Friday, April 15, 2011

Zzarchov's Answer

This post is being written to answer a two-part question from Zzarchov of Unofficial Games which frankly requires space, so it is here.  It was asked in the comments section of the previous post, but is not necessarily related to that post.  The pertinent part of Zzarchov's comment, compressed for space, was this:

"I notice you implied (or at least I inferred) that you are not simulating reality. If my memory servers me this is something you have mentioned more than once.  I am curious to know what you are simulating when you develop rules?  As an example, I try to simulate the 'reality' and 'physics' of 1955-1989 adventure movies. I always got the impression your simulation had far far greater historical accuracy in mind, and I was curious to know what your overall ideal was?"

I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with an answer to this question.  I believe that it has two parts, which I will address one at a time.  The first part being my perception of rules, and the second being my overall ideal, as Zzarchov calls it.

Conceded, rules do contribute to a simulation.  If I can haul out the metaphor of the theatre again, however, the gentle reader will please take note that the rules are not the play, they are not the dialogue between the actors, they are not the stage or the set or the audience or indeed any part of the performance ... except in the sense that gravity restrains people from floating unassisted a few inches above the boards.  In the real world, we tend to take 'rules' for granted.  I am able to run only this fast, I have only this much strength in my body, I can speak only so quickly, my eyes can only see detail so far and so on.  When we speak of the simulation of rules in the game, we are speaking of how players within the abstract model are limited in what they can do.  The specificity of the rules really isn't that important, as long as everyone can agree on what they are and as long as they apply to everyone.  Much of the contention surrounding roleplaying in the game is that, in some campaigns, it tends to cut across the rules so that some players are allowed benefits on the basis of their personal emotive skill, and not on the basis of their actual characters.  I dislike godmodding because it bends the rules for some or all of the players in a way that makes the game somewhat similar to the game Candyland ... a game where the infantile need for approval is more important than the mature need for challenge.

A further philosophy I'd like stated about the rules affecting everyone is that the NPCs and monsters in the game must also play by them.  The acquisition of knowledge is a serious aspect of the game.  Just as players must gain this knowledge through effort and time spent, non-players and monsters should not be blessed with all the knowledge of the universe in such a manner that it enables them to know exactly where the players will be at a given time, or what players are the most dangerous, or what attacks will work perfectly in this situation and so on.  NPCs and monsters must be condemned to die on account of their ignorance, just as players will die when they make the wrong decision based on a lack of knowledge.  The DM must play by the rules as well.

Very well, let's talk ideals.

This, obviously, is the hard part of Zzarchov's question.  It asks me not as much to nail down my style of play, but rather my purpose of play.  It is not enough to say that I want to edjudicate a world where persons can interact and experience fun and excitement upon a visceral level.  The question asks, why this type of world and not that type?  People can have fun at an amusement park or they can have fun at a sports event.  Why do I make my players participate in a world of this particular nature, and just what in hell is that nature anyway?

Let me begin thusly.  Zzarchov is right when he says that I am not attempting to simulate Earth.  My world has magic, gods, unnatural creatures and vast areas of the planet controlled by races and civilizations that never existed on the real Earth.  My rivers flow along slightly different paths, my highest mountains are shifted around within 20-50 miles of their Earthly locations, the political goals of my world's participants are slightly askew and somewhat varied from their Earth counterparts.  My Rene Descartes was a cleric-mage who died in an insane asylum, where he wound up after writing his meditations ... whereupon he vigorously researched into augury and divination spells until he got a definitive answer about the reality of the universe.  No, I am not simulating Earth.

I am, however, simulating the characters of human beings as I perceive them to be:

"What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.  In form and movement how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god."

Unlike Hamlet, however, who was a myopic young poop, I don't happen to find man only a quintessence of dust ... and I find women less so, but that is certainly another post.  Moreover, I don't find human beings lacking in villainous qualities either.  It is the overcoming of villains that makes for great drama, and my world is peppered with them.  Conniving cowardly worms, triumphant indefeatible bastards, guiltridden helpless fools, insidious instigators, blundering conquerors, careful murderers, guileless bullies ... the whole spectacular wash of human detritus as it crashes upon the engineered solidity of human achievement.

But do not take from this the error Zzarchov makes about my world being based upon historical accuracy.  I understand how it can appear to be that, since this is a blog and the blog has the time and the space to concentrate on things like the slow steady acquisition of Europe by the Ottoman Empire, or the steady flow of immigration from the Old World to the New.  These things fascinate me, certainly, and I will address them in campaigns for the simple reason that people tend to know generally who is running the country and whether or not the country is at war.  My players passed through Prague in my last running, and I described the countryside to the northwest of that city as full of burnt out ruins and the abandoned shells of razed fortifications.  The party did not know what was going on, and had to ask, to which they got the answer that it was the detritus left over from the Thirty Years War, which had ended four years before the present day of the campaign, December 15, 1652.  They nodded, did not think of exploring the ruins (they were in a hurry to catch a ship) and simply moved on.  That is typically as historical as my world gets.

No, I couldn't say that the structure - or motivational quality, if the reader will - is based upon any tangible formula.  It is certainly influenced by a great many sources ... which, I am not sorry to say, would not fit into Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide.  Frankly, I can't remember what's there in that appendix.  Is Robinson Crusoe there?  Everything by Jules Verne?  What about The King of the Mountains, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Little Savage, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, the War of the Worlds and the Time Machine?  I really haven't any idea.  I know this sounds like a list of dusty classics to many of you, but they were the books I read as I was growing up, some of which I read and reread until having to buy another copy ... at the same time as reading Gor, Stephen King, Asimov, Heinlein, Penthouse Forum and the Happy Hooker.  Then I started drama and it was Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw.  Along with a lot of people I didn't like, but had to read anyway, like Ionesco, Brecht, Pinter and Williams.  University brought a lot more writers and playwrites that I didn't like, but I read then and absorbed them and channeled them into my psyche.  Classics was a brilliant source:  Thucydides and Herodotus, Plutarch and Suetonius, Polybius and Tacitus.

And then over all of this pile up a lifetime love of films, all kinds of films, filled with thousands of characters loved and unloved, evil and good, flowing through my consciousness and drifting out into my campaign.  I won't even try to tabulate the resource field there ... it numbers well over a thousand significant, meaningful titles that I personally feel everyone should be forced to watch starting at age 8.

There's just no way to get across how all of this has affected me, particularly in the way it is mixed in with the non-fiction I have voraciously read all my life.  I remember how in Elementary school my mother had to go personally to the school and tell them to stop telling me to read fiction, and that in her opinion I was free to read all the non-fiction I liked.  Apparently, my principal and my teachers were worried that my incessantly reading about geography, astronomy, human anatomy, geology and war would damage and corrupt my brain somehow.  Good thing that turned out to be wrong.

And from this, Zzarchov would like me to distill my motivation.

Okay.  The pattern seems to be this.  The party is free to do what it wants.  This tends to drift into two types of behavior ... and let me emphasize as I write this, I do not play with alignments.  Please do not write any comments that relate to how alignments are supposed to work.  Please do not mention alignments.  Thank you.

Very well, two types of behavior:  constructive and destructive.

If the party chooses to be constructive in their efforts, and therefore make improvements upon the land and in the process create wealth and prestige, destructive factions will tend to coalesce in an effort to selfishing exploit the player's efforts.

If the party chooses to be destructive in their efforts, and therefore plunder and raid the wealth gathered together by constructive factions in the world, those factions will make increasingly tenacious efforts to search out and destroy the party.

The party, in point of fact, tends to behave according to both of the above.

If I, as DM, wish to create an adventurous spirit to become constructive, I create opportunities that increase the volume of material wealth that the party possesses, forcing them to either abandon that wealth or to take steps to protect it.  Protecting wealth requires structure.  Moreover, the rules provide opportunities that are available only to those players who choose to be constructive, in that tithes, taxes, privileges and nominal freedom are only accorded to those persons within the realm who visibly and tangibly contribute to the overall wellbeing of the realm.  If the party does not want to be harrassed endlessly by every region they enter and if they do not want to be subject to the winds of change, or lacking in the conveniences of hiring experts or obtaining supplies. then it is in their interest to settle down, obtain respect from the community and engineer the wealth of the world so that it comes to them.

On the other hand, if I, as DM, wish to create an adventurous spirit to become destructive, I create villains possessing land and materials for the purpose of threatening or outright attacking ordinary, happy go lucky individuals ... like the party.  I place these villains in authority over clans or tribes, towns, geographical regions and kingdoms, and then use the villain's personality to "poke a stick" at the party until they come boiling out like bees.  Like any good villain, they operate behind the scenes, rewriting laws, harrassing with minions, mistreating innocents, executing family members, confiscating goods and creating obstacles to simple party desires, and whenever possible deriding, mocking, humiliating or otherwise mistreating the party whenever they and the villain happen to meet face to face.  Since I am such a nasty person in real life, I can usually get that stick working quite well and the bees buzzing loudly and angrily, right up to the point where the villain is good and dead, a lot of treasure is accumulated, and the groundwork laid for the villain's friends and associates - all upstanding noble citizens of the corrupt empire - to start planning their revenge.

There are a few aspects of society that I assume are unquestionably true:

1)  poor, common people who work for their bread are ignorant and easily offended, but generally well meaning.
2)  poor people who beg for their bread are deceitful, selfish and habitually violent ... but will always pretend to be well meaning until they sense they've gained the advantage.
3)  low level officials in any organization will be either disgruntled and unsatisfied, or ambitious and unsatisfied - either will seek to exercise their petty power in order to feel better about themselves.
4)  high level officials are corrupt, nasty, vicious, cruel and greedy, except for a tiny, tiny percentage who are not.  The tiny percentage is a high level official due to ability; the larger percentage has achieved their status through the sustained exercise of petty power.
5)  controllers of society are either despotic and therefore villainous, or appallingly ignorant of everything going on around them.  Sometimes they are both.

I wish I could say the world was otherwise.

A last word about villains:  I have long considered, for months now, writing a post about what makes a villain villainous, and who would fit the category of greatest villains.  For me, there would have to be guidelines that would eliminate so-called great villains on principle ... the great villains, I should think, would be above things like remorse and guilt, would be self-created and would do their own dirty work.

I've held off, largely because of the rather paltry perception of what villainy is, and therefore how well a list of mine would be received.  For example, I don't consider Darth Vader to be a particularly good villain.  He threatens a lot and he's got a great look, but he's rather incompetant in his success rate and he's got this rather ridiculous sentimental streak that's about a mile wide.  I mean, if the guy can't even kill his own fucking son, he's not much of a villain.

7 comments:

Wilson Theodoro said...

That post about villains would be very interesting, in my opinion.

Cygnus said...

Since the Thirty Years War just concluded in your world, I'm curious if the world also has Rosicrucians, since there's a bit of evidence that they were exerting some covert influence in that time and place in our world. I wonder whether their brand of alchemy and hermeticism would be considered "clerical" or "magic-userish"...

Word verification: Physigh: an arcane discipline of emotional kinematics practiced by said Rosicrucians! :-)

Alexis said...

Cygnus. That book sure looks like it will deliver the competence I expect of modern scholars.

Of course there are Rosicrucians. But you don't get to know their powers until you're accepted into their secret society - which would, of course, mean that you already were a mage, cleric, druid or illusionist ... the world is not all mages and clerics.

Carl said...

This is a good post, Alexis.

I like your 5 Points of Society. I've been using a mental model similar to that, but your codification of it is good. I stratified humanity similar to how you did it along social class lines, adding a bit (as in TRUE/FALE) for slave or free. Adding a personality dimension in there according to social class would make for even more depth and therefore more avenues for adventure.

I really admire your mastery of the wheels-within-wheels technique which you allude to in the second half of your 'destructive' paragraph. You start with a relatively minor, but high-profile dickwad who just fucks with the party until they kill him and then the real villainy starts when his friends and family start in with revenge. I'm assuming there's another layer after that (and possibly more) but this kind of depth of motivation and plot is impressive.

I've a few of these "thread starts" in my campaign and have utterly failed to follow up on them. The good news is that only six months have passed in my game so it's no where near too late to start adding layers. Thanks for the inspiration!

Cygnus said...

Ha! I love the idea of an effete, urban society of magic-types being so put out by having a dingy, barefoot druid come to their door and give the proper secret signs and passwords.

Have you yet posted about the origins and lineages of D&D-style druidry in the alt-year 1652?

Carl said...

Darth Vader isn't the villain of that story. Palpatine is the villain.

Vader did torture his own daughter as part of an interrogation. You might argue that he didn't know, but Leia was force sensitive. He'd know.

Dave Cesarano said...

1)Despite the fact that my last commentary left a bruise, I'm going to poke the bear:

Why don't you play with alignments?

Not to say that I disagree with your choice! As a tool, I find alignments useful, but also highly debilitating and am curious as to what your thoughts are and what your reasons are for eschewing them.

2) You wrote: ... which, I am not sorry to say, would not fit into Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Frankly, I can't remember what's there in that appendix. Is Robinson Crusoe there? Everything by Jules Verne? What about The King of the Mountains, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Little Savage, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, the War of the Worlds and the Time Machine?

I have a lot of respect for Gygax, but I do not consider him a guru of literature by any mean stretch. A lot of people seem to take Appendix N to be some sort of literary canon for D&D, and I simply cannot agree. Indeed, in interviews, Gygax has stated that he would not add anything to Appendix N, even though in the past decades a lot of stuff in the fantasy genre alone has been groundbreaking. He had, I think, a very myopic view of what he liked. A lot of it was good stuff, but I've sat down and read some of what he listed in that Appendix and I often found some of his influences to be uninspired, unimaginative, and poorly written.

To that end, I very much agree that Gygax's Appendix N is missing a lot of books that could have made excellent idea-mines for adventure. I can't help but think of Lucian of Samosata's Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα (True Story), and how, when I first read it, I thought, "This would make an amazing D&D campaign!" Yet it's not in the list (and English translations are available, I think).

3) This post helped me better understand why you inferred that you were not simulating reality. I was, and to an extent, still am, under the impression that rules (specifically the nuts-and-bolts aspect of dice-rolling and chance-related event-resolution), simulate some aspect of reality, but my comment on "As Usual" wasn't clear what I was specifically talking about.

As a description of how your world, as a whole, I think I grasp how you mean that you are, definitely, not running any simulation except when simulating individual NPC behavior, or perhaps those five aspects of society you assume to be true. I would simply like to know if you consider specific aspects of rules-sets, such as dice-rolling mechanics and event-resolution engines (ex. roll 1d20 to see if you can climb the cliff face), to have any features of a simulation?

For example, please allow me to attempt to clarify something I said in my comments on "As Usual." I said that I felt D&D combat was "abstract" in the adjectival sense (as opposed to "concrete"). By this, I mean to say that when compared to a very thorough and detailed system, such as Riddle of Steel, one has the impression that Riddle seeks to simulate combat by capturing as much nuance as possible, while D&D boils combat down to a basic set of principles. I'd contend that Riddle has a more concrete system due to its detail and its blatant goal of achieving a sense of realism while D&D has a more abstract system, however I would think both seek to simulate combat situations.

That being said, would you agree or disagree that these chance-related mechanics, like combat systems, are small simulations? Or would you consider these mechanics to be something else entirely?