Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No Solutions Necessary

Thing about this campaign, there are days when it is just too busy over there.  Damn, I love a good fight.

In the link, if you have the patience to read through the fight, you can see that I've given the party a very tough enemy on the outset of the campaign.  Here we're dealing with three first levels and a second level, with a low level NPC providing very little help, fighting a giant crab that appears to weigh about a ton.

Too much?  I don't think so.

I make no pretense about the party being able to win.  I warned the party ahead of time that the crab would be BIG, I provided a setting and I offered up a logical reward and a whole lot of fishnet.  I had no idea in doing so what they'd even use the fishnet for.  I had no prior idea how they would succeed in killing the dangerous foe, nor how they'd do it.

You see, as a DM running a sandbox, I don't have to plan any of that.  It's none of my business.

Reading lately this post from Dreams in the Lich House, the general sense seems to be (not saying it definitely is) that there is something not quite kosher about the use of plot hooks in a sandbox campaign.  I disagree, in part for the reasons I gave in the comment section of the linked post, but also because the real sin isn't the plot hook, it is the plot solution.  This is the DM's having an idea of how the hook should be addressed - as opposed to, say, how the players feel like addressing it.

For example.  Suppose that the party learns that there's a slavering, nasty half-orc rapist in a small neighborhood gobbling up young girls.  The DM's solution is that the players find the rapist, rid the neighborhood of him and become heroes.

On the other hand, maybe the party grabs a young girl, stakes her out in the square at night and waits for the half-orc to turn up (killing the occasional townsperson who makes a pain of themselves by appearing).  When the half-orc does, they give it the girl, and promise many more girls if the half-orc will come along with them as a friend.

Some DMs will be horrified.  Some will punish the party by having the half-orc be unbalanced so that it tries to kill the party in their sleep.  But some DMs will think its great, and will only ruin the situation if the party falters on their promise to keep the half-orc fed on young girls.  See, the thing is, the young girls are themselves imaginary, and nothing is actually lost or gained in the game by deciding to play it that way.  But some DMs don't like that.  They think every player should see opportunity the way THAT DM sees opportunity.  But opportunity is a movable feast.

So I try to give the opportunities without thinking up the solutions ahead of time.  I hadn't thought of any way the net might be useful ... I just figured a fishmonger would have a net and would bring it along in case it was useful.  But then, I didn't TRY to think of a use, either.  It's better if I don't.  I want to keep an open mind, and the mind's front lawn works best when it isn't tramped over repeatedly.

Anyway, the combat is proving to be a good time.  No word on the victor yet.  There may not even be one.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What About the Noodle Breaking?

Just running through some plans for the future development of this proposed idea from last May, and it occurs to me that limiting the attrition damage to people is a big damn mistake.  After all, it is not only people that fall and break and get damaged and cease functioning when a party staggers their way through a forbidding landscape.  So does their stuff.  Picks break from use, tents tear from winds, handles snap, gourds split and so on.  In the bigger picture, the hulls of boats and the axles from wagons stress steadily over time and with heavy use, until they too give out.

The boat that sits in the harbour, even in a storm, does not do the work of a boat that beats the waves for months at a time.  Yet when have you ever seen a ship damage table that didn't involve a storm or a battle?  Do you not think the crew is kept busy steadily repairing ropes and sails, and not just from the last gale?

So what is needed is a clear structure on how hit point damage to characters is marked side-by-side with damage to their goods and equipment, from pots to sandle-straps ... and then what is needed is a rational, convenient method of maintaining that damage which is as easy to effect as returning lost hit points.

I don't have it, but this is one of those posts where I declare the problem, and then I go away and think about it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Playing By Committee

Occasionally I'm going to post something about a D&D party that isn't the one on-line.  This is one of those occasions.

Let me just say first of all that I would love to post 'content' everyday.  It would be marvelous to have a new map, or a new table, that I could trot out and amaze everyone and piss off a few others ... but the reality is that it takes more than a day to churn out the kind of maps and tables that I consider worth creating ... that is, more than seven lines and two columns.  More often than not, it takes more than a month to create a good map, and really a lot of time to come up with and create a good table.  'Content' isn't like simply writing my opinion for twenty minutes.  And yet I like posting something every weekday on here.  I don't want to post other people's crap, I don't want to post pictures, I don't want to post things that have nothing to do with D&D and I don't want to post about old modules and box art from shit produced 30 years ago.  So what you get is my opinion.  Luckily, I have a lot of opinions.  Three and a third years now and the opinions are still coming.

Today the opinion is about an annoying habit that I see from players, one that stems from the language they use.  It is a defensive mechanism, one that is designed to protect players, and I am certain that many a DM has fallen into its trap.

See if you can recognize it.

Player 1:  What do we do, then?

Player 2:  I think we ought to get together on having some kind of plan.  How high is the fortress?

DM:  It's on the top of the hill overlooking the sea, perched upon a 75 foot cliff that surrounds the fortress except where a very narrow cut descends from the landward side.

Player 2:  How narrow?

DM:  About four or five feet.  It is not used for moving supplies - those are raised to the fortress by a rope that raises a large box.

Player 2:  Does anyone have any ideas?

Player 3:  We could climb up the side, perhaps at night.

Player 1:  My father was a mountaineer and I have experience at that.  We would need to get some equipment.

Player 2:  We'll get it.

Player 3:  Are there many guards?

DM:  You have no idea.  You can't tell from the ground.

Player 3:  Maybe we should ask around the village.  Perhaps someone knows how many guards there are, or has been up there and seen.

Player 4:  We might watch to see if they carry torches.  It's not night yet, right?

DM:  No.

Player 1:  I'm for climbing up.

Player 3:  Me too.

Player 2:  Great.  If we're agreed we should get what we need and get started.

(All players look at the DM and wait)

DM:  So, what are you going to do?

Player 2:  What we said.  We're going to climb up the mountain at night.

At this point, I usually sit, and wait, and the players start up again about their plans.  They work more things out about what they're GOING to do, making no actual statements about doing any exact thing at this time.  Virtually every idea is spoken of in the future tense, not in the present tense, and it becomes quite plain after twenty or thirty minutes that the party is waiting for the DM to say, "Okay, it's night, and you're climbing up the side of the fortress."

Only problem is, that's NOT for the DM to say.  Until the party actually says, "We wait for night," the amount of time that is passing should be considered real time ... since in fact the players haven't actually done anything.  They haven't said they go to the market to buy equipment, they haven't looked up any persons in the town, they haven't actually said they go to the foot of the cliff and so on.  The tactic is a player trick to push the DM into editing all that for the sake of keeping the game moving ... and thus putting the responsibility on the DM for what was, and what was not gathered.  Really clever players will try to argue that they did get this or that (past tense) before suddenly being on the side of the mountain, and the DM will realize that he jumped forward a bit too fast and now has to compensate the player.   If the DM really isn't on the ball, the party can fuck around with him or her quite a bit this way.

Sometimes, I'll make a point in the running to tell the party that no time has passed and that they haven't done anything ... to encourage them to stop talking constantly in the future tense.  Sometimes I'll sit and do nothing, waiting for them to say, "is it night yet?" so I can answer, no, it's about five minutes later than when we all discussed what we were going to do.  And sometimes the party won't seem to notice, and I'll have a lovely forty-five minute or hour break in the middle of the running as they talk and talk and talk about the future.  What a lovely thing is the future.  It doesn't actually require the party DO anything.

I think we naturally do this as people, waiting for time to push us into activity, thinking mostly about how we're going to go to the gym or work or to the store ... and most of the time we're not really active about something until we're pushed by the clock into doing it.  Uh oh, it's seven, if I don't get going now there won't be time to get back.  And so we get into the car and go.  Finally.

I really enjoy a party that doesn't 'plan' quite so much.  And it moves the game along better when the player doesn't turn to others and say, "we should go there" but instead, without waiting for the others, says, "I go there."  This will usually get the others to say, "Me too," and the activities will begin.  If there's any need for a deeper plan, someone else in the party can say, "No, wait, don't yet."

But nine times out of ten a party makes plans when no actual plan is necessary.  Why would one need a plan to buy equipment?  Or get started on a journey.  When the question "where?" is settled, don't mumble about what you ought to buy or have or get ... just go get it.  Take charge of your character's actions - not everything needs to be a committee meeting.

It just wastes time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Odd Bits from Oddbit - Me and Subjectivity

I've had a bit of a back and forth on Oddbit's blog lately on the subject of secondary skills and just how far they go.  The subject matter was subjectivity - the difficulties of perspectives, the player's vs. the DM's, and how the overall matter is generally a pain in the ass in role-playing games.  On Oddbit's post this naturally moved towards a discussion of how one adjudicated the matter of player skills ... which is how the secondary skills discussion in the comments section started.

Subjectivity is unavoidable from the moment a world steps beyond the video game simplification of the game, and yes, it is a pain in the ass.  However, I feel I must address the point of conflicts as they arise in my game between how the players interpret what they can and can't do, and how I interpret what they can and can't do.

As a DM, I am open to debate on many subjects ... and I have backed down from positions on many occasions when a strong and rational argument was offered.  I'm not a huge fan of players who will try to argue everything, but I'm open to questioning my judgement on certain things.

What things?  Simple.  Things which have not been previously established.

I treat my world like a Judge treating the Law.  Every decision I make, no matter how minor, no matter how immaterial it may seem at the time, establishes a precedent.  Whenever possible, I try to record these precedents in some form - though admittedly a lot of them are accepted generally among my players and me.  If I have declared the precedent in the past, the present argument must address that precedent ... and so must I.  The player's best argument will always begin with, "You said this on this day when we were doing this" ... thus reminding me of the rule I made and giving me the information that lets me remember having made the rule.

Having been reminded of it, 19 times out of 20 I will back down and let things continue as they have been.  1 time out of 20 I won't, because I've come to believe the previous judgement wasn't helping the game.

If I did this all the time, switched positions again and again, I'd be a lousy DM.  I must admit that my memory isn't what it was, and I am making errors about my past rulings because I'm getting old and that IS bothering my players.  A nice thing about having an online campaign is that EVERYTHING gets written down and that should help my consistency in my offline games as well.

Putting myself on the shelf for the time being, however, Oddbit's position is fair ... and without question the vast majority of rule changes that have been implemented - like skills sets, for instance - probably have been because the majority of DM's are incapable of consistency and therefore have to be managed.  In other words, we keep changing the game, edition to edition, because DMs are in general pretty crappy judges.

But rules make crappy judges too, because rules are not flexible.  Oddbit makes this point on his post with the example of John Doe and Orc McGee (go read it).  The reason the LAW depends on Judges is because the Law is a very crappy way to run a society ... unless you accept precedents, which throw out the law given the situation.  Just as life is far more complicated than any law could be governing it, rules in a roleplaying game are thoroughly inadequate for play.  You can dumb down the world to make the rule system fit, but then your players can't do anything they want.  And if the world is complicated, the rule system will fail again and again.  If you play 'by the rules' you have either a straightjacket or a complete mess.

The only possible solution is the DM ... and that brings us back to the subjectivity of one person's opinion vs. another's.  How many times have you had an argument about what an 10 intelligence lets you 'know?'

To me the answer is simple.  It is the DM's world.  It is the DM's rule.  If the DM thinks you can't do that with an 8 strength, then you CAN'T.  Period.  And the longer the DM has been running, and establishing precedents for his or her world in his or her own head, the less likely the chance is the DM will ever have a change of mind.  And if you don't like it, there's not much you can do about it.

Naturally, a lot of people resent that.  Rules lawyers resent that.  In an egalitarian society, there are to be restrictions on the DM's power to make ad hoc decisions about the game, blah blah blah ... a positively ridiculous position when you think about it.  You're going to try and force a person to run a world the way you think it should be run, from an argument you've read in a book written by a person who isn't even present?  Good luck.  You might as well argue your friend Jeremy read an article in a magazine that says the Judge has rocks in his head ... hoping the Judge will agree with you.

Subjective it may be, but there is an absolute in the maelstrom - that's the DM's role.  To cut through the subjectivity and say, "here, that's the stop."  And playing in that DM's world means playing within the boundaries the DM sets for that world.

Naturally, you'll want to play with a DM that's more open minded and less interested in pushing around the players.  In the meantime you can call the DM subjective - but that's really just tough shit.

Ah, a metaphor about subjectivity.  I remember being invited to 'stir up' an English Class taught by a friend of mine, Paul, who was having trouble getting his students into discussions.  I was long out of university by then, and way past having much concern for willful ignorance, and Paul knew it.

The book being taught was Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, which is a tale about a depressed, numb fellow who, apart from his other failings, is engaged to be married to a girl named Betty, described by the author of the book as having a personality like a kitten mewling annoying in a drawer.  Throughout the book Betty is an awful, annoying person one wouldn't like to know ... but several of the girls in Paul's class had somehow decided that Betty was in fact a strong willed person doing in her best in a bad situation.  Without a doubt, completely ignoring the text in order to apply their own subjective opinion about the character ... which, I am sorry to say, is not the point of reading literature.  The idea is to understand the author's perception of a given character and LEARN from it.  If you graft your own opinion onto everything you read, you might as well not bother reading at all.  My friend Paul knew this, but being a gentle-minded Britisher he did not have in him to slap his students around.  Being a vicious, cold hearted Russian, I did it gladly, quoting again and again from the text and winning no friends that day.  However, Paul gratefully told me a week later that his class was now alive with real, meaningful debate.  His class, of course, never knew their professor and I were friends.  They never had any idea why I was there.

Forgive me for digressing.  I haven't told that story in awhile.  My excuse for doing so is to point out that having an absolute standard imposed by a human person is more important than having a wishy-washy standard.  I wasn't being a prick to Paul's class that day by imposing my standard - I was being a prick by imposing Nathanael West's standard.  You know, the author.  Without whom the book would not exist.

As a DM of my world, without whom it would not exist, I don't generally have to be a prick.  I do, however, have to have a rigorous standard that I myself must adhere to, running after running.  I cannot allow myself to shift and change capriciously.  If this is true today, it must be true ten years from now.  I must accept it as law just as my players must.  That is enormously difficult.  But my world is a pile of incomprehensible shit if that's not what I do.

Perhaps you've run in a world like that?

As usual, none of this makes me look good.  My saving grace can only be that the world itself is an enormous pleasure to run in ... which I think it is because my players know what to expect from me.  True, I am an asshole.  But I'm a predictable asshole, and one that listens and considers first and foremost how my judgment will affect the world's playability.  I'm an asshole that isn't thinking of myself first.

I only think of myself first when I write.

For Interested Parties

If I get some time, I'll write a real post later.  In the meantime, the campaign continues.  Just putting this forward as an example of material I think is important where it comes to giving some campaign background.  Earth history, of course, gives me solid opportunities for some very deep intrigue.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

8 and 8 are 16

It feels good to be back home.  These last four days I have been in Edmonton at the request of an old friend I haven't seen in nearly a decade, a fellow I once trod the boards with at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.  He wanted to put a mess of writers together in a room to rehash a film script that wasn't 'working' for the producer, and I was asked to come along for not a bad little sum of money, but annoyingly no film credit (my friend wanted to keep it for himself, and I can't blame him).

As a result my head is pretty spongy after four days of argument, pressured creativity and fighting with personal biases.  After one very angry four hour argument on Monday about the elimination of an important character, it may be that I've made one marginally influential person an enemy for life ... but that's how it goes.  We started with eleven people on Saturday and by Tuesday morning we were down to seven.  When I left last night to get back here to my normal life, there were four of them still going at the minor details.

Let me just say that group think sucks.

I've been able to check my mail and this blog once a day, but I haven't had any time to write anything until this morning ... and I have commitments today, too, that I need to be fulfilling.  But ... having given a deeper meaning for Wisdom, I was asked last Friday to do the same for Intelligence.  I've given some thought to intelligence here and there, in the midst of seeing both spectacular evidence for, and evidence against, its existence.  And this morning looking at the etymology for intelligence, which is always a good place to start, I find that the roots of the word are inte or inter, meaning "between," and legere, meaning "to choose" or "to pick out."  Legere also inspires the  word 'election,' which is "to gather, collect or choose."

And I think I begin to understand more clearly a difference between Wisdom and Intelligence that hasn't been there before.

If Wisdom is the moment of clarity that denotes awareness of a single 'truth,' then Intelligence is the comprehension of multiple 'truths' and the ability to select between them.  More to the point, Intelligence is the talent that allows an individual to forego something that was formerly considered to be true in exchange for something that appears to have a superior value.  Or if it helps, while Wisdom is rigid, Intelligence is fluid.

There are 'truths' in the D&D universe that do not change.  The gods exist.  We know this, because the DM has designated that the gods exist, and to characters existing within the metaphysical DM's world, this knowledge cannot be contentious.  A wise man, therefore, knows of the existence of gods, and that much of what occurs in the world occurs through the intervention of the gods.

However, an intelligent man may accept that information without feeling any compulsion to act upon it one way or another.  Yes, the gods exist.  It does not automatically follow that the gods must be worshipped.  Worshipping the gods is a choice.  As an intelligent individual, a character may believe that the best course of action is to resist the power of the gods; this does not say it is the right decision, but having the comprehension to weigh the options against the character's personal needs - to not be a leaf drifting in the current, so to speak - is a sign of intelligence.

The tendency of the liberal culture we dwell in is to presume there is a RIGHT choice, and that intelligence is measured by the individual's ability to see a the correct course of action in a given circumstance.  That is, you may have a choice, but if you make a choice that most people would disagree with, it is a 'stupid' choice, and you are obviously a stupid person.  However, this is a designation of moral judgment, and not real evidence of stupidity.  Spending time in a room with intelligent, creative people calling one another 'stupid' is uncompromising evidence of how quick we are to define stupidity by the measure of making a different choice.  In most circumstances, its possible to step back from situations like this with the "agree to disagree" compromise ... but where it comes to creative intelligence in the hands of people who have been asked to express their positions for money, about something that stands to make a great deal of money, backing down is really not an option ... thus a group of intelligent people are pushed to define the reasons for the choices they make, and in the explanation of those reasons attempt to prove that their choices are better than some other person's choices.

This argument deepens pretty quickly and I don't want to get bogged down in it.  My wish here is only to express that a particular character in the game may make a choice about killing or not killing a monster.  A different character may make a different choice.  Neither choice is evidence of a lack, or an abundance, of intelligence.  The mark of intelligence is, instead, the ability to recognize that there IS a choice.

With the years of living, the tendency in life is to adopt certain belief systems based upon one's personal experiences.  We injure ourselves, we injure others, we bring about emotional calamities by speaking out, we keep too much in, we lose a job due to our temper or we leave some friend in the lurch and find we are minus a friend.  We turn to a deity that brings us comfort, we turn to a spouse or a partner and sacrifice contacts which we perceive were negative influences in our lives ... and over time, much time, we steadily build up a list of do's and dont's which we personally believe defines a well-lived life from a poorly lived life.  And if we have the opportunity, we preach to others the benefits of our experience, to encourage them to make less mistakes and to adopt a strategy similar to our own.

If you have lived longer, you will develop a tendency to note that those who have lived not so long as you will make mistakes that you recognize ... and you will presume that when they do not adopt your strategy to get past those mistakes, it is because they are not as intelligent as you.  From habit, the habit of living a particular way, and the habit of believing particular things, you will convince yourself day by day and year by year that the choice you took is the ONLY choice.  In fact, psychology tells us that you may in reality believe the choices you made were actually stupid ones, ones that have not made you happy ... but you will continue to insist that your choices must be right because they are choices you are most comfortable with.  After a certain point in life, it becomes so difficult to believe that any other choice is possible that you will rigidly fight the very idea of choice, and insist that people who do not live as you live will ultimately suffer in ways that maybe they can't see now, but they will.  And you will adopt belief systems like karma and god's will and so on to justify your position ... which is really only the fear of change.

These positions we take on virtually everything in life were taken for what seemed at the time to be very good reasons.  However, there are always more strategies in how to cope with hardship and failure than we imagine.  The greater our intelligence, the wider a choice we have at our fingertips in what strategies we may employ.  And while some strategies will slam doors closed and lead to dead ends in thinking, the strategy showing the greatest degree of intelligence will open doors and lead to an ever-widening field of possibilities.

Intelligent choice is like the rather cheesy question where you ask an individual if 8 and 8 ARE 15 or if 8 and 8 IS 15.  If you emphasize ARE and IS when you ask the question, the tendency in the listener is to believe that they are hearing a grammatical question.  They have been trained to answer questions like this in school and they will tend to fall into the trap of believing they understand what question you are asking, simply not hearing that you've said '15' and not '16.'  Psychologically they've heard you say '16' when in fact you haven't, because they have trained their minds to leap to conclusions on the basis of what they hear emphasized, and not on the basis of everything that has been said.

Intelligence, however, recognizes that the devil is in the details, and the highly intelligent listener will immediately comprehend the trick, or will at least demand a restatement of the question, spoken more slowly and deliberately.  The faster the question is stated, the easier it is to catch the casual listener in the trap.  If the question is stated slowly and without the emphasis, even the casual listener will realize the error.  Intelligence is not merely understanding.  It is not merely solving the puzzle.  It is having a readiness for things not being what they appear; it is questioning, continuously, the apparent reality, recognizing that what appears to be true may in fact be a disguise for something hidden underneath.  It is consciously choosing to believe and acknowledge the facts, knowing that at any moment those facts may need to be upgraded and redefined as new information makes itself available.  It is not having a rigid perception; it is having a fluidic conception.

Thus clerics and mages must forever be at odds with one another.  A mage may acknowledge the existence of gods; the mage may even acknowledge the logic in worshipping said gods; but the mage will always be open to the possibility that, in this instance at least, what the gods want may not be material to what is of greater importance for either the mage, or the mage's people.  While the cleric in his or her wisdom will always believe the god, right or wrong, the mage in his or her intelligence will know that the god being wrong means another course of action is required ... and will then resolve upon what the course must be.

And that is Intelligence, my friends.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Matters of Good and Wisdom

This post is inspired by the point James C. made in a comment on the previous post:

"...a WIS bonus would not necessarily be consistent with some of the darker or more absurd aspects of religion.  How would a parishioner's higher wisdom nudge them to build a cairn on a hill to call it a mountain or to march on Jerusalem or bomb airplanes? I think any meaningful and game-able rules for religion must recognize that it's not all about enlightenment and transcendence."

I'm not dead certain of James' position here, but I'm guessing there is a certain subtext - that is, that there is no real wisdom in building a cairn on a hill, as occurred in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (I got the title wrong yesterday), but that such an action is more of an emotional response to an apparently silly premise.  The minister in the film appealed to the emotions of the congregation to rally them, and the congregation responded emotionally ... not with great gobs of 'wisdom.'

I beg to differ with James ... not with regards to the film, but with regards to the definition of wisdom as generally understood in this post-liberalism world.  I quote this from wikipedia:

"Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act or inspire to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time, energy or thought."  [emphasis added by me]

I rush to argue that this has not always been the perception of wisdom, and that it really ought not to be the perception of wisdom in a world ruled by magic and existing gods.  'Optimum' is a veritable peasant's stew with regards to what could be considered good or not where it comes to the intervention of divine beings, and the best way to address that intervention.

To elaborate, consider the juxtaposition between Presbyterians of Scotland and the worshippers of Yog-Sothoth of the Cthulhu mythos.  The Presbyterians believe without question that the purpose of life is to work hard, make something of yourself, be a contribution to the general welfare and have a subdued and reverent attitude towards the divine.  This in spite of the inevitable end of the world, in which case the good shall be selected from the herd and granted everlasting life.

Compare this with the worshippers of Yog-Sothoth, who also believe in the inevitable end of the world, but with the understanding that the best that can be hoped for is that the true believers will be blessed by being killed quickly, as opposed to the rest of us who will take a long time to die.  As such, the fatalists of Yog-Sothoth perceive there is nothing to be done about this world ... it is all wasted effort.

From the standpoint of a liberal man living in the present century, I find humour in both belief-systems ... though of course I am expected to nod sagely at the one and laugh openly at the other.  That is because there are several million who accept the former, which also happens to encourage them to become rich and powerful, and there are no visible persons who accept the latter ... which in any case would be expected to drop in social status.  This, the Presbyterians say, proves the worth of their religion ... but of course we'll see what they say when they're being played with by a shoggoth while dripping pus from the massive boils covering their bodies.

So what exactly is the definition of wisdom here?  Which is the optimum course?

For that I must return to the Latin word, sapientia, which is generally defined as 'wisdom' or 'knowledge' but really, in context, is better understood as "to be made aware."  The word is the root of 'Sapient,' which apart from being the name of an Oregon hip pop artist more or less describes a creature who has the intelligence to BE aware.

There is a more accurate relationship between the word 'wise' and the word 'sapient' than there is with the modern definition that breaks down to 'right thinking.'  The latter influence upon wisdom, as a question of recognizing the difference between right and wrong, is a liberal-influenced point of view ... it's another modification brought about by the change in thought I described in a post recently.  To the Medieval or Renaissance individual, the difference between right and wrong was what the religious leader said it was, not something you obtained from your own deliberation on the matter.  While there were individuals in the world who were deliberating privately, men like Abelard or Occam or Galileo, the ordinary congregational occupant of a church could not be said to share their company.  The church-goer was thus clear of liberal pushes-and-pulls, and thus it could be said of their awareness, or their sapience, or their wisdom, that what the church leader said was a wise course of action WAS a wise course of action.  Ipso facto, and with no room for argument.

Moreover, in taking up the title of this post, this position on the matter of religion and right and wrong obliterates entirely the structure of the alignment system, which is based after all upon liberal ideas of 'good' and 'evil.'  How many times has it been said that Adolf Hitler would fit perfectly in the position of lawful evil upon the table?  And if I were to point out that the people of Germany were very much taken with Hitler during his reign, and considered him very GOOD, how quickly would others rush to point out that the people of Germany were deluded and therefore completely in the wrong with regards to right behavior?  Very quickly, I should think.  In reality, however, perceptions of who are deluded and who are truly good is a matter of who happens to be in power today ... and is just as equally a question of who in particular you ask.

The correct definition of pre-liberal 'good' and pre-liberal 'evil' is the difference between Us and Them.  We are good.  They are not.  We are aware of the true nature of the universe.  They are not.  And if our spiritual leader, the minister in our church, believes that a cairn must be built upon the heights of hill in order to improve the quality of the community, then build a cairn we shall!  For the minister has made us AWARE of right behavior, and now we shall march off and make right the world the way only sapient, wise beings can.

I can't be certain if James argued for or against this point.  It seemed the latter, but perhaps he hadn't considered the whole picture.  In either case, the point here is that wisdom is a measure of the awareness an individual has of the 'truth' as revealed to him or her by the Holy Word ... whatever the religion that individual may be inclined to accept ... and not any silly conception of balancing the pros and cons of a situation.  This is what makes it SO hard to argue with people who have religion - they do not argue on a playing field most liberal-educated persons would understand.  And it makes it perfectly clear why 'wisdom' is the perfect stat for the cleric, and not for some other invented class like 'scientist' or 'free-thinker,' neither of whom truly exist even as late as the Renaissance world.

To end this off, remarking on the last sentence above, consider the six meditations of Descartes, written just before 1650, the time my world takes place.  Consider that the man made an amazing leap forward with a comprehension of his senses that continues to astound young philosophers today.  But consider also that in the same six meditations, Descartes is also guilty of the worst kind of cognitive dissonance, in that he must argue for God's existence, because without question in Descartes' mind God must exist.  The argument Descartes makes would ensure his failure in any modern university philosophy course, but that doesn't matter.  Descartes is a product of his time, and serves as a reminder to all those who preach the wonder of the great minds of the pre-modern/pre-industrial age; from Copernicus to Newton, they all believed in God.  Unquestionably.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Train A Cleric

Yesterday I was asked how one would help a zero level NPC attached to the player party become a cleric.  Given that the NPC has the necessary stats, it should be possible.  I've never sat down and worked out rules for it, however.  I like to view my game as a court of law: once a ruling has been made on a given subject, that ruling now sets a precedent, which although it can be struck down, remains in force.  As such, I don't like to rush into making rulings like this.  In addition, I like the rulings I make to fit very well with the structure of the game I have created thus far.

Let's consider, then, what it takes to become a cleric, or indeed any kind of leveled person.  At the outset, let me dismiss the amazing pile of stinking feces that make up the experience advancement tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and let us start fresh.

Taking the simplest character class, the fighter, I can say I have had NPC's advance from zero-level to first level in my world before.  This has always occurred in the case of a man-at-arms attached to the party who has managed to survive some terrific encounter, who has dealt and suffered damage, and who has gained a fair bit of plunder as a result.  I've generally set a established measure of 1,000 x.p., making the difference between being a zero level and being a 'veteran.'

But there are certain things implied here. The man-at-arms is assumed to have had weapons training already, and to be familiar with a number of weapons.  They are also assumed in my world to have 4-7 hit points as a man-at-arms (as per the DMG), along with their mass hit points total, whatever that may be.  Thus, the zero level human man-at-arms, before becoming a first-level fighter, already has weapon skills and between 5-15 hit points.  The primary change is the 'to hit' table, and this is something that changes as a result of experience all the time.  As well, arguably, the man-at-arms method should be a common way of becoming a first-level fighter.

(I am very well aware that yesterday I said a first-level would have no experience whatsoever, so this appears to fly in the face of that.  However, I would argue that player characters do not become first-level fighters by playing as zero-level men-at-arms first ... though I suppose I could make the concession if they wanted to give it a try.  Player characters in my world, however, are generally assumed to have become first level through training, and not through experience, so what I said yesterday still stands.  This will become clearer as we get into the subject of training)

Very well, then, how does an ordinary person become a man-at-arms?

Allow me to return to a post I wrote back in May of last year.  In this post I proposed that the stats of a born individual would increase from year to year, so that children would be weaker, less intelligent, less wise and so on, advancing as they aged.  I also made the following argument:

"I believe that, past a certain age, one's ability scores would only increase through schooling ... and not naturally, as suggested above. The cut off date would be, I believe, the age of 10. And at that age, I would propose an additional -1 modifier to the gained ability stats ... so that at [the age of]10 without formal education, the total added would be 2d4 -2. This would make an overall average of 7 + 32 (4 x8 years) + 3 ... or 42. This is the same average that would be achieved by six rolls of 2d6 each."

I then go on to talk about levels of status and so on, but here let me change the discourse and talk about the schooling mentioned.

It's presupposed that with an additional five years of schooling, adding 2d4-1 to the individual stats each year, by the age of 15 the average for all six ability scores would be 63 ... which is the combined average of 18d6, or 3d6 per attribute.  Extraordinarily special students would roll high each year of their schooling, and would have those 'rolls' channeled into strength or wisdom or charisma, depending on what class was desired.  Thus fighter training would tend to move the stats 'randomly' into one ability more often than another.  This is much easier to understand if you're already familiar with the other post.

As it happens, the age of a first-level human fighter is 14+1d4.  To my mind, the die roll does not determine the amount of training the fighter receives, but rather the amount of distraction from that training.  Thus, a first-level fighter who is 15 years old would have been completely focused, while a first-level fighter who reached level at 18 would have spent 3 years at other things ... taking care of their sick mother, for instance.

This explains why other races tend to be older than humans ... though truth be told I don't use the long, long lifespans of non-human races described in the DMG.  I prefered to compress them down to what those lifespans would be in human terms.  Thus the elf is aged 15+1d4, the halfling is aged 17+1d4 and the half-orc is aged 25+1d6.  This is not because is takes longer to train a half-orc than a human, but because half-orcs tend to lead rowdy, irresponsible lives in their youth, and don't settle down to take training seriously until they're in their early 20s (remember, it still takes five years).  Elves and halflings have social obligations which humans don't have, which slows down their training schedules.  And so on.

We can use as a standard the lowest possible age for each class in order to establish the actual amount of time necessary to 'train' for that class.  As it happens, if you compress the number of years for a high elf in the DMG down to a human lifespan, you find that the youngest possible age for an elven thief is 8 years old.  I played this for a few years, having the occasional child, aka Artful Dodger, running in my world, but it was forever problematic and players couldn't get 'into' the character very well.  I jumped the base age for an elven thief by five years and added another d4 many years ago (12+2d4), so that the youngest they can start is now 14.  This keeps in better with the overall game, and certainly with the overall age system as it stands.  And now thinking in terms of training (seriously, this has come into my noggin only in the last 24 hours), this would mean an elven thief has the ability to concentrate on the task and become a level in just four years.  A human, however, takes 9 to 12 years (age 18+1d4).  The gentle reader can see, therefore, how this comes together.

Let's take the cleric, then, though truth be told we could probably write a post about each class from this point out, excepting the fighter which is easy enough.  According to our charts, a human cleric starts at an age of 20+1d4, or from 21 to 24 years of age.  This makes the actual curriculum one of 11 years, and begs the question, what is it that happens in this time?

First of all, a proper liberal education in the secular and non-secular elements of the religion in question.  This is the sort of thing schoolboys would be taught by a 17th century Deacon, or schoolmaster, which in my world I usually judge to be a 2nd level cleric.  This would account for the first five years, I think; so that while a fighter passes through all of their training, the cleric is just finishing with the classroom.

At 16 the would-be cleric heads for a seminary, where he or she then spends two to four years in rigorous public speaking and spiritual training ... and the next two to four years after that is the truly critical time in the cleric's coming of power.

For it occurred to me yesterday that even if an NPC has the necessary stats, and even the will to become a cleric, this doesn't mean they will make the cut.  Even if they succeed in their seminary training, this still doesn't make them a cleric.

Consider: what does it take to be a religious leader in today's world?  Almost nothing, really, if the evangels have anything to say about it.  A will to lie, to spew out the same 18 bible verses ad nauseum, to have a smattering of religious comprehension and to have lots and lots of personal charisma.   But you don't actually have to do anything to prove you have the 'true faith,' yes?  Any would-be religious leader can simply start forth, make claims and go for the status upgrade ... and many do.

But a D&D cleric can't get away with that.  The would-be charlatans would find themselves at some point compelled to produce a bit of magic to justify their religious positions ... which would be difficult for a fighter or a thief.  And the manner in which clerics get their magic means that no matter how much earthly training the would-be cleric has, they've got to be accepted by their god first.

We can posit, therefore, that the cleric passes out of the seminary, then steps off for a bit of spiritual contemplation - possibly to a monastery, or into the wilderness, or upon a mission. In the last case, obviously not as the missionary, since they have not yet obtained the necessary ability to convince the natives of their religious potency.  They could be an assistant, however ... and hopefully awake with a vision and find themselves suddenly blessed, for the first time, with the ability to cast a spell.  They've been trained for the moment, the moment has been explained in regards to how it would manifest, and of course the moment itself would come with enlightenment.  What a moment that would be for a cleric.

Of course, this means that not every cleric would actually need full seminary training ... if the god felt they were good to go, they would be.  But in general the seminary training would be seen as something useful and practical, to bring the cleric into the ranks of the religious organization if nothing else.

This brought to mind a problem yesterday that I think I can solve.  The cleric obviously can't reasonably be expected to cast spells in the midst of the church ceremony, to wow the parishioners ... and in any case this seems inconvenient if the cleric needs those spells after weekly services.  Not every spell has a physical manifestation, either ... so what does a cleric in my world do, when they can't change their spells from day to day?

I take note that of the ceremonies proposed in the Unearthed Arcana, there is one missing.  The ceremonies in that book (coming of age, investiture, consecration and so on) were meant to be part of a spell the cleric chose, but that seemed stupid.  What cleric can't perform a ceremony?  Obviously a cleric should be able to baptise, or consecrate ground, or bury someone ... and that shouldn't be a spell, even if it might have some magical effect.  If a paladin can heal a disease once a week, a cleric ought to be able to carry forth a ceremony without it needing the be a spell.  The same ought to stand for the druid.

But the one missing ceremony from the list is the most important one: the Mass itself.  A cleric stands at the head of the temple and church and leads his or her flock in prayer.  Of any other element of the cleric's life has influence over would be followers, this ought to be KEY ... and given what I've said already about charlatans and fakers to the clerical field, the mass ought to show a manifestation that proves religious potency, and it ought to have some measurable effect upon the congregation.  AND it ought to have a increased effect with the level of the cleric.

I haven't quite got a proposition yet (I only came up with this yesterday).  This would usually mean a lot of really stupid suggestions from the less bright readers of the blog, who will make propositions based on D&D and RPG video games without having the slightest idea of what a religious service entails - or probably ever having attended one.  Me, I've attended hundreds and hundreds of services, in the Lutheran, Anglican and Catholic religions, and I have a deep background in religious studies ... so the fact that I haven't thought of something yet isn't an invitation for a lot of lay people to pipe up.  Obviously, if someone who actually knows a great deal about a ceremony-heavy religion (Christian, Islamic or Eastern, I'm not particular), then chime in with something useful.  Mostly, it ought to give A) a brief effect, no more than an hour, after the ceremony is completed; B) it ought to affect a lot of people if the cleric is high level; and C) it ought to have no relationship to existing clerical spells, such as bless or aid ... and should indeed not be as powerful as a clerical spell.  Though it could probably raise the crowd's morale, encourage them to stand fast in the face of the enemy, push them to give a little more money to the collect and so on.

If we step back to our post-seminary, not-quite-cleric wannabe, consider how the mass itself might be the first proof of religious integrity.  This fits with the first experience of many a post-seminary religious leader ... the first adventure at the head of the flock, giving the first of many thousands of sermons, and hoping it pans well.  Perhaps the podium glows; perhaps the room warms a bit, or the candlelight brightens.  Perhaps the cleric's feet rise an inch or so from the floor as the power overcomes them.  Perhaps a member of the audience, a la Blues Brothers, breaks out into spontaneous celebration.  James Brown would be a mighty powerful minister if the film were the manifestation of that particular cleric's mass.  Perhaps even the same effect may not apply to all priests, even in the same religion.

Consider the effects upon the seminary, as an individual is clapped on the back, reassured that the gods are surely on their side and that the first spells will undoubtably be coming soon to their minds during the morning's prayer.  Oh, what a glorious day that will be for you, brother!

And let's take another step back and look at the question of bringing an NPC to the clerical level.

First, I think to some degree the early five years of training, the ones the cleric gets as an older boy, can be gained by some measure through a lifetime of taking part in a church.  These things are obtained with experience ... and five years of real life could equal one year of a Deacon's tutelage.  Moreover, the remaining schooling could be crammed into a smaller time period, as the older NPC could be expected to be more focused than a 12 to 14 year old child (yes, yes, I know, a 13-year-old was considered a man and all that - stow it!) ... perhaps in half or a third of the time.  Therefore, in the case of Emmanuel, who is the zero-level NPC that started this line of inquiry, he is 25 years old and has a bent for public speaking.  He was haranguing about the upper classes the first day he was met by the party.  His 15 years since age 10 as a regular church goer stands in for 3 years of schooling, and the last two could be crammed into a period of say 8 months (a third of two years).

Following that, he would have to attend a seminary somewhere, or at the very least take full-time training under a personal tutelage of at least a 4th level cleric.  That level isn't arbitrary ... it takes a 4th level to cast investiture, which is the spell that defines a person as being knowledgeable enough to BE a cleric.  Under personal tutelage, two years training would be enough (focusing on training would be more focused), but in a seminary it would depend upon Emmanuel's drive.  He could also flunk out, obviously, either with one-on-one training or otherwise, even if he really, really wanted to be a cleric.  If he did not, and finished his training, there would still be the question of his being accepted by the god - in this case, the Roman Catholic god.  And that could take anywhere from a day to four years ... if it were to happen at all.

So, not an easy thing, and not something that can simply be gained by experience, like a fighter.  But then magic is complicated.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No, You're A Rookie. Get It?

This past few days has brought to my attention something about character creation that I'd long forgotten: the interminable 'back story.'  The effusive, complex description of how the character's life has gone up to the moment they begin to play in the campaign, rich with murders, revenge plots, life-long enemies, the many twists and turnings - and ever the angst, delivered with pounding hammer, of a character driven of the distant land of their birth and forced to contend with exile in a foreign, hostile country.

Can I just say something here?  These characters are supposed to be FIRST level ...!

There is no denying the cognitive dissonance going on here with would-be players who insist of relating their prospective characters to their heroes in the movies or in books.  The D&D character who starts the campaign does not come into the frame in the middle of the story, but at the beginning.  The character is not Bilbo at his 111th birthday party, with deep dark secrets and a knowledge of the world.  The character is Bilbo when the road is nothing more than a place where others come from - not a place where he has gone.  The whole point is that the characters are at the START.  There is no back 'story.'  At best they might have a few things they've picked up along the way, an error or two they've made, a mistake, a skill they've picked up or a few friends they've gathered.  But nothing earth-shaking.  Nothing where the world has pivoted upon their existence.  The character has NO experience.  That should give a hint or two.

If the character has travelled some, or hit a bad course, or made a good show for the community, it stands to reason from the total lack of experience that two things are true:  1) the character has never killed anyone; 2) the character has never seized any wealth.  What damage the character may have suffered was necessary to bring them along to leveled status.  What coin or wealth the character has accumulated is coin that has been given to the character.  Earned in wages, perhaps, but I don't give experience for wages.  The point is the coin hasn't been obtained through any sort of adventure.

So how can there be enemies the character has?  How can the character be the subject of a plot?  Who even knows at this point the character exists?

No one.  The character is a first level nobody.  It is up to the character to play in order to become a somebody.  That somebody status isn't given.

It is very rare, but it is possible for a character of my world to be of noble birth.  Does this make the character a 'somebody?'

No.  He or she still sits at the bottom of the pecking order, even if the character's parents have died and the character sits upon the throne of the kingdom.  It's presumed the last parent has just died.  The character knows nothing, and has not yet worked out his or her place in the courtly power struggle, and may in fact be murdered at any moment by a usurper.  The player may have a wildly different environment to run through, but the rules are the same: the character must establish their reputation.  He or she doesn't get given one by default.

It's better that the character has little or no personality in the beginning.  This gives the opportunity for the character to develop one as the game is ongoing.  The less important the character is at the beginning, the better things are later on when the character can remember when he or she was a nobody.  "How things have changed," they can say.  "Remember when we had trouble buying horses?  Remember how a few orcs were enough to threaten our lives?  Damn, remember that bartender in Barracks?  What was his name - Pistol, that's right.  Almost killed us ... but if it hadn't been for him ..." and so on.

Players who want all this at the beginning of the game, who don't want to work through the process of finding character-defining paths through actually playing, don't really appreciate what the game is about.  It is not only what your character IS, but what you hope your character may be someday.  Right now, in the beginning, you're only a comer.  Everyone has to be a comer first.

That's how the game is played.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Move To Start

I have asked four players to come and participate in an online campaign.  It was a rich and worthwhile evening last night in the way of communication, and my concerns about writing the nasty post yesterday were put to rest.

I was going to write about starting here, but I've decided to keep it on the campaign page.  So players and interested parties can please go here for information about how to get started.  A few notes, however.

My contention is that no person gets to choose their childhood or their beginnings, and therefore all background is rolled randomly.  I contend that getting past the misery of your childhood is what makes people what they are, and thus creates character - so don't make plans about what you're all about until you find out what's made you the person you are.  I recognize this goes against a lot of others who feel life should be a free-for-all in an RPG from the moment of birth, but I find most people tend to choose common, dull movie-plotted characterizations if given the chance (revenge and angst), and I feel the game is improved if the players are not left to their own devices in this way.  So please concentrate on the strategic method (class) you wish to employ in tackling the evils and difficulties of the world.

Be warned about choosing a female character.  One of my players in the online campaign started the campaign 6 months pregnant, and is just now due to give birth two weeks from the party's present activity.  This can be both a good and a bad thing, and certainly offers the opportunity for a unique roleplaying experience ... but know what you're risking going in.

This seems enough for now.  Interested viewers who have something to say, please post comments here.  Players in the campaign, do not feel you need to create your blogger ID for commenting on the Character Creation post on the other blog ... in fact, stick to your normal ID for now, and save the character ID for the actual game.  There is no comment moderation, so I will delete inappropriate comments from non-participants if they should forget to post them here.

Anything else I'll address as it comes up.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Exactly What We Have Come To Expect From The D&D Community

Total number of persons wanting to play in a proposed online campaign: 37
Actual number of emails or comments expressing an actual desire to play: 6

I contemplated on how best to handle this as things emerged over the weekend.  To save face, I could say nothing.  I could pretend more people applied than actually did.  I could acknowledge those who did answer with gratitude, give them a place in my world and simply cover up the details.  No one would know.  My detractors would be left wondering if my popularity was greater than they wished for and those who responded might think they were chosen from a wide range of applicants.  I could even lie and say they were.

But I am not interested in my public relations, nor am I much moved by the applications I did receive.  Two seemed completely out to lunch, and four managed to repeat to me more or less the same principles I had expounded, with some small additions.  No one, I'm afraid to say, particularly blew my socks off ... which is what I wanted, of course.  It is what the gentle reader wants every time they open a new blog.  I see no reason why I shouldn't hope for the same.

I am guessing from some comments that were made that I intimidated the majority of people.  I gather that they felt I would be inflexible - despite my statements to the contrary - or that I would expect far more than they were able, or perhaps willing, to deliver.  This is all well and good.  My feeling is that if no prospective player can develop the wherewithal to produce an appeal that encourages me to run the game, then I should not feel obliged to be encouraged.  I'm obviously NOT asking for anyone to beg me.  Those who feel I am are infantile morons who have clearly not read anything I've bothered to write on the subject.

I am asking for inspiration.  My only gain in playing the game online, as opposed to playing the game offline as I do, is to play with people who are gifted and amazing in their play.  I expressed a desire to hear people say so.  I did not hear this.  I did hear from people who had no experience whatsoever.  I was thus very, very disappointed.

My detractors will rush to talk about what a swelled head I have and how I am so very full of myself in regards to my importance in the community.  They won't give credit for my honesty, nor my directness, nor the effort I made to have the so-called community stand up and meet me eye-to-eye.  To the six people who responded, congratulations.  To the two people who wrote to express precisely why they couldn't play, you have my congratulations also.  In my opinion you are unusual among your peers in that you eight people have spines.  I deeply respect that.

And I should make an exception to James C. and Chgowiz, who were given reason to believe they were shoe-ins.

As to the other 27 people who "want" to play, but really don't want to?  Who could have saved me a lot of time and energy by answering "no" from the beginning and thus clarifying that there was no real desire out there for my online world?  Fuck you.  Fuck you very much.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dungeon Master's Manifesto

I have said before that the DM's purpose in the game is to present a world in which characters are free to run - that is, 'live' - and that the DM should not impose his or her personal belief system upon the players' actions, nor in any way compel the player to act according to the DM's wishes.

This is a resolution that I feel the DM must have.  1) Create a world.  2) Presuppose that while the world has inherent characteristics, those characteristics do not change once the players have begun to take actions.  3) The characters should be in charge of themselves.  4) It must be possible for the characters to change the world.  5) The DM must be indifferent to the effects or changes the characters choose to make.

These are the conditions under which I have always DM'd.  What keeps my world from spinning out of control is the size and difficulty of the world, in that it has a great many forces which have an invested purpose in the status quo, who are apt to rise against anyone who challenges that status quo ... just as in the real world.  While yes, the characters may make changes (and have), at lower levels it is likely that any severe change they are capable of making will have severe consequences.  For example, if first level characters should decide to burn down a town, which it is in their power to do, they must expect that the powers that be would immediately begin playing a game of 'twenty questions' with an augury or similar spell in order to isolate who committed the crime.  The party should expect fifty or more clerics asking, "Was the arsonist human?  A foreigner?  Tall?  Scarred?  Did the arsonist leave on the south road?  On a horse?  Today?  Are they near the town of Saintonge?  Are they Christian?"  And so on.  For as long as it takes, probably, depending on the amount of damage done.  If necessary, a charm will be made that will steadily lead the complaintants to the arsonist ... and the characters should count on that and make preparations.

But this is not me, the DM, stipulating this.  The expected response mirrors the response of such persons in the real world, in that people who commit atrocities are routinely hunted down and brought to justice.  Because it happens in the real world, the players can maneuver their characters according to their own experiences with actual life ... which serves them well in keeping alive in the real world, and ought to serve them well in keeping them alive in D&D.

If the players should find a way to keep themselves from being discovered, perhaps with a magic item that protects them, then I as DM will end the search.  I do not care that the town was burned to the ground.  I have nothing invested in the town.  I do not send clerics and soldiers after the party because I feel the party has somehow violated my world.  Such things should be beneath me as DM.  I have to have the indifference that allows me to think what the lower orders would do to the players, emotionlessly.  My pleasure is observing the game, and making guesses as to what a logical outcome ought to be ... my pleasure is NOT in manipulating the game.  When the party changes the game by some clever thought, I must reconsider the logic of my earlier guess, and change accordingly.  I must adapt to the party's actions, just as the party adapts to the world.  The less personal stake I have in the game, the freer the party is, and the better the game.

I will send a villain at the party; I will conjure a monster to stand in the party's way; I will have creatures who have been hurt by the party carry a grudge, and I will reward the party when the party shows compassion and kindness.  In each of these actions is an ethical dilemma.  How far can I go as DM in having the NPC carry a grudge?  How powerful can the creature I conjure be?  What do I define as compassion?

As best I can I will limit the NPC's ability to do anything by the NPC's abilities and authority.  As best I can the monster will only be one that could reasonably be expected to appear, and in any case will appear at a distance that is reasonable ... with the understanding that the smaller the monster, the nearer the distance.  I can only judge compassion by my own personal experience with it in the real world.  My ability to do each of these things is tempered by who I am as a person - and as a person, this measures whether or not I am a good DM.  If I behave badly as a DM again and again, so that my actions betray the initial manifesto found in the first paragraph of this post, then I am at fault, and the players are right to demand that my position on a matter be changed accordingly.  It is my responsibility as a DM to put the game FIRST, and that the best game is one in which the players are involved, excited and happy.  This is a difficult balancing act.  But like any other thing, the measure of the craftsman is found nowhere but in the result.

I have this for perspective players:  How does the above specifically relate to your style of play  How does it offer opportunities to do things you would like to do.  How would you take advantage of this arrangement, understanding that your stubborn self-interest is not held to be a bad thing in this construct?

Your answer, and the specificity of your answer, is the primary determination for playing in my online campaign.  Remember that I am looking for proactive persons who are inclined to be comfortable describing their actions on a regular, ongoing basis - in other words, you should be the kind of person who likes to write and express yourself in words.

Answer in the comments section.  Answer on your blog.  Answer to my email address, (though I won't see it there until tonight).  But answer before 9 p.m. eastern standard time, Sunday.  If you're not checking this blog more often than that, you're probably not right for the campaign.

Other comments, whether or not you have any wish to play, are welcome on the above philosophy.  It is something that needs to be discussed, and often, and I am certainly interested in doing so.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Blood In The Sandbox

Growing up a long time ago as I did, I watched television during a particular period in the 1970s during which immorality was paraded as a tease, only to be followed by the tromping heavy boots of morality.  I refer specifically to the TV show Fantasy Island, which fits the trope perfectly for this post since it includes the word 'fantasy' and that's what I want to write about.

For those who may not know the show - I have no idea if it is in reruns, I don't subscribe to television - the episodes always began with the smooth and savvy Mr. Roarke explaining to the midget Tattoo the fantasies of two guests, both arriving on a plane to the Island as the credits ran.  One of these fantasies would be quite innocent and benign, but the other would always have a dark element.  Roarke's voice would deepen and leave the viewer with a suggestion that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

But when I say 'dark element,' I mean 1970s dark.  These would be things such as a man wanting to cheat on his wife, or seeking revenge, or living the life of a 'vampire' - in the campy Hammer films sense, of course.  And always, the shows would tease the villainy just so far, before things would go terribly wrong and force the fantasizer back onto the straight and narrow, as they realized their fantasies demonstrated a lack of character or some such.  No one ever died, or was shot, no sex ever happened, no one ever did anything that was bad ... but the viewer was drawn in with the HOPE of seeing something bad, only to be bitchslapped by Roarke's moral intervention.

Even at the age of 14 when I saw this show I knew the principle was ridiculously wrong.  I wanted people to wallow in these fantasies, since they sound very interesting ... much more interesting that the woman who only wanted to meet the father she had never known or the man who dreamed of being a star athelete.  I recognize we have these fantasies, too, but since everyone in the real world thinks its okay to pursue them, it makes a very dull TV show.  The creators knew the real pull was vice ... the vice they wouldn't give us because this was the 1970s.

It hasn't changed much.  I catch pieces of television shows on the net, watching a season of this or that, and the rules are the same.  Tempt the viewer with SOME vice, but don't let it run wild.  the amount of vice we can show has increased and intensified (RE: True Blood), but it still has its element of 'this is bad vice' and 'this is good vice.'  It's okay to bite the necks of your victims a little ... but don't lose control.

In the realm of television that makes sense, I suppose.  There are all these innocent people who only want their fantasies served with meat and potatoes, who are little old grandmothers who still remember when films did not include swearing or blood, or who were scandalized by Fantasy Island 33 years ago.  Frankly, however, I'm a little tired of having my fantasies regulated and restrained by grandmothers ... or by the Old Guard of RPG designers, for that matter, who seem to have similar tastes.

We are told that:

D&D must not appear to be about wallowing in the fantasies of evil because we would like our participation in this game to be accepted.  We can't be accepted if you, a different participant, insist on slaughtering innocent townspeople or spending too much time enjoying the rewards for doing so.  We would very much like it if you would stop.  We would very much like it if you could continue to play the game as a group of 'Heroes' who rescue maidens and present a clean, pleasant image of yourselves as adventurers.  Any other action on your part stains us all, and surely you recognize that if we are to continue enjoying the benefits of renting large convention centers for getting together, we depend on your cooperation.

More to the point, we are told:

Fantasy is not unrestrained violence.  Fantasy is what we as an acceptable culture has defined it to be, that is, in the tradition of proper literary artists like Tolkein, Baum, Barrie, Howard, Lieber and Lewis.  Lovecraft is all right as long as you keep the real nastiness behind closed doors, and of course Moorcock is okay as long as Jerry Cornelius isn't indulged too far.  If you can be funny like Asprin or clever like Anthony or deep and thoughtful like Leguin that's even better.  But let us have it clear: if it is too much like historical accuracy, we will wave our extended fingers, shake our heads slowly and cluck our tongues.  That is NOT 'fantasy.'  I hope that is clear.

What this leads to is thinking that Carcosa is an 'on the edge' influence on the hobby, as though no one alive has ever heard of H.R. Giger, or even Hieronymus Bosch for heaven's sake.  As though there has been no long tradition extending back centuries describing the horrors and evils perpetrated by human beings on other human beings.  As though we are all restricted in our play to approved sources, Appendix N and other limited compendiums of watered-down late twentieth century B-literature.

The sandbox is bigger, much bigger than that.  And while Mr. Roarke disapproves and tries to intervene, a good half of us playing the game don't really give a shit what the other half thinks.  We are going to go on being horrible awful people, however that stains the blessed robes of the frustrated elite that can't convince us that PR is more important that RP.  They'll go on trying to spread the new, clean sand over the blood we've spilled, but the blood will always seep up and spoil their efforts.

Killing pretend, fictional creatures is fun.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


As these Civilization IV technologies progress, it becomes less and less a question of how the game is affected by their presence, and more so how the game continues in their absence.  In no previous case more than Liberalism, which is at present the driving force of all our culture.  Liberalism brought in its wake property rights, labor rights, the development of the modern democratic state, the separation of the church, the abolition of slavery, the pursuit of personal freedom and the pursuit of national freedom, human rights, the recognition of war crimes, universal healthcare and so on and so on ... those are just the biggies that come to mind first.

I don't propose to talk about how all this came into being.  I recommend starting with either John Locke or Voltaire, progressing through Jean Jacques Rousseau (if you must), Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mills and then probably Sigmund Freud ... and then going back again and doing some serious reading, since all you've done at that point is dangle your feet.  The very last thing I'm going to do in this savage and hostile blogging universe is make an attempt to describe to the gentle reader why you're an enlightened person and how that came to be ... as an enlightened person you're responsible for finding out these things yourself.  All I am going to do here is talk about what an unenlightened person most likely was.

To begin with, largely guilt free.  Robert Louis Stevenson proposed with his novel the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that a rational, 'modern' person without a conscience or a sense of guilt was quite probably a monster, terrorizing his way through the streets and pubs of 19th century London - depicted by Hollywood as imprisoning women and scaring them a lot.  I am not proposing that the 14th century counterpart was the same hideous creature - familial ties and responsibilities went a long way towards keeping the average individual under social restraint - but I am proposing that the 'horrible' things that the 14th century individual saw or did in their lifetime was probably managed without huge amounts of guilt.  Caving in someone's skull with a club for the purpose of 'fun' was seen quite differently then - depending upon the use the hapless owner made of that skull just prior to its bludgeoning.

Because you see, while guilt was not the constant companion of the medieval mind that it is of the modern counterpart, what did exist was a steady and absolute certainty - for most - that 'badness' would lead to the most awful consequences.  That is, Damnation.  This is why it was so important to get God's approval upon your upcoming actions, to be assured that the skull-caving you hoped to spend the afternoon doing was completely sanctioned.  If it was, well, go at it me boy, cave what you can reach and bring back a pot of the brains for good measure.

Since obviously we tend to be spontaneous creatures, why did this not bring terrific amounts of guilt to the medievalite whenever they happened to spontaneously bludgeon a random fellow to death?  Well, two reasons really.  The first, if it really turned out to be someone who needed it after all, you could be forgiven after the fact ... which cleared you of any guilt absolutely, just as though you'd done the deed with getting the sanction first.  And the second, if you by circumstance killed the wrong person, well, you could still get forgiven, but you'd also get very dead ... far too quickly to bathe in the glow of any after guilt.

I've been talking about murder through this to make the extreme point, but the truth is the standards hold for every kind of action across the board.  If you steal, if you covet, if you sexually jump someone or what have you, it ultimately all comes down to being A) forgiven and B) killed.  For most of history it didn't take much to get yourself killed by doing something wrong.  For a lot of women in the middle ages, all they needed was to be widowed and have property ... a witches' property went immediately to the church that burned her first, so it was all out justice against anyone who could have that moniker hammered ... er, burned ... onto their person.

The nice thing about all this is that the force doing all the forgiving were themselves subject to being sanctioned in most any action they performed by themselves - like a 9/11 investigation commission.  Clerics tended to get into trouble only when they stepped on the toes of other clerics ... or when they stepped on the toes of people other clerics were adamant to keep in power, like kings and so on.  Provided they did neither, the money would nicely roll in and support all this lovely forgiving and these executions for citizen wrongdoing.  The only real shame was so much of the money pouring in had to be channeled to other clerics higher up.  It's an enlightening way of looking at the Reformation when you realize that Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and so on weren't half so interested in stopping the flow of cash into their own pockets as they were cutting off ties with the people to whom they were expected to give money.  But that's really beside the point.

In this environment, where your immortal soul mattered far more than the property, rights, importance or humanity of your fellow earthly occupants (who were mostly going to hell due to their being not quite so pious as you), the distance between justification and skull caving was a lot shorter than one with which we'd be familiar.  Once Henry V tells you that slaughtering the French is a holy act, supported by a group of bishops standing around him waiting for Henry to wrest money out of the hands of other bishops, it's very easy to lift that mace.  When Caesarius of Heisterbach tells you to slaughter every person in Beziers, Catholic and Cathar alike, because "God will know his own," that is going to make an enormous amount of sense to you.  God DOES know his own, doesn't he?  There is nothing on this Earth more certain than that.

If this all seems strange or uncomfortable for you, or if it seems I'm not talking about liberalism at all, question how you yourself would handle being at Beziers on the 22nd of July, 1209, when the 20,000 inhabitants of the city were slaughtered, and if your priest giving you his blessing after the fact would have much influence on your thought process.  The failure of that blessing to affect you IS the effect of liberalism ... an effect which your player characters, were they living in the 13th century, wouldn't be feeling.

Disgust, unquestionably.  Doubt about quite a few things, oh yes, I'm sure of that.  A certainty that life was fleeting and that it could disappear in the blink of an eye?  Yes, that too, and not just from the occasional slaughter of 'innocents' - though no one was, by definition - but also from the terrifying and sudden onset of disease or the tenuous presence of enough food for all.  All the more reason to throw one's lot in with the priests, who have it in their power to reassure you that this life is merely a passing thing, an antechamber for the next life.

I've read some rather silly things online about how magic would bring about a utopia of some such, with food and healing for all, and naturally a freedom from the ordinary sufferings of daily life ... and I wonder if these writers are able to recognize a human being when they see one.  If the reader supposes for a moment that real magical power put into the hands of a person like Caesarius would bring about a age of universal happiness, you live in a liberal cocoon of truly impressive thickness.  Why should any person with power directly aid any person without power, when the power itself makes the powerless immaterial?  Liberalism came into the universal consciousness because the power of the ruling class was questioned, then ultimately seized in an horrific orgy of fear and hate - comparable, I might add, with the slaughter of Beziers.  This lovely spreading of human privilege and freedom was planted in very bloody ground.

If Louis XVI of France and all his secular and religious attendents were not ready to surrender a fraction of their untold wealth for the purpose of feeding the peasants food the peasants had grown themselves, how does one imagine that Louis or anyone else would sit up for hours memorizing spells in order to vacation in the countryside distributing them?  Even if a diseased person could be healed every day, it takes time and trouble to find these diseased persons, and the facts are the privileged class is not inclined to take much time or trouble for anyone.  Truth be told, if the shitfuck who very nearly hits me everyday at the pedestrian crossing can't be bothered to stop and wait when the lights are blinking, what is the chance of his coming around to see me when I'm unwell?  Perhaps, if I pour enough money into Louis' coffers, he might let me hang around his court, for I'd be paying him ... but I wouldn't count even then on having his cardinal cast spells for me that might be needed elsewhere by Louis before the day ends.  Never mind giving them to the peasants.  Those are the simple facts of life.

Characters in D&D, however, will always be acted out to be as liberal as their player puppeteers ... you puppeteers cannot help yourselves.  You may think characters slaughtering the women or children of a town, or thieving, or raping women, or selling off slaves or whatever other nightmares you might conjure is a loathesome way to spend a Saturday night's running - but I propose that the characters themselves, free of your puppeteering, would find your perception of their world one of inexpressible weakness.  They would view your pampered, fat greasy bodies with an eye that revealed you as hardly worth leaving alive - something their clerics would advocate were better killed than let to live and infect the minds of decent, god-fearing persons.  Your characters would be certain they'd be forgiven for your deaths ... who in the world could miss squeamish, pathetic worms like yourselves?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

September Sixth

I almost forgot.  I guess the actual beginning date isn't all that important, really.

It is 32 years since I started playing D&D, to the day.

Solutions To The Campaign

I meant to talk about addressing the six points in Friday's post, having had the weekend to think about them.  So here goes.

1)  Pace.  The question is, why not simply assign an evening and run the game on skype or some such?  I had considered that, but the fact is the time I have is usually bits and pieces during the day, and the time I do not have is a given evening, even once a month.  Moreover, once a month, or even once every two weeks, doesn't provide me with a distraction on an ongoing basis ... which is something I really liked about the online campaign.  The possibility of thinking through a particular problem once per day, and then enjoying being able to put it off if there was no immediate solution.  Sometimes, I took a day or two to research something that I suddenly invented, and being online gave me the chance to do so on the fly.  This I cannot really do during a real time session.

The slowness of the campaign was not, in itself, a problem.  The problem that I saw was when a character would spend a week doing nothing of any special interest.  I think this would be solved in great degree if the players had specific goals, thereby pushing them to come up with something for their characters to do which moved the game along.  The journey into Switzerland and back did not seem to drag overmuch, except at points where I tried to get clever.  My 'cleverness' is usually a problem in every game I play, whenever I propose a problem no one seems to be able to solve (the Serefina = frightened portion of the campaign).  I am trying to stop myself from doing it.

In a way, doing it in the online campaign, where solving/not solving it took the whole day, I really began to understand what a bad thing this was of my gameplaying.  I've been resolved to stop doing it ever since.

2)  Missed Opportunities.  I guess I'll have to put a much bigger red flag on top of everything.  Rather than saying, "You see a cliff face that extends a thousand feet upwards from the road towards the mountain peaks," I'll have to say instead, "You see a cliff face, exactly the sort of habitat that you know kobalds really love to dwell in whenever there happen to be caves which cannot be seen from the road, extending upwards from the road to the mountain peaks, where dragons are often known to dwell."

It is kind of infantile, but whatever it takes to make the game move a bit more.  Frankly, I hate this sort of thing ... the whole 'rumor' mill that players are supposed to tap into upon entering a town that fuels the adventure machine.  On some level I really feel that if players want to stumble ignorantly and blindly through a world for session after session, then like people who aren't proactive in real life, they should just age and die.  Maybe I'll institute a rule that says whenever players spend a day without any actual plan, a week or a month of game time goes by.  (For my offline games, this might be one of those awful hours spent as a DM when the players all sit around saying, 'I don't know, what do you want to do?' ad nauseum).  One way or the other, I can see pabulum-feeding may be in order.

3)  Exhaustion.  Since I'm not likely to cut down on my exposition, as this is an important part of the game for me, my only real solution to this is to pace myself a little better.  Like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, I may take every third week off or something when I am feeling pressured.  Alternately, I may push for more hands on DMing ... maybe turning to a live interaction when a lot of information could be relayed more quickly, or when a question-answering session is in order.  This would be spontaneous I think, and not an attendance requirement ... but it might help get things moving a bit better in places.  Jeez, I suppose that means google + (shudder).

4)  Lack of Engagement.  Okay, this is the player's problem.  The best I can do is toss people who are clearly not trying.  I worried quite a lot about this, since it is cold and heartless, and therefore not comfortable for a big fuzzy teddy bear like me, but the poll more than clearly indicates that people would prefer cold and heartless where it comes to their games as opposed a forgiving attitude.  There's probably a post I could write about how people don't want to work as a DM because the game is 'fun' but they're more than willing to be assholes when it comes to telling players how to act or pick up their feet.  But I'm not going to write it today.

The best I can do beside this is to create a questionaire that selects people according to their willingness to write a lot, research shit that they maybe don't already know, answer questions about AD&D issues and sociological qualms they might have about being booted.  Put the fear o' Gawd in'o 'em, an' flay 'em fust afore lettin' 'em in.

5)  Timing.  I'm sorry, but it is going to have to be full 24-hour access to a computer and the power to post on that computer.  The game can drift into certain times of the day and certain habits, but there's just no way to play around someone who can't get on the computer for 10 hours of the day.  Get a cell phone and learn to text, and then at least you can squeeze in a couple of lines here and there; make arrangements to get that information somehow online so it can be viewed by one of the other players who can be a proxy for you when you yourself don't have a computer.  Call in by phone and spend hundreds of dollars if you have to, but make it so.  If you have a job that is physical and you don't even see a computer for most of the day, you have my sympathy but it just isn't doable.  We can manage around meetings, your workout, a bad day at the office, sex with your partner for five hours at a time and a dozen other issues, but absolute non-existence for two thirds of every day, including sleep?  Sorry.  Let me know when your circumstances change.

6)  Lack of Purpose.  This is the killer.  I know not every player can have the same purpose, and most of you won't get to do what you want, but the rules are going to be as follows:

First, that you have some purpose you'd like to accomplish before playing.
Second, that you are absolutely willing to try somebody else's purpose.

In other words, have an idea, but don't get married to that idea.  I'm going to need a party that all wants to do the same thing at the outset, so be prepared to negotiate.  That's all I'm saying.


Those are the points.  I'm still figuring out the questionaire, so any comments on that or any of the above points would be helpful.


I've had a long Labor Day weekend, invested mostly in furniture building - which I am bad at - and mapping India.  I've made it to the southern tip and I've just finished mapping Lanka, which is Sri Lanka in modern parlance and Ceylon on English colonial maps.  As it happens, in 1650 none of the island was controlled by the English, and was in fact in dispute between the Dutch and the Portuguese on the coast, and the Kingdom of Kandy in the interior.  The Portuguese would hang on to portions of the island until 1650.

Lanka is officially the most southern part of the world that I have mapped.  I am beginning to realize that there are certain flaws in the projection of using a flat hex map to create the half dome of the northern hemisphere, causing my world to be somewhat fatter around the equator ... or rather, that the hexes themselves at the equator are in fact only 13 and a third miles in diameter, while still technically 20 miles high.  This was unavoidable, and in fact doesn't bother me in the least.

Its the same distortion that occurs on the map below, which makes Africa and the small part of South America much larger in comparison with Northern Asia than they have a right to be.  Personally I can live with the distortion, since this is D&D and the principle aim is to create a game world, not to devise flight plans for real world aircraft.

It does come back to the argument I made before and before that my world is anything but 'perfect' or 'realistic.'  What it remains is extremely workable and gratifying, and thus excellent for my purposes in D&D.  If the party wants to go to Lanka, it is there ... with all the internet entries necessary to make it come alive.

The bigger problem is the Southern Hemisphere, in that it too is a flat disk like the one above, the two flat disks coming together at the equator.  The players aren't supposed to be able to tell, naturally (this involves hand-waving), but on the map itself the reverse becomes difficult to show.  Remembering that the map 'turns' every 60 degrees, the flip side on the northern view then becomes six 'leaves' that extend out from the center map towards the South Pole.  A simple version shows below:

Only much, much bigger.
If you imagine the lightest ring is the equator, and the north pole is at the centre, then everything that is south of the equator diverges into six different points.  With my actual map, the equator ring is 1,866 hexes in circumference (the actual Earth should be about 1,233), but the principle is the same.

If you're looking at a map somewhere in the middle of where one of the points meets the equator (on the larger version), it is easy to forget that the equator in the middle distorts the map.  But where the map is at 30, 90, 150 degrees and so on, it is very evident.

However, the Southern Hemisphere can also be the center of the map, with the Northern broken into six points.  This, obviously, is how I intend to represent it, since it is much easier for travel distances.

I wasn't going to go all into this, I was originally intending just to write one front paragraph and move onto other things, but what the heck.  I ran into this on the weekend when I was preparing the map for the Maldives Islands, which extends south of India ... and to get the staggering right on the next ring of large hex maps (Lanka is split between H 14 and H 15), which would be 'I', I was sketching out the shape of the map for the Great Rift valley in Africa, which is on the 30th Meridian.

I get the sneaking suspicion, however, that there's something wrong with all this, and its been bugging me since Saturday.  If someone wants to give me a poke and let me know what it is, don't hesitate.  I think I've calculated something wrong in the projection split between the points ... but I honestly don't know what it is, IF it is anything at all.  I'd like some reassurance that I've got it right, or some correction if its out there.

We all make mistakes.


Kees de Kunder sent me the necessary correction to the map above:

I'll leave mine up so the difference can be noted ... and as proof positive of my lack of perfection. Thank you Kees.