizard concerned with alchemy and spells ... is that not more helpful if the reader has no idea whatsoever what these classes are?

That is the pattern throughout these next pages.  We say the word "elf" with utter expectation that of course you, the reader, know what that is.  But do you know what it means in this context?  Particularly if you're nine and you haven't read Lord of the Rings or even seen the films?  Once again, the writers here are being lazy, simultaneously writing a child-like primer while ignoring the actual intention.  Moments later, we're told,
"Once you have a character in mind, follow these steps in order, making decisions that reflect the character you want."

How am I to do that, if I have no idea what any of these things are, particularly from the terrifically scant detail you've provided?  Oh, right.  I need to read on ... whereupon this "introduction" is null and void and might just as well be ripped out of the book.

I guess I better take a moment and discuss the word, "rogue."  I am to understand that "thief" had a negative connotation for soft-hearted players in the late 80's, particularly when having to sell the game with public scrutiny bearing down, so the company had a nice long discussion with a thesaurus present and decided that "rogue" is a more lovable, gosh-golly-gee word with its toe dug into the sand than that nasty old word the game settled upon in the 1970s.

My dictionary defines a rogue as a "dishonest and unprincipled man," equating it with a villain, reprobate, good-for-nothing, wretch, rotter, miscreant and wastrel.  I suppose we should be glad the company didn't pick "mountebank" or "picaroon."

The change depends on the mainstream being ignorant of what words mean, since "rogue" is used more often in Hollywood to describe the kind of thief that a girl could conceivably fall in love with, a pattern that started with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  Unfortunately, the rogue in the game still plays like a thief, or basically a jackanapes with ne're-do-well tendencies and a habit of believing that the only skill in not being seen in order to attack with perfect surprise (and thus a total lack of ethics or scruples) is to roll dice.  Every time I see a rogue represented online, it is die roll after die roll to check everything ... a subject I will leave until getting to that part of the book.

Very well, this brings us to "Building Bruenor."

For those who don't know, Bruenor is the example character the book's writers decided to include at various stages, to show the would-be player how a character comes together.  The result is, well, awful.

Here are all the passages that describe Bruenor's creation ~ which will be clearer to those of you who play 5e, but you can come back later and look at this again after we slog our way through the character creation process.
Each step of character creation includes an example of that step, with a player named Bob building his dwarf character, Bruenor.
STEP 1
Bob is sitting down to create his character. He decides that a gruff mountain dwarf fits the character he wants to play. He notes all the racial traits of dwarves on his character sheet, including his speed of 25 feet and the languages he knows: Common and Dwarvish. 
STEP 2
Bob imagines Bruenor charging into battle with an axe, one horn on his helmet broken off. He makes Bruenor a fighter and notes the fighter’s proficiencies and 1st-level class features on his character sheet. 
As a 1st-level fighter, Bruenor has 1 Hit Die—a d10— and starts with hit points equal to 10 + his Constitution modifier. Bob notes this, and will record the final number after he determines Bruenor’s Constitution score (see step 3). Bob also notes the proficiency bonus for a 1st-level character, which is +2.
STEP 3
Bob decides to use the standard set of scores (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) for Bruenor’s abilities. Since he’s a fighter, he puts his highest score, 15, in Strength. His next highest, 14, goes in Constitution. Bruenor might be a brash fighter, but Bob decides he wants the dwarf to be older, wiser, and a good leader, so he puts decent scores in Wisdom and Charisma. After applying his racial benefits (increasing Bruenor’s Constitution by 2 and his Strength by 2), Bruenor’s ability scores and modifiers look like this: Strength 17 (+3), Dexterity 10 (+0), Constitution 16 (+3), Intelligence 8 (-1), W isdom 13 (+1), Charisma 12 (+1). 
Bob fills in Bruenor's final hit points: 10 + his Constitution modifier of +3, for a total of 13 hit points.
STEP 4
Bob fills in some of Bruenor’s basic details: his name, his sex (male), his height and weight, and his alignment (lawful good). His high Strength and Constitution suggest a healthy, athletic body, and his low Intelligence suggests a degree of forgetfulness. 
Bob decides that Bruenor comes from a noble line, but his clan was expelled from its homeland when Bruenor was very young. He grew up working as a smith in the remote villages of Icewind Dale. But Bruenor has a heroic destiny ~ to reclaim his homeland ~ so Bob chooses the folk hero background for his dwarf. He notes the proficiencies and special feature this background gives him. 
Bob has a pretty clear picture of Bruenor’s personality in mind, so he skips the personality traits suggested in the folk hero background, noting instead that Bruenor is a caring, sensitive dwarf who genuinely loves his friends and allies, but he hides this soft heart behind a gruff, snarling demeanor. He chooses the ideal of fairness from the list in his background, noting that Bruenor believes that no one is above the law. 
Given his history, Bruenor’s bond is obvious: he aspires to someday reclaim Mithral Hall, his homeland, from the shadow dragon that drove the dwarves out. His flaw is tied to his caring, sensitive nature ~ he has a soft spot for orphans and wayward souls, leading him to show mercy even when it might not be warranted.
STEP 5
Bob writes down the starting equipment from the fighter class and the folk hero background. His starting equipment includes chain mail and a shield, which combine to give Bruenor an Armor Class of 18. 
For Bruenor’s weapons, Bob chooses a battleaxe and two handaxes. His battleaxe is a melee weapon, so Bruenor uses his Strength modifier for his attacks and damage. His attack bonus is his Strength modifier (+3) plus his proficiency bonus (+2), for a total of +5. The battleaxe deals 1d8 slashing damage, and Bruenor adds his Strength modifier to the damage when he hits, for a total of 1d8 + 3 slashing damage. When throwing a handaxe, Bruenor has the same attack bonus (handaxes, as thrown weapons, use Strength for attacks and damage), and the weapon deals 1d6 + 3 slashing damage when it hits.

Reading through this is hard for an old grognard like me. Rather than the familiar experience of players rolling dice to see what results they get, then deciding what to do with those results, here everything is supposedly decided straight out of the player’s head. The mini-game of character creation, long the best part of introducing new players to the game, has been eliminated. Rather than rolling, he chooses from a stat array; a collection of numbers that any player in an old school campaign would have stared at crestfallen, thinking “Jeez, these rolls are crappy.”

Bruenor, however, suffers not at all from these numbers. The adjustments for choosing to be a dwarf adds +4 to his choice stats (!), without a balancing penalty. Such adjustments make the stat array necessary; any one of my players could easily roll three scores above 14, most probably ending up with a 19 strength and an 18 constitution. With these excessive modifiers … hell, I have no certainty what it means in relation to 5th edition, but I automatically translate it into my old AD&D framework and think, shit, that’s a THACO of 15. For a first level fighter with a so-so 17 strength. Pretty damn easy-peasy right out of the gate.

But then, while characters in my world would be figuring out proficiencies, Bruenor only seems to have one. Of course, with such a hit to fail ratio, he can afford to use non-proficient weapons (which explains some of what I’ve witnessed in my online campaign about weapon proficiencies). In this system, “proficiency” doesn’t mean “able to use.” It means, “wildly effective with.”

While the characters in my campaign would be feeling concerned about being spongy meat-pies for some monster, and setting out to equip themselves in a manner that will compensate for that dread prospect, Bruenor is casually electing himself to noble status, supplying himself with a noble destiny and compelling an entire culture to identify him as a “folk hero.” It’s a good thing he’s decided to be caring and not whatever the “folk hero background” allows. And no, his soft heart hidden behind a gruff, Dwarven demeanor is in no way a cringeworthy cliché. It sure is heartening that the self-aggrandizing, co-optive, presumptive player behind this dwarf is able to contain his claiming of past accomplishments and spectacular attributes that he hasn’t yet done one thing to earn inside a soft spot for orphans and a willingness to show mercy; so long as you haven’t broken the law.

And so much the better that the makers of the game openly condone this bragging, boasting exaggeration of instant just-add-water deeds and heroic exploits!  Is it any wonder that Reddit is full of backstories where players presuppose themselves to be the siblings of gods and the Mary Sues of every kind of gadget imaginable?  Hey, the game designers want it that way!  If you haven't defined your character as The Chosen One, complete with Birthmark of Destiny and the last surviving member of your race, you're not playing the game the way it was MEANT to be played.

I have to admit, looking over these initial systems that transform "characters" into stupidly overpowered snowflakes with disproportional benefits to produce a plug-and-play system of enablement, I hesitate to go farther.  Still, it helps explain the ridiculous inclusion of things like dragonborn, something that grates my sensibilities.  But what difference could it possibly make against this backdrop of excessive make-believe?

Clearly, where the game once saw itself as characters moving through a fantasy background, the game has become the embodiment of fanciful wish fulfillment, with the background becoming whatever you, the player, want it to be.  What an awful, compromising misery this must be for a DM.  I can't imagine what sort of self-flaggelating slobs would consign themselves to running a game where the participants in it are liable to whine and pout if you won't allow them the use of their father the King's army on loan ...

"Since I am, after all, my father's favorite son, always have been, and daddy never denies Me anything.  Says so right here on my character sheet."

Can't wait to get started on his wizard character's background