Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Character Background Generator

This past week I have been working extensively and hard on completing my Character Background Generation spreadsheet.  This thing has been in progress for more than a year and I am within about twelve hours of completing it.  Discounting height and weight, with two features generated per character stat, features for appearance based upon both human and non-human races, and secondary skills included, I conservatively estimate 294 quintillion possible combinations.  No, that is not a mathematical error.  We are talking 2.94 x 10 to the 20th power.  No joke.

Obviously, duplicate results will come up.  If your dexterity is generally at the same level as my dexterity, there's a 1 in 100 to 400 chance that we will each get one feature that lines up for both of us.  The chance that we will get three features, or four, that gets more than a little unlikely.

A lot of people are farmers.  There's a pretty good chance both of us will be descended from farmers.  There is a very unlikely chance we will both be descended from blacksmiths.  There's about a 1 in 60,000 chance we will both have had fathers who were explorers.  And there's something like a 1 in 6,000,000 chance that we will both have fathers who were in authority over very small region, like Luxembourg or Malta.

But your chance of having a father like that is only about 1 in 6,000.  If you did, the chances are that you'd have an older brother, or that your father would still be inconveniently alive.  The chance that your father would be in authority over a fairly big region, like Sardinia or Saxony, that's a little more unlikely - like about 1 in 2,000,000.  But it's possible.

The spreadsheet as it stands reflects previous tables that I've used for years, only now it generates everything automatically, so it can be printed as soon as its created.  The generation is virtually zero time.  It can be done again and again, and it can be done for NPCs as quickly and easily as for characters.  You need description, profession, the NPC's relationship to others, family, wealth, special abilities, etcetera etcetera?  It's all here.

Bingo.  You just press a button.

Mind you, this isn't a simple slap-dash group of tables.  Granted, the excel file isn't in my gargantuan category - its only 160 KB - but there are 12 tabs covering everything from possible diseases to a men-at-arms generator.

More importantly, I intend to work on this thing probably forever.  There's really no end to the additions I could add to it, particularly if I separate the Player Character generator from a newly created NPC generator, which would A) emphasize the sorts of information you need for NPCs and B) include additional modifiers for NPCs who were above first level.  At the moment, the emphasis is on getting a player started with their new character.  But this idea could go so much farther.

As it is now, if you have any ability to operate in excel, you could make changes yourself, and easily.  And you could use me as a resource for updates (and back-ups, if you inadvertantly changed something and wrecked some programming, and didn't have a back up, I could send you the original).  Not to mention that if you had an idea, and it was a good one, you could pitch it to me and I'd incorporate it myself - I always want more ideas.

Finally, for programmers, its all excel ... so you know, and I know, that lends itself to the simplest of programming, if you wanted to take it out of the friendly program.  Just one thing - try to sell it without giving me a percentage, and I'll sue.  Other than that, maybe we could work out an arrangement and both get rich with this thing.  You may be a programmer, but believe me, I am the idea man.

And though this may be almost finished, I haven't had my last one.

This program alone, given all the crap generators you have seen over the many years you have been playing, is worth the $100 of a subscription.  And you get (drum roll) so much more.

So buy.  As the man said, I'm letting you know what you're getting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Authorities

I am putting more energy to other things this week, getting myself ready for a fanatical effort I fully expect to fail at ... but that's not important right now.  The online campaign is going gangbusters, and sometimes it just feels good to play, you know, rather than just talk about D&D.  After all, that is all this blog is.  Talking.  The real work is being done next door - and I'm astounded at the general lack of interest.

But anyway, something came up that inspired this post, so I thought I'd make a few clarifying statements.

The town guardsmen consists of a group of individuals whose purpose is primarily to promote and defend the interests of the general town - which means, fundamentally, to protect the money.  Nobody in a medieval town really cares if you beat up a vagrant, or a prostitute, or any other member of the town who is seen as a scourge or a parasite.  Even in the present day its hard to get cops motivated to look for a hooker's killer - that pig farmer in Vancouver is a good example.  In the medieval world, there was virtually little or no force to stop you from doing it ... so long as you didn't do it openly and in public, since there has long remained an adage that if you'll kill a hooker in a bar fight, you might kill anyone.  Best to remove you from the general populace.  But the town guard don't care about the squabbles between the poor, if no one gets hurt.  They'll stand to the side and watch, but they won't get involved unless a rich person tells them to.

The idea that the town guard investigates crime, or does anything more than stop people from committing it at the given moment, is pretty much an anachronism.  When someone commits a murder, and flees town, there's no artist's rendering being sent about to the other towns warning them of such and such a killer, with such and such a bounty on their heads.  This was a matter that rose out of an entirely different culture, one that won't arise for many years, due to the development of national governments and mutual business corporations, and the globalism that started forthwith in the early 18th century.

Of course, screw over the wrong mage and you might get recognized anywhere ... but that's not the town guard.  The town guard will watch you run over the far hill and that's the last they'll think of you.  You won't be back for revenge - the town guard don't own anything.

The town watch, on the other hand, is very like the mafia.  They really don't care who kills who, as long as their clients, being some part of the business community represented by a guild, aren't harmed.  Kill a prostitute?  No problem.  Kill a prostitute by shoving dough in her mouth in a baker's shop?  You're in big fucking trouble.

It's bad for business, isn't it?  In the meantime, the watch isn't wandering the streets 'protecting' them like the 'Angels' do ... they're making sure no one else is getting a piece of the pie.  A sneak thief breaking into a shop is taking money out of the hands of the watch as surely as the shopkeeper - and the watch isn't going to take that thief to prison.  That thief is going to get a last look from a deep hole somewhere, just before the stone is put back in place.  Permanently.

Moreover, the watch doesn't care about anyone who isn't directly connected to their clients.  You want to beat up a city council member opposed to guild privileges?  The watch will help.  But you don't see city fathers like that wandering around, not with out their -

Retinue.  These are private guards who are there just for the lord, noble or official in whose pay they reside.  Sometimes the town will pay for someone's retinue, but the town doesn't want them getting distracted and chasing pick pockets.  That's not their role.  Their role is to get Joe council member from the council to his palace of a house, without his being hassled by persons on the street.  Which means you don't have to break the law around these authorities.  You just have to be in the way.

This is all different from the reeve.  In England, the Shire reeve, or the Sheriff.  The reeve's primary purpose is to make sure that people living in the rural countryside contribute the hours and days of labor they owe to the local lord ... and in later times, they'd be called forth if you failed to pay your rent.  In order to keep the lord's manor in good stead, sometimes it was necessary to bust some heads, particularly anyone not obeying the law (that is, the noble's word of command).  The reeve would spend a lot of time in the village associate with the local castle, since that's where the people who did the largest part of the labor directly for the lord lived: the carpenters, masons, millers, brewers, bakers, candle-makers and so on.  Farmers too, but they tended not to work immediately upon the noble's residence, so if they didn't show up in the field, the reeve was less likely to notice.

On the other handthe hayward would notice immediately.  This would later evolve into what we think of as the village warden, the person who looks after the countryside and keeps everything in order there, stopping poachers and such.  The hayward looked after the forests, yes, and did keep out poachers ... but he watched over the shepherds, the herders, the farmers who tilled the land, and any one else who worked on public lands for any period of time.  Roughly half your time as a medieval farmer was spent looking after your own land, so you could eat.  The other half, you worked for the lord, and you worked under the hayward's careful guidance.

If you're in a rural setting, then, and you commit some action against the source of labor or against the lord's holdings themselves, you would find yourself dealing either with the reeve or with the hayward.  And let me explain: they weren't nice about it.  Probably they wouldn't kill you.  It was probably enough just to hamstring you, or if not your hamstrings your ankles.

Then the pigs, or the hounds, could have you.

The whole manor, and sometimes multiple manors, were looked after by the steward.  This would typically be a hireling standing in stead for the lord, when the lord was not present ... and he would be judge and executioner all at once.  The reeve and the hayward, when they had their doubts about you, would bring you before the steward, and he'd decide your fate.  Sometimes the steward was the head of his own retinue, which for the manor represented a sort of local police force - sometimes, and sometimes not, separate from the reeve or the hayward's personal helpers (try to imagine a bunch of sadistic young men).  The steward's men would get interested in anyone who seemed to take a little too much interest in the lord's affairs - really, that was all you needed to do.  Ask too many questions.

That should provide a general idea of what kind of 'police' your facing.  It's good to remember that the primary way to avoid arrest is to placate the authorities.  It doesn't have as much to do with breaking the law as you might think.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rifling

I'm afraid this post isn't going to be very good.  It's difficult to relate rifling to D&D, for while the development had great consequences upon the future of warfare after the technology was implemented en masse, I'm afraid the lack of the technology wasn't something that people went around noticing or writing psychological treatises about.  It would have been nice to have something written by Kepler or Torricelli about what a darn pain it was - a socially relevant pain, that is - that the guns on the battlefield didn't fire straight, but alas if it's out there it's in either German or Italian, and no one has quoted it yet in the shot of my ears.

So the lack of rifling and its influence on D&D is somewhat obvious.  There was no rifling and D&D more or less exists without guns that fire straight.

We can't call it quits there, unfortunately.  This is the sort of problem that's going to come up again and again as the technologies become more and more advanced.  We're dedicated towards writing them right through to the end, so we'll just have to get proficient and digging out the pertinent details and do the best we can.

It must be said that, more or less, D&D exists without guns.  Most persons are happy to run campaigns that take place in a sort of ethereal historical situation, in which there are no guns, or various other chemical technologies ... though of course there's experimentation and social development and extremely heavy armor of the kind that wasn't developed until the 15th century: a sort of potpourri of selected technological developments.  There's nothing wrong with this, of course.  My pedantic nature feels the need to point out that this potpourri is mostly the result of poor scholarship and a lot of misunderstandings about historical developments of weapons and social interaction, but I'm not saying you can't consider the ignorance a blessing and just enjoy the fact that so many disparate elements of human history are tumbled together into the D&D fantasy system.

I'm not demonizing the ignorance.  I'm just saying, it's there.

Willy nilly, I think we all keep and toss out the elements of things that most suit our peculiar natures.  The D&D world, by necessity, has in it a thousand discontinuities even before you get to the historical dissonance - what with magic, monsters, actual gods and so on, we're not talking about any sort of realistic portrayal of anything.  I mean shit, how do I argue my 17th century world is anything like Earth when more than half of Russia is occupied by goblins, orcs and hobgoblins, with an existing Greek and Hindu pantheon of gods fighting it out on planes of existence drawn completely from my own imagination and mixed in with the endless hodgepodge of mythological beasts and places?  I can't.  D&D is not real.  It's important - like any dramatic invention - that it FEELS real, but we're obviously not saying that it is.

So when the question of rifling comes up, and any of a number of other alien-to-D&D technologies, like plastics and satellites and fusion, we're certainly NOT saying you can't toss them into the pot and stir them around to suit your needs.  Hell, who says there can't be a race of intelligent warthogs with opposable thumbs from the Plane of Excrete whose attempt to enslave the prime material plane for their shit production isn't aided by muskets with rifling?  Could be.  What is the party to do, as they face these dangerous hogs with swords and magic?  The best they can, that's what.

Thus the onus is upon me to talk about the difference between firearms without rifling and firearms with, and the possible social consequences that could be installed in your world to make things more interesting.

What I have along those lines is this:

Prior to the development of rifling, there was only a certain amount you could do to ensure you were killing your enemy with gunfire.  You lined your men up, you got as close to the enemy as you dared (30 yards or so, which is still a great deal farther away than you needed for swords), kept your men as calm as you could and got them to fire as often as possible.  It was understood by some commanders early on that having all your men fire at the same time produced a terrific shock effect upon the enemy, which tended to scare the enemy away, thus winning the battle without having to keep firing endlessly into each other without results ... which did happen.

The ball in a musket, even in skilled hands, would bounce against the interior of the barrel and could come out in virtually any direction - which meant that your line had to be pretty straight if you didn't want to kill your own men in the back at close range.  And because the time it took to reload could be as much as 30 or 40 seconds, it was possible for the enemy to simply drop their guns (this is before bayonets) and rush at you, particularly if the ground was level.  You will remember from high school that you used to run the hundred yard dash in about 14 to 16 seconds (or a bit less), so you know that it doesn't take an eon to cover 30 yards, even if that distance is covered with thick vegetation and the occasional fallen body.

Thus it was necessary to have men whose purpose was to stand with pikes and keep you at bay while the musketeers loaded as fast as they could.  This was aided by the flintlock musket, which increased the distance between armies to slightly less than a hundred yards - giving you MORE time to load, which was much more important than aiming.  Armies had learned by the 1590s, when the flintlock came into general usage, that you needed your men to form ranks, where the men at the back were loading like crazy and the front men firing ... then running to the rear.  This enabled a murderous rate of fire that did much to end the rush-across-the-battlefield tactic - though generals refused to believe that for the next 350 years.

By the time of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Dutch gunners had broken down the principles of loading a musket into 45 separate actions, which if followed perfectly and in the right order could enable a trained man to load his gun up to 40% faster than untrained men.  This was the principle reason Gustavus ripped through Germany in the Thirty Years War - more men firing, less time loading, meant he had more effective men on the combat field than his enemy at any one time, since less of them were standing around doing nothing.

Still, without rifling, the weapons themselves were tremendously unreliable.  More shots meant greater effectiveness, but aiming was not something you could rely upon.  Greater 'skill' with a weapon meant you could load it quickly.  It did not mean you could necessarily hit the enemy you were aiming at.  Of course, if you loaded faster, you got more chances to hit him.

Rifling made the difference.  By causing the bullet to spin as it left the barrel, you gave the missile stability, and stability meant a well trained could hit with his weapon as well as load.  And this produced a marked change in how you trained your soldiers.

In the 17th century, you trained them to load quickly and produce as much fire as possible.  They had to be calm so they could concentrate on loading ... if you misloaded a weapon, it would blow up in your face and give you trouble.  Alternately, if you got the steps in the wrong order, you clumsily had to go back and get them right, which meant fouling up the whole rank standing behind you, as they waited for you to get your shit together.

By the 19th century, the calmness still needed to be there - but not because it took a long time to load.  Breechloading had come into being, and you could ready your weapon in very little time.  However, standing on the battlefield and hitting your opponent well and true could mean forcing yourself to be calm and aim while bullets whizzed around you.

In any mass battle - the American Civil War, for instance - most of the combatants were largely untrained, and unable to take full advantage of the remarkable weapon the rifle had become.  But a well-seasoned, trained troop of men who could stand calmly facing you without firing while they aimed - while you blasted the air as fast as you could - would cut you down like wheat.  Again and again the elite British troops proved this tactic.

This calmness had a peculiar effect upon the society, perpetrated by men who had experienced war fought in this fashion.  They did not 'bat an eye' at many a hard question or need that might arise.  They did not view hesitation as a virtue.  They did not view the habit of questioning every decision, or pining for lost opportunities, or self-doubt, as virtues.  These are not virtues on the battlefield.  They were not seen as virtues in ordinary life.

If you wonder why or how men could be as callous as they were in bygone eras, consider that this was a callousness that was acquired during explosions, with friends and enemies torn apart by bullets, in holocausts of fire and blood.

Compare this, if you will, to what it must have been like to hold a sword, and not a pistol, and stand three feet from a fellow with an axe, and nowhere to run between you.  Consider how hard this must have made these men who survived these ordeals ... and how matter-of-factly they took the matter of burning witches in towns, or incarcerating villains, or mass executions of blasphemers.  Apply the calm exterior of the British rifleman with the calm exterior of the Viking raider, and ask yourself why they should for a moment feel anything for the woman and her child who are split open by the held axe.  And then ask, if you should have lived in this time, according to these principles, amid others who had adopted the same behavior as yourself, how hard you would bring the battle against warthogs who wanted your shit.

Pretty hard, I think.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Habits of Children

Last night, I searched vainly for my copy of Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz, intending to read it for the first time in what must be 20 years, just so I'd be quicker on the draw when someone asks me to spontaneously to compare Dorothy with Luke Skywalker ... and realized I'd have to buy a new copy, since I've clearly given my old copy away to someone.  I tend to do that with books.

And then perdustin took a big poke at me this morning on his blog, and pushed me into having to say something on the subject right here and now, for which I really wasn't prepared.  I launched into a comment that wasn't very nice (when am I?) and was pleased and astounded to get back a lucid, rational reply.  I have new respect for perdustin; I shall have to quit riding the guy.

But I did intend to buy a copy of The Wizard of Oz today.  I'm not reading much of any importance right now anyway, just literary commentary on the 20th century novel.  Reading Baum's work again would be a better use of my time.

I don't know how many of the people who read this blog and find my opinion somewhat calcified understand that my opinion is changing all the time.  I don't mean it's flopping around like Mitt Romney campaign schedule, I mean that I am acquiring new information on a constant basis, which is then being applied to old information I have previously acquired, in order to form new opinions.  They do not simply spawn from nothing.

Someone in the comments field - unpublished - called me a solipsist the other day ... which is a convenient non-argument to make whenever you don't have an actual argument.  You can call any liberal artist, anytime, under most conditions, a solipsist.  All rational arguments, by their very nature, "sound" rational.  You can't argue that what someone says must be solipsism because it sounds rational.  You must ALSO prove why it isn't.

I see a lot of the first kind of argument - the name calling, "you must be wrong because you must be" argument, but lord I dearly love the actual intellectual cut down.  Tedankhamen had a brilliant point to make yesterday in the comments section.  He really made his point solidly.  Unfortunately for the naysayers, however, that point wasn't contradicting me.

Sorry, I'm waffling a bit here ... I'm getting around to pointing out that in the midst of the comments and the general discussion, I made a kind of connection with why this whole hero thing is such a tender subject with regards to the gentle readers.  I 'clued in,' as it were.

Following up on a comment of my own, I had said: "... one of the things about becoming an adult, and therefore a learned person, is the realization that the heroes you were taught about when you were a little child was just a lot of bullshit."

And some five minutes after I wrote that, I realized myself that a lot of players of this game want to be the bullshit heroes of their childhood stories, because they're desperate to relive their childhoods.  This is like a revelation for me.  You see, it isn't an attitude I share.  I don't consider the times I was a child to be the best of times.  I don't consider literature for children to be the height of literature.  I mean, The Wizard of Oz is a great book, it's clearly genius, but it isn't Anna-fucking-Karenina.  It doesn't touch the fascination I have for Thucydides' History of the Pelopponesian War.  It just doesn't measure up to the really heavy, brilliant stuff, sorry.  And while I suppose playing on the level of The Wizard of Oz might be fun and all, it's kind of simple-simon compared to playing on the level of Dafoe's Moll Flanders.

Because you see, being an adult and having money and the power to remake my world how I wish is about a billion times more satisfying than playing tag in my parent's backyard.  Oh, sure, tag was fun, it was a riot and all, but the reason I don't play tag now is because - well - it just doesn't measure up.  It isn't that I'm old and jaded and too tired to play tag.  It isn't that I'm so sour inside that I can't remember what it was like to be bright-eyed like a child.  It's because the real satisfying things of the great big world kind of kicked the ordinary playtimes of childhood right out on their motherfucking asses.

Playtime, and the hero-worship of playtime, isn't complicated enough for me.  It isn't living up to the hype.  The real challenge is a world where the only heroes are deluded, fucked-up people who don't know they're not heroes - just like Cervantes' Don Quixote.  That was, after all, the point of the book:  that to be a hero, you have to be so fucking far out to lunch that you think windmills are dragons, and you think peasants are princesses.  Like Quixote, this will make you famous far and wide, but you'll never be famous for what you think you're famous for - which won't matter, since you have the brain of a sponge.

But sorry, for me windmills are windmills, and how much more amazing is a windmill than a dragon, anyway?  Have you ever built a windmill?  Do you have a tenth of a conception of just how mindbogglingly terrific they are?  Probably not.  Too busy pretending they're dragons, I suppose.

So I will be forever at odds with many of my readers in my perception of D&D, because I see it as a game that enables adults to be adults, and others see it as a game that enables adults to be children.

Which, I suppose, explains why so many people are ashamed to speak of playing the game in public, or why so many people who have watched players play are a little ashamed to find themselves at tables with squabbling children.  Perhaps the game shouldn't become all that popular ... we have enough infantile habits around as it is.

Oh well.  Here's a Gahan Wilson cartoon:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Oh Yeah, You're A Hero

Perhaps when you come down to it, the matter is a question of how you define a 'Hero.'   If we are to take the ancient Greek word, heros, there's plenty to justify player character actions as fitting that definition.  The Greek heroes were petty, infantile, selfish, greedy, intransigent, boastful, inconstant, arrogant, squabbling and utterly lacking in loyalty or a sense of duty.  So yes, if we must go back far enough, I'm willing to concede that your characters are 'heroes.'

This was not the ideal presented to me in my youth, through the eyes of children's authors, fairy tales and Hollywood films and TV.  Without question, a lot of those depictions, say of El Cid or King Arthur and His Knights, were dead wrong.  When you read Le Morte d'Arthur, you find out what a randy bunch of humping lords were the sitters at the Round Table, and any honest account of history will tell you El Cid was a mercenary bastard without much sense of mercy or compassion.  But still, when I talk of 'heroes' and get responses, I don't hear the gentle readers advancing arguments like, "You don't know what you're talking about - heroes are self-serving money-grubbing pricks, and that's what our character's are!"

No, it sounds to me as though the argument is that the characters ARE what the fanciful 20th century painted up for children's viewing - the noble King Arthur and the loyal Robin Hood.  Or if the reader prefers, the courageous Dorothy, the inquisitive but ever-considerate Alice, and the constant Wendy.  Creatures without a single sin, without even the temptation of sin, struggling against villains and foes far beyond their ken, but certainly conveniently dispatched of once a good pail of water comes to hand.

Naturally, there can be no real discussion of 'heroes' without a point or two made about 'anti-heroes,' who are all the rage of Hollywood in the here and now.  I'm not talking about the other Alice, who today fights Zombies constructed by the Umbrella Corporation ... selflessly, I might add, but then her lack of any need for comfort might be explained by her genetic enhancement.  No, I mean any character played by Jason Statham, or a variety of cookie-cutter actors just like him, who are allowed to butcher and kill and slaughter and maim, as long as they don't keep any of the money they grab afterwards.  Anti-hero and ordinary hero rules are the same: you DON'T get rich doing this.

Let me qualify that.  Ol' Jimmy Bond doesn't take his cut from the barrels of money he gathers as he executes his enemies.  He doesn't go out and buy a lot of shit to ramp up his killing potential.  He's given gadgets by the powers that be that enhance his natural proclivities, but he doesn't BUY them.  Alice the construct finds a shot gun or a blade and such, but she doesn't have ye olde Wallymart to buy stuff from ... if she doesn't have it, she doesn't NEED it.

What I'm saying is that if your conception of a hero is someone who slaughters orcs, then brings back the cash to upgrade your character, you're NOT a hero.  You're a selfish dick who enjoys killing in order to subsidize your material lifestyle.

Those orcs stole that money from someone, and now you're stealing that money from the orcs.  But it is STOLEN money.  You're a thief ... unless you hand that money over to the local village, and that means all of it, every last fucking copper piece.  You don't need money.  You're a fucking hero.

Oh, and for the most part you don't need toys, either.  All Quixote needed was a few pieces of junk he thought was armor.  He had heart.  He had his faith.  That was all HE needed to go into combat, and if you're an honest-to-god hero too, you don't need all this crappy junk slowing you down.  Armor is for people worried about their own lives, and you're not.  God will look after your life, and he'll take you when he's ready.  In the meantime you need to be as fast on your feet as possible if you're going to grab that maiden before the jaws close.  If you're moving half-speed because you're in plate, you're not a fucking hero.

People have very interesting - and inaccurate - ideas of what makes 'selflessness' actually selfless.  But this kind of delusion is pretty standard.  The other day I caught the end of Platoon, which is just the sort of anti-hero non-hero delusion that runs rife through our culture.  The movie, right down to the final scene, is just whine-whine-whine about the suffering struggles of American soldiers, supposedly the good against the bad, as ALL of them invade a foreign country for trying to govern itself.  Oh, sure, we can feel awful and sorry for the poor innocent Vietnamese, but fuck those guilty Vietnamese, defending their country and all, what a bunch of assholes, don't they see I'm trying to win an Oscar here?

Sorry.  If you enter into an orc lair, and kill orcs because they're orcs, and take their money to buy armor so the next orcs you kill find it harder to hit you, you're not a fucking hero.

Though no doubt you THINK you are.  Villains always do.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Subscriptions Are What They Are

People are telling me that the reason my subscribers are not appearing is because I'm not doing enough hard selling.


Selling is not my favorite thing. Urging people to buy against their will, or coming up with reasons for them to buy against their will, has always seemed sleazy and underhanded. It would be like hitting the little 'Adsense' button on the blog ... even though I'm getting constant messages now that I could be earning money with the present traffic here.

However, I will acquiesce to my friends who want to see me do well. Here is a list of the new material I sent out to subscribers this month:

A Character Generation table
Population Demographics for the D&D professions, along with typical inhabitants
The publisher file for my Conflict Cards
Updates on maps and other previous files.
Vegetation and political versions for some maps.
The Publisher file for the Stable conflict on my Campaign blog.
The Publisher file showing how I made the shadows on my combat simulation last Spring.
A spellbook calculator
A thieving skills calculator
A character skills calculator

As I said, my subscribers are happy.

Join them. It's only a hundred dollars. You've spent a hundred dollars on really stupid things before.

Democracy

When sitting down to write about this to a largely American audience, which in general treats 'democracy' as a largely misunderstood religion as opposed to political system, one must take pause.  I should like to emphasize before beginning, O gentle reader, that I have no interest in discussing America's brand of democracy, nor the viability of democracy in that, or any other country.  I tell you that I am here to discuss democracy as a technology, and not as an ideology.

Once again, it will please be understood that technology is a tool for the purpose of obtaining, managing or producing a result.  Gunpowder was a technology that enabled a small, controlled explosion.  Fishing is a technology enabling one to catch fish.  Democracy is a technology intended to produce emancipation.

At some future date, when I am finished writing about all the technologies from the Civilization IV tech tree (I've been writing these for more than two years now, an average of two and a half weeks apart), I intend to pull apart the other aspects of the game, including the various political statuses ... so I don't want to blow all my future points about emancipation now.  Suffice to understand that emancipation is the imposed equality of individuals - at least with respect to the state and the law.  Actual equality ... well, that is something for nature to say.

The reader will please note that by the time one obtains Democracy in the game, all the religions have been founded.  Democracy is, in effect, the answer to religious technologies ... the ultimate 'fuck you' to the religionist perspective.

And I will explain how and why, but I find first I must derail this conversation to give some comment to misunderstandings about the Greek conception of 'democracy.'

Democracy did make certain people equal in the ancient Hellenic world ... IF you belonged to a democratic polis, or city, and IF you were a male, and IF you had a certain amount of wealth, and IF you didn't piss off the wrong people and get yourself ostracized.  A great many of the Greek cities were anything but 'democratic,' a great many of the Greeks were women who had no political life, a great many Greeks were without much money (or were slaves) and a small number of very bright, clever, honorable and loyal Greeks were cast out of 'democractic' cities for which they gave their blood.

However, we cannot completely discount the presence of honest, dyed-in-the-wool democracy among those Greeks who were priviledged to be considered more equal than others, for one simple reason:  politics ruled in Greece, and NOT religion.

Nobody is really sure why.  No one has any proven explanation for why the Greeks, in a time when virtually everyone in the world operated to a strict religious framework, did not themselves embrace the spiritual.  The result of not embracing the spiritual meant magnificent advancements in philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, engineering and on and on, but seriously, no one knows why.  There are many theories.  Some of them are quite silly:  climate and the food they ate, etcetera.  But there is no proof.

There were various groups of people who, with the rise of science and enlightened thinking, began to seriously consider in the 15th century forward the proposition of removing religion from any role in the state.  The reasons for this are simple: religion imposes upon the social framework a small elite of individuals who 'know' the mind of God - or Gods, or what have you.  This elite is propagated through careful training of a select few who are allowed to be indoctrinated into the elite's belief system - which in turn has been created to tell the masses what to do.

When religion was first established some six thousand years ago, the Priest elite imposed order upon the a scattered and variable population, telling them when to plant, when to pay their taxes, when to obey the king and when to rise up as a population and destroy the enemy.  The Priest elite was useful, and those populations which had a strong Priest elite tended to effectively destroy populations whose religious fervor was less than fanatic.  A fanatic population equalled power, and a Priest elite enabled kings (and sometimes themselves) to control a fanatic population.

The rise of education created doubts about this fanaticism, however, and by the time of the late Middle Ages various other forms of social construction had moved in and taken the place of religious fervour.  In fact, it was becoming increasingly clear that religion had transformed into a force that destroyed power - as was evident in places like Poland or the Middle East, where the power of the religion was strong enough to crush scientific and social development, producing an increasingly backwards culture in comparison with Western Europe.

Consider: the Catholic Church in the 17th century was strong enough to completely muzzle Galileo's genius ... and the genius of hundreds of others besides.  The Church was so effective at this that it literally destroyed the budding education system in Italy, pushing genius elsewhere and condemning Italy to becoming the intellectual backwater it still remains today - where the church STILL has far more strength to comment that it ought to, compared with Great Britain, Scandinavia, Anglo-America or France.

In every country of the world still owned and operated by a religious elite, scientific thought is doing all it can just to keep its head above water.

The reader must understand:  the crux of democracy is not 'giving power to the people.'  It is perfectly obvious that the religious elite possessed the power of the people in great quantities, having fed the people the diet and then taking advantage of the shit it yielded thereafter.  The anti-religionists were not silenced down on the ground by the elites - they were silenced by the massive hordes of believers the elites could call upon when things got hairy.  The mass burnings and executions perpetrated by the Inquisition were not witnessed by disgruntled, terrified people who hated the power the elites held over them ... no, the crowds cheered and were pleased that their leaders were dedicated to the wishes of a mythical god who without a doubt wanted all these witches and blasphemers killed most horribly.

Power is always in the hands of the people.  That is why when you seek power, you find out what the people want ... or what they can be made to believe they want.

The crux of democracy, then, is to rid the social construct of the elites who control the people - by disallowing them any say in the enacting of state power.  Oliver Cromwell proposed a simple, direct solution: execute as many of the elites as you can find.  Other groups have chosen banishment, and still others have attempted to let ALL the elites operate at the same time, with the expectation that no one elite group would be able to gain all the power at the same time.

There are quite a number of religions, after all.  And each religion has its own particular elite, and each elite vies for power against the other elites, seeking to convince the population that their particular brand of spiritualism is the best one.  Once you've gotten your spiritual claws into someone, you must perpetrate that spirituality in your new follower's children ... this not only enables a continuation of the process, but with exhortations for your followers to have lots of children, you increase the number of your future followers, also.  What's more, when you manage a certain critical mass of worshippers in a population, those who don't believe will pretend to, from a natural shame they possess.  Humans do not want to be disliked, or persecuted.  If they perceive that everyone else is going through the motions, they will go through the motions.

Democracy proposes to do away with all of this.  Believe whatever you want, says democracy, but the state shall be run regardless of your beliefs.  Or rather, those persons who have beliefs other than yours will not be persecuted by you, nor shall their effect upon the state be less than the effect of your followers.

The ideal has been that, if individuals were enabled the vision of a life without the religious crutch - if the religious population could see that their religion gave them no special status in the social construct - they would abandon their religion.  And so it has happened.  The vast majority of persons in democratic countries are not religious - well over 70%.  They do not attend church, they do not traditionally pray to any god, they do not sacrifice or give money to religious causes.

However ... they pretend to.  Even in a democracy, it seems, shame has a great deal of power.

Let us consider the best and most brilliant moment from the film The Mummy with Brendon Fraser and Rachel Weisz.  Forget, if you will, the quality of the film, and merely remember the scene where John Hannah - the librarian's goofy brother - is about to be destroyed by the followers of Imhotep.  Quite rationally, rather than be ripped apart, he turns around and begins to chant along with all the braindead, mindless followers.  And they leave him alone.

Welcome to the failure of democracy.  We can build a system that enables the presentation of creative perspectives, and the subsequent vote upon those perspectives, but we can't overcome the most basic human assumption about society: that deep down, at the core, we just want to be left alone.  And if that means chanting the name of a brutal murderous entity (Imhotep = the Christian God), just to placate all the moronic twisted souls around us, even if we don't believe any of it for a second, we will.  It's just easier.

How many of you, upon being roped into attending some church or other similar service during Christmas, were prepared to denounce everyone around you out loud?  How many of you football players, when told to take a knee and pray to god, refused?  It was easier to just knee and mumble Inhotep along with the coach.  Then you could play football.  Which was, after all, the point.

Fair enough ... let me put the soapbox over here for a moment.  What in the mother of christ does any of this have to do with D&D?

Answer: not a fucking thing.

You are not playing this game on the pretext of believing or disbelieving in either a religion, nor a social philosophy.  You are not investing this time in order to promote the benefits of this game over that game.  You are not a football player taking a knee.  You are, one would hope, standing up to the DM and not bowing to social conventions.

At least, I hope you're not.

On some level, your players as they move through the D&D world, are legitimate mavericks moving against the bump and flow of the world's belief structure.  You're outsiders ... necessarily, in that your basic motive is the profit motive.  To succeed at the profit motive - in this case measured by experience - you HAVE to stir the shit, you have to make waves, you have to slaughter the Priest elite and you absolutely cannot buckle under and believe.  Otherwise, the game becomes unbelievably dull, unbelievably quickly.

Face it.  If the DM says Imhotep, are you going to repeat it so he or she leaves you alone, or are you going to ask, "What the fuck are you talking about?"

Part of the immortal rush of this game is the tremendously freeing concept of not having to take it on the chin, of not having to be polite to the neighbors or rubbing blue mud into your belly button because they do.  Players have to have the right to act like democratically emancipated persons in a world where everyone else is chanting in rhythm.  It's the rugged individualist's creed - I shall not knuckle under the bullshit rules the DM creates.  I shall fight the DM's stupid monsters, I shall attack whomever I like, I shall destroy whatever I wish and I shall chortle with glee as I do it.

Ages ago I proposed that the players were not 'fucking heroes.'  This returns to that point.  Heroes do what society expects of them.  Heroes are slaves.  Heroes are puppets of the DM.  If your character is a Hero, you are not squeezing out all that this game can offer you.  You're a pawn.  You're a dupe.  You're everything the Priest elite has always wanted you to be.

And that is not the way this game is fun.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog For A Brief Injury

Hey, all.

Tripped going up stairs, put my hand down for balance and the bag of firewood on my shoulder landed dead center behind all four fingers.  Last night.  Big puffy swelling and its pretty hard to type with it.

Please, if the subscribers could give me another day, and the campaign could wait a bit, I'm going to rest it.

Thanks.

Swollen.

Compared Hands
Another Angle

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gunpowder

If there is a Civ IV post I don't want to write, it is this one.  I have already written about why I don't think gunpowder would work in a fantasy setting, and I can't say I have much interest in writing a point-by-point history of the development of firearms - partly because you can't find two sources that agree on any thing about the subject, and partly because I really don't give a damn.  People tend to fetishize guns, which leads in turn to a lot of wish-fulfilment where it comes to justifying the reasons for and the reasons of any matter associated with the subject.

Not that anyone admits it.

I dare make the following assertions:  that for hundreds of years, guns were very unreliable.  For hundreds of years, guns took a long time to load.  The most effective guns in the beginning were cannons ... not because they were a lot of bang for your buck, but because you could take as long as you needed to load them, making sure the job was done right, and if one exploded on the battlefield (which did not happen all that often), it was way behind the lines where it did not create a hole in your defenses.  It was just one less cannon for blowing up your enemies old fortification.

If you're going to have gunpowder in your world, it is up to you to determine how reliable you think those guns were.  I wouldn't bother listening to all the 'experts' you'll find describing how splendidly reliable arquebuses actually were (or wheellocks or flintlocks or anything else for that matter produced before the Revolutionary wars) ... history proves they weren't, really.  How?  Armies did NOT rely on them.  In the 15th century, at best, you rolled up to your enemy, you fired - and as many of the guns went off as you hoped could - and then you dropped your guns and went in hand-to-hand (or you had some prestige arquebus troop that spent half the battle reloading for another volley, which you couldn't fire into your own troops, so you waited in case your own troops got slaughtered or routed.  There weren't many of these arquebus troops around - they were expensive and in general not very effective ... though you may count on the fetishists telling you different.

None of that matters anyway.  It's your fantasy world, it isn't based on the real world, so your guns can be as sound and reliable, or as useless as you like.  It's whatever works for your campaign.  It depends on if you want your campaign to be one based on distance between combatants, or not.

Once upon a time, I used to run a Traveller campaign.  I didn't much like the combat or the character system - I liked the terms and mustering out process, but I really hated the 2d6 character stats.  A character system I did like a lot was Top Secret, particularly the way the stats in that game meshed with the combat system.  It's not really important now, but I messed around and managed to build together the two systems, keeping the best features of each.  If you've played Top Secret and know about the skills in that game, you might see how I did it.

One thing the players in the combined system discovered early was to avoid combat.  Truly, seriously, just don't try it.  The Top Secret system was set up for slug throwers firing 4 meaningful shots per second (guns fire more than that, but four possible hits made the game playable), and in that vein we played so that 'blasters' fired 6 shots per second.  If you put six combatants in a corridor (everything in Traveller is corridors) with blasters, that's 36 shots per second.  It makes for very short, very deadly combats, typically over in the blink of an eye.

If you were going to get real about it, consider that an ordinary M-16 fires between 11 and 16 shots per second on full automatic, and that gun is slow.  Nor do they make neat little holes, either.  They make big pan-sized caverns in your body that tend to bring about death in a remarkable, much-faster-than-Hollywood span of time.

Thus the Traveller game we played was much more about avoiding combat than entering combat.  Your lifespan was measured, most of the time, by how successful you were at avoiding combat, and how much money you could pick up along the way by doing so.  It was a very different game.

Whatever measure of gun-play you choose to have in your world, you should measure that against how you expect players to operate ... or, realistically, how often you're prepared to fudge the die so as to give your players the benefit of shooting against enemies who have graduated from the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy.

For DMs who hate combat and want to substitute a strong reason for lots of roleplaying and parties fleeing for their lives, a strong, effective gun culture is exactly the thing.  In which case, I presume you're also the type of person who hates D&D, has always hated D&D, and who feels that killing anything, even in make-believe, is a thorougly loathsome trait for any imaginative person to have.

I don't agree, myself.  I like that personal, up-to-your-elbows-in-gore hack-and-slash motif.  It's strangely satisfying.  It has a good pacing for moment-to-moment crises arising from near-death experiences.  Unlike gunplay, where you firehose the enemy into paste.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Online Campaign Intervenes ...

For the heck of it, I'm going to point out that the party in the online blog is about to start what might be an interesting online battle.

That is, unless they decide to give up their horses ...

This might also be a good time for anyone who may be following the online campaign to make any comments they've been holding inside, ask questions, etcetera, etcetera.

Drink This

"Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living--that you are still less likely to believe."
Socrates, Apology 37e-38a

We are given to understand that the context of these words were spoken as Socrates, condemned for things he did not do, was given the option of either exile (ostracization) or death (drinking of hemlock).  I reproduce the whole quote here for one simple reason ... that Socrates himself did not believe that the ordinary individual - indeed, not even his own friends and students - would understand him when he said that the unexamined life was not worth living.  Socrates was a 71-year-old man when he died.  He had plenty of experience in how others responded to his arguments, and just what to expect from them when he made an argument.

Nothing has changed.  Present the argument to an individual today, that they should sit down and at length examine their lives, and you will receive back a blank stare and incomprehension; at best, you may expect them to ponder for a moment, the briefest of motions mind, before asking you, "How?"

Suppose we consider a typical D&D event: the destruction of the big bad, in its lair, sitting upon a heap of treasure.  Suppose as a DM I have you and others roll up characters of 15th level, and zing! pop! I drop you into the big bad's lair and the fight begins.  You hack, you cast, you bring holy damnation upon the big bad and as a result you gain all its treasure.

Does this seem like a meaningful exercise to you?  Is this something that sounds like it would please you, or fulfill you?  Is it something you'd want to do?

If your answer is yes, then you may take comfort in the knowledge that you have just found the attitude you bear that has brought you all the unhappiness that it has in your life.  It is time that you sat down and truly considered why it is you think the way you do, and how that thinking has brought you to the place it has. 

For most of us, the answer would be a resounding "No."  It would be an empty, meaningless way to spend an evening.  It would be as meaningless as a host of reporters showing up at your door, along with the presenters of the Nobel Prize, altogether having the purpose of giving you that Prize for having accomplished the immortal task of picking the grunge out from between your toenails.  The money might be nice, but you would very soon feel like a fool as you were asked questions, and thereafter for the rest of your life compared endlessly with people who had actually accomplished things.

Like real life, accomplishments in D&D are empty and worthless without the greater picture of how those accomplishments were achieved.  The greatest ills in a game are not the number of characters that are killed, but the number of characters who carry toys and power they did not earn.  Not because there is an unfairness about it, but because having a toy you did not earn is an empty, soul-sucking experience ... all the more empty for people who do not know that is what is wrong with the campaign they're running, or in which they're playing.

This is not an uncommon thing.  The world is full of people living in the throes of hedonism, maniacally globbing up every bit of fun and pleasure they can from one moment to the next, concentrating their effort like a laser beam on avoiding any three-minute period of self-examination like the frigging plague.  That is because three minutes without fun brings deep, abiding unhappiness.  An hour without fun is a depression of epic proportions.  And three days without fun can be all it takes to make suicide seem like a viable alternative.

People who play D&D from the angle that ten minutes of 'non-fun' is a great wrong not to be perpetrated against them are playing D&D for reasons that go much deeper than the game itself.  They are avoiding their lives.  They are grasping at straws to escape their lives ... and in that escape, they insist that all must be beautific and great, and that no obstacle can exist that cannot be overcome.  They must be gods or the game does not give them the solace from reality they demand.  They are not getting their fix.  And you, O gentle DM with your world, are the reason they are not getting it.  That is why they are angry.  That is why they are screaming when the die comes up low.  That is why they are sullen once their character has died.  They are not in control of their own lives; they insist they must be in control of their character's lives.  It is the only reason they play.

I do not doubt that this avoidance is the fuel that makes more than a few hundred play this game world-wide.  I do not doubt that the considerable weakness of D&D to provide this sort of escapism is the reason it is not played by millions.  D&D will never measure up with heroin.  It will never offer the terrifying reality-separation to be found with skydiving or spelunking.  It is an extremely crappy sort of avoidance strategy, and for that reason it will never, ever be popular with the great masses of people.  Successful avoidance strategies, by definition, must be available everywhere; they must be simple and direct; they must be immediately effective; and they must work when the participant is alone.

Liquor, for example.

Your player - or you yourself if that is the case - screaming at the die, is an unusual sort of person.  They possess the peculiar mind-set makes this game an escape.  They are in a very tiny minority of individuals.

We are not, however, all invested in this game for these reasons.  We are not all fearful of examining our lives.  We are not all bent upon escapism.  Some who play the game play it because of the opportunity it gives to examine our lives further.  To put our personalities into a laboratory, as it were, and run tests on it, and compare the results of those tests with our ordinary, everyday behavior.  If we suffer loss in our lives, how does that compare with the loss of our characters?  If we are ambitious in our lives, how are we able to be ambitious with our characters?  How do they play off each other.  How does the imagination I put towards my world reflect the imagination I put towards my other art, or my social responsibilities, or my interactivity with other persons?

For the smallest number of players of the game, characters are not measured by their successes, or by how they differ from we ourselves, but by the means by which our imaginations work within frameworks we do not encounter everyday.  I do not, for example, kill monsters on my way to work.  I would much rather not live in a world where that was necessary.  But the process of killing monsters, and the way it tests my ingenuity, is very much a process of my mind examining strategies I don't get to play out otherwise.  And playing out strategies in my mind, regarding my competitors, my writing, my sex life and so on, is the way I self-examine every element of my life.  I examine with gusto, because it is in examining that I determine where I am, where I'm going and why I'm going there.

If my world is going to be useful in that regard, for me or for my players ... if it is going to be a laboratory of any value towards that purpose ... then the one thing it cannot be is disproportional and erratic.  It must operate according to fundamentally particular principles which are the same from session to session, from adventure to adventure, and from campaign to campaign.  The players, when the sit down to play, must know what to expect.  They must have rules they can rely upon.  They must be able to judge accurately the scope of their actions and the limitations they have.  Only in that way can they measure themselves against the world I create, just as they measure themselves against the world none of us created.

The reason worlds like this go on, and on, and on, is because the examined D&D life IS worth living.  It is worth sacrificing moments in the real world for.  It is not replaceable by liquor, or skydiving, or heroin.  There's no self-examination in any of these things, for hedonism is the manner in which self-examination is avoided.

There are elements of this game that rise magnificently beyond hedonism.  These cannot be comprehended escapism any more than life can be.  The very argument of escapism - to escape from life - is the manner in which fools doom themselves.  There is no escape.  This was the point Socrates made.  It is the point I am making.

But he and I are alike in one other way.  I don't expect the listener to believe me, either.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

25 Years Ago

As I wrap up the public half of my day, I wanted to say something about what day it is.  This is the 15th of November, 2011, and as such it is 25 years, today, that I got married to my first wife Michelle.

I was with Michelle for just over 12 years, and so we did have a tenth anniversary together, before her long illness finally separated us.

But as it happens, just three weeks ago I celebrated my tenth anniversary of being together with my present partner Tamara ... so that would have been my second time.  And somehow I managed to do them both in the same 25-year period.

It is a strange, strange world.  They have both loved me very much, which has probably been stranger.  I have loved them both very deeply.  I could not help myself.

The Saving Throw Experience

Something that has always bothered me, which came to mind during the last session I was running, is the stale quality of saving throws in AD&D.  First and foremost, that they do not improve with each level, but rather improve in stages of three or four levels - and more importantly, that your saving throw versus a fifth level spell is the same as your save versus a first level spell.

It takes gobs of experience to throw a fifth level spell, and how annoying is it when you cast, say, a magic jar against some very low-level character and have it thrown off with the same chance of throwing off a charm person spell.  Shouldn't the spell that takes longer to acquire have more oomph than a spell you have at the start?

What's worse is that by the time a party member is likely to use a magic jar against an enemy, the enemies will be much more powerful and have much lower saving throws than when that mage was first level and using charm person vs. orcs.  Not that I'm saying I want to make higher level spellcasters more powerful, but we're talking a circumstance of diminishing returns for more difficult to acquire spells ... and the effect is to push casters away from spells that require saving throws.

Logically, a higher level spell ought to be tougher to save against than a lower level spell.  Logically, a player ought to improve their saving throw at every level.  So I'm proposing, as a template, a table something like this:


For comparison's sake, if we propose that a first level character's save vs. a particular type of attack (magic, death, paralyzation and so on) is 13 (marked in red), than the additional saving throws decending from that initial number is reflected by the table.

Of course, this would mean a separate table for each class and each type of attack ... but hey, I work on a computer, so I have the space.  Overall, I think this would make a better saving throw 'experience.'

Proof That People Do Not Get Worked Up Over Star Wars

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Public Vlogging

Saying it and not writing.

Two thoughts:

"To strip our pleasures of imagination is to reduce them to their own dimensions, that is to say to nothing."

- Marcel Proust

"Life is a gamble, at terrible odds - if it was a bet, you wouldn't take it."

-Tom Stoppard

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sometimes You're Out Of Control

Finally, when it comes to character freedom of action, no discussion on the use of the mind would be complete without something being said on mind control, which has a long and traditional history of use in both RPGs and fiction.

To start with, in D&D, we have items, monsters and spells that all enable the DM to control the player's actions.  A party will never hesitate to use spells or potions and the like against monsters, and we all love to turn the monsters against themselves.  In kind, a party encountering a magic user, a nixie or siren, among a wide host of other monsters, expects to suffer a bit from the charm spell.  It isn't always pleasant, but there are plenty of opportunties for a DM to step in and tell the player characters what they have to do, because they been charmed, or suggested, or magic jarred, or what have you.

It isn't as though the whole mind control technique hasn't been employed for centuries to keep things interesting.  Merlin being enchanted by Vivien.  The fun and games of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Mina Harker from Dracula.  The Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon.  Heinlein's The Puppet Masters.  McCoy and Sulu in Return of the Archons.  The Penguin.  The Imperius curse.

Over and over again, characters get overwhelmed by the dark, unforgiveable influence of the evil forces at work in the world.  It isn't fun, but now and then you don't get to say what happens to your character ... and them's the breaks.

A DM, obviously, has to be very careful how this kind of scenario is played out.  He or she can't simply rope a party by having a magician show up and turn everyone into mindless zombies.  No, first a tale has to be told, which includes words like 'danger' and 'curse,' and preferably has some reference to the tendency of the evil entity/device to control the minds of people in contact with it.

Then, preferably, the party should have to willingly travel overland towards where the entity/device is, thus willingly making the choice to either ignore, or intelligently challenge the entity/device in its lair.

If, however, the lair is approached, and if the party has gotten there of their own free will, then the DM is fair to judge that Pandora's Box has indeed been opened.  It's no use trying to stuff all the bad back into the box.  It is too late.  The DM is at that point perfectly justified in turning the party into zombies.

My personal feeling is, however, that the DM is also responsible for offering the party a way out.  There has to be an end game that neutralizes the effect ... and fairly quickly, since otherwise the campaign is going to get awful frustrating and boring.

Mind control in a campaign is a difficult adventure to run.  It involves trust - mostly, the players trusting that the DM isn't going to just fuck around with them for fun.  Given the general behavior of a great many DMs, this is a very difficult trust to earn.  Parties are notably gun shy.  And that's why I say, be sure the party recognizes their part in making the mind control happen, and get them out as quick as you can.

And while the adventure is happening, tell your party to sit back and enjoy the ride as much as they can, with their hands inside the car, until the 'coaster comes to a complete stop.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anti-Strategy

Let me ask if you have never made an error in judgment. Obviously, you have. We all have. We date people we really should not date, and we ignore the warnings of our friends and trusted family members in order to date those people. We even get married when we shouldn't. We take jobs we know are going to be bad news, and we quit jobs in the heat of the moment, only afterwards to realize what a stupid thing that is to do. We skip completing assignments or procrastinate about them, only to find ourselves in the worst sort of place when these things become due and we're pulled up on the carpet to answer for what a crappy job we've done.


Why do we act this way? We know it is not in our best interest. Yes, its true that we want sex, or we need the money, or that the game is on or the crew is going to the bar tonight and working on a task means missing all that. But we also know that we should listen to our friends. We know we should do our jobs. We know that without money, we're fucked. So why can't we simply have the wisdom to tell the difference between what is important, and what is REALLY important?

I don't pretend to answer that. I do want to point out, however, that we are NOT always aware of what is best for us, and we do NOT always do things in our own best interests. We are at the mercies of our hormones, our comprehension of how boring the responsible action will be, or what we perceive we might be missing by acting smartly. We are not perfect. We are human beings.

But if you want to get a real fight going at a D&D table, propose that a player can't do something because their wisdom says their character is not capable of thinking the way they themselves are.

Players - and power players especially - are used to treating D&D as a strategy game like chess. No one would ever suggest you couldn't move your king's pawn to king 4 because the king's pawn has a wisdom of 9 and isn't feeling up to that right now. You don't have to roll against intelligence to find out if the king's horse can jump a pawn and leap to king's bishop 3. These things are simply not part of the game. It is a strategy game, not a wishy-washy bunch of crap about 'feelings' or interpersonal limitations ... so let's not have any of that crap in D&D.

Arguably, it might have been a mistake to incorporate wisdom, intelligence, or even charisma into a game that was bound to be played almost universally by strategists. If I am going to give credit to Gygax for any given thing, it is going to be the genius of incorporating a limitation into the game that would well and truly fuck strategists FOR EVER. Not that the strategists pay any attention, of course. They simply ignore the stats (unless something strategic is derived from them), and players with a 10 wisdom character play precisely the way that players with an 18 wisdom character do. Want to argue with the king? No problem. Don't want to sleep with the girl? Of course you don't have to. Get up and fight although you only have one hit point and you can't win - don't think about it. OF COURSE your 8 wisdom character wouldn't refuse. This is a strategy game, after all.

Except that it isn't, obviously. But still after forty years the word has not come down. People have no trouble not being able to do something because they're not strong enough.  The limitations of our bodies are not OUR limitations.  Or so we fool ourselves into believing.

A player in my online campaign recently said, regarding failing a wisdom check, "I'm just not used to not having control of my character for non-magical reasons." But of course he is. We all are. We make rolls all the time to determine if we can do something, and when we can't, we're used to not having that control. We would have preferred the die went our way, but ... oh well.

The point here is that we're not used to not having control of our character's thought processes ... because this is pure anathema to our sensibilities. We can take failing at a task. It is murderously hard to take failing at a task because we're not smart enough.

That is why we associate so many of the things at the start of this post with shame and guilt, and things we'd rather never talk about again. Moreover, RPGs are a way of living a life without shame, or guilt. We kill without guilt. We steal without guilt. We conquer the world without guilt. We're unashamed, loud, self-important bastards, bellowing at the bartenders and barmaids of the world without worry or concern for anyone's feelings, in particular our own.

And who the hell wants any of that emotional baggage in a D&D game?

Well, frankly, I do. Because it's real. It's the substance and source of what makes us who we are. Even the difficult bits where we fail at what we wish we were able to do. Our failings are a thousand times more interesting than our successes, and they make our successes wonderful. I'm not going to sacrifice that whole potential aspect of the game, which is what makes this game better and more important than chess.

My players are not chesspieces. They're alive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More Intelligence: Back To Technology

Would that I had a little time to get a post written today.  Oh wait, here it is.

Whatever the conclusions that came out of yesterday's post, with my proposing for all of ninety minutes the possibility of rewriting the combat tables and then rescinding them, I still find myself in the same basic quandary:  How does a low intelligence differ from a high intelligence in principles of game play?

Granting for the time being (the next thirty years or so) that the effect isn't upon combat, what exactly is effected?  Roleplay?

Okay, I've taken a few moments to stop laughing and get myself together.  No, obviously not roleplay.  No two people in RPGs can agree on any rule binding roleplay for three minutes at a time.

Frankly, I'm not concerned with whether intelligence 'conforms to scientific reality' or not.  I just want a game system that is defined, clear, practical and allows for extrapolations to be made in world design and game play.

Consider, if the gentle reader will, that the lower orders of intelligence are fairly well defined.  A zero-intelligence denotes no thought at all.  A one-intelligence permits the conception of most animals ... with an instinctual thought structure based on seek food or flee.

Two-intelligence brings the lesser sort of animal hunters who, while associating in tribes, tend to attack singly or in not-so-organized groups (the lions bringing down an elephant in David Attenborough's Planet series is a good example).  You can see it here.

A three-intelligence describes a small step up, not so much in terms of combat strategies, but more so as regards personal inter-relationships, such as among the lower apes.

The four-intelligence, or "semi-intelligent" by D&D standards, excellently describes the higher ape.  So in that we have the brink of tool using culture ... where tools are used, but not specifically fabricated for use.  This is a question of intelligence, since while you can teach an ape to use a specific tool, you can't teach it to understand how the tool works, or indeed expect it to understand why the tool is superior.  It learns to use the tool by rote, and not by reason.

Logically, then, the five-intelligence or better creature steps into the realm of primitive tool fabrication and proper tribal organization.  "Low" intelligence, so-called.

At this point I think I would have to argue against considering the matter one of intelligence at all.  Simply throw out that appellation at this point, and define any intelligence higher than 4 as a question of technology, which can be separated.  In effect, a 5 intelligence merely describes a 10 intelligence creature hundreds of thousands of years lacking in social and cultural development.  We can leave any other discussion of intelligence on the shelf, so to speak, and simply not speak of it.

Once we do that, we can easily make a definition between a "low-intelligence culture" and a "human culture."  Humans use metal tools.  Humans have developed religion.  Humans read & write.  Humans have access to theoretical science.  Lower cultures do not.

If you like, you can consider in a medieval setting that it wasn't easy for more advanced cultures, like Europe, to have a steady impact on less advanced cultures, like that of the Bantu or the Nentsis of the Arctic shore.  Some jerk is going to rush at this point to bark about how the Bantu were actually very advanced, but this is a relative question.  Does "very advanced" mean they knew how to grow food and pick sores from their bodies, or does "very advanced" mean the development of a printing press and subsequent literature.  People have a tendency to ascribe the phrase "very advanced" to a wide variety of things.

An 'intelligence' scale (remember we put actual intelligence upon a shelf), balanced against a group of technologies, such as those to be found in, say, Civilization IV, which I've spent a lot of time writing about, might solve the whole problem.  Certain technologies could be allocated to certain 'intelligence' ratings on a point system ... so that if a creature had a 7 intelligence, you could define just exactly what technologies that creature possessed and which it did not ... with the added benefit that two seven-intelligence cultures need not have the exact same technological advances.

Just throwing it out there.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rethinking Intelligence

For a bit I'd like to write a bit about the intelligence of various humanoid races, without getting bogged down in the particulars of this race or that, but rather to concentrate upon the difference between what is a "low" intelligence and what is a "high" intelligence ... to get a handle on the various intelligence levels and what they might mean.

I don't suppose for a moment that Gygax and crew had any more idea of the differences between 'very intelligent' and 'extraordinarily intelligent' than do the people playing the game right now.  They were convenient labels, they sounded like they were stacked in a logical order, and it was obviously presupposed that people would just esoterically accept the labels without any need for them to be defined.  And indeed, they are not defined.  What, for example, can a very intelligent creature NOT do that a highly intelligent creature can?  Is it even a question of ability?  Is it the speed at which a creature can think?  And if so, how does that affect the game in any way?

There aren't any rules for it, so we know Gygax was pulling the whole framework out of his ass, or phoning it in if you prefer, dumping it into the book and then moving onto things that were scaled and made sense.  I know a lot of players out there don't think its important, or don't care, but like any scientist I want those things scaled and measured and clearly understood as to what a 13 intelligence means as opposed to a 12 intelligence.  I'm not satisfied with rolling the difference out, since intelligence is in fact not random.  People with higher intelligence DO understand things intuitively that people with lower intelligence do not ... to the eternal chagrin of persons with lower intelligence.

Measuring understanding is, however, a very difficult science, and hasn't been understood yet with regards to actual intelligence ... and therefore it would be difficult to hang game rules on any study of the subject.  Alas, we are limited in creating game rules to things that can be established in black and white terms: a 6 on a d6 is not a 5, cannot be mistaken for a five, and never will be a 5.  This is the sort of game rule we need for intelligence.  Not because a very intelligent creature isn't occasionally stupid, or because a stupid creature can't have moments of genius, but because in the wider sense, we are talking of cultural entities comprised of stupid creatures and genius creatures, and therefore there's something to be argued for statistical generalities.

For example:  how is a Naga culture profoundly different from a Goblin culture.  We know the nagas are smart and the goblins not so much, but what exactly does 'different' mean?  How do we resolve what ought to be present in a naga culture?  Or in any culture for that matter.

There is, of course, the pulling it out of the DM's ass technique, the tried and true method, forever defended and requiring absolutely no continuity or logic whatsoever.  The lovely thing about this method is that it needs no defense, as illogic is in itself a kind of proof.  If you are the sort that ballyhoos this method, and do so loudly and proudly, you really shouldn't be reading this post, or this blog for that matter.  I'm not your sort of beer buddy.  I'm sure your time could be better spent right now buying lottery tickets.  Go get one and the rest of us will continue.

Since I can't measure comprehension in any way that is as absolutist as I want for the game, I'm pretty much in the realm of ability vs. non-ability, or knowledge vs. non-knowledge.  It's really the realm of wisdom and not intelligence, but we generally suppose from fiction that a really smart culture possesses all sorts of cool and interesting technologies that a really backward culture doesn't have.  Note, please, that we don't call them "dumb cultures."  There is the presumption, always present, that a backward culture will one day be a forward culture, on the same track that we ourselves followed.  In fact, we can thank Star Trek and other sources for hammering into our minds that every primitive culture is filled with people who are just as smart as we are, they just haven't sat in classrooms and been taught jet propulsion and gross anatomy.

There's a physiological precendent for this, of course - that being that we are substantially unchanged from the same biological construct, Cro-magnon man, who roamed the planet 150,000 years ago.  We have the same brain, the same structure, the same built-in probable comprehension of languages and so on.  We understand from our studies that if we could teleport a Cro-magnon baby from the distant past into our present, it would probably be fully capable of learning language and growing up just as any modern child.  There are a lot of reasons to think this is true, but I'm not going to go into them; feel free to do some of your own reading.

So we are not really any 'smarter' than our distant ancestors, which argues that our civilization is just the happenstance of hitting upon technologies which have changed our outlook this way and that.  Those technologies came very slowly for the first 140,000 years, but they piled upon each other and eventually led to processes in our culture that taught us how to seek technologies, no longer relying upon discovering them by accident.

An accidental technology would be something like the acquisition of fire.  I don't say discovery, of course, because fire was around long before we were ... but at some point we know that the domestication of fire - the power to make fire at will, and not depend on gathering it from a random source - was probably hit upon by witnessing some particular event and reproducing that event.  Unlike modern technologies, where we conceive of the technology and then actively bring it about without ever having any prior proof that it was possible to bring it about.

I digress into this because I'd like to step into the realm of humanoid species that were not cro-magnon man ... since we are, after all, talking about goblins and bugbears as opposed to humans.  Our one obvious example is Neanderthal man, which had been in existence for some 400,000 years prior to the arrival of Cro-magnon.  We have a long cultural history of perceiving that the Neanderthal was dumber than we were.  It was supposed for several hundred years that we wiped them out because we were smarter, but it is understood now that we probably intermarried with them and that all of us today possess a fair quantity of Neanderthal genes - arguably, some more than others.

It is not as though Neanderthals were without technologies of their own.  Prior to the Cro-magnons appearing, they developed tools, weapons, techniques and cultures all their own.  There's no doubt from the evidence that Cro-magnons were superior in these things, but since we already perceive that technology is a result of circumstance and development, and not necessarily intelligence, there is a little proposal to make here.

First, however, let's point out that the speed at which technologies were witnessed and reproduced was certainly much faster with the Cro-magnon species.  The Neanderthals had 400,000 years to accomplish what they accomplished, and we managed what we have in only 150,000.  So we were obviously more observant and quicker at picking up nature's ball than were the Neanderthals.

But suppose there had never been any Cro-magnons.  Suppose that the Neanderthals had another million years or so to pick up the ball, so to speak.  It's not an unreasonable proposition.  Can we really argue that Neanderthals wouldn't have eventually learned how to be rocket scientists? 

Perhaps it would have taken much, much longer.  Perhaps Neanderthal universities would require ten or twenty years of steady training to bring Neanderthal children up to scale ... and perhaps Neanderthal doctors would only practice for ten or fifteen years before having to retire.  We can presume their lifespans were longer, like ours became longer, but perhaps all the training it took would shorten the professional years of practice.

From this perspective, aren't we saying that a goblin can do as much as a naga, given its time of existence?  Perhaps goblins are just 'dumb' because they were only created a few millenia ago, whereas naga have been around for 25,000 years.  And perhaps humans aren't quite as smart as a naga, but they've had 125,000 years longer to learn how to do stuff.  And as we know, it's those last five hundred years that really make the difference.

Consider that every humanoid race smarter than your average dog is generally considered to have mastered the power of fire.  You don't picture a bunch of bugbears sitting around a camp without a fire going, do you?  Have you ever described a camp of 'intelligent' creatures at night without a fire?  But of course there were such camps, for hundreds of thousands of years, in our own actual history.

This makes the argument that either A) every creature is smart enough to create fire, even if it means they were shown how to do so last week; and B) every creature has had the same amount of time to develop as a race that we have had.  Either way, we're looking at a system of homogenous intelligence, where once the technology is created by one culture, it immediately becomes available to all the other cultures because we as DMs don't - or can't - perceive any difference.  Goblins may be a little less organized in your combats, but they still use all the same weapons, have the same armor, gather food the same way and sit around the same fires that your much smarter elves sit around.  There doesn't seem to be any problem in a goblin or a bugbear being able to manipulate technology once its put into their hands.

What I'm saying is that this is substantially wrong.  Using a sword, for instance, is not just a matter of picking it up and swinging it.  An ape can do that.  Doesn't make the ape a swordsman.  Swordplay is a complex intellectual pursuit that requires gauging a lot of factors besides your ability to swing.  In other words, you might be able to put a sword in a bugbear's hand, but you shouldn't expect the bugbear to be able to parry with it, or set up combinations, or know about the intricacies of footwork and so on.  It is a low intelligence creature.  Even if you could teach it over ten years how to do those things, it would NEVER be smart enough to react to something in swordplay it had never seen before.  It simply wouldn't have the intelligence to interpret what it was seeing and concoct a logical strategy against it.  By the time a low intelligence creature could do all that, it would be dead.  Remember, Cro-magnons are three times faster than Neanderthals.

The same ought to be true with creatures in the game who are smarter than us.  They ought to be able to fight with swords at a skill level much higher than an ordinary person - or indeed do anything with a much higher ability.  Their comprehension should be lightning-quick, the intricacies of their language much harder to grasp, their tools requiring a tasking multiplicity our brain-pans can't perform at the same rate.  Oh, sure, you might eventually learn how to play their variety of chess ... but you'll never win if you're playing 'speed-chess' with them.  You don't think that fast.

The thrust of all this writing comes down to this:

1)  Virtually every technology in the game is equally spread among all races regardless of intelligence, and probably no one wants to change that.
2)  Intelligence is speed of comprehension, and not the possession of technologies.

For that matter, intelligence is the possession of certain moralities, but that's another essay.

A smarter creature therefore ought to be able to use all the same existing technologies better ... and that is the scale that ought to be put into place.  It shouldn't be that a naga or a bugbear has a better to hit table because it has more hit dice.  Both should fight on to hit tables that are commensurate with their intelligence.  And the same ought to be true with most die rolls.  A smarter fighter should be able to do better with a grapple.  He or she should be able to leap from a high place with less likelihood of dying.  He or she should be able to take down a bigger, stronger opponent even if that other opponent is a higher 'level' ... which might be a case of a better to hit table for the lower level, smarter fighter and a lot of hit points for the higher level, dumber fighter.  And that might be a very interesting - and quite socially common - contest.

Intelligence, not strength or dexterity, ought to be the MASTER stat.

But nobody bothered to make rules for it.