Saturday, December 29, 2012

Correct Entertainment

"Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader."

As stated by the Comics Code Authority, 1954

Recently, I wrote that D&D was widely played in a self-imposed sort of infancy.  I meant that for many, the playing of the game carries with it an insistence on childish plots, with childish themes, suitable for childish people.  Above is an example of how censorship in the 1950s whitewashed comics, eliminating elements of storytelling that removed the grey in criminal activities, imposing a black-and-white absolutism.  If you want to see the whole list, you can read it here.  The Comics Code was the thing that destroyed adult interest in graphic art, that had been rising through the 1940s - and made comics something only children would read.

But then, the statement was only based upon the Hays Code from 1930:

"The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience."

I don't begin here to argue that censorship is a bad thing.  Obviously, it's a bad thing.  Nor am I here to write that in the long run, after 40 years of hard censorship in the movies (affecting your parents and your grandparents), and an even longer time in the television industry, you and I and everyone we know are polluted with a sense of decency that has been imposed upon us.  It's in the blood of the culture, like a disease ... and it remains ever-present with the "solution" the Hays Code that was imposed in the 1970s: the MPAA rating system.

No, I am here to argue that if you want to enliven your D&D campaign; if you are a writer and you ever want to do serious work; if you are human being who wants to comprehend the difference between shit and art ... you must set yourself to work breaking these codes, which have been written to make you think like a child.

These are 'uncomfortable' subjects like brutality, addiction, slavery, sexuality, vulgarity, religion, race, politics, cruelty and so on ... the very aspects that make us uncomfortable, but also define what we are willing to do and what we are willing to fight against.  These are the guts of culture ... which the film industry and others decided that you were not grown up to see.  And note the argument they used:

"Reasons supporting the Preamble of the Code:  I.  Theatrical motion pictures, that is, pictures intended for the theatre as distinct from pictures intended for churches, schools, lecture halls, educational movements, social reform movements, etc., are primarily to be regarded as ENTERTAINMENT."

The reader can investigate and see that in the portion of the Hays Code quoted above, the capitalization was not mine.

How often has it been argued in blog after blog that this shouldn't be tolerated or that shouldn't be mentioned or what shouldn't be done because D&D is supposed to be FUN?  Where is the difference?  It is just another set of voices in the world defining for you what is "fun" and what shouldn't be.  Not what isn't, mind you, but what "shouldn't be."  As the Hays Code puts it,

"Mankind ... has always recognized that entertainment can be a character either HELPFUL or HARMFUL to the human race, and in consequence has clearly distinguished between a) Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the reality of life; and b) Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.  Hence the MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized.  It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives.  A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.  So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation."

There it is.  Correct entertainment.  D&D is about having fun.  When D&D is played correctly, it is fun.  When it is played incorrectly - that is, according to the standards of people who define 'correct' - it cannot be fun.

Just as all the art in the world that has been created in defiance to codes were, by definition, destructive to the goodness of mankind.  It's all bullshit.  It's all a control mechanism purported by people who want to demand that this game never changes, so that their campaigns are never touched by anything that they're uncomfortable with.  They never want to find themselves out of their depth, so they keep that depth no more than a foot or so, just enough to wade in.  These people never, ever want to swim.

Break all the codes.  Play all the elements of human experience, not just the ones set for the wading pool.  It's time for D&D to reach adulthood.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Conscience To Play With

It's Christmas end and I'm not feeling well, which is typical for this time of year and is also one of my least favorite things.  Thankfully, I'm not trying to work sick, at least.  Instead, I can spend my holidays coughing up a lung.

So, briefly, this conversation came up before Christmas, as a bunch of us were sitting around and talking about D&D.  I advanced the question, how far should I go towards giving advice to players, given that it is a game that is a) played for fun; and b) played for its challenge.

The first stance is the hard line:

No matter what the player says, that's what the player does.  The DM says nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  Give no hints, no warnings, no suggestions, etc.  Do not even argue that the player's intelligence or wisdom would suggest that the mage, cleric, monk and so on would know better.  If the character dies, it dies.  Tough luck.

I've never been comfortable with this.  I know for a lot of people, this is the heart of the game; the brutal, unrestricted challenge of live or die based on nothing but your instincts and insight.  If the player wants to win, he or she must play WELL ... or else what's the sense anyway?

Fair enough - that is, if you're a good player.  If you've been at this a long time; if you're very aware of all the rules and angles and options you can play.  If you're not that good, well, too bad.  Lose fifty or sixty characters, and you'll get your mind right, eh?  "That's how I did it ... these young noobs today, they expect the first character they run to live, can you believe it?"

Part of my bigger problem is that I'm no noob myself, and I hold a lot more cards than the players.  I know there's a dangerous pair of 7th level, 18 dex gnomish bowman waiting behind that tree, and that if the party tries the obvious thing - crossing the bridge in broad daylight - I'm going to pick them off.  Is it fair?  What's fair.  That level and that dexterity are rare, and the party is more likely to think I'm lucky than that I'm hitting every time because these guys can really shoot.  Given the tendency of parties not to quit and seek shelter (run away), there's a really good chance I'm going to kill someone.  Was that because they made the 'wrong decision?'  Weren't they trained to make the wrong decision?  I mean, by playing up to that time where I've never actually put that kind of talent against them?

Note, I don't say "amount."  I say "kind."  As in, two humanoids are almost never especially dangerous.  Over and over, as you level, two humanoids are almost always more or less taken by a party of six or eight.  What I'm saying is, after a lifetime of being the sheriff of a shit-hole in Washington State, is it fair to throw Rambo against the party?  Or a pair of Rambos.

Sure, say some.  Whatever happens, happens.

Yes, but isn't it true that I decided on this?  I created the scenario, I set it up, and I duped the party into thinking it would all happen like it always does ... the party takes a few hits, crosses the bridge and kills the gnomes.  They miss the trap in the middle of the bridge that makes it fall apart, they miss the dimension door  nine tenths of the way across that plops them back into the center of the bridge, they miss the two hippogriffs that take flight and attack the party on the bridge, they miss the tiny glyph of warding that has a chance of paralyzing everyone, they miss that the ground that appears to be but thirty feet under the bridge is an illusion and that its actually a 500 foot gorge and they miss that the two gnomes are actually two titans who are in disguise.

All I'm saying is that IF the only chance the players have is that they correctly roll to check for traps and disbelief and saving throws and so on, sooner or later, no matter how good a players they are, bad luck is going to get them.  Chances are, a lot sooner than later.

But maybe that's not convincing enough.  Maybe there are players who know that and like it and heck, they're just trying to play the odds until they run out.  Okay, let's take that as a given.

Have I, as a DM, truly conveyed the right emotion here?

Look.  You're on this side of the bridge.  The center of the bridge is 30 feet above the ground, strung between two fifty foot cliffs.  The bottom appears to be a dry river bed.  There are some scrubby oak trees on the other side, about 150 feet away.  The bridge looks pretty rickety ... the party is going to move half speed while crossing it.

Okay, now some smart guys are going to figure, "half-speed."  Why would the DM say that?  "There's something wrong with this bridge, fellas," someone says.  Good enough.  I want them to be worried.  I want them thinking about their environment.  I want them picturing making their way across, the bridge shaking as they go.  If they do start across, I'll remember to mention that they probably shouldn't all go at the same time - or at least to stagger themselves, and not to march in step, since that tends to make a bridge rock more.  Most of all, I want them thinking, THIS IS DANGEROUS.

And still, at the same time, I can't let them know it is, can I?  Heck, any party that travels through a mountainous region is going to come across bridges like this all the time.  They can't see any danger, can they?  Of course not.  Does the thief see any problems?  No, not from here.  Does the party have detect magic?  Sure, but I knew that, so there is no actual magic on the bridge, or below the bridge (I was fooling with all that stuff about illusions and so on before).  Do they see anything special?  Of course not!  And naturally, my face is open, friendly, half-grinning as the party makes a bunch of ridiculous preparations.  "Okay," I say, again and again, as they fuel themselves up for this oh-so-dangerous bridge.

Now, are there two gnomes on the other side?  It's up to me, isn't it?  How many bridges do I have to describe before I catch this party failing to make preparations?  How long is it before having made preparations and blown their protective spells crossing bridges that I catch them with their pants down three hours later?

How long can I make them chase their shadows and prep for things for no good purpose, so they don't have those things available later on?  Forever.  And no matter how they prep, no matter how many hit points they have or spells they can throw, in every situation like this, I can have something step out from those trees ahead that they just won't be able to handle.

Either I am perpetually forced to show the party my hand, like a bad detective novel, where the description of everything is so obvious the party knows, yes, here is where I get my spells ready ... or I'm going to catch the party with their pants down just because I'm clever enough to do it.  Can the gentle reader understand what I am saying?  Either I am forced to play bad, cheesy situations which gives the party all the clues they need to not die, or I am forced to play guaranteed party-equal encounters where there's at least a 50/50 chance the party will live.  Both ways, its a pretty crummy game.

No, haven't got it yet?  If I want to have two deadly gnomes across the bridge for the party to fight, to play the "no suggestions" to player's action method of gaming, I have to leave trails of bread crumbs everywhere, to play "fair."  I have to have some old man warn the party about the two gnomes (gawd, the cliche!).  I have to dress the gnomes like Christmas Trees so the party knows they're dangerous (they can't be dressed like peasants, they'd be wearing expensive armor and hand crafted weapons, blah blah blah).  I have to go out of my way to give the party every chance of knowing that these two gnomes are NOT like any other gnomes they ever saw, right?  Or else, I'm doing nothing more than fucking the party, period.  I made the gnomes, I made them party killers, I created the situation, etc.; if I don't give clues, even if they wouldn't be there except that this is a game, then I'm a party-fucker.

Well, what's wrong with that?  It is a game, right?

Does it have to be this same crappy cliched bullshit that makes every adventure like a bad Republic Serial from the 30's?  I hope not.  Because that Rambo shit happens every day.  You're just beatin' up another bum you've found on your city streets.  It's just another couple of gnomes with short bows.  No big deal.  "No sweat, guys, I'll take these two by myself."

And after I've killed the cocky fighter this way, what do I say to the rest of the party?  "Oh well, fellas, no sweat.  We're all having fun, right?"

Sounds to me like I would be - if I were the sort of prickish DM that pounded my pud over things like this.

So what would I do?  When the cocky fighter said he was crossing the bridge, alone, I would say, "Are you sure?"

I think this is fair.  I think its part of my responsibility to point out that all may not be as it appears.  I also think it's my responsibility to add that the fighter might think of changing out of his plate mail, if he doesn't want to get across the bridge next week.  And to turn to the other party members and say, "Are you just going to let him go out by himself?"
Because I think that's how consciences work.  It's easy for four players sitting around a table to let a fifth player sitting around the same table to do something stupid.  It would be harder if they all really were on the edge of a cliff, by a rickety bridge, watching someone they'd been with for months start out on his own.  And I want it in the party's heads that their characters are doing this ... and so if, as DM, I can throw a little guilt into the mix, by jeezus and elvis I will.

And finally, I'm going to say a couple of times, "I don't know ... it sure is a looooong way across that bridge."  With facial expressions and so on to match, as if to say, "What, are you fuggin' nuts?"

This is my particular way of sitting an old man at the front of the bridge to tell the party about the bad gnomes.  I'm sorry if it doesn't seem better; or if it seems worse ... but it gives me one hell of a lot more play on playing the party's emotions, the situation, their impressions and in general their reactions to things.  Hell, the other way, the stuffy DM says nothing way, gives me jack shit nothing to play with.

That would just make me want to kill parties.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Control Weather

I've completed my spell descriptions for the cleric, all seven levels.  I personally judge that the spell 'ceremony' that appears in the Unearthed Arcana is the sort of thing that every cleric has, and so I do not consider it a 'spell,' but rather a reusable ability, like turning undead.  I'll be working on those next.  Sometime in the next month I'll post the entire book.  It's up to 39 pages at the moment.

In the meantime, I did a lot of work on another 7th level spell, that being control weather.  Once again, the description in the player's handbook is for shit.  I swear, it's like the writers figured no one would get up to being a sixteenth level cleric, so when it came to those spell descriptions for 7th level, they had the janitor out in the hall write them.

Now, I've put up a couple of weather posts on this blog, but recently I've been using one for my campaigns that's of my own design and is rather marvelous ... except for being too bulky and as yet too set up for a temperate climate.  I have to work on it more.  Sadly, its an excel file.  Still, I promise I'll get around to posting it's guts online sometime in the new year.

Spell Description

Range: self. Duration: 4-48 hours. Area of Effect: 4-16 square miles. Casting Time: 3 rounds. Saving Throw: none.

Allows the cleric to change the temperature, conditions and wind force of the surrounding area, depending upon the previous conditions.

Showing are the first two tables which the cleric must review in order to determine what changes may be made. Firstly, the temperature may be reduced or increased two grades from whatever it is at present. Thus, a cool day may be made brisk or chilly, or it may be made pleasant or warm.

The particular weather determines the conditions the cleric may choose—regardless of whatever they were previously. Thus, if the temperature is brisk, the cleric may choose a light fog or a drizzle; if the temperature were warm, the cleric may make threatening clouds or an actual thunderstorm. Only those conditions adjacent to those temperatures may be chosen. A blizzard cannot occur if the temperature is greater than icy; a drizzle cannot occur if the temperature is pleasant or higher.
Finally, the wind force may be stirred up as much as the cleric desires, within the range which the cleric has chosen. Thus, if the cleric has decided that there is a light fog, then the wind force chosen cannot be greater than 0 or 1.

(Now, for this I found this just marvelous image off a website that nails the Beaufort Scale to perfection, giving a clear vision regarding the effects of wind force)

The time necessary for the change in weather to take place is 10 to 40 rounds (10d4), or between 2 and 8 minutes. If the weather is significantly altered, such as producing or eliminating precipitation, or changing the wind more than three points of force, the effect is so powerful that creatures must make morale check if they are in combat, or else they will break and retreat until the full change of the weather has taken place.

Incidentally, the graphic for the Beaufort Scale comes from a children's online magazine, Howtoons.


I should have added a note about hurricanes.

Hurricanes happen in only particular circumstances - in deep water, where both the ambient temperature and the water temperature are both high.  Arguably, if the cleric were in those particular places, the central Pacific, Indian or Atlantic, a hurricane ought to be possible.  It is debateable whether or not, once started, that the hurricane would dissapate with the end of the spell.  Once that environment is affected, whether or not the 'spell' hurricane was still active, a natural hurricane could have begun, gathering strength and following a random track that may not even hit landfall; or may hit any random shore.

Anyway, for those reasons the hurricane is not shown as an option on the temperature tables, but the wind speed of the hurricane is still shown (it appears in the graphic).


Funny thing.

About half the time - and particularly with players in my online campaign - I get a definite opinion about where they'd like to be born.  Egypt or Persia or something around the Baltic or the Western Mediterranean ... and there is a strong disappointment when it turns out they're born nowhere close to where they'd like to be.

Now, badmouth my use of the real Earth if you will, but when was the last time any of your characters cared where they were born?

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Up to 7th level cleric spells in my rewrite, I started with Astral Spell, and in short order realized what a lot of bunk it is.  I had already written the Plane Shift (5th level) so that you were able to travel to other planes of existence by shifting there.  How would it be better to actually have to travel there, silver thread and all?

Seemed pretty crappy for a 7th level spell.  So I wrote this one to replace it:

Spell Description
Range: self. Duration: see below. Area of Effect: self. Casting Time: 3 rounds. Saving Throw: none.

Creates an alternative, incorporeal body of the cleric which can be projected anywhere upon the prime material, astral or outer planes. Where ever this may be, through the avatar the cleric will be able to comprehend his or her surroundings, or communicate with creatures at that place, though the cleric’s body and possessions will remain behind.

To anyone else, the cleric on sight will appear to be completely human. The avatar cannot become invisible, though it may hide behind objects to avoid being seen, and may pass through objects freely. Still, the avatar is without physical substance—physical or magical attacks against the avatar will have no effect. In turn, the cleric will be unable to cast spells or take physical action through the avatar.

As an avatar, the cleric cannot hear or see through walls or other solid objects, any more than if the cleric were actually present at the location. Nor can the cleric fly, or perform any form of travel which the cleric could not perform. Magical spells which would affect the cleric cannot be cast upon the avatar.

There is no distance to which the avatar cannot be projected. The cleric must identify the name or condition of a place, or the name or condition of a creature to be found, but the cleric need not have ever seen or met the place or individual sought. Success will be unfailing, the cleric’s avatar appearing at a distance of the cleric’s choosing—thus, the cleric might specify, “One mile north of the largest pyramid in Egypt,” or “Five feet from the oldest man named Robert in England.” When not specified, the avatar will always appear to the north of the location.

When in sight, the cleric may visually ascertain the desired location of the avatar and it will appear there—such as, on the top of a wall, or at the far end of a street, etc.

Those who have a percentage chance to detect invisibility have an equal chance of identifying an avatar from a real being. If done, a thin silvery thread will lead back to the cleric’s physical body. Those who have the power to follow this thread have the potential to find and kill the cleric wherever he or she may be. While participating as an avatar, the cleric does not have any comprehension of what may be going on wherever his or her body may be—so it will be up to others to protect the true body from harm.

The cleric must cease to be an avatar in order to communicate any knowledge to others who are located with the cleric’s true body.

The cleric may continue to exist as an avatar indefinitely; however, once the avatar’s location has been determined, the spell must be broken before the avatar can be sent anywhere else. Until then, the avatar can only travel as the cleric might without aid of a horse or cart—only the physical earth under the cleric’s feet will support the avatar.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Huddled Poison Of Togetherness

There are a substantial number of people in the world who view their friends in terms of how much stroking can they offer.  They wouldn't use those words ... but I can see the point of that.  We were once simple tribal people, and the majority of the clan was made of those people who picked your fleas and didn't mind you pressing your back against theirs for warmth.  We're hard-wired to want friends who stroke us.

Only, the habits of civilized folk had to change as things grew more complex, what with a lot of systems and ideas being advanced to solve problems, and then systems and ideas being put in place to handle the advancements.

With the complexity of all this, there are reasons to question the value of stroking.  Perhaps, stroking isn't quite as "ideal" as its proported to be.  Perhaps stroking only promotes self-esteem, and perhaps self-esteem only becomes narcissism and a reason never to change.

Now, 'tis to laugh that I would dare use the term 'narcissism' to describe anyone but me ... as clearly I am the poster boy.  But I propose that the real trouble that comes from surrounding yourself with people who agree with you all the time only means there's less and less reason to change.

David Wong over at - no doubt the premier writer at that rather juvenile little site - wrote something earlier this week called 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person.  It's been true for sometime that if I wanted to say to someone, "See, there are people like me in the world," I could point to Mr. Wong (or Mr. Pargin, if we're using his real name).  The principle difference between us would probably be that he seems to be a nice guy; he writes in a patient, nice guy style.  But he admires assholes.

If you haven't read the article, I highly recommend it.  I highly recommend following through with the recommendations therein.

Part of the premise of Mr. Wong's article, unstated, would be that your friends, the ones that are agreeing with you that there's no need in the world to do all this shit to make your life better, are doing their very best to kill you.  They are not only stroking you; they are smothering you.

It is not merely that you should distrust people who like you, because they may not really like you, it is that you should distrust people who like you for no apparent reason whatsoever.  If they can't tell you why they like you're D&D world, for instance, that's a warning sign.

You won't think it is ... because they like you.  And being liked is nice.  But liking something without reason - or for reasons that have no actual value to anyone - is as cheap and easy as it gets.  The clan doesn't huddle together out of love.  They huddle together because everything else in the world is terrifying.

To put it another way:  They like your world because it's all they have.

It's pretty easy to hold onto people like this ... so long as you don't scare them more than the thought of having nothing to do Saturday night.  And where it comes to a lot of players, that's a real issue.  Better your world than television.  Better your world than another night at home, like the six other nights that week.

Don't get caught up thinking your world is a wonderful thing because its better than television, or that it's a Mecca for people whose social lives have a low expectation threshold.  The argument that people keep coming back every week is not much of an argument.

On the other hand, if you scream at them every week and they keep coming back; or they all have money and wives and a lot of other options of what to do and they keep coming back ... well, that's another thing.  But if this is the case, then you are probably following Mr. Wong's advice and providing something USEFUL for people.

Take my word for it: whatever you might think from running to running, the best player in your world is the thorn in your side that annoys the living shit out of you.  She's the girl who never finds anything you do very impressive.  He's the guy who points out that two months ago you said the opposite of what you're saying now.  She's the girl who argues with you for half an hour that prostitutes are not sleazy cows, but women practicing an art form.  He's the guy who wants yet one more firm, clear, unqualified rule about his mage's lightning bolt spell and the properties of water.  It's the rules lawyer in your world; it's the carping voice that won't shut up; it's the two chatting players who won't stop comparing notes.

Why?  Yes, because they'll force you to push yourself to make a better world that will answer their questions, and you'll readjust your thinking to include prostitutes that aren't sleazy whores, etc.  But also because it will stop you from stroking them!   It will stop you from thinking that at least you have players, whatever slavering, sychophantic thing you have to do to make them happy just so they'll keep coming back and not leave YOU alone on a Saturday night.  Because you're the problem.  Not just because you haven't worked hard enough to make a world good enough for them, but because you haven't realized yet that you deserve more than having to make a bunch of annoying, over-rated strokers happy.  Fuck them, buddy.  Stand up, get a backbone, point at the two chatterers in the corner and roar loud enough to ripple the wallpaint, "ARE YOU HERE TO PLAY OR WHAT?"

Your world gets better when you try harder.  Your world also gets better when you stop stroking them so they'll go on stroking you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Post-Pubescent Design

I am compelled to write more on yesterday's subject.

I find myself quite contentious on the matter of people who want to limit the game on the basis of what players are willing to play or what players are comfortable with.  This only means that the solution MUST be more creative and far-reaching than the limited imaginations of those who dismiss the idea of out hand.

At the risk of repeating the very, very obvious, SEX and LOVE are central, immutable elements of the human soul, more so than morality, magic or social comfort.  The failing here is not that these are not subjects suited for the game ... it is that the game at this time has not risen to the importance of these subjects.

Oh, you may sit upon your toadstool and preach the comfort zones of your players, but were someone to offer your players a rational, reasonable and playable option for them to get HIGH on their characters in love, they would grab it.

So far, I've seen people speak of all the negative aspects.  Of course no player character wants to settle down into a marriage.  Of course no player wants to be gay or have to suck up to a loved one's possible disapproval.  And no DM wants to get into all the bullshit of when a player's lovelife makes a social modifier and when it doesn't.

Playability demands that the whole situation MUST be viewed in terms of how it can be measured mathematically.  We're perfectly comfortable measuring intelligence mathematically, or wisdom, or your beauty.  We have no trouble with numbers for how likely your men are to obey you!  All existing social aspects of the game are already measured!

To remotely consider roleplaying as a fundamental solution to the matter is to propose NO solution, or to propose that a solution ought not to be supposed.  It is Victorian thinking, my dear gentle readers, and its as ignorant as Aleister Crowley and his midnight dinner parties.  You've thrown in the towel before you've begun and damn your frigid, turgid genitalia to your mother's narrow womb for that bullshit.

Betwixt the fantasy and the playability of D&D, my dear readers, a lover is a prize ... it is a phenomenal thing that is to be obtained, just as one obtains gold and magic.  it is, indeed, a 'magic' item ... one that must transform your character's kicking ass ability just as it does Parzival and just as a +4 Dwarven Hammer would.  The only thing that needs deciding isn't WHAT love would do, but how to obtain that kind of love.  We do not speak of the bar wench, or the piece of tail selling itself on the street of silversmith dildo-makers.  One does not wrench free the broken end of a smashed stairwell's bannister and call it a magic weapon.  Just so, one does not slap wet skin with the farmer's daughter and call it Guinevere.

So please spare me the conditional expectations of your players.  I do not care a whit for any such persons more pre-pubescent than their teenage children.  As ever, I'm looking to break the expectations here and lift the game out of its perpetual self-inflicted infancy.  Help or do not, but don't tell me its impractical.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sexless Grail

To write this post, I struggled to find some online version of the story of Parzival as told by the 13th century author Wolfgang von Eschenbach ... but that proved unexpectedly difficult.  The original story is written in medieval German.  Those translations I could find were either excessively worded poetry (longer than the original text) or children's simplifications.  Fact is, because I've never read the German (don't speak German) I've never actually "read" Parzival.  At best, I'm familiar with the story.

It's long, and wikipedia covers it fairly well.  It's fundamentally misogynistic, but in an odd way; the knight Parzival adores, loves, aches for his lady love, Kondwiramur ... but this intense worship steals him away from the Grail, which is the true adoration of God and all that is good, right and proper.  Well, this is the 13th century, and this sort of attitude towards women held a lot of power among males who tried to believe camaraderie with one's fellows and perfect worship of the Supreme Being were higher ideals than raw, unrelenting sex.  Not that there is any actual sex in Parzival.

There are many motifs, however, of women controlling or guiding Parzival's 'nature,' however, and the keen eye can see all the erectile symbolism, the collar around the male's throat, the mystical weaving of spells that we know all women possess, etc., etc.  You can miss all that if you haven't had extensive training in literary deconstruction - and you're all the better for it, believe me.  Deconstruction is only good if you want to write for a living, or if you want to be terribly depressing at parties.

The specific part of Parzival that I want to talk about is a famous passage.  Parzival is passing through the woods when a hawk hits a goose above him, and three drops of blood hit the snow next to Parzival's horse.  The knight looks at the snow and sees Kondwiramur - her cheeks, her white skin, her beautiful ruby lips ... and Parzival's heart yearns for the woman he's left behind.  He aches, his heart beats in his chest, he goes weak in the knees, he can't take his eyes off the snow as he drifts into a 'love trance' thinking of his lady love.

As he does this, his lance dips forward, and he's seen by a retainer in King Arthur's party, who is moving through the same wood.  The lance being dipped forward, the retainer rushes back and tells the King's party that there's a knight looking for a fight (the sign of the lance giving the intent).  Sir Sagramor puts up his hand (colloquially speaking) and goes Oh, Oh!  Let me fight him.  Arthur's got other things on his mind, but he says all right, but be back by suppertime (still colloquial).

Sagramor goes and finds Parzival and can't help noticing that he's rather distracted.  So Sagramor says, "Come on, have at ye!" and attacks ... and before time takes to tell, with one blow Parzival lays him out, never taking his eyes off the imagined image of Konwiramur in the snow.

Sagramor staggers back with his tail between his legs, and upon hearing the story Arthur's step-brother Kay shouts, Me! Me!  So Arthur lets Kay have a try.

Kay is a great blustering self-important asshole, and when he finds Parzival he insults him and cries, "I'll wake you up!"  And its the same scene all over again, except that Parzival kills Kay's horse and leaves Kay in a terrible state, so much so that Kay has to stay in his tent in pain after having to walk back.  All the while, Parzival never takes his eye off the snow.

The next to have a go is Gawain, who warned by Arthur to be careful, approaches Parzival in a very different manner.  Gawain recognizes him, calls out as a comrade (note the 'we are men' angle) and then takes note what's really going on.  So he lays a cloak upon the snow, Parzival immediately falls out the trance and says, "What's happened, what's going on?"  And Gawain has to explain how he's whacked two knights already, though Parzival has no memory of it.

There are other things going on - the whole Kondwiramur in the snow thing is part of a spell cast by Kondwiramur's mother, to entrap Parzival's heart and make him a slave to love, and so on, getting back to the general theme.  For myself, I don't really care about the glory of mythical deities, but I suppose there's something to be said about player characters throwing off the yoke of sex and giving obeisance to Gods and Demi-gods.

Nothing good, but something.

Now, I've gone through the exercise of getting across this story because I want to talk about love in D&D, and especially this whole 'love trance' thing.  Love is a powerful force, either for good or bad, as evidenced in the tale above.  Yes, it may not be as 'important' as the Holy Grail, which Parzival seeks - depending on how you define importance - but it is a damn sight stronger than a couple of mere knights.  There is a spectacular cult of passion that runs through most of human history, the better known since the 12th and 13th centuries (and the rise of romance), in which men of all varieties have rushed around getting themselves hacked to pieces over the erotic expectation of getting a LOT more than a pretty scarf to wrap around their uppers.  We may think that that knights and aristocratic ladies did not get it on in the bushes after a joust, but we also know there were a helluva a lot of bastard kings and other unwanted children running about the age, and they didn't pop out of bellies by chance.  Outwardly, it may have been for favors, but it takes an idiot to think that favors were as far as it went.

However, none of this is part of D&D.  You may be rushing around saving princesses, but after the fact its no touchy touchy.  Obviously there's the odd DM promoting the sweaty nasty after a good day's dragon killing, but by and large the consensus is that sex is not the mandate in D&D, and shouldn't get rubbed in the faces of people who are squeamish and all.

We can guess why there's no page about sex, love and the virtues of 14th century rape in the Dungeon Master's compendium of whatever version of the game you will.  For one thing, Gygax and Arneson were creatures of the 50s and 60s ... and though publishing their little books in the 1970s, it's pretty clear from the content that we're not talking about a couple of guys dropping into Plato's Retreat or anywhere near Stonewall in New York.  There may have been a sexual revolution going on at the time, but the Happy Hooker did not have any D&D questions to answer in her Penthouse column.

Now, I'm 48, and I can tell you that I have loved.  I have loved deeply and passionately, and I can certainly attest to the fact that when I am not writing here online or actually working at my job, there's a pretty good chance that I'm in some dark, sweaty place having a very good time without D&D on my mind.  I think this has to be true also for all the husbands and wives who read the various blogs about the game.  We are none of us ignorant in the ways of love, or the way that it will drive us to doing impossible, frightening things, or the way it keeps us chained happily to the work-desk and the bank mortgage.  We are all of us familiar with love.  Some of us are still in love with it, some of us are angrily in thrall to it and some of us stare achingly at the snow wondering why we don't have it now.

So IF we're going to talk about magic, and IF we're going to talk about fantasy, isn't it just a little boneheaded to think that none of that has anything to do with LOVE?  Or is there a special castration ceremony we've been meant to undergo upon entering a convention or sitting at the gaming table?  If there is, then why isn't THAT in the books, hum?

It seems to me the above tale of Parzival gives a hint of what kind of powers love might impart to characters willing to risk all.  Giving an opportunity for players to go to that place in the fantasy forum, where reconciling their nerdish nature with the nympholific, might shake loose some of the boundries of your game ... except that ...

Well, you should be able to see the problem at once.  THERE ARE NO RULES.  Nix, naught, nothing, not a thing to make the least suggestion of how you fall in love, how this love manifests, what should inspire your character or what the effects are.  Beyond the silly tropes of television, where every father hates every prospective mate, what real impact does the character's love have upon the family, searching for a really good sire to offspring.  Let's face it, player characters would make really good sires ... high ability stats and all that.  How about some serious bling for proving love and how about some serious positive consequences for the player willing to act greenly in front of the other players?  How about a grown up stance that says, this is my character and he by the bloodstains on Cthulhu's lips wants a goddamn good woman to have sex with.

I'm not saying that the participants should step into yon bedroom for twenty minutes and consummate a player character relationship ... but damn, what a running that would be!  Eh?  Anyone?

All I'm asking for is a little thought on the matter.  A little less digging of toes in the sand.  A recognition that you have testicles and genitalia, and that they transform interestingly now and then.  Contemplate it.  Give it some consideration.  Muse upon it.

You can go seek Parzival's sexless grail afterwards.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Oh, Yes, So Hard!

Am I to seriously believe there are people in the world who think it is a "challenge" to roleplay a particular class, having 'just' chosen it from the die roll?

My previous post was a suggestion that it would save the campaign TIME by knowing what you were going to play in advance ... and yet I received comments that described choosing a class "totally random and challenging myself to roleplay whatever I came up with."


Perhaps it is because I've been a DM.  Perhaps its because I've been playing for quite some time.  Somehow, having played princesses, dragons, small insects, dryads, brownies, heavenly beings, giants, treants, troglodytes, insane scientists, criminal masterminds, prostitutes and a wide range of classes and characters as NPCs, I don't find it that much of a "challenge" to be only a fighter or an illusionist or an assassin.  In fact, the very idea that roleplaying a particular 'class' is a "challenge" baffles the very shit out of me.

Now, please to let the gentle reader TAKE NOTE ... I am specifying, "class" ... writing it in boldface, with quotes and underlined, in the hopes that the ordinary skimming reader will pick it up.  ROLEPLAYING in general, YES, I take that as difficult, hard, subject to great amounts of mastery, with people making an effort.  No argument from me.

But fighter vs. druid?  Cleric vs. thief?  Really?

I guess that part of my incredulity is the thought that in someway, a class run in a particular way by a particular player character could be done "wrong."  I mean, I've written posts about how classes define people in the game, but I meant NPC's ... not players!  Players, I assume, will act in accordance with whatever beliefs they will.  I have harped on medieval life and how people used to think back then, but this is by and large directed at DMs to help them to flesh out their world.

This has to be some fucked up perception that's arisen from the use of alignment.  "Honest, Alexis, it's really freakin' HARD to run a neutral Druid!  You have no idea what a blue-bloody bitch chaotic good can be!"  And other similar happy horseshit.

Sometimes I wonder if you people actually know when you're shitting on a toilet and when you're doing it in front of the computer.  I can't begin to guess what kind of headspace one has to adopt in order to think that "making lemonade" out of six random scores is something you pat yourself on the back for, in order to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment.  This is a kindergarten accomplishment, kiddies.  Yes, you've smooshed clay into a flat shape vaguely similar to an ashtray!  GOOD for you, Jimmy.  Here's a star.

It's fucking sad, that's what it is.  It's just sad that people are so bloody weak that playing a set of different, limited classes is a 'challenge' to them.  I tell you, if there were only 18 very poorly identified fictional characters in the world for actors to perform, there wouldn't be any of them talking about what a great challenge it was to play #11.  Actors step in and play THOUSANDS of different characters ... and it takes a really unique one to be a "challenge."

Oh, oh, oh, acting isn't a fair comparison?  Okay.  Can anyone think of any craft, from fixing cars and photography through mountaineering and dance where there are only 18 forms of anything?  Hm?  Anyone?

I had a really, really nasty ending for this post, but I guess I should be charitable.  Listen, just go play more, okay?  You really need the practice.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Dice Are Not Puppet Masters

Where it comes to rolling up a new player, I appreciate players who have been in my world and are not coming fresh from someone else's campaign. I have a LOT of home rules ... the entire character generator, to start ... and it is easier if I have a player who at the start simply writes down what I tell them, and saves the questions until later.

I am not opposed to questions. The session as I run it tends to be a continuous process of mastering question after question hurled from 8 to 10 people (the big offline campaign I run). I think a player is entitled to know what everything on their character sheet means, obviously. I only mean that during the creation process, there's a hell of a lot of information, and I need specific decisions in order to generate that information. Decisions like, are you male or female? Do you want to be a cleric? If so, what religion would you like to be?

The majority of players seemd to believe that the scores determine what class they'll play. I get that if you don't have the scores, you can't play a paladin or a monk. That makes sense. But if you roll a 17, a 16 and a 15, you can be any class in the game (this is assuming, I'm afraid, that you're entitled to arrange your stats; if you can't arrange your stats, well, your DM is a sadistic prick and you should find someone better to be around).

So where is the hang-up?

I want the gentle reader to try a genuine experiment. Imagine that you are on the verge of rolling your first dice to determine your first ability statistic. Before you roll those dice ... decide then and there what class you're going to play. Have it fixed in your mind. Have it set in concrete, surrounded by a vault and dropped in the bottom of the deepest underwater trench of your mind. If it is something where you are unlikely to get the minimums, such as a monk, have a second choice and sink that in concrete also. Now roll the dice, and do NOT change your mind.

If you roll four 17s out of the blue, still hold fast to your original ideal. Though you may have wanted a bard, and now you have the scores for a monk, PLAY a bard! Don't make it multi-classed. And see if you've 'wasted' your stats on that character that did not need those minimums.

I can tell you from a lot of experience, those stats won't be a waste. No matter where you put them, no matter what character you run, the stats will serve you well or badly, depending on how good they are. Which means - wait for it - the dice don't determine what character you should play!

If you had in your mind to play a fighter before you rolled, there are reasons for that which do not change simply because you got lucky. You wanted to play a fighter. If you see those four 17s and decide to play something else, you're enslaving yourself to the dice - and more specifically, to someone else's ideal of what you should play based on what you roll. Try to parse that together. For the next forty runnings - if its a good long campaign - you're playing the class you didn't want to play because the dice were "too good" for the class you wanted.

You do know how stupid this is, right?

If you have in your mind the class you want to play before you arrive at the game - and you force the dice to fit your ideal, instead of the other way around - ALL the decisions about your character can be made in advance. You can think clearly and ahead of time what weapons you want. You can structure your equipment list far in advance, even writing it down so that when the time comes to actually create the character, you're looking for prices and not ideas.

See, I'm convinced that a lot of mistakes about character creation get made at the table because players have to make up their mind on a dime. The dice say, play this; they rush the process in their heads in order to play this; and thus they don't know what weapons they want, they're not clear on armor - and when the game actually starts, they haven't got any character goals in mind. Obviously! Until twenty minutes ago, they didn't even know they were going to be a thief!

The game savvy people out there will say at this point, "Pshaw, I can play any character." Well, yes, so can I. I can also shove any food like product in my mouth, walk in any random direction from my front door and buy any one of a dozen sofas for my living room. I'm ABLE to do those things ... but I don't decide to do them with 30 seconds notice, out of the blue. Hell, even as I'm making my way to where sofas are for sale, I'm thinking, "I'd rather get a green one."

But players slot themselves into playing a particular class with just that much notice ... because you CAN'T decide what class you'll be until you see the dice! It's practically de rigueur.

It seems to me that if you really are game savvy, you'd have stopped letting the die tell you what to do.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Crackers Ain't Wise

“You know, the Philistines have long since discarded the rack and stake as a means of suppressing the opinions they feared: they've discovered a much more deadly weapon of destruction -- the wisecrack.”

― W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

My definition of 'wisecrack' defines it as "a remark intended as a clever joke, especially one which criticizes someone."

The word dates from 1924, sardonically superimposing 'wise' with the mid-15th century Scottish word for 'boast' ... as in, "not what it's cracked up to be."  The word 'crackers' for southerners came from an 18th century, pre-revolution speech by G. Cochrane, of whom I could find no information online apart from his quip:

"I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by 'crackers' ... a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls [sic] on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

The term became synonomous with poor white trash by the 19th century, so that by the 20th the combination "wise-crack" could be used as a word for "cheap shot."  Which is what they are.

Wisecracks are fun.  You're only allowed a second or two to get them off for effect, and there's a certain smug charm in having the wit to concoct them and shoot them off with the right tone and volume to really hit home.  Some of the proudest moments of my life come from totally destroying some really annoying prof or political pundit with a masterful cutdown, simply because I hated that bastard or what they stood for so much.

I haven't thrown out every wisecrack as a message of hate; most of them are a moment of humour inserted into some circumstance that was somewhat boring or perhaps condescending.  One place I worked at told us that in order for us to feel 'engaged' in the company's activities, they were going to give us a survey to fill out - but that we shouldn't worry, since it was only going to be ten question.  To which I said, good and loud for everyone to hear, "Gee, I don't know if I can feel engaged with only ten questions."

No, I was not fired.  But it did interject a moment of humor into an otherwise dull and somewhat annoying procedural event.  Such interjections accomplish one task:  derail the speaker and  diminish the importance of what's being said.

Sometimes a wisecrack includes a pun, such as remarking that to restore a magic item's illumination charges requires a cure light wands spell or that it really takes six to make a proper wolf pack.  Such lines get a healthy 'BOO' or groan from the crowds, and another moment of self-importance is happily achieved.

There is a particular kind of personality who is especially given to making wisecracks prodigiously.  It is almost always someone with the kind of snappy wit needed, though not always.  A young person is more likely to be someone who makes the attempt and fails, than someone who is older and almost always hits the mark to some degree.  Many people try to do it, since there seems to be a sort of cultural notariety to be gained ... Jim always has something funny to say; he's great to have at a party.  Some women have the gift and it makes them wildly attractive to some men ... and so other women give it a whirl and turn out to just be hateful.  Film, theatre, criticism, journalism and so on have all done well with the wisecrack, with some personality based entirely upon their perceived ability to do it well (though its often rehearsed).  A wisecracking 'personality' can just as easily become typecast and their career destroyed ... but only because the audience wants more of what they were famous for, and the more rapid-fire the better.

However ... the ordinary at home wisecracker has another personality characteristic that should not be overlooked where it comes to D&D campaigns:  they are in it for the immediate gratification.

A great many potential D&D campaigns have been destroyed by the proliferation of wisecracking.  Note the earlier statement about derailing the speaker.  In D&D, it is presumed that the speaker is not your boss or some corporate flunky; not a politician whose political views make you squirm; not a tight-assed bitch on the train and not a self-important fuckwit giving you orders.  It is somewhat presumed that you're actually there to listen to the DM, because you want to play the game and what he or she has to say is important.

Then why is it that wisecracking is so thoroughly part of the gaming table?

There's no question that it's an aggressive response; S. Maugham considered it so aggressive as to lump it in with the rack and the stake.  It exists to cut down, undermine, parody and humiliate the speaker.  For that purpose, I'm right in there with the retort designed to slap down opponents.

But in the game, it has no place.

Naturally, there are DMs who do nothing but wisecrack their way through a session.  That is the 'session' to them - who can think of the smartest thing, or the most smart things to say in the least amount of time, so that the game becomes a one-upmanship contest until everyone has had a thorough and satisfying evening.  That is, if you like this sort of thing.

If you are a noobie DM, however, or if you're on a quest to create honest drama in your campaign, the wisecrack is worse than repeated, random cold showers.  Just as you attempt to lift the party into a state of concern or anxiety, someone makes a joke about the recent magic item that's been picked up, and the tension is gone.  You describe the massive gate in front of the castle, with its terrifying head - that you've spent an hour working on the description for - and someone compares it to Barney the purple dinosaur and the tension is gone.  Someone has to roll a die to keep from falling into the Pit of Neverfound, and there's a shout of "USE THE FORCE LUKE" before the die is rolled and the tension is gone.

There's a conflict here, between those at your table who are seeking the aforementioned immediate gratification, and those who are seeking something long term.  Long term takes time; it takes effort; it requires concentration, and it requires that a person step out of their comfort zone in order to truly embrace the fantasy of what is going on.

That's the thing about the wisecracker.  Whoever they are, they DON'T want to step out of themselves.  The whole point of wisecracking is to hold up a sign which says, "Pay attention to me!"  It is a handwaving, dancing, fuck you signal that forces people to turn their minds from whatever the hell is going on and point it straight at the present wit.  It is selfish, it is abusive, it is calculated to pump one's own importance.  It is NOT designed for D&D.

What can you do about it?

Almost nothing, short of asking the person to be respectful ... which they probably won't, since the insistence on wisecracking is based on being disrespectful.  The greater the demand for respect, the more tempting it is to throw in a remark.  The greater the tension of the moment, the greater the emotional and verbal response to a really smart crack, and thus the greater the temptation to do it.  However you may try to explain it to the wisecracker, they are caught in a loop.  They KNOW this could be possibly the best remark EVER, given that just about everyone in the room is freaked out to the nth degree.  How can they resist.

You could threaten to drop a -1,000 x.p. bomb on anyone who makes a wisecrack ... but the problem is that often wisecracks ARE funny, and you tend to look like an asshole if you punish someone who's just made everyone at the table laugh.  Everyone is here to have fun, after all, and fun is synonymous with laughter, so ipso facto, why are you fucking Jim just 'cause he's funny?

But if you've been running long enough, you've had this experience:  Jim had to work, and couldn't play.  And Jim's friend, who is the person who especially finds Jim the funniest person ever, can't come because his mother needs someone to help her move boxes for some purpose or other.  Which just leaves Maggie, Dave and Garrett to play.

And holy shit, you just had the best fucking running you've ever, ever had.  The tension was so thick you could build igloos from it.  At one point, Dave's involvement was so high he broke the pencil he was holding - and no one laughed when that happened.

For that one night, you really felt like a DM.  You really felt you had your finger on the pulse of the players, and you really felt you were all right in the game.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


To begin, we must first acknowledge the difference between "artillery" and "engines of war."  It is more than just a matter of scale and distance - it must also be taken into account that artillery lobs complex shells that are capable of doing more than merely blunting an enemy fortification.  Artillery creates fire, it creates shrapnel ... and most importantly of all, it creates smoke.  Engines of war are a complex arrangement of mechanical applications; artillery is a much more systematized weapon, applying scientific methods that require physics as well as geometry in order to promote accuracy.

D&D weapons, even magic, rely almost entirely upon line of sight, which with weapons includes a near-flat trajectory (direct fire), and with magic means a perfectly flat trajectory (almost anti-physical in nature).  While long bows employed at Crecy and Agincourt clearly were not fired to produce a flat trajectory, but were mass fired blind at opponents beyond friendly lines, there are no rules for the in D&D that I know of.  Ask your DM - what's your chance of pulling twenty bowmen together and then having an effective attack by firing blind into the goblin's fortification?  Don't expect the DM to assign a 5% chance per bowman.

Artillery is entirely about indirect fire, produced with frightening accuracy.  Airburst artillery, in which the shell explodes above the ground and fires shrapnel into every possible axis, is so deadly in fact that most military situations would prefer not to use it (as it tends to kill defenders and attackers indescriminately).  It is something like a mechanical fireball ... except that someone can load the gun again and produce the same effect about 90 seconds later.

Artillery can also lay groundsmoke so that it covers the battlefield, making the blind indirect method of artillery use more effective by reducing direct fire attacks.  This is why they say, on the battlefield, artillery is king.

The cannon precedes the modern artillery piece, and is the first frustration for a game that wants to include "gunpowder" but not "modern warfare."  See, the trouble is that cannons produce modern warfare by blasting holes in everything and forcing towns to reproduce themselves as large, flat geometric shapes, as early as the 16th century.  Battle ceases to be the sort of thing that you see in ancient Rome, and starts to be a ridiculous free for all in which humans are cut to pieces because they happen to be standing in the wrong spot (there were cannons at Crecy and Agincourt too, though we tend to forget that).  Being slaughtered as twenty cannon balls filled with shot and gunpowder explode randomly next to the party tends to ruin the whole joy of battle, so many campaigns say 'yes' to gunpowder pistols, while casually forgoing their cannon grandfathers.  But many campaigns also avoid mass struggles in general, so it works out.

Funny thing about cannon and direct fire.  They aren't.  Cannonballs do not fly straight (thought it was assumed that they would), and for a time (more than a century) it was tremendously frustrating to aim them.  It was not merely enough to raise or lower the cannon, or shift it left or right ... the balls themselves were made of stone or partial iron or whatever large block could be stuffed into the breech, and as such one cannon "ball" did not fly exactly like another.  Even small imperfections would mean missing at a distance of a hundred yards, as any major leaguer can tell you about a baseball over 90 feet.

This problem launched considerable scientific inquiry into ballistics, air resistance, mass displacement and so on ... but James Burke can catch you up on all that (for the short jump up, watch from 13:00 to 19:00).

Which brings me up to the usual question about magic and history.  One can easily say, well the problems of understanding missiles curving through the air can be solved with magic.  Yes, that's true ... if the magicians are aware that missiles curve through air.  We did not fully understand that they did, or how they did, in history until after 1500 (Tartaglia's date of birth - see link).  So why would mages in the 11th century not automatically assume that objects did as Aristotle said they did?  Would not magic - for a couple of centuries at least - frustrate itself trying to force cannonballs to fly straight, until it became evident that non-magicians were wreaking bloody havoc by simply allowing them to fly in a curved fashion, thus employing artillery far better than the magician's could?

Is this not the sort of thing that would have been happening continuously?  We can't assume that magicians always knew the truth about natural physics going back four or five thousand years.  We MUST assume that they were ignorant of quite a number of physical principles, which had yet to be discovered by Aristotle or Al-hazam or Tartaglia.  Which would mean that for a time, magic was designed to compensate for our inability to do this particular thing, which was then later understood, forcing magic - like any other technology - to adapt itself and change.  Which would mean there were spells that had been created for the purpose of making a two crowns of different metals displace the exact same amount of water, even though they were technically of different volumes.

Perhaps it was Aristotle himself who invented the spell ... and thus blew understanding the physical principal.  By constantly "fixing" inconsistencies in physics, magic might possibly have increased the general ignorance of the upper classes, so that it would really be a fighter type or a monk, and NOT a spellcaster, who solved these things despite magic's insistence to the contrary.

Magic might have made us all dumber.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cantrips For Christmas

Debating a number of things to post about, I think I'll keep this simple and straight-forward.  I already mentioned these on my campaign blog, but it's useful to copy them over here.

Just a few ideas for cantrips, spells not meant to be especially powerful, but to add that bit of window dressing that makes playing a mage fun.  These would all be legerdemain cantrips.


Creates an ordinary piece of household furniture, a chair, stool, small writing table, single-person bed or cot, cabinet, end table, cupboard or screen ... any of which will continue to exist so long as the mage is in physical contact with the item.

Thus, if the mage is sitting in the chair, laying on the bed, hiding behind the screen or inside a cupboard, the item will remain ... but upon letting go, the item will dissolve and disappear.

If the item receives a sharp blow, for example if it were used as a club, it would cause 1-3 damage upon a hit but then shatter and dissolve.  If two persons were attempt to sleep in the single bed, the bed would last for an hour and then break up and dissolve.  However, it will serve the mage all night and all day if he or she remains in it alone.

The DM may decide if a bench allowing two or three persons to sit is possible.


Creates any ordinary household object made of pottery or earthenware up to one cubic foot.  Pots, jugs, cups, mugs, plates, vases or jars are possible, or things of that kind.  The object will remain in existence until the sun rises the next day, until dropped (in which case it will automatically shatter and dissolve) or otherwise given a sharp blow.  The object will serve as a missile, causing 1-2 damage upon hitting, whereupon it will break and cease existence.

If used gently, the object will serve to hold water, or as a chamberpot, and will even allow itself to be fired if its use is desired to melt metals in an oven.


Like pottery, only this creates an up to one cubic foot object made of wood, such as a smoking pipe, spoon, candleholder, whistle, toy, windvane, bowl, cup, birdcage, ball, box, etc.  Like with pottery, the object can be thrown and will cause 1-2 damage, but will split and dissolve afterwards.  The types of wood that can be created are limited to pine, spruce, fir, oak, chestnut and maple.


Creates a small, useful object for up to 1 hour, which can be used as normally.  Such objects would include a corkscrew, woodplane, metal whistle, chisel, flint or steel (but not both), fish hook, sewing needle, dice cup or a die, a metal stamp (without an image) or tongs.  Other objects may be agreed to by the DM, so long as it is nothing that can conceivably be used directly as a weapon or as a threat.

There, just a few ideas.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Combat Nigglings

Today, I just wanted to talk about a couple of possible rules for combat.

Whether or not you're familiar with my combat system - and there are many posts about it, plus these the newbie should start with - you may be able to fit this idea in with your present system.

One of my house rules is that when a '1' is rolled on the 20-sided attack die, the weapon the player has is dropped.  Apart from determining if the weapon breaks or not, the weapon ends up in one of these hexes, determined by a 8-sided die:

Admittedly, I've considered a version using a 30-sided die, but it is a bit overwhelming:

It  changes the odds of the weapon falling at the user's feet from 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 ... and definitely increases the annoyance of dropping a weapon by having it fall two hexes away 40% of the time.  It is, unfortunately, a difficult table to memorize, and thus the reason for using the simpler version.

Having  combatists drop weapons, however, I find myself thinking of a different matter entirely.  And I'm surprised I have had a player ask me about it.  Strangely, it's taken for granted that you'll have to go get your weapon, wherever its fallen.  I have had players pick up someone else's weapon in a moment of combat - particularly an axe or dagger that makes a missile weapon - but I've never had anyone suggest kicking away a weapon that's hit the ground.

Take the following situation:

White has dropped his own sword in the hex he's in, and it's Blue's move.  Normally, blue would attack White, White would recollect his weapon and attack Blue, and so on.

Let's suppose, however, that Blue decides to either kick away White's weapon, or possibly hook it with his own sword and sweep it behind him.  We can assign numbers on a 12-sided die to determine his success, so that if Blue manages, he moves the dropped weapon to hexes 1 through 12.

What determines success?

We can easily assign the weapon a given AC ... for some, this might be high.  For me, I'd say the AC is no better than 10.  There must be something that stops people from hitting a creature without armor or shield (AC 10) ... that something must be the weapon the defending creature is using.

We could modify the roll easily.  The defender's dexterity ought to come into play, to stamp on the dropped weapon before it can be moved away.  The attacker's dexterity ought to be ignored, as it is ignored for all combat attacks.  The attacker should have to choose to "attack" the dropped weapon instead of the defender, so the defender wouldn't take damage no matter the success of the attacker.  If the dropped weapon were in the same hex as the defender, possibly -2 could be included because of the reach ... but perhaps not.  If the dropped weapon were not in the same hex as the defender - but in reach of the attacker - Blue should be able to easily move to the left or right and have a just about automatic chance of kicking away the weapon.  If it were in the hexes behind White, that might depend on how much move Blue has.  So that would mean there was no comparative situation vs. which the -2 modifier ought to, or ought not to, be included.  Might as well just call the dropped weapon AC 8.

It could be a good thing to go for the weapon and not the defender ... after all, if you get the weapon far enough away, that takes care of that defender for a round.  And if the combat is on the edge of a cliff ... goodbye magic sword.

The other idea I had for combat ... and this has nothing to do with the above ... involves a rather cliched scene where someone about to be hit is - in the nick of time - snapped out of the way by a friend.  The only one I can think of right off is the scene in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where Quartermain pushes Sawyer out of the way in the nick of time, keeping him from being hit by a roof tile (or whatever Hyde throws).  I liked the movie - I know people don't, due to the sad, inconsistent special effects and other reasons - but try to concentrate on the actual event.

What else might a back-up do?  Taunt the enemy?  Jab a weapon at the right moments, not near enough to hit but enough to harrass the enemy into missing a defender?  While the apparent positions for the game may seem static, we must assume that people are floating all over the hexes they're defending ... perhaps that gives opportunities for a back up to make themselves especially useful.

What would it offer?  Would it simply mean a 1 better armor class could be added by someone behind the fighting creature?  A two better armor class?

It would have interesting possibilities.  If +2 AC, then a line of defenders two deep would certainly be harder to take down than a single line.  And if the depth was continuous, a host of low-level creatures with a normal AC of 5 would have that pushed to 3 ... making them notably difficult for a low level party to take down.  It would reduce the overall chance of hitting just 10% ... but if you consider that a first level fighter will hit AC 5 only 30% of the time, the rule is reducing combat effectiveness by one third.  That is very significant!

Would players deliberately not fight so they could empower their companions?  If you consider the number of situations in which a low level mage "runs out of spells" and has to just throw daggers, would it be better if they simply helped the fighter get hit less?  It would be interesting to see how difficult it would be to run, and if it were worthwhile for the players.

Can you hire a guy to stand behind you and improve your AC?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An Advanced Guide to Managing Roleplaying Games

December 16, 2011, I wrote a post called "How to DM" ... and that has definitely been my most popular post in the last year.  For the month of November, it received 1,400 page views all on its own ... which isn't bad, given that it's in the distant past and pretty long for a blog post.

I've been playing with the idea of writing a book to match the post, something considerably longer of course, at least 50-60 thousand words.  Last week, a few other people suggested I do the same, so I think there's an interest.  I've been thinking on it since the weekend ... how it would be written, what it would cover, what would be its purpose.

I have no worries about trademarks.  It is legal to write about Pepsi or Coke without getting their permission to use the product names.  This is journalism.  I can't sell a pop with Coke's name; and I can't liable Coke, or misrepresent it.  There are some issues with having a character drink coke in a fiction novel.  But I can refer to Coke in passing.

So long as I don't represent myself as a spokesperson for D&D, or say things that would threaten its sales, I can use the term "DM" and I can describe elements of D&D and other roleplaying games.  Or so I have come to understand it.

I think I would call a book "How to DM" with the subtitle, "An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games."  I would write it specifically for people who had played D&D for quite a long time.  I would not waste any time explaining to a person who had never played before how to manage a game.  I have no interest in competing with all the other books whose sole purpose is to do that, and therefore to cover the same tired ground that only people who know nothing can comprehend.

I would not write anything about designing a dungeon.  I would not offer ideas about how to produce puzzles or conundrums, or offer any tables on ... well, anything.  This would not be a book that included a lot of dead white space filled with charts and pictures.  I would not put ANY pictures into the book.  I am definitely thinking that, since D&D is so much about selling shit using pictures, I would intentionally include a front cover without any pictures.  Picture books are for children.  I would not want to write my D&D book for children.

What would be included, I think, would be a series of 5 to 15 thousand word essays, in depth, detailed, patiently discussing as many elements of a particular part of the game as I could deconstruct.  Managing different kinds of players; Managing yourself; Approaching the setting; Sandboxing; Creating conflict; and probably something about loving the game, though I haven't cemented that last in my head yet.

It takes a considerable amount of ego to write ANY book.  It says that you think you're so interesting that another person will sit while you talk for sixty-thousand words at them.  This is about the equivalent of ten uninterrupted hours.  If you're going to think in your mind that you have 10 hours of worthwhile things to say, you're going to have to have an ego.

Do I think I know something about this game?  Yes I do.  In part because I've played it for 33 years, but also because of what else I've done during that time.  I think mostly its that I've spent a lot of it deconstructing people, learning what makes them tick, learning what makes them want to be appreciated or why they need to be pushed.  People are terribly complicated, but there are a few things which they tend to share in common:  most look for their own worth in the eyes of other people; most do not question the precepts they were given when they first began anything, including life; and anything recommended as uncomfortable, difficult or time consuming is advice that almost certainly will not be taken.

Why would the gentle reader read this book?  Because it will provoke thought.  It will advance ideas the way this blog does.  It will promote things you haven't heard before.  It will offer insights into things you've taken for granted.  It will confirm your beliefs about things that you've never heard anyone else say ... things you've doubted, but won't any more, because you will not be alone in the world.  It will not be personal, but I hope like hell I can make parts of it funny.  Sometimes I'm a funny person.

I think it will be worth the read.  I think it will cost about the same amount as D&D for Dummies ... which seems to me right and proper.

When?  Well, finishing up another book right now, but starting on this one right after.  Right now, optimistically, I'd say six months.  It's not a matter of research.  I've researched this game just about every day of my life.  So that should tighten up the time necessary.  Still, I expect it will be hard to write, since I'd want it to be worthy of me, and worthy of all of you, many of whom will no doubt disagree with every word.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

BBC's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Not to step on my own last post, which I think was good, but last night upon searching I found that the old 1981 BBC version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy can be found on youtube.  In pieces, surely, but as far as I know it is there to the third episode.  That's as far as I got last night.

It is only about a million times better than that piece of unbelievable shit that was released in 2005.

We were all excited about the new version.  We thought they would just take the old BBC show and make it with, you know, a budget.  Jazz it up, prettify it.  We did not know that the Hollywood plan was to piss all over Douglas Adams.

If you're not familiar with the BBC version, you will notice the difference almost right away in that the narrative and dialogue is lifted straight from Adams' pen.  Something which, apparently, it is now impossible to do.


Since I am working on the cleric class, tweaking and adjusting the elements of the class within my game, I find myself faced one more with the question, one that came up before on this blog (not that I can find the post).

What effect does a cleric's preaching have?

There certainly should be an effect.  A cleric preaching to a crowd is a highly symbolic act, one which defines the very nature of clericism - the pronouncement of 'truth,' carrying it to the people so that they may hear the spoken word, this is definitive.  The word is the embodiment of the cleric's religion; the practice of speaking it is an exhibition of bravery and resolution, the statement that say "This I believe, and that belief shall not be hidden!"

Many of us believe things; we secretly hold something to be true, but we dare not say that thing out loud for fear that it will lose us friends, respect, even our jobs or our freedom.  The boss is an idiot.  I do not love my wife.  I wish my best friend would stop going with that bitch/bastard.  When a cleric stands up and says, "I believe in an invisible force that says YOU must live your life differently," this takes guts.  An audience may not like it.  Prostelytizers have been killed before.

So somehow, the power of sermonizing must embody these characteristics.  It must be empowering; it must influence; it must be something practical for the cleric to do, but it should  be something potentially dangerous, too.  It must be useful.  It must be practical.  And while it can be magical, it can't step on pre-existing magic.

For many campaigns, the problem is already solved by the enthrall spell.  When a cleric wishes to sermonize, he or she need only employ this spell:

"Enchants creatures who fail to make save vs. magic. Creatures less than 4 hit dice suffer a –4 penalty to their saving throws. Creatures that are neither human nor demi-human enjoy a +4 modifier to their saving throw.  The cleric’s charisma is temporarily raised to 21. Listeners who fail their save will, in any event, continue to listen so long as the cleric continues speaking."

Somehow, this doesn't suit me.  To begin with, I don't allow my clerics to change their spells from day to day - which is my means of reducing the power of spellcasting (damn, can't find that post either).  Briefly explained, you pick your spells and those are your spells.  No changing.

It's a cheap fix anyway.  People don't get up and walk out of a temple when the priest starts speaking.  It isn't a "saving throw" problem.  The cleric ought to be able to affect everyone, but to a much lesser degree ... so that, in a slightly upgraded manner, people still leave the church or the circle feeling enlightened, invigorated ... and even intrigued with some matter about their lives.

It's difficult to manage a magical effect in D&D that isn't bold and forthright.  Magic missile ... now that is simple.  Bang, hits automatically, causes damage.  No gray areas.  How do you run a magical effect that "enlightens" but does not flat out affect the listener like a suggestion spell?

I've been building a straw man here, because the answer is actually easy.

D&D has so many ways to moderately push the numbers that there's always something that can be done.  Another problem I've been working on has been the 'sage abilities,' which I think I mentioned last week ... but if I forgot, here's a link to what they've been for about three years.

I am enormously unhappy with these - primarily because of the lack of use players have put them to.  The mage in the online campaign, played by 'Lukas' or Oddbit as he is called, has employed his architecture knowledge a fair bit; everyone who has taken "beasts" in the cleric list has definitely made use of that to know more about what's attacking them.  There has been dabbling on a few other topics.  But its not giving the guts I need to make the talents work, and I know that's because they're far too vague.  My fault, not the player's.

So I am working through the lists to make them more concrete, which I know is going to be a year-long job, requiring a lot of brain hemorrages and imaginative effort.  Mostly, I'm looking to enhance these things so that they can be played very simply.  A set % per level chance at success, and very definite results that can be expected, which offer a wide range of talents and abilities - even some magic.

For example, a knowledge of Aesthetics, knowing better how performance and art has the potential to influence, could mean moderately greater effects for some spells (duration, area of effect, range), or an improvement in the use of physical tools ranging from weapons to mountain climbing equipment, or an increase in the value of property and equipment.

Let's break down Metaphysics ... which, if there was ever a topic that seemed impractical for a D&D player, this would seem to be it.  But metaphysics is, after all, a greater comprehension of reality, and how to live within that reality.  So we can presume that an advanced knowledge of "reality" might offer the following special abilities (still limited by a set % chance of success per level of the character):

Perception:  a deeper comprehension of the nature of time enables the player to grasp more deeply its passage, so that if the % is rolled, time can be slowed so that the player is able to experience two rounds where others would only experience one - however, this can only be accomplished for a limited period, so long as the % is rolled and no more than 5 (possibly 10, needs gameplay) 'rounds' per day.

An alternate to the above would be to shorten distances to be crossed by half, so that while time remains the same players are able to step two spaces where they were ordinarily move one.  Another alternate might be that the player could perceive distances visually, so that their vision was magnified 30x (equivalent of binoculars).

AsceticismThe body's natural functions can be overcome so that the player would be less dependent upon food or sleep, reducing the requirement for either by 50%, with this having no effect upon the player's combat or other abilities, when the % is rolled.

Sustained Life:  The character is able to keep themselves alive even though their body has technically been "killed", to as far as -15 hit points, for a period of 1 to 4 minutes, giving time for the player to be healed by ordinary means, if the % is rolled.

I perceive a lot of differing rules like this, somewhat similar in some ways to the skills that pop up in a lot of games, but based on knowledge and not skill.  In a sense, there's no difference, except that in the above it would also be taken for granted that the player knew just about everything there was to know about metaphysics, to even have a chance at performing these strange abilities.

So back to the sermon.  I think an elegant solution is suggested by the ceremony found in the Unearthed Arcana, that gives a +1 to any roll for an individual when they are first baptized into a religion.  This is a pretty crappy effect for a ceremony like that, but it would be marvelous for a congregation as they left the local temple.  Everyone in the neighborhood gets a +1 modifier to one thing, probably to be used up that day?  Marvelous.

It probably won't mean much to many the gentle reader, but I remember Sundays where the morning was screwed by church ... and the afternoon seemed strangely special afterwards.  I think, subject to certain other conditions (done on holy ground, affecting only believers, that sort of thing) that this would be a great talent to allow a cleric to perform.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Golden Rule

Thinking about a portion of the comment Blaine H. made on the last post:

"... it can be just as frustrating to put all that information out there... to feed them all the names, keep track of where all the major NPCs are running and what agendas they are working on... and have the players just not pay attention."

This is true, but it is frustration resulting from a particular kind of blindness, common to artists of every stripe.  Sometimes it is called narcissism.  Mostly, it derives from a passion for something that fascinates the creator so much that they cease to care if anyone else is interested.

Now and then I am driven to write something which I know will appeal to few people, if indeed anyone at all.  It's usually philosophical in nature; for me, it always revolves around a series of dialectic discussions, esoteric and self-referential ... and always deathly dull for someone who hasn't read various things that I know quite well.  I don't wave these writings around - what would be the point?  They do me good because I'm apt to cut my teeth on new techniques or tries at difficult emotional states ... but they'll never make a case for me as a storyteller.

The tendency to go up one's own ass is a common practice for an artist.  A dancer works for weeks on some tricky, nearly impossible move that actually looks grotesque to the viewer; a musician explores an atonal cacophony that no sane person would ever record; an historical novelist piles up tens of thousands of words of family histories, genealogies and letters that the proposed novel will never actually contain; and artists paint pictures which they carefully hide away where no one will see.

Occasionally, however, one of these artists will stupidly fall in love with their work, believe it to be the most brilliant thing they've ever accomplished, and try to display it.  The result is hideous, and the reaction from the artist is usually ... sad.

D&D is no less an art.  It is an interactive art, and more than most creative exercises it is subject to an extreme level of criticism.  A viewer sees a bad picture, shrugs and moves on.  A player in a game encounters a bad sequence of events and very vocally denounces them, the DM, the campaign and so on, often explicitly and without much remorse.

Part of this level of criticism arises from the players rarely thinking that D&D - and the DM's efforts - is an art.  A player will be more truthful than the cruelest reviewer, even though the criticism is often blasted at the player's friend.  Honesty is a cold, unavoidable companion in the game because the player, unlike an ordinary critic, is compelled to participate in the bad production.

If you were watching a really crappy production, and someone handed you a script, dragged you onto the stage and then forced you to read the crappy lines personally, you'd be pissed too.  More so if you had something personally invested in the play ... which we have in D&D.

You, the gentle reader, CARE about your character.  He, she, it matters to you.  So does the time and the venue, but particularly your own involvement.  If the DM is nothing less than a harbinger of their own emotional masturbation, you're NOT going to feel very appreciative.  Even if you don't shout and throw things, at the very least you're going to portray the height of passive aggressiveness.  Stolidly you watch the DM go through his or her trip, and stolidly you wait for something to happen that doesn't make you personally sick to your stomach.

O DMs, if you find yourself facing a table full of blank, unsatisfied stares, take a close look around you.  If you notice your own kidneys on the left and right of you, you've take a bad direction.  It's time to back out, get some air and try to remember that interactive gaming demands that you pay attention to that old golden rule - try to run a game that you'd want to run in, yes ... but try, too, to run a game that someone else would as well.