Monday, August 20, 2018

Deader than Dead

While talking about how games should be hard, it's not a bad time to think about death ... specifically, the sort of death that occurs when a player is deader than dead.

I used to hear people complain that the presence of raise dead and resurrection minimized the impact of death, but in these days of poofie games, when death doesn't occur at all, the subject doesn't come up so often.  Still, I wanted to write a post about situations where spells, or even rods, aren't enough to change a bad situation for the better.

First, let's understand that spells and magic items have limitations ~ as does everything in D&D, because limitations are how games work.  To bring back the dead, you've got to have a body.  Even resurrection needs a body part ~ though gawd knows what the fuck the rule is in 5e ... probably, to make resurrection work in the newest version, we just need a memory of the dead. Hell, 5e probably doesn't even need a spell.  I'll be you just have to really want another player to be raised.

But ... in the darker world of old timey D&D, there were limitations on a return from death that kept the game interesting, without having to create any rules.  The simple fact of role-playing in a complex world made even resurrection with a rod impossible.

The gang I played with considered that "a part of the body" had to be something representative; an organ would do, but tended not to keep very well, where as a bone ... well, any of the 206 in the body would do.  However, it had to be a part ... ashes were not enough.  Therefore, if someone burned the body, that was the absolute removal of that creature from any possibility of resurrection. This fit neatly into the framework of religious cremation ~ so that we could argue that the reason why burning the body became a thing was so that kings and priests could not be brought back from the dead with the mere touch of a magic rod.

A similar argument is made for bodies dissolved in lime pits, or bodies that were eaten whole by creatures that made it impossible for the body to be obtained, even after the creature was dead.  A character in my game once died permanently by remorhaz.  The internal heat of the creature is such that as soon as he was swallowed (a special power of the creature in the original Monster Manual), the character was dead.  No resurrection possible.

Of course, a character could be eaten by more normal creatures, too, who might swallow the bones, splitting them for their marrow or digesting the smallest pieces.  If a character wandered off, and was killed, then dragged away by the monsters, so that by the time the players caught up to the player that the body and bones were rendered unrecognizeable ... that was permanent death, too.

There are a host of permanent deaths that involve the body simply being lost.  It might be buried in an avalanche, never to be found again, even in the spring ~ and of course, some parts of the world have no spring.  A body could be lost at sea and never found.  A body could fall into a deep trench and be lost, or unrecoverable because the trench itself could not be navigated by a sufficiently skilled party.  More than one character could die permanently in the attempt to recover one already lost.

Then we have my favorite.  The crushing death.  I once dropped a mountain on a character in a cave-in.  Even if the body was recovered ~ next to impossible, as many kinds of rock cannot be excavated after a cave-in, because there's no way to "shore up" the new tunnel ~ it would be mush, as good as ashes ... and any lone bone that might exist would probably be missed and overlooked unless the space was excavated within a few weeks, before the flesh rotted away or was eaten by insects and other creatures.

Or the space between a glacial crevice; the body falls one hundred seventy feet, is wedged between the ice; which, moving, closes and squush.  That's too much ice to simply turn to water.  No spell would have been able to do it in less than three months.

Plus there's always lava, or being buried under a fall of ash. These are just things that happen.  And for some reason, player characters are willing to go adventuring around volcanoes and other dangerous places, so it happens to them more frequently.

Of course, it doesn't take a physical force to end it.  There's always transmogrifying into the undead.  Once a character has become a shadow or a wraith, resurrection is out of the question.  This isn't merely a curse.  The soul itself has been lost from the body, entombed on another plane of existence.  Resurrection presumes the soul and body are one.  Without the soul, it might as well be the same issue as not having a part of the body.  Perhaps the body could be raised ~ but like W.W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw, what comes a knocking is not what is hoped for.

The matter of the soul is often overlooked.  For the body and soul to be restored to life, in the D&D framework of material plane and outer planes, where the latter is ruled over by gods who reap the dead according to their ethnic origin and ethical behaviour, resurrection magic requires a certain complicity.  The god, having gotten the soul of your dead character, has to be willing to give it back.  The existence of the spell, to me, suggests the god is mostly fine with this arrangement.  After all, the god will get you eventually, and gods don't view time the way we do.

However, if your actions on the material plane have been running along with much conflict between you and some of the gods ~ and in those upper double digit levels that tends to be the sort of game that's played ~ some of the gods may not be so willing to give that soul back, once it's gotten.  Remember, magic has limitations.  And mortal magic is most definitely not the end all and be all of magical power in the multi-universes.  At some point, if we've gained the enmity of the gods, that enmity is going to cost us when we want to get the soul of our friend back.

So these are ways that any character can die permanently.  Some, because they failed a saving throw, or the dice were against them, or they made a bad decision and took too big a chance ... and others because it isn't possible to live forever.  It's fine that most of the time the character can be gotten back; so long as we understand there's always a reasonable chance that they won't.  Ever.

Though ... it's worth saying that if mortal magic does have its limitations in raising the dead, then immortal magic might have a few options that aren't normally available.  And the gods might be convinced, somehow, to intervene even when deader than dead is not dead enough.

Dungeons & Dragons means there's always a way to negotiate with this guy.
But it's going to cost you.

Friday, August 17, 2018

How the Rules Should Read

Before I start, I want to warn my readers that this isn't going to be an easy post for some to read, because it involves domestic violence.  I would recommend that you approach this post cautiously for that reason.

Yesterday, on his 'Crossing the Verse blog, Ozymandias quoted a dialogue, that I'd like to post here as well.

We are all seeing a lot of stuff like this now, and not just connected to role-playing games.  I have no specific things to say about any of the posts above, except that they are more or less representative of a growing number of people who believe that the means to making their own lives easier is to create rules that they themselves feel that they're able to live by, and that ~ they feel ~ others ought to live by too.  All this, we are told, is so that everyone can feel "safe." Because "safe" is the most important thing there is, especially in any sort of group activity.

Now, let me take a step back.  I am going to talk about D&D again, but first I want to explain about something else.

When I was young, my father hit me.  I have talked abut this on this blog before, but about a month ago I had a revelation about it.  See, my father did not hit me when I was an infant, or when I was a child.  I remember that I was 14 years old the first time my father hit me with his fist. I had been given spankings, and I had experienced my father's belt, but as far as I knew, those times were not done in anger.  Growing up in the 70s, most kids had stories of being hit with a belt and that wasn't unique.

But at 14, my father made a connection in his head that a belt wasn't controlling my behavior.  I wasn't growing up the way he expected me to grow up.  I wasn't working hard at school.  I wasn't pursuing a future in science or engineering.  I wasn't speaking politely to my mother or my sister, mostly because they weren't speaking politely to me.  And I wasn't afraid of a belt.  In fact, I was getting to the point that I'd rather take the belt than kow-tow to an agenda that did not fit my interests.

So my father got desperate, and he lost his temper, and he hit me with his fists.  I had said something to my sister that was inconsiderate, and my father found me in the laundry room.  I can remember him coming right at me.  And me putting up my arms to protect my face.  And being hit in the face and the body.  And then it was over and I remember being told that I better never speak badly to my sister again.

That didn't happen very often.  But it did happen, and no, I didn't feel safe.  It happened right up until I was nearly 20.  But before I explain what stopped it, I want to explain what caused it.

When my father was hitting me at 14, my father felt SAFE.  I was just a young teenager, about 120 lbs, less than half my father's weight, and I was a nerd.  I avoided fights as a kid because I lost fights.  My father had worked as a forest fighter.  He had worked as a roughneck around oil wells.  When I was 14, he was 42, and a big man.  He had big, beefy hands.  I wasn't gonna do anything to him.  He didn't have to hesitate before rushing in to beat me up.

At 19, I was out of high school but still living at home.  I was bigger.  I had worked construction jobs.  My hands were harder.  My shoulders were wider.  I had played football and I had grown.  That's where I was when my father got his last try to learn me something.

I remember I was in the basement rec room.  And it was really late.  Something had pissed him off but I don't remember what.  I heard him coming down the stairs and I must have known why then, though I've forgotten now.  He had his fists closed.

I had my fists closed too.  And I remember I said, "Come on, old man.  You wanna fight.  I'm ready for you."

And just like that, my father backed the fuck down.  We never did fight.  And he never closed a fist in my presence again.

He didn't feel safe any more.

That's the center point of this post. I had a relationship with my father after that, and it was never what I'd call satisfactory.  Towards the end, it became fucking impossible.  But not because he hit me.  No.  We settled that business.  And settling that, for a time, there were things we were able to sort out between us and I did have some good times with him.  He's in an old age home now, with Alzheimers, and I don't visit him.  I stopped visiting him casually in 2007 when he was healthy and well.  I saw him at my mother's bedside in 2012 before she passed.  And at my daughters wedding in 2016.  Not since.  Because not all parents are good parents, and not even family deserves an infinite number of chances.

Beware of people who make a crusade out of feeling safe.  Asking to feel safe by controlling what other people say or do, or by what emotions they display, is not a good thing.  Any policy that begins with what other people have to do is a road to persecution and the abuse of power.

I did not treat my daughter as my father had treated me.  I did spank her on three occasions, all of which my daughter remembers. Those spankings consisted of her bending over my lap and being smacked one time.  And not hard.  Because I learned as a child that the worse thing about being spanked isn't the pain.  The pain is nothing.  The pain is choosing to be hit by the wrench by your father because fuck him.  The worst thing about being spanked is the humiliation that it is happening.

One spank just makes the message stick.  The first time I spanked her was to stop her from touching burning wood in the fireplace.  She was, I think, four.  I don't remember why the other two times.  It seemed to matter at the time.  But I felt safe too, didn't I?

I was not going to be my father.  And that's what matters.  It isn't about what people do to us. We can't, and shouldn't try, to control other people. That's my father's crime.  Not that he hit me.  But that he refused to understand me, or try to understand me.  I could stand here today and talk about how I didn't feel safe ~ and I sure didn't ~ but it was far, far worse that I wasn't understood than that I didn't feel safe.  I'd have taken a hundred beatings if it meant my father would have asked me a fucking question about what I wanted, and believed me.

But he never did.

People who want to feel safe aren't listening.  They don't want to listen. When someone raises a voice in their presence, from pain or confusion or from frustration, they don't want to hear any of that.  The safety people don't want to reach out.  They don't want to forgive anybody, anything.  They just want everyone to bend, to make them feel safe.

And once they feel safe, believe me ... that isn't going to end well.

I want to say that D&D shouldn't be about any of this.  It shouldn't be about people making rules about the behaviour of other people. If you don't like other people, then don't play with them. Or find a way to speak with them, and understand them, and forgive them.  There is no kindness like forgiveness, and no cruelty like shame.

Forcing others to quiet themselves for the sake of safety is shaming.  It is ritualized humiliation for people who don't fit it, who don't toe the line, who are too passionate, or too high strung, or too stressed for reasons that have nothing to do with a D&D table.  I am ready, as a DM, to ask someone who won't speak kindly to others to leave my table.  But I won't take a part in shaming them.  I won't make rules that enable them to stay on if they act as I dictate.  And I will let them join my game again, if we can talk and discuss things, and make room for our forgiving one another.

If we want to make rules, let's make that one.  Let's demand that if someone has an issue, if someone has raised their voice and gotten upset, that no one is allowed to speak with superior judgment that a role-playing game is THIS, or that people have gathered for THIS reason, or that for the sake of EVERYONE, an individual is disposable, or that the right to play somehow justifies a right to dictate how other people should present a game, or check-in because we say so, or kowtow to the lines we draw for ourselves, or fail to be acknowledged because, while they're of some kind of race, they're not of a certain kind of passively accepted personality.  How about the rule reads, "Everyone has a right to be heard, and acknowledged, and forgiven, even if that doesn't make everyone feel safe."

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Go Hard

As just explained to me by Ozymandias on Facebook, "Session Zero" is a discussion of the player's interests, what are the player boundaries, what is the player looking to get out of the game.  It's admitted that communication is good and that generally people should have it, but if the player is dictating everything to the DM, then where's the surprise and mystery?  And for my money, I'll add to his point by asking, where is the fear?

It's the same reason why professional BDSM doesn't make sense to a lot of people.  You want to be controlled, so you go to a ProDomme, who you tell what to do, then pay her money to do it, then pretend that you're being "controlled," while she pretends she's controlling you.  At the same time, if you made a contract with a person who might actually be ready to control YOU for real, you would wisely not show up.  So what's the deal here?

The deal is that players (and BDSM clients) want their fantasy dished out just the way they like it.  They don't want surprises, they don't want stress, they don't want to be challenged, they don't want to take a risk ... and the industry and community confirms that.  It may be a game but, unlike golf, we don't want anyone making difficult golf courses.  Unlike kayaking, we only want to boat on quiet rivers.  Unlike free climbing, we don't want t climb any unclimbed routes.  We want the cliches.  We want the same conversations to get around the guards or to convince the vendor to sell for a few coins less.  We want the adventures to end in a big bad, and we want the big bad to have a simple agenda and to be there waiting for us, and we want the big bad to be absolutely killable.  We don't want any surprises.

On the other hand, I advocate a stress game.  I want the D&D equivalent of the hole depicted on the right.  And as the players line up to take their shot at the next round of the adventure, I want them to hesitate just as you would if I told you your LIFE depended on you landing your golf shot somewhere on the green, the rough or the sand trap ... because if you hit rock with that ball, that ball is gone.

And I want my D&D game to have that flexibility.  It isn't about getting it on the green. The green is terrific; but there's enough flexibility that the rough or a sand trap will do.  It's an ascending scale of how much shit your character can get in before they actually die.  But there's always a chance you'll fuck up that stroke and yes, doing so, that's the end of that character.

Moreover, as a DM, I'm not going to have a session zero that shows you this golf hole.  I'm going to drive you out to it in a car with blacked out windows, and I'm going to have you make the bet with me before you see the hole.  By the time you see the hole, it's too late to back out.  That's the sort of game I run.

That's the sort of game I want to play ... because I think, for myself, if I were pulled out to that hole and told to take my shot, that I'd want to see if I could do it.  That's the thrill for me.  The test to see if I'm up to it.  Unfortunately for me, this seems to apply to situations where thinking is most of the game ... if we actually are talking golf, then yeah, I'm going to fuck that hole because I'm not that great a player, though I enjoy the nuance of the game.  But if we're talking D&D, and you're running me as a player, and you park me in front of this hole, then yeah.  I think I'm going to be fine.  I think I'm going to fucking enjoy making that shot and I'm damn comfortable with the consequences.

I have a pretty high regard for myself mentally. I don't need to talk it out with the DM before we get started.  I don't need to establish boundaries regarding what might happen to my characters because I don't have any boundaries.  Not because I don't get uncomfortable, but because I like discomfort.  I like being pushed.  I like the agony and stress of a frustrating, uncertain, and potentially unwinnable situation.  That's why I got into chess at an early age.  That's why I fell in love with D&D in a single night.  That's why I've thrown my whole potential life away in order to spend it obsessed with this game.  Because I like the fact that it isn't cut and dried, it isn't safe, it isn't sure, and it sure as hell isn't easy.

And that is why lately I have been so frustrated and down about the community as a whole.  Because of late I feel an increase of being the only one that feels this way about this game.  That I don't want it to be the same silly cliches of 40 years ago.  And I want others not to want those cliches too.

But ... oh fuck it.  No buts.  Let's just play this fucking game.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

August MC Post, #1

It follows that, having posted Part 4 of the Senex Campaign, I'm ready to post another essay for my Master Class blog, which I have now done.  Mechanics of Party Splitting discusses the strategy and philosophy behind splitting a party into two or more groups, without losing momentum in the handling of the game.  It talks of Setting Flexibility, the importance of Time and the overarching necessity for Shared Experience, in order to focus multiple groups upon a mutually enjoyed game experience.  I think it is one of the best Master Class posts that I've written.

This post, and all Master Class posts, are available for a $3 pledge per month.  Please Pledge today!

I leave you with this cliched, and wrong, fable on why players should never split the party (hint: it the result of bad setting design):

Monday, August 13, 2018

Part 4 of the Senex Campaign

For those interested readers who have contributed $3 to my Patreon, I have expanded my rewrite of the Senex Campaign with Part 4: Approach of the Gate.  Having learned that a horrible creature from another plane will be gated into the town of Dachau, the players make every effort to reach authorities before the moment arrives.  As a lightning storm descends upon the city, they are caught in events far too large for them to manage; all they can do is try to survive as the gate opens and the world is turned upside down ...

The campaign texts, now the equivalent of a small book, are available for a $3 pledge per month.  Pledge today!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Writing Jobs

I worked my last cooking shift today with the restaurant, while I've already started working shifts with the new job ~ which consists primarily of writing descriptions for costumes and costume accessories for the online website.  I'll write more about that soon.  Just now, it has been working a shift at one job, then working a shift at the other job, which has meant a change in sleeping hours and other adjustments.  Add to that some excessively hot weather for the climate, where the temperatures here have been in the mid 30s celsius, or the nineties verging on 100.  The weather prediction is that it will be one hundred degrees tomorrow.

Calgary is in a semi-desert, so the humidity is comparatively low compared with those temperatures as they occur on the eastern seaboard. Here, the sun is like a heavy weight on the shoulders and forehead.  The air is dry and hard to breathe.  It is best to walk slower, particularly if one is aged.  Weather like this is very hard on people in their seventies or older.  Even a younger guy like me can have trouble.

So the week has been ... stressful.  Yet today might be the last cooking shift I ever do in a restaurant for the rest of my life.  That's worth a note or two on the blog.  There's a small pity in it, as I'm quite a good cook.  I'm very comfortable and coordinated with a knife, I have an excellent nose for taste and I make excellent-tasting food.

However, being good at something really isn't a reason to do it.  Being good at something can solve the problem of getting enough money to eat and live; but it won't satisfy the soul.  It is better to do something we love, even if we are bad at it, than to do something we can sort of get along with, even if we're talented.

That's wisdom that most people live their whole lives and never learn ... and never realize why they're unhappy.  It's a wisdom that some people learn too late.  And it is a wisdom that some people, who learn it when they're young, cannot explain to older fools who cannot understand why we would choose to do something that doesn't make us a lot of money.

I've never made a lot of money.  Oh, I've done decently well, 50-60 thousand a year for a time, but not a LOT of money.  Most of my life I have made considerably less.  Most years of my adult life, I've made an income that comes under the poverty line.  This despite having many skills that I might have employed to make a lot of money ~ if only a lot of money ever mattered to me.

It certainly mattered to my parents.  And to my teachers.  And to some of my friends.  For the most part, they all seemed to be preaching on account of some fear they had; a fear of living on the street, a fear of not being important, a fear of not living up to the expectations of other people.  I remember my childhood being all about expectations ... and very little of it being about accepting that some people in this world are bound to pursue things they love, no matter what, and damn the consequences.

I am leaving a cooking job, which I was good at, to take a writing job, something I'm even better at.  I am only better because I have spent so much time doing the latter.  Not because when I started I had any natural talent for it.  When I was in my early teens, I was a terrible, awful writer.  But I wanted it soooo bad ... I got past that.

I'm glad for the choices I've made.  I'm glad to be doing something, again, that I enjoy, even if it is short blurbs about this pirate hat or that flapper dress.  Words are words.  As J.K. Rowling wrote, words are our most inexhaustible supply of magic.

It's nice to be paid to perform magic again.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Making Plots Work

I'd like to try something practical this evening.  I'm drawing my inspiration from the following list of plots on the TV Tropes website, a good resource if the goal is to deconstruct films and film-making.  I've looked at only about a dozen links so far, but I'm sure that I could duplicate the examinations listed below with about a third of these links.  Just now, I'll try a few cold that I haven't opened before until now, selected according to how interesting the label looked.

Quote, "The Bad Samaritan is someone who takes in the hero and seems (at first) to be helping, all to do the hero harm at the end.  Examples: Kathy Bates in Misery; Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust; David Tennant pretending to be Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  [sorry to use the actors' names, but I know many won't get the reference otherwise].

How to make it work: 
  • Option one.  Wait until the party gets itself into a bad fix during a fight, whereupon ~ instead of fudging the die ~ the DM introduces the bad Samaritan as a combatant on the party's side, tipping the balance.  When the fight is over, the Samaritan can give a false hard luck back story, winning over the party's sympathy and making room for the Samaritan to get into their good graces before starting to knock off the party one by one.
  • Option two.  Have the party encounter the bad Samaritan helping a completely different group of victims or single hardluck case, asking the party to help him/her be a better Samaritan by healing wounds or otherwise offering aid.  The Samaritan can then contribute a back story about how these people came to need his help, while the victims can give their own version of the backstory up until they met the Samaritan.  Gives a good three-way parley with plenty of role-playing opportunities.  Ultimately, however, the bad Samaritan will show his colors, either towards the party or towards the innocent victims.
  • Option three.  Set the bad Samaritan up in a legitimate position of authority, have the Samaritan be helpful towards the party in getting their needs managed, then use the party's trust against them.
How to switch it up:
  • Option one.  Have it so the bad Samaritan only looks bad, or better still, has apparently both bad and good qualities.  If at all possible, have it look as though the Samaritan purposefully gets a party member arrested or kidnapped, only to reveal after that the arrest saved the player from a much worse fate, and that the arrest was faked.  Stir the pot with clues that turn out to be misunderstood, and get the party chasing their own tail as the "bad" Samaritan keeps at a distance while still doing the best possible work in the party's favor.  This is tricky, and requires a complex set of motivations, but it makes for a scintillating adventure.
  • Option two.  If the party kills the bad Samaritan, reveal some new truth about the Samaritan through a different NPC (brother of the Samaritan, officer in pursuit of the Samaritan, etc.], that reveals some deeper motivation for the Samaritan's action, suggesting madness or control by yet another entity.  Then, make the new well-meaning NPC yet another bad Samaritan, and go through the same process once again, or play with the good/bad balance in a way that messes up the party.

The Failed Audition PlotQuote, "She goes out there and gives it her all, holding nothing back. The judges deliberate while the protagonist waits with bated breath, until finally the results are in. An announcer reads off the list of those making it through to the next round, and... her name is not on it. Her hopes and dreams have been brutally shattered."  Examples: a lot of dance and musical sources this crowd probably has never seen.

How to make it work:
  • Option one.  Have the party approached by an important dignitary who is interested to know if the party can manage a dangerous quest.  Create a possible list of treasures and accolades the party will receive once the quest is finished.  The party's collective mouths must water.  Listen to the party pitch their abilities, then ... tell them they don't measure up.  Have the dignitary refuse to have any contact with the party.  But ~ and this is important ~ have the dignitary, or a lowly accountant in the company of the dignitary who hangs back long enough to say a few words, give just enough information to let the party get started on their own.
  • Option two.  Have two parties admitted to the audience chamber of some important dignitary, then explain the parameters of the quest to both at the same time.  Encourage the NPC party to taunt the Player party, while they give their reasons against the party's reasons.  Then award the quest to the other party.  Once again, give the players enough to get involved on their own, then make the winning NPC party become yet another obstacle.
  • Option three.  Award the player party with the quest on a need-to-know basis, with an "observer" who goes along to keep an eye on the party's choices.  The first time the party makes a mistake, have the observer deny the party any more information, telling them that their involvement is "no longer needed."  Still, the party should be able to gain enough information to wallow forward on their own.
How to change it up:
  • Option one.  Everything the players were told about the quest was a lie.  The quest was a diversion to make others think that a group was being sent on an adventure, with the last words by the lowly accountant being devised to encourage the party to kill some innocent or group of innocents.
  • Option two.  Truly bury the quest.  Make it impossible for the party to find anything without additional information, and let them stew in the angst of being denied the option.  Rub salt in the wound by having them see the second party return and receive a party and celebration in their honor.  Teaches humility and helps build character.

Schrodinger's Butterfly Quote, "Did the heroes really break the spell cast by the Master of Illusion, or are they all imagining it? Did they escape the Convenient Coma that trapped them in a Happy Place... or merely trade a perfect illusory world for a more realistic one?"  Examples: Total Recall (1990 version); 1408 (either version); and of course, Inception.

How to make it work:
  • Option one.  Include a definite illusionary sequence as an encounter the party has in the wilderness or dungeon, then have the party easily dispel it by force of will, saving throws, or the use of magic, whatever the party is capable of.  Later, give the party reasons through tiny clues to think that things are not quite working according to the laws of reality.  Then create an even more complicated series of trials that will let them return to the real world.
  • Option two.  Use the players random comments to manifest events, which causes them to realize they have stepped into some contrary reality or circumstance [Star Trek has used this several times].  Have the players meet a legitimate friend who believes it was all for fun and handwaves it out of existence.
How to switch it up:
  • Best option.  Give the party reason to believe that reality has never actually existed for them, and that they are trapped in a non-reality situation forever.  Then base your world on laws that shift with regular frequency, enabling the players to learn and adapt to this strange multi-level reality you've created.  Hard work, but the right DM could figure it out.

To be honest, that wasn't as much fun as I'd hoped, and with the last one my imagination fairly dried up.  Oh well.  I did spend 8 hours today writing descriptions of costumes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


The original brandname Nerf  was used to describe the soft foam material used to make indoor sports toys, a product that became available in my lifetime and in my memory.  Objects such as baseball bats, volleyballs, footballs and such were marketed as toys that could not harm children, even babies, or old people ... and became a slang term that meant "harmless."  But nerf objects were not sold TO children ... they were sold to parents, who bought them for toddlers.  Nerf balls could be fun ... for a few minutes.  What we really wanted, growing up, were real footballs and real baseball bats.  Nerf things were for kiddies ... we wanted things we associated with adults.  Nerf meant "not real."  Not grown-up.  We used it as a pejorative.

Nerfing, on the other hand, is a somewhat nerfed term for that pejorative.  Wikipedia says, "A change to a game that reduces the desirability or effectiveness of a particular game part."  Why not just call it, "Making the game harmless?"  Or even, cheesy as shit and designed for infant children?  Why soft-soap the original definition of the term?

Well, for one thing, the Kings of Nerfing are unquestionably the Wizards of the Coast, who have been systematically nerfing succeeding generations of players out of Magic: the Gathering since the game was spawned.  Virtually no one I knew five years ago who played the game seriously still does.  Game-breaking cards are brought out every few months, with a lack of foresight that makes Editions of D&D look like a kid in a pedal car trying out for NASCAR status.  Basically, the game that made the WOTC survives on art fetish, power lords with their parent's money and the steady passage of time that makes 5-year-olds into 9-year-olds.

Wizards of the Coast is a subsidiary of Hasbro ... which, coincidentally, also owns the Nerf brand of products.  Coincidence?

Setting this rant aside, the long and the short describes issues I've had with nerfing D&D for decades ... which began as elements of empowering players at the expense of rules in the early 1980s, with the addition of new classes and new abilities, that were never properly balanced in game play (the barbarian and the cavalier were meant to be "balanced" by role-playing rules that were impossible to enforce and ultimately not a detriment).  As time has progressed, every element of the game has been under siege at one time or another, to make it softer, less harmful, less inhibiting to the player's personal wishes or self-projection as heroes, less measured by die rolls and ultimately less disappointing, particularly in the very inconvenient way that players had of dying when the game called for it.

From a business point of view, the whole "dying part" just didn't work as a marketing strategy.  Come and play our game, buy our game, create your character ... and then lose your character at some random moment when a chance die roll happens.  I mean, from the perspective of sales, that just sucks.  It's like opening a newspaper and seeing that someone was beaten to death with a baseball bat that your company made.

As an aside, here's an article about young baseball players being killed with metal bats.  And here's the line that the Easton Baseball & Softball Equipment company uses to describe their product: "the most efficient energy transfer from handle to barrel for maximum 'whip' for a quicker bat and more power though the hitting zone."  Note how that sounds if we picture a kid in Compton using the bat to end the life of another kid in Compton.  But it's okay, because all these deaths in the article are accidental.  We're not talking about anyone using a bat for any other reason than baseball.  We're definitely not talking about it.

Which is why you won't find any references or quotes about death associated with D&D in any of the puff pieces you read, or any of the pages on the WOTC's website, or any of the vlogs that will tell you how to run the game or how to play the game.  If you go looking, you'll be very hard put to find anyone saying anything like, "... and there's a chance your character will be killed."  Being killed is something that happens to NPCs and monsters.  Or, at least, that's the only time it's mentioned.

Except, of course, for the long-running flame war that continues to ask the question, 44 years after Chainmail, is it okay to kill a player character?
"When PC death is permanent, whether due to play style or your RPG/setting of choice, it can be a huge blow to the player who’s impacted. Why should this happen as a result of what’s supposed to be a leisure activity?"

Yeah, hey man, this is supposed to be fun.  I mean, just look at baseball.  When one team loses it can be a huge blow to the way they feel.  Why should this happen?  Or in chess, when one player loses ... that must feel awful.  Why are we making people feel awful when they just want to play a game?  The rules of chess should be changed so that players just move pieces around on the board and talk to one another, pretending to be bishops and kings.  Why does there have to be all this killing?  Role-playing the pieces would be WAY more fun.

In many ways, this nerfing makes it very, very hard to talk about D&D seriously. I was thinking earlier today about writing some post that would describe game strategies for each class, targeted towards using their singular abilities in combat and role-play situations.  Basically, what should the fighter be doing or saying when the charismatic druid or bard is doing the talking?  Or what strategies ought a thief or a druid employ in a fight, to produce the best results.  I think I could work up such a post and it would be useful to a lot of players.

If this was 1983.  And it was actually hard to make arrangements in order to negotiate with minor functionaries to get an audience with a mayor or such, as opposed to modules that start with the mayor introducing the players to the local king.  Or when it was hard to survive an attack by 20 goblins, when basically the players are encountering and foiling super-wizards almost immediately, with magic items bought at the magic shop.  Or when the healer, not a cleric, wasn't there to flood the room with healing ability anyway.  Or if the classes were actually defined as having specific abilities that weren't endlessly nerfed by perception rolls and such.  It's difficult to write a "strategy" post about a modern game that doesn't require any strategy at all to play ... because the system has been rebuilt to the point where even death isn't on the line.  We keep saying that it's "role-playing" and not "roll-playing," but we keep giving the players more and more dice to roll to ensure their survival, while removing more and more of the boundaries against what the players are free to do.

It's a joke.  We replaced a strategy and tactical game with ... foam.

I don't think it's a coincidence.

Today, this is the emotional and "fun" level of a typical D&D game, complete with the bickering fight that occurs at the end:

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Turning My Back

It is true.  Of late, I have not done much writing on the blog and certainly not about D&D.  I've concentrated on rewriting the old campaign, running the new campaign and posting advice on another blog, plus reworking my book, more than 22,000 words in the last four weeks.  But not on this blog ... and not the sort of D&D design I've spent many hours posting here.

There are times when my motivation to design is ... meh. It could be the hot, sticky unpleasantness of summer, encouraging me to lay about watching movies rather than working on excel.  Or it could be stress.  There's a small sense of despondency, the old why-bother feeling that anyone will equate with blogging, now and then.  That's there, for sure.  Quite often, I find my passion for D&D to be an enormous basin to fill.  Particularly as I must always fill it alone.  Viewing the game as I do, there's no where else for me to go.

Any time I dare search for inspiration, I'm sure to find crap like this video, loaded yesterday and rich with 256,373 views, about a DM that chose to shift a game party to modern day New York ~ and then to strip the party of their magic, their race and connections with their god, because ... oh fuck, reasons I guess.  What the fuck is the goddamn point of putting D&D characters into a modern setting if you're just going to make them ordinary?  What is the fucking appeal of shit like this, except to exhaustively ignorant viewers with exhaustively minimal experience in ... fuck, anything?  I have to believe we're counting 256,000 nine-year-olds, or else I might just as well put a pistol in my mouth if that's what it takes to make me stop writing my blog.

Fuck, I'm not casting pearls before swine.  I'm casting pearls before amoeba.

If that's not disheartening enough, I can read yet one more puff piece about the game written by someone who has obviously never played.  Predictably, paragraph one is a run-down of D&D's latest appearances on the media, paragraph two is a rehash of D&D's new popularity (presumably why this "journalist" is writing the fucking article), paragraph three hypes the online D&D youtube phenomenon (making the first reference to the slim possibility that anyone reading the article might actually play the game) and paragraph four reminds us, yet again, that D&D is hard.

I expect that we've all noticed lately that there's been a definite shift in marketing, game-play and media associated with D&D in the last eighteen months.  While the game's presentation has often been pressed towards new players, it's quite clear that the new players being sought-for now are vastly younger than before ~ I'd say, based on the concept behind a lot of channels and the level of response, that nine is precisely the age wanted.  I postulate that number crunchers and marketing types have been having conversations in the halls of Hasbro of late, and I can guess what was said.

"Guys.  Our marketing shows that most people play this game for about two years, get tired of it, usually because they can't make much sense of it or they just get interested in other things.  So we've got to come up with a marketing strategy that plays to the greatest number of properties sold in the shortest possible window of the new player's interest.  I suggest that we should make efforts to simplify the game, bringing it down to the level that nine and ten year olds can play, then hammer with lots of images, miniatures and visual aids on cheap mediums, while bringing the game stores around to selling the notion that 'game nights' can bring families together.  Then, our bigger marketing plan will be to sell to parents, who have never played and know nothing about D&D, given that the old 80s satanic scare is mostly forgotten by this generation of parents.  To sell to parents, we've got to push the media to write lots of puff pieces about D&D that don't actually talk about the game, encouraging parents to buy without looking at what they're buying."

Well.  That's probably been the strategy since 1983.  It's only that now, it's working.

On another front, I am very tired of the decades-long push back against cellphones, video games and the internet, in which there's a small, annoying group of luddites who keep insisting, despite the steady passage of time, that we would all be a lot better off if we would just unplug and go back to ... when everything was enormously boring.  Faux medical-industry bean counters pull up evidence about how it will reduce our stress, socialite-friendly etiquette wannabes write long diatribes on when we're allowed to use our phones in front of friends and family, pretentious gits create rules for people surrendering their phones at weddings, at business meetings, at tourist sites and campgrounds ... presumably because phones are putting photographers out of business, or its just another way to ensure we're more bored than we would be if we had technology.

D&D, I'm afraid, is being used in this direction.  Because it's stubbornly refused to update itself with technology, as the old guard clings bitterly to paper and pencil, parents are running to invest their children into the game in the hopes that there's some small chance that they'll be raised to understand how to do things without the use of electronics.  I don't think it's going to work.  In typical fashion, the market is assuming that cellphones and videogames are as cool and absorbing as technology is going to get, ever.  Thirty years from now we'll be trying to interest kids in their cellphones in the hopes that they're not sucked down into the use of Larry Niven's wire, or whatever the equivalent of that's going to end up being.

Yeah, so, the end result of all this is that I feel mostly disconsolate about designing in D&D, at present.  The Juvenis running last week, and the one before, went spectacularly well, as five players steadily cut down 36 simple-minded larvae last week (page 59 of the old monster manual), a much larger fight than I know most DM's are willing to permit.  I very rarely see players suggesting their bored during these fights ~ except perhaps the last few rounds where it has become obvious at last that the players are going to win, and it's just a matter of getting those last hits in.  Even then, most players are thinking about experience, not grumbling.

Worry not, however.  The wind will shift, I'll get interested in old projects and the design posts will pick up again.  Just now, however, I'm focused on things that seem to be producing the best possible results.

Go give Travis Hanson some money. He's doing good work,
and there are so few of us.

UPDATE:  There's nothing that says obsolete like complaining about being obsolete.

Friday, August 3, 2018

New Work

Well, the job interview I had Monday has paid off.  Out of 400 applicants, I have been hired to writing eCommerce position, though at the moment I don't feel it would be appropriate to say where.  I can say that it is related to cos-playing, Cons, public performance, theatre and costumes suitable for Halloween and other special occasions.

I am looking forward to the position; I'm looking forward to dealing with the public and using my writing skills to earn a daily living.

There will be some issues with my weekly game; I don't know my schedule yet, but it will be five days a week and obviously I won't have access to the game during work hours.  Until I know which days I'll be working (I only know definitely that Sunday will be one of them), I can't say at this time what the effect will be.  But I will work something out.

It will sound to some that this will mean I have less time to dedicate to writing ... but in fact, the truth is that I am already happier ~ and when I am happy, I am more productive with less hours, than I am with many hours and feeling despair, despondency and depression.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

New MC Post

For those interested readers who have contributed $3 to my Patreon, I have made the second essay for the month of July, 2018, available on my Master Class blog.  Reinterpreting in Our Favour is a post about the tendency of players to emotionally and mentally alter facts about the setting, NPC motivations and character ability to create a prejudiced view of the game world.  This is often aided by the DM failing to exactly detail the setting, or effectively play NPCs as believable persons with believable agendas, or definitely state the limitations that a player must adhere to in the game structure.

This post, and all posts, are available for a $3 pledge per month.  Pledge today!

Resist the denial of reality.

Monday, July 30, 2018


During the 1960s and 70s, the national character of Canada was experiencing an identity crisis.  As broadcasting expanded in America, with technology advances and geographical reach with which Canadian radio and television stations could not compete, there was a political demand for the protection of Canadian culture and ideas ... this, in turn, would manifest itself in something that we of the Great White North know as Canadian content.

Basically, both private and public television stations have to play a certain percentage of content that has been created by natural-born Canadians.  At the time, this was meant to provide some opportunity for the 20 million residents in this country to remain afloat, and not be drowned by the 200 million residents in our next-door neighbor.  On some level, I admit, that seems rational.

Unfortunately, it did mean my childhood was filled with bad, second-rate television shows with low budgets, low production values and egregious acting. Despite the government's efforts, we must understand, Canada is something like a minor league ... anyone really talented, whether a director, an actor or a comedian, would sooner or later just leave for more money and more opportunity.  Thus you got Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Donald Sutherland, Kim Cattrall, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Christopher Plummer, Sandra Oh, Leslie Neilsen ... it's a long list.  Some of these did some Canadian television.  Most did not.

It's a similar story with music, with the physical arts, with writers and designers and what else; we can force the sheep to drink from this watering hole, but the horses will jump the fences and go elsewhere.

In the long run, this has caused the sheep left behind to become very, very defensive about the nature and quality of their work.  Hm.  To put it another way, it has caused the sheep to inflate and speak in a very gassy manner about the importance, value, cultural necessity and overall national significance of artworks created by Canadians, for Canadians, funded and sponsored by governmental agency and supported, deconstructed, defined and dictated by university faculties across the country who are dedicated to keeping Canadian culture safe.

How to Write Approved Canadian Literature
I'm sure you can read between the lines here.  It's all bullshit.

There is a Canadian culture, but it isn't found in the government's cheque-book.  Our culture is inherent, as all cultures are, in the land, in the climate, in the experience of living, in the manner whereby we deal with the harsh winters and enjoy the short summers, in the sports we like and the distances between ourselves and family, and in the relatively few people who live here and how we view America with a combination of envy, mawkish horror and rank superiority.  We love Americans.  They come here and spend money.  We go there and live where it's warm.  But we're not like them ... gawd no.  There was never any possibility of that.

When I walk down a street in Canada in the winter, and see a car stuck in the snow, something I can count on virtually once or twice a week, all winter long, I stop and push him out.  I do that because I am Canadian.  Because here, in this country, we're all in it together or come the next winter, we're all dead.  Year by year, children learn this lesson and it stays with them all their lives, winter and summer.  We'll see a  boat on a lake a mile away that looks oddly out of place, and drive all the way there just to ask, "Is everything okay?"  And then we'll tug that boat miles to the nearest dock, never asking for compensation for our fuel, because when the distances between places are as empty as they are here in Canada, that's what's required.  We look out for each other.  We have to.  We're in this big, frightening land together.

Americans have a sense that they've "conquered" their country.  That's understandable.  It is such an easy country.  It is full of open mountain ranges and it is covered by well-watered plains.  The trees are all deciduous and fruit-bearing.  The weather is so fine that in half the country you can sleep outside all year long and not die.

In Alberta, where I live, you can't do that even in April.  Or some nights in May.

It's easy to be independent in America.  The country is SO friendly.  So affable.  So comfortable and reliable.  So tame.

I live in a city of more than a million people and we still occasionally find wild moose and wolves inside the city.  I was once less than 200 feet from a wolf, in a graveyard, 4 miles from the city limits.

This is Canada.  We never needed the government to protect our culture.

But they did.  And in the process, they empowered committees of gatekeepers and politicos who took it upon themselves to dictate what "Canadian content" meant.  "Created by Canadians" wasn't good enough.  It had to be quintessentially Canadian ... it had to be about family and small towns, about rural farms and everyday, ordinary folk, and absolutely no sex whatsoever, period.  It had to be from people who dwelt in the obscure country, who experienced those winters and that vastness in the raw ~ or else it wasn't published.

With the 90s, it became all about the new generations coming to Canada, stressing the New Canada, where people from all over the world and from every other culture came here and reconciled those cultures with the Canadian experience.  So we were drowned in novels by South Americans, Vietnamese, Sub-Saharan Africans, Punjabi and Maharashtra writers who were first generation, or the sons and daughters of first generation, who were here to tell their stories.  Many of these were good stories, but it must be understood ... it could not be a Tamil writer come to Canada and talking about Tamil themes, oh no.  It had to be about the Tamil experience in Canada ~ or else it wasn't published.

And now with the present, it is the same, only now it is social concepts.  It is the woman's Canadian experience, or the gay's Canadian experience, or the transgendered Canadian experience ... and it is still good writing.  But if it isn't that ~ it isn't published.

But I laugh.  I used to worry about this quite a bit, I can tell you.  As a writer, I saw the gatekeepers in charge of Canadian Lit and could not imagine how I, a white, liberal, home-grown, city-born kid with a hate on for rural life, who loves sex in his literature like any good New Yorker.  There was no place for me in this country's Canadian content.

But I'm free now.  I self-publish and I make money at it.  I don't need the gatekeepers.  No one in this country does.  The writers are in control again ... though I promise that the universities and government doesn't know it yet.  We've bypassed them with the Internet, and thank heaven.  I write Canadian Literature every time I punch a keyboard; and there's no one in this country that will stop me.

The Tamil writer that lives across the street from me can write about Ceylon and publish it here and never mention Canada, and damn, that's how it should be.  The multigender who serves me coffee at the Tim Hortons can write stories without trees, rocks or snow and there's no one to give a care.  We're all marketing our books worldwide, to whomever wishes to buy, and to hell with Canadian bookshelves, Canadian publishers or Canadian faculties.

We are Canadian because we are; and not because some entity gives a seal of approval.  After living nearly my whole life waiting for that seal, from the time I was 12 and had decided to be a writer, it is damn good to be free of it.

At last, I can compete with my American cousins and I don't have to go to America to do it.