Friday, May 30, 2008

Rats in a Maze

The first DM I played with, the one that tossed a basilisk at me on my first night, was probably the worst I ever played with. Let’s call him John, as I want to talk about why I say that and why it had influence on me as a DM.

John was very diligent with his world. He carefully crafted multi-level dungeons, he wrote out speeches for use in the quests he prepared for us, he drafted up towns and castles and pre-rolled all his NPCs. He developed quite elaborate personalities for said NPCs, which he took delight in role-playing when the time came for them to take their part in a given adventure.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sounds just like the sort of effort a DM ought to make.


As a player, you could expect to move through every single room of every single level of John’s dungeon, without exception…there were no shortcuts for smart thinking. John designed that room, and he was damn well going to make sure that the room got used.

So, if you were in John’s dungeon, and you came to a place where three hallways branched off, you could be sure that at some point you were going to have to march your way up every hallway eventually. No exceptions.

If John wrote the speech for the Dragon on level six, you were by-god going to hear it.

And as far as accepting the quest in the first place? No choice. When the furtive little civil servant came to speak to you at your tavern of choice on behalf of Meycroft the Munificent, Viscount of Yuer and its Environs, you better get ready to spend the next twelve runnings in diligent service.

Finally, can I just add that ALL the NPCs were as annoying as hell? Especially the doors.

“Doors,” you say?

Yes. As you moved down through John’s dungeon, you would occasionally encounter doors that defined the difference between this level and the next, more difficult level. And these doors were always sentient.

And indestructible. And annoying. To get through these doors, you needed diplomacy.

A typical conversation might go like this.

“Who goes there?”

“A brave party, in the service of Meycroft the Munificent.”

“Who’s he?”

“He rules this land.”


“So, we want to pass.”


“Meycroft has sent us to retrieve the Emerald of Rill, the center jewel of his family crest, which was stolen a mere two weeks ago.”

“I never heard of it.” (This from a door, two hundred feet underground)

“We have reason to believe it’s on the other side of you.”

“Reason to believe? I scoff at your reason to believe.”

“Look, we just want to get past and look around.”

“I don’t think so.”

“But you’re a door. You’re supposed to open for people so they can pass from one place to another.”

“I’m also designed to keep people out. I have my defensive side, you know.”

“Wouldn’t it feel better to be useful? To have a purpose beyond protecting people who don’t care about you?”

“Who’s that?”

“The people inside. I bet they don’t even think of you.”

“No, no, you’re wrong! They love me!”

And so on.

This sounds interesting, but believe me, when you’ve talked your way through about thirty of these doors over the course of a year of playing (sometimes twice in one session), you’re ready to leap across the table and kill the fucking DM.

John’s failing as a DM was that, fundamentally, he designed his world to highlight his own importance. We players could have been anybody; we were mere rats in his maze, meant to take pleasure at being able to gather in the elements of John’s genius, revealed one running at a time until the story was given to us whole. Whatever semblance of interaction there might have appeared to be, in fact we could never accomplish anything until we hit on how to do it John’s way. Each door was like an episode of You Bet Your Life, where you were just trying to say the secret combination of words or phrases that would open the door.

There was no sense that the “world” offered a variety of choices…the opportunity to seek out a given group of people, or decide to adventure in a dungeon or in a wilderness. This was predestination…the forerunner to video games like Final Fantasy.

For many players, this is the only way they want to play. It comforts them to be part of a milieu that will deliver a structured setting in which they can participate.

I found it annoying, at best.

I have always felt that D&D, in its best form, provides the opportunity for people to live a life vicariously that they could not do in the real world. That is, if I wish to be Jenghis Khan, or Francis of Assisi, I should be able to make that happen—without being constantly annoyed by the Meycrofts of the world who are living out their ambitions. Fuck Meycroft and his family crest…I’m busy building the world’s largest library or founding a cult of STD-carrying women assassins. If Meycroft needs someone to follow his quest, let him pick an NPC to do it.

The problem this creates for most DMs is that it becomes difficult to plan anything; Free Will means there’s no guarantee the party will enter the Temple of Buwana, even if they’re standing in front of it. I’m of the opinion that the party ought to be able to look at each other and say—after having just killed the couatl defending the place: “What do you think people…show of hands. Who says fuck it?”

But if they don’t enter, that’s ten hours of painstaking work that will never get used. So the DM feels he must have some fairy princess show up and quest everyone (no saving throw permitted).

And there are those out there who would argue a party wouldn’t say that…that the treasure and the promise of adventure would guarantee they would enter the Temple.

Surprise, surprise. I have found that parties, if given the choice, are perfectly capable of walking away from a thing if they’d rather get their treasure and kicks in another venue. Some parties don’t like combating clerics, or mages, or paladins, and would rather choose to fight fighters. All power to them.

To make Free Will possible, a DM must eschew the “pre-created” dungeon. Really, the party doesn’t give a shit anyway…it’s just a big masturbatory fun-time for the DM, who usually gets perturbed when the party shits all over their creative skills anyway. This, more than any other reason, is why modules suck; they have no flexibility.

It does mean that most long time players, the first time they step into my world, find themselves confused. They’re so used to being told what to do, it takes time to realize I’m not going to tell them.

Which is what I’ll discuss next.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How It Got Infected

I can’t be certain when adventure modules became all the rage; the earliest one I can remember was Keep on the Borderlands, which Wikipedia says was printed in December of 1979. If so, I had only been playing for a few months…but as I live in Canada, I don’t think any of us saw this module until sometime late in 1980 or possibly ‘81. I remember clearly a time playing when it was universally assumed that you made up your own adventures—and if you weren’t good enough to do that, you had no business being a DM.

But of course TSR, by then run by people who weren’t Gygax, had begun to recognize that role-playing games, as a business model, had a limited appeal. What’s worse, by 1980 if there was any press about any of the games (and most of the press was about D&D), it was BAD press…often very bad, about teenagers killing themselves in their rooms because their characters died or killing parents who tried to stop them from playing. Which meant that the game was never going to become popular on a widespread basis—and once everyone had the rulebooks that said, “make your own,” the company was doomed to go bankrupt.

The solution was to pabulum feed the less gifted advocates of the game, with modules which had the inherent quality of being made useless once they were played—thus creating an ongoing income even after the basic books were bought. My friends and I generally scorned those who played modules, primarily because the modules themselves were rather pathetic. They gave out too much treasure, they were repetitive (guard room to chief’s room to treasure room) and they were so badly written as to be laughable.

But we were not the norm. Modules were certainly the main thing by the time I graduated high school, and by ’83 I was an odd duck in that I never played them.

Meanwhile, TSR sought new ways to make money for the company. A flood of completely different games, each with slight modifications in the rules (and many being mostly shit, without any play testing), erupted on the market. Crap like Buck Rogers and Indiana Jones took advantage of fads, while little groups of excessively effete gamers took up Boot Hill, Empire of the Petal Throne, Top Secret (admittedly, I played this one), Gangbusters and so on. In the long run, all of these were simple-Simon games with no real power to hold a long-time audience.

Something was definitely wrong, but young kids with money were willing to go along with the program. While Deities and Demigods was a fairly decent addition to the game (coming out about eight months after the first three Advanced books), the Fiend Folio in ’81 was generally a piece of crap. The quality of the book had clearly gone downhill—not only in content, but in terms of it's binding as well. At least half the monsters were useless. A considerable number of them had no purpose but to steal objects from players; others were outright repeats from the Monster Manual. A few were purely laughable: the “snail flail” continues to be a steady joke around our gaming table. Still, it was about ten times better than the Monster Manual II, which came out in ’83.

But by then the golden age of the game (at least in terms of its possible growth) was definitely past. On the production side, RPG companies were all in the hands of penny pinchers and lawyers; on the consumer side, the public face of the game had moved into convention mode.

I attended conventions all through the 80s, created and arranged by acquaintances of mine I knew through the city university. Generally the participants numbered about 2,000 (I don’t live in New York), much defined by their social ineptitude and gullibility. All conventions are designed to sell junk to neophytes—people who don’t know anything but are interested—and they exist to enable veterans to lord their knowledge over the neophytes.

I don’t do well in such environments. There’s nothing special about being superior to morons—its much more fun to be superior to superiors, who always get pissed off when their experience fails to award them with instant worship. Worse, I found that even by ’85 I had been playing the game longer than most, and as I had not embraced the TSR company revenue plan, there were fewer and fewer things bridging the gap between me and others. Games I sat in on were still fundamentally hack and slash, haul away the loot, with nothing in the way of plot, purpose or sense. The Game Show version of the game became standard, with rooms full of gold raising characters to the 22nd level in spite of not being bright enough to check a dungeon door for traps without opening it.

(I’ve ran a few parties like this in convention competitions; they’re remarkably easy to kill).

Yet I had been playing for so long, I was pretty well known in those days. Both as a shit disturber and as a good, original-thinking DM. But I couldn’t get into the adventure-for-a-day mentality that grew up around those forums, and other venues over the years that followed. I couldn’t see the point to running an adventure just for the sake of running an adventure. That would be like a one-night stand; I wanted a relationship with my players.

(When Gygax died recently, I received two different invitations to come play the traditional characters associated with his party in the traditional adventure. I declined).

So I drifted away from conventions and I drifted away from RPG shops selling globs of crap for ridiculous prices. Now and then I have to go back and buy something like new dice or a vinyl hex map and such. By the time the 2nd Edition was released in ’89, I had gone completely rogue. I heard about the changes, the removal of demons and devils, the addition of “skills” which could be bought (similar to the system from Middle Earth, which had always been shit but adored by a particular brand of player), and I thought, that makes sense.

Once you’ve sold the shit out of something, the only thing you can do as a company is try to get everyone to buy the same shit once again. So far, the game has been resold in its entirety three times, and another edition is due out in June.

It will be bought, primarily because D&D players continue to be confounded by the game—none of the products released in the last twenty years have done anything to solve the real problem: how do you play?

It is like giving a series of weekend lectures on how to play football…then showing up every Saturday with a new color and shape of ball. See the ball; pretty ball; buy the ball. Followed by a new collection of rules every time, often disagreeing or “modulating” the rules learned last week. And finally, nothing about how to set up a team and play.

I don’t think even the lecturers know how. Not anymore.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To Make a World

I remember that the time between playing D&D and running D&D took, for me, about six weeks. In those days we all took a shot at the game; it was comparatively simple for anyone to run, as the campaigns were all hack and slash. Even the modules were that way. My first game had been Labor Day weekend, 1979, a few days before I began high school. By Christmas I was deeply into the game.

I remember trying to explain it to my parents, who had always been board game fanatics; but this game made no sense to them. How did the rules work? How could you tell who had won or who had lost? I remember one fateful evening I made the mistake of trying to run my parents in an adventure…which was disastrous. Generationally, there was no common ground there.

The first “world” that I ran was really a hodgepodge of other worlds, things that my friends and I had agreed on. But being a geographical freak (I could name all fifty states and their capitals when I was 7), I was anxious to try a hand at my own world.

For reasons that any 15 year old boy would understand, I was infatuated with John Norman’s Gor novels…this long before the world of Gor had been grafted onto a BDSM fetish group. I liked the structure of the world, with cities, culture, monsters, political relationships and adventure. The slavery thing was somewhat secondary to my purpose—nice for the books, but immaterial for D&D.

As the books have no map, I pieced together the locations of Ar, Koroba, Thentis, Tor, Port Kar…and the islands of Tyros and Cos, along with the northern lands, the southern steppe, the great Thassa, the Sardar Mountains and so forth. If you’re familiar with the books you know these places—you may not have a visual image of the lay of the land. I still do, in my mind’s eye, although I lost my original map literally decades ago.

I ran Gor for about a year…without much success, as my players had not read the books and for them the city names were just names. More than that, being used to complex maps of the Earth, I could not help noticing that my designed Gorean world was somewhat lacking in details. What it amounted to was a few lines and a few groups of mountains, with cities spackled all around, all hundreds of miles apart. I could fill up the spaces with names of plains, forests, rivers and such, but these were just names as well. The adequate information to explain away those gaps just didn’t exist in the books. I’d have to somehow invent them on my own…and to do that, I might as well just start fresh with an original world.

I had available a pre-made world that I could buy from TSR, the company that sold D&D originally. But that wasn’t interesting. My interest in maps and geography demanded that I make my OWN world—which would, I thought, be tailored to whatever campaigns I wished to run.

I sketched out a plan on six maps, based on the concept of a large, central sea surrounded by arable lands—and beyond, inhospitable desert, mountains or snowfield. The farther one trekked from the sea, the less hospitable the environment, the exact nature dependent on how far from the equator one was. Thus, political structure was dependent on control of the sea and access to other markets.

I ran this world for almost four years, up until 1985. Generally, as a D&D world, I’d say it was as successful as most I’ve seen. I was involved quite a bit with various role-playing conventions that occurred in the city, and for a time I made a little money designing original “worlds” for other DMs who admired mine and wanted something similar. I carefully drafted and sketched out the mountains, rivers and forests of these worlds in a style similar to a 16th century cartographer, and sold them for a $100 apiece. I’d ask if they wanted a single continent, a group of islands, deserts, mountains—similar to the structure of a Civilization IV world. Each 24x30 inch map typically took about four evenings (24 hours) to draw.

My own world, of course, was six of these maps. Most players didn’t have the money to pay me for more than one sheet; altogether I did about six different maps for people, two for which I never received payment. I was doing it for “friends”…so I didn’t ask for money up front.

My reasons for giving up on my second world were this: I simply could not present the world as real. No matter how I tried, in reality my players could not help thinking of each city as just “the city” or each forest as “the forest.” It did not matter that the cities had names like “Forcrest” or “Juba”…the names did not convey identity. I would have to describe the huge port city of Forcrest as a kind of London, or the jungle city of Juba as being similar to Delhi. The jungle itself would have to be described as being like India or Africa. Or the vast eastern desert being like the Sahara. In short, I needed examples from the real world to make my world “real.”

Whereupon I realized that solution to this was to simply adopt the real world as my D&D world.

The idea was not embraced immediately. Most players feel that somehow an original world lends itself to a greater mystery, or that the real world is so suffused with tiresome reality that it cannot be “magical.” But as a dungeon master, the benefits of choosing to run using the real world as a template were immediate.

I did not need to limit the world to its actual condition, after all. Magic could continue to exist, non-human races and monsters could exist in whatever degree I wanted, history could be rewritten. What I gained in return were thousands of ready-made maps in whatever scales might be available at the local library, along with detailed floor plans for world-wide structures; complex mountain systems with easily identified river networks which made—by example—geologic sense. And finally, when I told a party that they had just arrived in London, there was no need whatsoever to describe the culture to them; it was immediately absorbed. They knew what the people would be like and what to expect.

My first plan set the world in 1500; later, when I decided I would rather have a somewhat settled New World, I changed that to 1650. The world is not what it was in 1650—I have made plenty of changes. In other ways, it is very similar.

And detail? Rather than twenty or thirty cities, as a typical D&D world might have, my world contains more than forty substantial settlements in Wales alone. All with histories, street names and family titles. And I have never run a party in Wales. I have been running the real world as D&D since 1986, and have not remotely used all of it. The campaign I ran up until 1996 went from Yugoslavia to Spain, to West Africa, the Caribbean, to Ireland and then back to Portugal. My present campaign began in Russia and has moved down through Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Transylvania. The party goes where it wants and I have the world ready to greet them.

And now there’s the internet. If I need a picture of a particular group of mountains or a forest or wherever, I have tourist photos and I have Google Earth. I have weather data coming out the yin yang. I have everything I need.

As such, my world has become a very complex place. Just the sort of place where I feel at home.

The Tao

It was, I think, a Saturday night. I called up a friend, asked him what if he wanted to do something and he told me, “I can’t, I’m playing D&D.” I had never heard of it.

A game? Yes. “Can you explain it?” I asked.

“No, I can’t,” he said. “You have to play it.” Whereupon he invited me.

That has always been the condition of the game. It really can’t be explained, not in a few hundred words. I once saw a rather brilliant effort done about twenty years ago, but I’ve long since lost my copy and I can’t find it on the net. Sadly, what there is on the net is such a disastrous collection of inbred opinionization (to which I am adding at this moment), the uninitiated will not learn much from a general search. The best is probably that found on Wikipedia.

My first time playing, I did not understand anything. I was told to be a fighter (it was the easiest to play); my “equipment” was rattled off at me, most of which I was unfamiliar with, and which I wrote down as a list on a sheet of paper under my “abilities.” Lengthy explanations of these things were not given, as that would have held up the game. Watch and learn I was told, and watch and learn I did.

They explained to me that I was on a field (please to use imagination) and that there was something lizard-like in the distance. I was on my horse. What did I wish to do? I answered that I would lift my sword and ride straight at the beast. A weird looking die (which many more than six sides) was pushed into my hand and I was told to roll it.

And thus was transformed into stone, as I had failed my saving throw. The beast, I was told, was a basilisk.

So for the rest of the night, for about three hours, I sat around as a stone statue and watched other people play, until they were able to get the fellow who could say a few words of mumbo-jumbo over me and transform me back to flesh.

I utterly loved the game. It has been a love affair, which has probably condemned me to the vocational status at which I now reside—comfortable, but certainly not a wild success. I have known others who lived in parent’s basements because they could not kick the habit. It is engrossing, satisfying and enlightening. Not because it is about some other make-believe world, but because it is problem solving at its best.

Today, I continue to run half a dozen players as often as I can, once every two weeks. For a long time I played every week, but I have too much on my plate for that (freelance writing contracts, a full-time job, She Who Must Be Obeyed and so on). One of these players is my daughter, who is grown up now and whose childhood was spent listening to others play (I would not let her play when she was very young, because I believe it requires a mature, thinking teenager to grasp the game’s essentials). As it happened, she began playing first with others her own age, while I had pretty much stopped playing for some years because my peers had either moved beyond reach or had “grown out of it.”

She asked me to start my campaign as she was desperate to learn how to play first edition (everyone she knew played third)…and the word got out that I was willing to run the original game and players appeared. This campaign has been ongoing for almost two years. The players are 6-8th level.

Just a word about that. I’ve always thought that a character, run once a week, should make 8th level in the space of one year; and the game has pretty much followed that line, except that we only run half that often. Any faster advancement and there’s no appreciation for the character—I’ve seen a lot of campaigns destroyed that way.

When my daughter began asking me how my world works, I began thinking I should start writing down my general thoughts. I have hundreds of tables I’ve constructed on my own, but the way these tables work together is pretty much in my head. My intent is to use this blog to coalesce the process into diary form, so that someday she might be able to piece together my ideas.

First, however, I’m going to talk about how my fascination with the game grew and how I got to where I am now. And then I’ll get down to the meat of things.

I know that most blogs about the subject fail. Most who take the step to put “their world” on line get about as far as a few disjointed pages. I think that’s because of the lack of coherence I’ve associated with just about every world I’ve encountered…but also because online offers nothing in the way of feedback. If there isn’t someone out there patting you on the back for putting all this shit into digital, why bother?

For me, this is a responsibility I owe to myself. I won’t find it easy a lot of the time…but it’s something I should try to do before I die. Of what use it will be to anyone I don’t know. But that’s the way I’m thinking of it.

So. This will be the way I play. I will get quite pedantic at times, but that is only because I don't wish to gloss over anything.