Monday, April 18, 2011

Dave's Answer - The Nice One

There's an opportunity here and I'm not going to pass it up.  Last week I wrote a post about creating tables with an eye towards adventure building - which would in turn require a level of granularity - and I got a response from Dave Cesarano of The Caffeinated Symposium which fit the typical flippancy of comments that people all over the blogosphere have come to expect ... i.e., not well thought out.  And I stomped on Dave just as hard as I could.

Ah, but then Dave did something highly unusual.  He listened.  He looked past the acerbity of my reply and recognized the point I was making.  He DID NOT sulk or stage a nutty or cry on his own blog or act like a squawling, petulant child.  No, Dave is a fan of Alexis de Tocqueville - no nice guy by anyone's reckoning - and Dave is himself no piker where it comes to using his head rather than the glands attached to his kidneys.  He re-read his own comment, saw my point, addressed that directly and earned my respect.  Which is not to say he agreed with me ... I'm not certain where, precisely, that Dave stands - except that he stands on his feet.

If people want to know who I'm writing this blog for ... I'm writing it for Dave.  And for all the people like him.  Grown ups.

On Saturday, Dave decided to 'poke the bear,' which I find an acceptable metaphor for most people who want to disagree with me.  I was in the middle of game-testing (which has turned the corner, though I will continue to refine, refine, refine), so the answer has had to wait until today.  I did not find his response (found here in the comments section) particularly sharp or nasty ... and that's why this post is titled the 'nice' one.  Again, a reader has brought up too many subjects in a comment for me to answer in that rather narrow location.  So for the third post in a row, I've got to answer here.

First off, a little housekeeping.  Dave asks why I don't play with alignments.  I wrote the answer to that in a post here.  Briefly, it's a DM-imposed limitation on player behavior that I cannot tolerate. 

Dave says he has a lot of respect for Gygax.  I myself do not.  I see no reason to heap plaudits upon this man who evidently had few social skills, who ripped off his peers, who bankrupted the most brilliant game every created and who showed little or no remorse for any of these actions.  On film he has always struck me as the worst kind of social pig, and his existence in the 80's did not serve very well to lend credence or respectability to the words "dungeons and dragons."  I think he succeeded in hammering a rounded, stubby stake into the chest of RPGs before he died, which took an awful lot of sustained pounding.  I believe firmly that the game would still be in existence without his contribution, and I would rather he had never lived.

But that's okay.  Intelligent people are allowed to disagree.

With regards to rules as a means to simulation.  I feel the definition of simulation I posted two days ago makes it clear that I don't.  A simulation is a problem-solving tool for use in engineering, science and related fields.  I'm on record as saying that D&D is an art, and art is not a 'simulation.'  People do not speak of going down to the theatre this Friday to "see the simulations."  Rembrant's Nightwatch isn't described as a fascinating 'simulation' of a town guard setting out upon its daily rounds.  Debussy has not composed a remarkable 'simulation' of the movement of fawns and the passing of afternoons.  This is because art serves no purpose other than to BE.  It is not created to discover if it satisfies the perameters of a design or if it fits the expectations of an hypothesis.  If it matches no design, if it fits no hypothesis, art is not changed in its value or its importance the the least way.

As such, no, I am not attempting any kind of simulation with D&D, not in the strictest sense.  My world may have aspects and elements of being a simulation ... it may carry in it elements that would allow me or others to gauge the effects of trade or the movement of armies over vast distances - but I have no idea if there is any accuracy in this measure, nor do I care.  The system is not built to measure the Earth and its conditions, the system is built to provide an environment in which players may operate according to expected perameters.  If they mount a horse in order to travel from Berlin to Baghdad, they would not be wrong to expect - this being the mid-seventeenth century - to pass through the main part of the Ottoman Empire.  If they had read a book of history and had come across the philosophy of Rosicrucians, they would be in their rights to expect to find Rosicrucians in existence, behaving to some degree in the manner they had read about in history books.

The reason for this isn't to better represent the suffering and strife of Rosicrucians who had once existed, but rather to create a world that has more depth and reason that a world that was produced entirely out of my mind.  If my world is very much like the Earth, and I tell you that you are now passing through the city of Prague, I do not need to spend time as a DM investing in your mind the importance, majesty, romance or tangibility of that city.  You, the player, bring baggage to the campaign that tells you how important that city is ... and as such you, the character, possess the same visceral reaction to the word "Prague" that you yourself do.  Melf the Halfling Thief has heard of Prague, has wondered about its existence and has wondered what it must be like to walk the streets of that city, just as YOU, Dave, have heard of Prague and have wondered about its existence and what the streets are like.  You and Melf share that together.  And if you, Dave, have heard of the opera house there, probably Melf has also ... and like you, Dave, Melf probably wonders if he could take a brief sidetrip from the adventure on hand in order to see it.  And if in seeing it there is an adventure that occurs there, all the better.

I have images of that opera house at my disposal.  I can probably find some kind of floor plan, I can invent secret rooms in the opera house's basement and invest the chambers throughout the building with characters and enemies, staging a murder there, staging a Lovecraftian insurgence there, or indeed anything my mind can concoct.  And if it should ever happen that Dave finds himself in the actual city of Prague, and visits the actual opera house, the adventure that happened there will have as much importance for him as seeing how the stone and glass have been combined together into that magnificent building.

I cannot obtain this sort of emotional response with a completely made up world.  At the very best, with a completely made up world I can represent stock houses and villages.  I can create run-of-the-mill forests and river bottoms.  I can create stereotypical cities and town gates and castles.  And if I want to depict an opera house of importance in the city of my own fabrication, I have to steal the image of the opera house in Prague and wedge it into my make-believe campaign.  I don't have the mind to completely invent an opera house of my own imagination, nor do I have the resources to build it, age it three hundred years and take photographs of its interior.

If I'm going to steal the thing anyway, why not steal the whole world and put it in its right place?

This is what you have when you have my world.  A robbery.  A theft on a grand scale, hammered out in places and squeezed into my living room for quick and easy use.  Not as a simulation, but as an arena of play.  Dead on accuracy is not required.

Now with that said, I want to make a point about 'abstract' and 'concrete,' which are used as opposites in your comment Dave.  I don't contend with their being opposites, but I believe you fail - and many people fail on this precise point - to recognize how they are opposites.  It is usually assumed that since concrete is very hard and very tangible, the opposite of concrete is therefore ethereal and intangible.  The fault here comes from equating 'concrete' with 'stone;'  but you will notice that abstract is never used in context as the opposite of 'stony.'  There's a reason for that.

The opposition isn't being the difference between tangible and intangible.  Concrete exists in the world for only one reason.  Unlike stone, it does not occur naturally.  The only manner in which one is likely to encounter concrete is in it being part of a designed structure.  Abstract is the opposite of concrete in the sense that, while concrete represents the structure, 'abstract' represents the designed plan of that structure ... i.e., the structure hasn't been built yet, or we are describing the structure for some other purpose.  The word abstract is a composite for ab- meaning "away" or "from" and trahere, meaning "to draw."

This specific aspect of the word has been largely mauled and abused by thousands of inept and poorly educated art critics and other writers throughout the 20th century, to the point where it is casually thrown around without much attention being paid to its actual meaning.  It is not much different than the whole of the English language, which is a frustration for me - since I feel language is in fact very specific, no matter how many people can't read a dictionary or do research into the meanings of words.  It makes a conversation like this hard to have, since we have little or no common ground upon which to make matters clear to one another.

To address your comment, Dave:  adjectival or otherwise, abstract still means the same thing.  My argument with the Riddle of Steel would be that the abstract is so minute and obsequious as to murder to death any chance of enjoying the experience.  Architectural plans must be clear and readable ... rules must be easily adopted, understood and implemented.  An overly complex system may be granular, but if it becomes an obstacle in itself to the process, it is anathema and must be gotten rid of.

I am all for granularity, but I don't make up tables for what kind of cobblestones the road incorporates (this used to be a joke from a player I had many years ago).  I could make up such a table, and I could even incorporate my trade tables as an element in creating different road surfaces for different parts of the world.  But the return for such granularity is so small and so insignificant as to not bother in its implementation.  Granular in and of itself is not a positive thing.  But threats of granularity should not be used as an argument against making a simple system that remains easy and effective in its use.

A mechanic - any mechanic - must be measured in terms of A) how easy is it to use; B) what is the emotional/visceral return for its effort; and C) how difficult is it to fabricate and create.  If, as a DM, I am able to create something incredibly complex and difficult to fabricate which nevertheless is simple-simon in its use and brings real return in creating an experience for the players, then I am willing to do the work that brings that about.  This blog tends to focus a great deal on Point C because Points A & B are dealt with in the actual campaign.  Outlining the campaign and detailing what the party did and how has always been the kiss of death for me in any conversation I've had about D&D.  I don't want to hear about your campaign.  When I talk about mine, I try to keep it to one paragraph, glossing over most of the details and getting down to what was fabricated that made the campaign work.

That is the nature of blogging.  You cannot measure the excitement of my campaign by the details of this blog.  If I were writing a blog about creating a carnival midway, this blog would be filled with engineering schematics, calculus, commentary about the poor design features of other people's structural efforts and logistical considerations.  NONE of that has anything to do with how much fun a rollercoaster is.

Thank you Dave for having a brain.  I don't feel very much poked at all.


Zzarchov said...

I have a question about the time frame you have chosen to set your games in. Operating under the assumption that the ability to utilize historical buildings, geography, etcetera is a major benefit of your setting. Is your setting's time period chosen due to the greater number of major works and cities from that period that survive to this day compared to say the 8th century? I realize this is highly euro-centric but I get the impression that your campaign also tends to be euro-centric (even if exploring far off lands)

Alexis said...

To be honest, Zzarchov, that was never a consideration. Much information is in fact available from virtually any time period ... and the players would have a similar relationship with ancient Rome or any other time period from pre-history to the 25th century (we've all watched the same science fiction films and read the same novels).

If there is a Eurocentric perception, it is my own European heritage. The party has been to Persia, and they are free to travel outwards from Europe. They don't seem to want to. I began the world in Voronezh, the southern Russian steppes, because I wanted an obscure, fairly civilized region in which to start.

The principal reason for picking 1650 as a time period was my desire to have a somewhat established New World as part of my game. America is still broken up into Dutch, English, Swedish, Spanish and French colonies, and large areas of Latin America are not yet explored. Perfect for my campaign.

Dave Cesarano said...

1) Thanks for the compliments, but I can't help feeling a bit embarrassed anyway for my first post.

2) Regarding alignment:
Briefly, it's a DM-imposed limitation on player behavior that I cannot tolerate.

I totally agree with this, but I just can't bring myself to eschew alignment entirely. So, I compromise: I have players choose it is to give them some sort of moral compass, and then that's it. I use it mostly for spells that require alignment, but recognize that in everyday life, people don't really behave according to any sort of alignment. Therefore, I don't penalize my characters for doing something "out-of-alignment."

3) I don't entirely disagree with you on Gygax. I have a lot of respect for him as a businessman, playtester, and as a compiler of rules, but that's mostly it. From what I know and understand, he got things done in order to get D&D printed and get business going.

As a literary critic, I don't even consider him to have existed. As a person, well, just look at what happened to Dave Arneson and that should tell you what quality a friend and compatriot Gygax was. Some see how TSR ended his control over D&D as a Bad Thing, but I don't.

You wrote: "I believe firmly that the game would still be in existence without his contribution, and I would rather he had never lived."

Harsh, but in the preceding paragraph, you state your case pretty clearly, and I'm not going to argue with it.

4) You wrote: "With regards to rules as a means to simulation. I feel the definition of simulation I posted two days ago makes it clear that I don't. A simulation is a problem-solving tool for use in engineering, science and related fields. I'm on record as saying that D&D is an art, and art is not a 'simulation.'"

Clear enough. I understand a lot better what you mean by D&D not being a simulation, and why, therefore, your definition of the word is so strict.

To continue with definitions, just so I understand better, I assume you would reject the following definition for "abstract" as a mutation born of decades of misuse:

thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances: an abstract idea."

I do consult dictionaries quite frequently (mostly out of etymological curiosity, though). There are a few similar definitions to this one (such as "theoretical; expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance; difficult to understand/abstruse"). I don't have a dictionary on me right now, but the internet has a bunch.

You wrote: "This specific aspect of the word has been largely mauled and abused by thousands of inept and poorly educated art critics and other writers throughout the 20th century, to the point where it is casually thrown around without much attention being paid to its actual meaning."

So, it would appear that the online dictionary's definition of "abstract" is the product of decades of misuse that's been canonized? I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case.

"It makes a conversation like this hard to have, since we have little or no common ground upon which to make matters clear to one another."

This reminds me of my readings on Jacques Derrida. I'd much rather forget that experience.

Anonymous said...

I spent a lot of years approaching alignment in the manner that you do, Dave, until upon closer examination I realized that even the mechanical impact of not bothering with it (i.e. spells, what-have-you) was minimal. My game has been the better for it ever since. Dropping alignments definitely opened up more doors than it closed.

Dave Cesarano said...

Thanks, James. I'll consider it. I've not run in quite some time. I have this visceral reaction against dropping alignment simply because it is such a core D&D concept, I feel like I wouldn't be playing D&D anymore if I did so. Mind you, I fully recognize that I'm being silly, but it's just a gut feeling I get.