Tuesday, January 31, 2012

More Drama

Ah, there has been a bit of drama, and the drance has appeared everywhere, buzzing about and sucking gluttonously at all the shit that's dropped in the last twenty-four hours.

This morning my wife and I agreed that Drance, for me, is my own personal Paul Lazzaro.  Some of you might not understand what I mean; some of you might recognize the name, but in the time since High School you've forgotten all about Slaughterhouse Five.  I have a quote from the movie, not the book - the movie is a fair simplification of Vonnegut's vision, and will serve to make the point here:

Billy Pilgrim (speaking to a crowd): "You see in Tralfamador, where I presently dwell, life has no beginning, no middle, and no end.  For example, many years ago a certain man promised to have me killed.  He's an old man now, living not far from here.  He's read all the publicity associated with my appearance.  He's insane.  And tonight he'll keep his promise."  (murmurs through the crowd)  "If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you've not understood what I have said."  (Lazzaro appears on a high balcony with a rifle)  "You see, it's time for you to go home - to your lives and your children.  It's time for me to be dead for a little while.  And then live again.  I give you the Tralfamadorian greeting:  Hello.  Farewell.  Hello.  Farewell.  Eternally connected, eternally embracing.  Hello.  Farewell."  (Lazzaro shoots Billy; the crowd screams)

Somehow, I see that scene playing out in about thirty years.

The internet is a strange place.  It is full of people who you'd cross the street before thinking about walking right by them.  It is full of people who stink on busses for lack of deodorant, and who scream crazily at coffee shop vendors over a few cents change, and who regularly cut pedestrians off at traffic lights.  And these people step onto the net, and create a nick for themselves, and try to pass as ordinary, worthy citizens.  It is their chance, so they reason, to be finally accepted and respected as worthy persons, which they perceive themselves to be ... but as it is in their lives, they've done nothing on the internet to earn that worthiness - nothing at all, except to create a nick.  For all they can see, that nick is a license to sit in a balcony and shoot at the people for whom the crowd has come.

If the only evidence I gave of my person on the internet was slapping around people and screaming at the mob, I would very rightly be despised.  But what the mob cannot understand - what the mob will never understand - is that I have done more on this blog these past three years than scream at people.  I have written funny; I have written clever; I have written a ton of carefully backed arguments.  I have run a campaign that is a mass of labor and creativity.  I have given more evidence of my value than the mere nick I have chosen.  If there are those out there who cannot, or will not, understand why it is that people continue to defend me, or read me, or link to me, let them remember that I have not just spent my time eating the shit that drama creates.

Listen, Dungeon Masters, and those of you who are youngest.  You will always find yourself in a position where some player has taken something you've said so much to heart that they are now screaming at you in your dining room to 'get fucked,' while you are screaming at them to 'get out.'  After it happens, you're going to feel the shakes of adrenaline.  You're going to question yourself and your players, wondering if you are a good DM or not.  You're not going to have a clear idea of why the whole stupid drama played out at all.  You said something, then they said something, and then suddenly the drama was full-blown.  And ten minutes after it was over, you'll wish it hadn't happened, whatever it was that did happen.

If you'll give me a moment, I'll explain it.  It is called real life.  You, the DM, have gotten off your job on a Friday night, or you have just spent all day Saturday fighting crowds at the mall or weeds in the back yard, or shovelling snow for the fourth time from your damn huge driveway.  You're exhausted, you're pressed for time, you want to run your world more than anything and you're downing coffee and other caffeine drinks to keep going.  Your players, too, they've had their rough days, and they're doing likewise.  And all of you, jacked up on drinks and concentrating your whole attention on this one fucking night being the only goddamn decent five hours in your otherwise shitty week, are under pressure.  You're under a lot of pressure - more than you know.

And foolishly, you've hinged all that pressure, and all that energy you've poured into your bodies chemically, on die rolls.  It's what you've chosen to do.  And when those rolls don't go right - and inevitably, they won't - those hinges are going to strain and tear ... and this is going to be made worse when the tear happens in just such a way that you're reminded of your real life, or the DM or a player reminds you of someone or something that you have to deal with unhappily in your real life.

The reminder doesn't have to be conscious.  The human mind is chock full of unconscious triggers.  There's a thousand moments of stress that we all deal with and handle, that we don't want to deal with and handle when we're having 'fun' around a table throwing dice.  But that moment comes, and our minds do start to deal with it, and all of the sudden we're screaming mad - and we don't know why.

After the fact.  After the moment.  Then we know.  We can sit down and piece it out and realize we did this for those reasons and that for these reasons and suddenly it all seems really stupid and unimportant.  We have a moment of comprehension that only we ourselves truly grasp.

Sometimes, these moments end friendships that never needed to end.  Sometimes, we can pick up the pieces and fix it.  Now and then, it just takes a handshake.  "Sorry buddy.  That was stupid.  I don't know why I was being such an idiot."

But then, there's the internet.  The wonderful, marvelous, I-wouldn't-want-to-live without it internet.  The internet and its built-in fan base, screaming just because it needs to scream.  It's numerous souls have also had their shitty weeks, only they don't have any five hours to play the game, or dice to roll.  Or the games and the dice they have aren't enough to shed off the fucking misery of their lives.  So they go looking for the flash of anger that others feel, and feed off that anger for all its worth.  They need that anger.  Desperately.  It is their moment to shine - to post comments to perceived compatriots who are just like them, who are 'in the moment' of a misery just like their misery.  And for as long as that misery lasts, the flies will share it with you, and commiserate on your unhappiness, and send you flowers and candy to remind you of just how important and valuable YOU are ... all in the hope that you will say to them the thing they really, really need to hear to make their unproductive lives seem a little more important:

"Thank you guy.  I really needed to hear that."

Monday, January 30, 2012


Not everything in the world that you wish for pans out.  I have unfortunately come to a position of impasse with JB of B/X Blackrazor, who only this week began running a character in my world.  I'd like to say that this is not because of something that he said to me.  I'd also like to say that this is not due to his wishing to break it off with me.  I do not know what his wishes are.  This impasse is something entirely of my own doing, and has more to do with my perception of what it is that defines a gentleman than it does whatever sort of player JB happens to be.

I write this preamble for the benefit of my other players, and those who would play with me, and no one else.  I take the position that I have, which can be read on the comment threads of these two posts, here and here, because I firmly believe that the character of an individual is defined by the manner in which they approach opposition to their behavior.  I believe there is a time to apologize.  And I believe there is a time not to apologize.  When the apology is given, it should be done unreservedly.  When the apology is not given, the consequences should be accepted graciously.  With regards to JB, I expected an apology.  I did not ask for it, but I expected it just the same.

I do not like it when people apologize to me for things that don't matter.  I am, however, intolerant when I fail to receive an apology for something I think does matter.  JB demonstrated himself ready to apologize quite profusely about misunderstandings and minor errors and timing errors - but where it came to apologizing for open disrespect, no apology occurred.

I am old.  I have found this is often the case.

The above said, and my reputation as an intolerant made marginally clearer, I would like to ask a question I asked in the second linked thread:  Why is it that whenever players declare that they are 'playing in character' they invariably act like fucking jerks?

I suppose its because if they weren't being jerks, there wouldn't be any need to use the argument that they are acting 'in character' to justify their behavior.

But then it comes to mind, why in particular is it that people who claim not to be jerks in ordinary life, who act like jerks in D&D games, while arguing that they're being 'in character,' feel they need to have characters that are jerks in the first place?

Is it that there's a particular kind of person in the world who is not a jerk, who wants so much to be a jerk, that D&D is their big opportunity to do so?  I know this is what television would have us believe - television shows from Our Miss Brooks forward have pitched this as a dramatic device hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.  It makes for lively interaction between the actors, and serves to moralize about it one ... more ... time.

But here's the thing.  Most of the people I know who are not jerks, aren't jerks because they actually feel that being a jerk is a bad thing.  Even I think being a jerk is a bad thing.  Oh yeah, I'm an asshole, and I write like an asshole ... but I have yet to do anything worse than blow a lot of air.  I'm not actively trying to make my players jump through any hoops or actively mistreating them.  I don't even wish JB any ill will ... I just don't want to run him in my world.  This post is without question an insult to him - but you, gentle reader, and most everyone reading this will put all that down to Alexis being wrong about that, true?  You're bound to put it down to Alexis blowing air, and for fuck's sake, you're probably right about that.

It boggles the mind, then, that someone would want to run in my world.  I personally would like to know why someone who indicated that they would want to; who knew without a doubt how intolerant I could be; who in fact competed to run in that world - would then choose, as his DEFINING character trait, an intolerant, pushy, insistent, self-serving asshole.

Did it not occur that a player displaying this personality might run smack bang into the DM's personality?

Hey, let's point out the very obvious.  Do you know what kind of 'in character' personality NO ONE in the whole wide world of RPGing likes in a player they have to run with?  Just guess.  Come on, you don't need me to say it, do you?

I have known games where EVERY player had this personality.  Funny thing was, it wasn't 'in character' around those tables.  Those guys actually were fucktards.  They weren't pretending to be anything.

Well, that's the thrust of it.  I'll just add a couple of words about what DMs should do when faced with players who reach for and channel this asshole personality as an 'in character' roleplaying choice:

Boot them.

The Mill and The Cross

Let's talk a little porn.

Any medieval scholar must eventually wonder at the intensity with which Europe fetishized the death of one particular man of foreign extraction - an intensity which could be measured at a ratio of perhaps 10,000:1 against the fandom surrounding Star Wars or even the NFL.  In the minds of the ordinary European, every element of the death was painstakingly examined and extrapolated: the actual death itself; the very words that were spoken; the behavior of every person present; the reason for the death; the arguments used for and against; the systematic application of torture before the event and the theological ramifications thereof, even with elaborations of mythological events coinciding with those of a mundane nature.  This one death held European society in a sort of terrified, contemplative, contradicting ecstasy that lasted over a thousand years, and which still holds a dwindling few - comparatively - heartily in its grasp.  This one death was - is - the very definition of the term 'passion.'

We hardly imagine what it was to the minds of our distant ancestors.

Over the weekend I caught the film, The Mill and the Cross, which every review you will find will tell you is "about" a painting by Pieter Bruegel, The Procession to Calvary.  Calvary, for the uninitiated, is the hill upon which the aforementioned man died.  I'd like to express my extreme distaste with reviewers, who live in the small-minded state of existence that leads them to believe that a film which takes place within a painting must be about the painting, and not ALSO about the thing the painting is about.  It is as if to say that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about the senate chamber, because it happens to take place there, or that The Shawshank Redemption is about prisons.  But this is the sort of ignorant deconstructionalism I've come to expect from modern day reviewers of films, for whom the rims of the glasses upon their noses is a far-sighted observation - naturally a film of unusual purpose and design could achieve no better effect than the casting of pearls before swine.  I have not for some time seen any movie so rashly misunderstood.

I would tell you, see this film.  It has everything to do with a man's death, and nothing to do with the edifice that has built extensively and appallingly upon the man's death.  The edifice itself, the worshipped entity that has proported to tell Europeans how to live, and then execute them when they do it less than well, is the villain in the 'canvas,' demonstrated eloquently in the work without any character's wagging finger.  But I shall not be more precise than that in describing the 'edifice,' since I don't give a fig if the ordinary, uneducated, ignorant person knows what it is I refer to - the movie takes the same high road, and I shall not veer from the path.

But then, the director,  Lech Majewski, is Polish, and clearly speaking to Europeans in this film and not to Americans, so I think it fair to say that his audience knows of what he speaks.  Majewski does not bow to explain; he does not bow to moralize; he presents a tableau and an argument, and demands that the viewer should apply brain to problem.  I did, and in doing so, watched the movie twice through.

I do not think that any film made has ever captured the sense or the flavour of my Dungeons and Dragons world so perfectly.  I shall have to say that if there is a texture to my world, it is the texture to be found in this film - from the ordinary happenstance of people rising from beds to eat, to the setting out to do a day's work, to the fear and casual abuse perpetrated by authority upon the helpless and ordinary person.  One does not "enter a picture" in watching this film, but into the very condition and state of living to be experienced in the 16th century.

I remain astounded. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

The "Magical" Assassin

I have this fantasy where I have time to post something again on this blog - oh wait ... I seem to have time right now!

I want to talk about assassins.

It's true that a lot of campaigns won't allow them.  I know that for some, it's the whole idea of a class dedicated to cold-blooded murder, and the squick related to that ... but for most, I think that's just a convenient excuse for a bigger issue:  players don't know how to run them.

There are certain tropes that have built up over the years in D&D - mostly engendered by young people who did not understand very much about life, or about nuance - and one of the worst of these is that an assassin can simply walk up to someone, anyone, on the street, and 'assassinate' them.  Even worse, there exists the idea that in the middle of combat, when the opponent misses, the player assassin declares, "I assassinate him!"  Whereupon the 14-year-old DM answers, "Roll percentile die!"

This ridiculous scenario is fostered by the belief that assassins don't have much going for them.  They have the same crappy hit points as a thief, they haven't got even the thieving abilities of a thief, they don't fight any better than a thief ... and it takes more X.P. per level to go up.

Jeez.  Why would anyone run an assassin?  Heck, better treat that assassination ability like an instantaneous reloadable magic spell that can be applied all the freaking time.

And that's what happens.

Part of the problem that 14-year-old players buy into that kind of bullshit is that the idea drifts upon the wind that assassins in D&D are something like the modern day syndicate Hit Man - a fellow who takes contracts for money.  Gygaxian Logic  dictated that a 'guild' had to be created where said contracts could be distributed out, where assassins could get together for coffee and cakes after the job, and of course the local officials are paid just to look the other way.  So once again, there's another trope . . . the assassin stomping into your campaign and asking you straight up, "Hey, where's the assassins guild?  How much do I pay them?  Have they got any contracts for me?"

Like yes, what I'd really like to do now is have all my players squat motionless around a table while the assassin in the party spends the next four hours carefully hunting down the pre-generated victim, who obviously can't wait to die.  Or, alternately, the five minute episode where the assassin picks up his contract, heads around to the bar where Pick the Needle is known to down drinks, dispatching him with a quick percentile roll before turning up again amidst the party counting his cool 200 g.p.

Can I just say:  do we need more proof in this world that the originators of D&D were a bunch of really, really, flabbergastingly stupid pud-pounding morons?

But heck - I'm known to be biased about such things.

So basically, having gotten rather sick with the assassin schtick, DM's just settle the problem once and for all by denying the existence of assassins as a class.  Sure, people still "assassinate" . . . but without the percentile roll.

My personal feeling is that the percentile roll is fine.  I have no trouble with an imagined assassin having a solid biological understanding of the humanoid body, and being able to take advantage of that with a swift knife thrust, or a garrote, or what you like.  I really don't mind this being a percentage, it's a works-or-not kind of roll.

But there has to be an infrastructure behind that roll that makes sense.  The assassin HAS to surprise the victim - and the assassin HAS to do so at a distance that allows absolutely no time at all.  It doesn't do any good to surprise the victim from seven feet away . . . unless the assassin is running flat out, and if so, a little surgery is going to be a little more difficult.  In films, assassins who go for the throat NEVER miss . . . but in reality they would all the time.  So we're talking adjustments - adjustments for weapons, adjustments for movement, adjustments for all kinds of circumstances.  But I don't think those adjustments are easily managed by a few tables . . . there are too many circumstances.  For myself, I tend to play it so that whenever the assassination set up isn't perfect, the assassination chance is halved, or quartered, depending on how many relevant details there are.

What's perfect?  You're in the shadows; the victim steps out a few feet from you; the victim is distracted by a pocket watch or something in the sky - and you step out and kill him.

Now, if you make that happen as an assassin, I'll give you the experience points for assassination.  But if you blunder around and don't think things through ... well fuck, who does?  I have yet to have a player who really has the cold natured heart necessary to carry forth the process behind the assassination.  I've been hammering on this point for quite a few years and for quite a few years I come up short.  It doesn't really surprise me - on some level, I think that if you have a player at the table able to really think like a killer, you might have to wonder just what you're doing having this person in your house.

Still, that's how the assassin ought to approach it:  "How do I put myself in the right place at the right time to murder that fellow once he is standing right next to me?"  And the removal of obstacles is definitely the point.  That's not as easy as it looks.

Moreover, players cannot 'join' an assassins guild.  All guilds would be based on one high level assassin with followers.  Players cannot, by definition, act as mindless followers for a non-player character . . . it would mean basically accepting that the DM was going to run your character for you.  Therefore, the only assassin's guild the player can 'join' will be the one the player inevitably starts.

Which means, if the players want to have a contract to kill someone (plausible), they're going to have to figure out how to get one from an NPC non-assassin looking for an assassin.  Good luck with that.  I'd love to see a player really figure out how to do that ... it would really take some serious freakin' thinking.  I know as a DM, I'm going to be picking any plan apart for the opportunity to send the guards in and catch the player - it better be a really good plan.

Still, anything's possible.

Inside the party, I can see benefits for the rational thinking assassin.  Someone's harassing the party?  The assassin will take care of it.  That guard's in the way?  The assassin will take care of it.  Three guys are following the party?  The assassin will take care of them.  And so on.  With forethought and planning, always.  Never - absolutely never - by walking up to them, waving hello, and magically assassinating them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The contest is very simple.
All persons will play at the same time.  Because my comments are on moderate, each person can comment on this post with their choice.  All persons will have a chance to comment before I publish all results for each round.  Your first choice will be the only one I will accept - subsequent choices in a particular round will be ignored.  It might be possible to finish this in one round, or it may take several.

To repeat.  You, the players, will write one word on a comment: say, "scissors."  When all persons have written one word (or willingly bowed out), I will publish and declare the winners for that round.  Remaining winners will then compete in following rounds, if these are needed.

Calculating results:

The choice with the largest number of proponents will wipe out those one step down from that choice.  Left over persons will survive, with the winners, to the next round.

Example: Three persons choose 'rock'; one person chooses 'scissors' and one person chooses 'paper.'  In that round, rock destroys scissors, so that person is out.  Both those who chose rock and that one who chose paper will survive to the next round.

If there the largest number occurs for two different choices, then the superior choice will destroy the other; left over persons will survive.

Example:  Two persons choose 'rock' and two persons choose 'paper'; one person chooses 'scissors.'  Paper will destroy rock, so those two persons are out; those choosing paper and scissors will survive to the next round.

If the largest group fails to kill anyone, then the second largest group will have considered to have killed all persons in the largest group.

Example:  Four persons choose 'rock'; no one chooses 'scissors;' one person chooses 'paper.'  In this round, the one person choosing paper destroys the four people choosing rock.

If all persons make the same choice, or if an equal number of players makes each of the three choices, then the round is void and repeated again.

Example:  Everyone chooses 'rock.'  The round is played over.

Example:  With three persons left, one person each chooses 'rock,' 'scissors' and 'paper.'  The round is played over.

If one person is chosen without having designated a second person, those still surviving will play for the second position.

If for some reason Alexis accidentally publishes some results too early, due to the nature of blogger, that round is void and will be played over.

Rounds are played until there is one final winner and one final loser.  This may not be completed today.  Please note, there is a hole in the middle of my day when I will be unavailable.

I will continue to publish comments which do not contain results.  If I have missed something in my logic above, please inform me immediately, and I will rule.

JB, Imon Fyre, Oddbit, Wickedmurph, Arduin ...

You may begin.

Monday, January 23, 2012

God Rot DDO

In 1984, when I was 20 years old, I went to watch the movie Revenge of the Nerds with my friends.  We knew nothing about the film except the commercials that went before it, and as it was the first weekend, and there was no internet, we had not even heard word about the film from anyone who had seen it.

But my crowd was a definitely odd-looking bunch, punk and pre-goth and dylanesque, channelling everything from Elvis Costello through the Marquis de Sade.  As it happened, waiting for the movie to start in the era before theatre advertising, we found ourselves sitting in front of a line of four Paris Hilton-wannabes ... though of course Mme. Hilton was then only three years old.  The Paris type has been around a lot longer than Paris.

They did not know anything about the film, either.  They knew less than we did.  This we found out because as my crowd was loud and obnoxious in the way that only hardcore nerds can be, and because the film was about us (we were sure), these girls eventually came around to asking us what a 'nerd' was.

You see, they didn't know.

Putting aside that they were obviously stupid, and that they were obviously NOT going to like the film, I turned about, leaned on the back of the seat behind me, and explained nerds to these four girls.  I was a lecturing bastard even then.

They called me a few rude things, I said I didn't care, and then I turned around and spread my arms wide as though to embrace the movie screen, and cried out loud enough for the whole theatre to hear, "THESE ARE MY PEOPLE!"

How very, very right I was.  The film remains one of my favorites.

But we know now how the term 'nerd' has been co-opted to death and how it has come to replace the word 'expert' where it comes to ordinary, white collar work.  Every Disney movie (and most other studios besides) contains a nerd who is in no way like any nerd I ever knew once upon a time, and every said depicted nerd appears, at worst, to be Hollywood ugly.

These are definitely, very definitely, NOT my people.  Not, not even those guys.

This is all working its way towards the title in this post - DDO players do not play D&D.  Oh, my gawd, do they ever NOT play D&D.

Not that this will come as a surprise to the more hardcore of my gentle readers.  So you may rest easy, I'm not going to write a point-by-point comparison.  I'm sure others have done so already ... and in any case, I think I would have had to play DDO at some point in my life to do a credible job.  I haven't, so I won't.

People who have played DDO and not D&D drift into my campaign and I don't mind that.  They find out soon enough that the games are different, and then a strange thing happens.  They like D&D better.  Imagine that.  They would rather spend a Saturday night fumbling with archaic ideals like dice and such, and who can blame them?  Computer games suck.  We all know computer games suck.  Their one redeeming feature is that they don't require social graces, they can be played a long time and they don't suck nearly as much as television.  Or most everything else.

Someday, computer games won't suck.  But as long as they depend on cut scenes and side quests and monthly payments and bullshit filler and player-player competition, they are going to suck.

Here's the thing, however.  Computer games were around when everyone who played them wasn't a nerd.  In fact, in strictest definition, nerds are so rare that a computer game company would die brutally trying to survive on that base.  In my 1,850 student high school, there were exactly six of us.  I don't mean there were six nerds in my particular crowd ... I mean in the entire school, there were six nerds who could legitimately be classed as social lepers - which is what nerds are.  Sometimes they are social lepers because they are really smart; and sometimes because they are mean; and sometimes because they are a-political or amoral or just not all there.  And all of them have a long, long history of having their social leprosy proven to them.  These are not people sitting around waiting for the diagnosis.  They know what they are.

We played computer games because they sucked less than everything else.  And we built computers and radio telescopes and guitars and wrote books and sang on street corners because we had gobs of time not spent being involved in ordinary social conventions.  Through our long, lonesome years, we read and read and read and lived with society like Jane Goodall lived with the chimps, watching them, worried about being killed by them, and learning all about them.  And we took that learning, most often than not, and applied it to ART.

Yes, some of us were about computers and electronics, but not because computers and electronics meant jack shit in themselves - we were into them because of what those things could CREATE.  If you fuck around taking computers apart and rebuilding them in your basement, you're not a nerd.  If you fuck around rebuilding computers with the idea of modifying a river-spanning bridge into a moog upon which you can play something by the Clash, then you are a nerd.  See the difference?

What's my point?  Oh, there's no point.  I'm just fucking around with this blog, finding out what it can do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wanted: Player

The onblog campaign has been gaining momentum again after our December hiatus, but as it happens one of the players has simply vanished.  There's no word at all, and we have no idea what happened - he had seemed very into the game, suggesting something nefarious.

Still, we all know the game ... and since four players make a better session than three, the time has come to start looking into finding another regular player for the game.  If said individual shows up later, then five is still manageable ... and five is better than three.

So ... if you are interested in exploring my world as a player, now is the time.

The criteria is fairly rigorous, I'm afraid.  The campaign is played on a blog, so the first thing a new player needs to have is an ability to express his or her self in the written word.  You should be someone who likes to write, and who is willing to do so on a regular basis.  You should have good grammar, and have the ability to be precise and to the point.  Saying all that needs to be said in the least number of words is a priority.

The game is entirely played between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.  Notes pass back and forth sometimes in the evening, but the game is played during office hours, so you should have reasonable access to the internet at that time.  Most of have meetings, work, things we do, so game moments get suspended constantly and sometimes for whole days, but we'd want someone who could log on, check to see what's happening and offer an action to keep things going.  I really couldn't base an event around your character if it took three days to hear from you.  We play virtually every day, even if it's just a little bit.  Fanatics, therefore, are wanted.

You should be completely familiar with the nature and the style of the campaign, and I think you should be flexible about what rules you want to play by.  I'm not going to change rules in the game just to suit you, so if you depend on things like skills and feats, my world won't be for you.  It is highly modified AD&D, but the structure is basically still the old game from the late 70s.

It wouldn't hurt to know my blog, and to have learned by now that I'm not an asshole all the time.  A lot of people around the blogosphere seem to think I must be painted black, not gray, and are constantly surprised when I say gray, or even white things.

I would like to hear from you, either in the comments section or to my email at alexiss1@telus.net.  I must tell you I'll be more impressed if you write me in the comments section - how can you ask to play openly on the blog if you can't give me the reasons you'd play just as openly?

And I want to hear reasons.  Not just, "It will be fun!" - but honest reasons why you'd want to give it a crack, what kind of character you'd like to run, what you'd like ultimately to do with the character and how you think you'd interact with the present three players running.  Be specific and give examples.

I'll be open minded ... but the game online is a good one, so if I don't see a good fit, I won't take anyone.  The other players will be watching this post too, so if you ingratiate yourself with them, they'll have a lot of pull when it comes to convincing me to let you play.

Give it a try.  I won't eat you.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Actual Life

In my long post I made an association between the roleplaying game and something I called 'actual' or 'real' life.  The quote ran as follows:

"Your actual life consists of moments of panic and discord; of terror and bliss; of boredom and intensity. The DMs goal is to reduce the boredom circumstances as much as possible, but to otherwise provide for the same opportunities as a real life provides in terms of distraction and interest."

Very well, what is real life, and how does one achieve it?

Let us not, to start, bog down into a question of whether or not we exist, or for what purpose we exist, or how we came about to exist, or by what means ought we to continue our existence.  These are all very interesting questions, and bear great application to the daily habit of real life, but they are of secondary value in terms of reflecting the qualities of real life, which is the subject upon the table now.  Life, for all its variances, for all its difficulties and rewards, feels remarkably real, does it not?  In that I mean that it possesses a quality that seems to capture all of your attention.  It is, in a word, absorbing.  I don't propose that your job is particularly your cup of tea, or that your relationship is going as planned, or that you've achieved the goals you'd hoped to manage by the age you're at now, no - I only mean to say that whatever quality of life you're experiencing at the moment, you are, in fact, experiencing it.  You've got to admit - real life is pretty goddamned distracting.

This is all a round about way of tackling the subject of immersion, which my functioning wikipedia tells me "... is a state of consciousness where an immersant's awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment, often artificial."

Let's be reasonable.  You are not going to achieve this to the nth degree around a gaming table.  Your players are still going to be aware of the location of the cheetoes, the dice are still going to demand them to recognize the presence of a mechanic apart from the 'game world,' and you're still going to have to get up and take your physical self to the bathroom every hour or so to expel the real coke you're drinking.  No one here is pitching virtual reality.  All we are asking for is a reasonable amount of distraction, something for our imaginations to take root upon so we are not thinking about our jobs, our relationships or our failed ambitions ... right?

Recently, reading Raph Koster's blog, he described the death of immersion in the cloud of internet interconnectedness ... as in, how can there be immersion in video games if thou art repeatedly interrupted by pop-ups and jingles of your internet moving and shaking?  There you are, in the middle of a scene between you and the Princess Raglia, who's husband has just died, and you're informed that BleedingMonkeyFuckBoy22 has just come online.  Kinda sucks.

And I get his point.  There's a general sentiment going around the bourgeois that interconnectedness is both a joy and a curse ... that you need apps to tell you to get off your computer, to fight off the apps that tell you to get on, like people in the 70s taking downers and uppers to sleep at night and get up in the morning.  There's something reassuringingly moronic about the nature of the social middle class, and about the way one-time Bohemians are pulled into it once seduced by owning a house, a car and the comforts of life insurance.  But immersion, or 'real life' as I prefer to call it, isn't passed on, or even feeling a bit sickly.  It's doing very well ... it just isn't the stale product of a repeating video screen.

In a very bad film from the early 80s (never mind which one), David Cronenburg tried unsuccessfully to tackle an emerging social phenomenon - the blurring distinction between actual reality and perceived reality, brought on by the universality of television.  We can't blame Cronenburg for failing - he always fails.  He fails because he always tries to cram incomprehensible contexts into a two-hour film, as though that's the right medium for them, with the recognition that there is no right medium.  In this particular case, he has one of his characters propose the following argument: "... whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it.  Therefore the television is reality ..."

Have you stopped to consider that a part of your memory; a part of the environment that made you you, that fashioned your character and rationalized your decision-making process, has been founded in the passage through several small stone corridors that led you from a perceived surface to a perceived underground chamber, when thence you barbarously slaughtered a bevy of imagined creatures in order to obtain an imagined reward which you then - in reality, mind - transfixed into your consciousness by writing said reward out in detail upon a piece of paper?  When you compare the person you are with the persons your parents chose to be, do you assign a value to how far your adventures went towards making you an adult?  And when you sit at the table as a dungeon master, do you contemplate your effects upon a comparable basis?  Do you consider that you're presenting a perceived reality that is nonetheless teaching lessons commensurate in some degree with not touching a hot stove and not telling your friend that his girl is sleeping around on him?

I would guess not.

The reality of your world begins and ends with the reality you choose to present in it ... or if you prefer, the degree in which you believe in your world.  This is not a strange or unstable phenomenon.  Most writers who invest fully into their works come to accept that their characters have become real persons ... that they, in some alternate reality, walk about and go through the actions of eating and surviving for their own sakes, apart from the writer's actual work.  This is then conveyed to the audience, that reads the work, which then itself comes to believe in the reality of the characters.  Does it not seem necessary that in some place, in some existence, not quite established by science, that Frodo and Bilbo must exist?  Is it not remarkably easy to suppose that in San Francisco in the 1940s there was a Sam Spade, or that a Yossarian spent the 50s quietly and happily burbling to himself in a Valencian cafe, reached after a long sea voyage?

But how do you achieve that?  How do you make your world real, given that you buy into any of this argument and accept that your world being real would be a marvelous thing?

To begin, you must make the conscious decision that it will BE real ... even if it is not.  It is the conscious decision to dismiss reason and judgment in this particular instance, and to embrace that your insistence is a great influence upon your belief than is your observation.  This is not as difficult as it seems ... but it is also not something that can be negotiated.  It is all or nothing - a bit of doubt tears the structure down.

Then you must apply the observances you have made of the world around you to the world you intend to make.  If your experience with this world denies the existence of something, then the matters of your world must not have that thing.  There is nothing physical, for example, to keep me from lifting this computer over my head and bludgeoning to death the fellow sitting at the next table.  My muscles will lift this computer, and swing it.  The fellow may struggle against me, but if my first hit is sound I will have the upper hand.  There will be no god who will restrain my actions.  No rule of existence will intervene.  It is down to my will, and my will alone, that decides what I will do next.  Consequences may come, but only after the event.

If your world is rife with player restraint, it will never be real.  It will never measure up to real life, and will therefore never truly distract from it.

The same is said for every element of your world.  If your setting cannot be explained or expressed to a degree equal to how you would describe your work place, or the village where you holidayed last year, or the house in which you grew up, it will never lift your players to believe in it.  If your player's characters are not fleshed out somehow; if the rules apply like frogs scattering on a pond; if swung weapons fail to terrify; if magic does not cause players to wonder, as it must; if a journey does not take time; if invented foes do not speak or act with the ring of truth; if blood and sweat always produces a reward, or if rewards come regardless of blood and sweat; then your world will fail.  It will always fail.

If you will be a DM, you must lift yourself from your stupor and go look at the world, and see the thing you dare to offer distraction from.  You must understand the world, comprehend it somehow, not merely in its physical manifestation, but in the means by which the denizens of that world struggle and achieve, or wallow and die.

If you will not do this, you do not have a creator in you and you should quit now.  From your limited experience - the experience of only one life, your own - you will manage to do little more than whitewash a cardboard surface ... and this will be the reason you have no players.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Agency

This will be short.  I don't seem to have as much energy as I'd like, and I've got a bevy of other things on the go.

Last week, I talked about player agency, and got slapped around a bit.  I don't mind.  Mostly, I got the impression that people just didn't think grammar was that important; that the future tense is as viable as any other tense; and that in general the social system is breaking down and this is what we've got.

My players offline did have a real good time regarding issues of permission when they came around Saturday to play.  As it happened, I was too sick to run and we chatted about life and sociology and watched a 1959 movie, The Bridal Path, which my daughter, her Scotland-loving boyfriend/husband (they live together), and the lesbians who run in my world hadn't seen.  A good time was had by all.

If I am talking about agency, I intend to make a simple point:  I have power as a DM.  We don't play without my say-so, and if we are playing, then I'm going to lay out some rules of propriety and address that I think are appropriate for players to follow if the game, as a whole, is going to run smoothly.  There is a shibboleth to running in my world, and those who participate and enjoy the pleasure of my labor are going to adhere to it.  It is, if you can forgive the absolutism, a point of privilege of being a DM.

Why should I care about grammar?  Because communication requires clarity, and communication about action, doubly so.  If I make a statement as a DM that is unclear to the player, I do not quibble and haw about how I made the point previously.  I fix my statement and extend my effort to make the point clear.  I expect in absolute terms for a player to do likewise - and if my insistence on clarification includes that they will put the previous statement into the present tense, I don't really give a damn how inconvenient that is, or how much permission it requires, or whether the player is in the mood.  Clarity is more important - by a damn sight - than the differences between future tense or present.

I run a good world.  When I ask a player, "Are you doing it, or will you do it?", it is done for good reason.  I attempted to express that good reason, but I suppose I missed getting that across.  Lord Thanatos, besides, put it better than I could have hoped.

Such little idiosyncracies and shibboleth's are the way it goes.  I wonder how many DM's recognize the frequency with which they give ground on things they find important just to make players happy.

I wouldn't recommend making it a habit.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wikipedia Fades to Black

For those who may not know, wikipedia is a lifeline for my world.  I would hate to have to go back to encyclopedias and ordinary websites for my data.

You may also not know that Wikipedia is going to black itself out for the 18th of January.  You can comment on the matter here - I suggest you make your voice heard.  My comment is number 4348.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


This is a topic I've talked about before, but given a small conversation in my online campaign yesterday, I thought I might take another shot at it.  I could say, I'm going to take another shot, but instead, I ought to say, I am taking another shot.

Things were going along as usual, with the players saying, "I will" do this or that, and I griped about it as usual and a brief discussion popped up.  I promised to write a post and we buried it for the campaign.

Butch made a good argument that the future tense is common in every day life:

"Consider the difference if a co-worker says, 'I'm going to lunch,' and your reply is: 'I'm going with you.' (whether you like it or not) or 'I'll go with you.' (if it's OK with you) The difference between 'I go to the bar' and 'I will go to the bar' may be subtle, but in my mind, what I'm saying is, 'Assuming I can, I go to the bar.'"

Then James C. followed with:

"As the arbiter of all activity, nothing takes place without the DM's approval."

And although I understand perfectly why both players feel this way - indeed, that they are even trained to think this way - I have to say that they couldn't be more wrong.

These are two different issues.  The first, that from Butch, is the issue that I tried to handle in the linked post above, but I think I got too clever and missed getting the point across.

D&D is a game played with words, and as such, exact words are important.  In fact, the words themselves are meant to take the place of actions - they're not, therefore, merely expressions, they are surgical indications of exactly what the character does, and at the moment the character does them.

The reason this is usually not so is because of the way in which, generally, players approach their character's actions.  There is a very, very strong tendency on the player's part to compress time and leap way ahead in what actions they take.

What do I mean?  Let us say that the players have just left a given dungeon.  They're loaded with loot, they're tired and beat up, and one will say, "We will return to town."  Take note of the future tense.

This is working into Butch's point about the conditionalism of stating the character's action.  He can't guarantee they will get back to town, so it is better, he argues, to put it in the future tense just in case you don't get back to town..

But I argue that the REAL problem is the choice of words - specifically, the choice of verb.  The verb return itself implies something that has already happened.  You can't return until you've gotten there.  The verb, and not the question for permission, is what defines the necessity of the future tense.

Consider an alternate verb:  "We head for town."  Simple, resolute, and in no way dependent on the DM's permission.  If I cock my head and lift my foot, I have, without question, "headed" for town.  I may get stopped on the way, but getting stopped will in no way change the fact that I did, beyond a doubt, head in that direction.

Players constantly pick verbs which are intended to compress time ... which is something they learn from DMs who either fail to do so, or who suck at doing so.  I can't express how many times I have to hold up a player, on or off line, who rattles off the fifteen things they do once they arrive in town, as though these things can all be done at the same time ... and all expressed in the future tense, of course.  "Town" has its own particular issues where it comes to D&D.  "Town" all too often means "safe zone" or the "nothing can happen to me there" zone, and players treat it that way because they are trained to do so.

But understand ... it is one thing for a player to remark to his friends, "When I get back to town, I'm going to have the biggest steak" and another for the player actually in town, telling the DM, "I'll have the steak," and then marking the cash off the player sheet.  We talk like that to the server, because we know the steak will be arriving at some point in the future - but if the future is now, the verb should also be now.  "I eat!" is a verb I rarely, if ever, hear a player use where it comes to provisions.  It is always, "We will have a day's provisions" - never, "we eat a day's provisions."

I originally made the point that players adapt this sort of future-tense to describe their actions because they've learned it is a way to side-step the reality of actually doing a specific thing in the moment of doing it.  If I speak in the future tense, I have one last chance to avoid getting axed by the DM.  I can fall back on, "I didn't say I did it, I said I was about to do it.  I haven't done it yet!"  This is the permission element both Butch and James alluded to.

So an experienced gamer will develop phrases and ways of speaking that improve one's chances of survival.  Everytime you make a definitive statement - "I turn the knob" - you risk death.  Better to say, "I will turn the knob."  You might still get killed, but every bit of an edge helps.  Besides, one time in ten it will force the DM to ask back, "You turn it?" which is a red flag.  The DM will never ask that question if the red knob were perfectly safe, so the smart player backs off and says, "Oh, wait ... maybe not."  And another inexperienced DM misses that chance to kill a player.

The desire is to have the players speak only in verbs which as players they can be absolutely certain of doing - no matter what freaking permission the DM offers.

This is where I take umbrage with James' statement, because the DM is NOT the arbiter of ALL activity.  The players are entitled to absolute agency in performing actions they can perform.  No matter what, they can always 'try' to do things.  They can try to return to town.  They can try to turn the knob.  Even if the player is held, frozen, magic jarred and soaking a delusion potion through their skin, no matter what the fuck the DM has to say about success, the player can still TRY.  So long as the player indicates that they are trying, the DM can stuff his or her fucking permission.  The player doesn't need permission to try.

All things being equal, the player is perfectly entitled to take a wide variety of actions.  They can cast a spell ... they may not be able to discharge the spell, or complete the casting, but they can damn well begin the casting and the DM can just suck it up sideways.  If there's nothing immediately in the vicinity of the player that would stop the player, the player can and indeed must be acknowledged to have completed the casting, for those are the rules of the game, which the DM must abide by every bit as much as the players.  If the player picks up a sword, and there's no fundamental reason time and space has been altered regarding this particular object, then by ZEUS and His Green Apple Trio, that fucking sword is picked up.  And that is how it goes.  There ain't no future tense about it - the player enacts upon his or her agency to alter the world with the words that player uses, and the DM is not empowered to stop the player.

Naturally, some swords cannot be 'picked up.'  But then there better be a damn good reason why the player's agency is thwarted ... and the player better have the right to pound his or her fist on the table and demand that answer be a good one when it presents itself, or hell should break fully upon the DM's head.  Because Player Agency is not to dismissed lightly.  Agency is the soup and crumbly crackers of this exploitation, and without it there is no damn game.

So exercise a little agency.  Put it in the present tense.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The term itself originated in the 15th century, along with the rise of the medical profession in Europe and experimentation in bodily systems.  The meaning was simply "united in one body," and really had nothing to do with the rise of the economic entity that you'll find referenced in sources like wikipedia, which suggests the "corporation" of London had been founded in 1067 with the granting of its first charter.  It's generally ignored by modern sources that the language itself has changed substantially since the 11th century, and that in no way could London remotely at that time be considered a 'corporation' as we understand the term.

A charter is an official document granting certain rights or privileges to select groups of persons, usually granted by a royal figure within a monarchical state (and otherwise, but lets not quibble).  It would come about as time passed that charters would be granted to economic entities, entitling them to enact in their own authority for the purpose of gaining wealth, but the modern corporation - one that operated separate from the need to obtain a government charter in order to seek profit - did not truly exist until the 19th century.  But clearly the creators of Civilization did not have this distinction in mind when they proposed that the corporation 'technology' would be obtained commensurate with the development of astrological physics and experimental chemistry.

The actual term used in the 15th century and onwards was 'company,' and the term is very important.  Note that it is a military term describing a body of soldiers grouped in friendship and intimacy (the word originates in the 12th century).  When entities such as the British East India Company were given a 15 year 'monopoly' by government charter to act in their own interest, the recognition was that a physical gang with soldier-like efficiency would set up and plunder a foreign land with little or no regard for the existing laws of the lands being plundered.  The so-called monopoly granted by the British king was matched by a 'monopoly' granted to Portuguese plunderers by their king, and to Dutch plunderers by their government, and to French plunderers by their government.  Every able power in Europe granted some sort of privilege to steal from foreigners from the 16th century onwards, including the Danish, the Swedes and of course the Spanish.  The arrival of a foreign company in Asian, African or Latin American lands was the equivalent of an invasion, and no bones were made about it.  Local pposition was dealt with harshly and in a fierce, cold-blooded manner, with murder or slavery, depending upon the practical application of either.  The men who carried forth these acts were seen as heroes at home, awarded with lands, privileges and prestige, and were believed to possess the very best characteristics one could hope for in a native-born son.

It has only been in the last half century that the unquestioned worship of said former patriots has come to be questioned.  In the 1950s, a real bastard like Robert Clive of India was apt to make a British schoolboy's chest swell, to think he lived in the same country that spawned such a great and noble gentleman.

But unless your world takes place in a time like the Renaissance, and unless it has the sort of steep division between high-technology and low-technology regions, it is very unlikely that any king in your world would agree to grant the sort of open privileges granted to the founders of, say, Archangel in Russia or Jamestown in Virginia.  These privileges were granted because the king at home could not produce the cash-requirement necessary to post an army in a land whose wealth was unproven.  It was much more practical to hand the job off to the private sector, who could live or die within their own means ... and if they died, which many of them did, then all the better that the crown did not suffer the consequence.  On the other hand, if they lived, they would bring home untold wealth to the home country, and open opportunities at a later date for the real army to step in an impose colonial rule.  But then, that was probably little thought of in the late 16th century.

As such, the English king would not have granted a company - remember, a military term - the right to set up shop in Scotland, where real ownership by the crown was practical.  Ireland, which had proven a thorn in the crown for centuries, proved to be better managed by private means ... and thus private forces, both approved and not approved by the king, ranged over Eire either imprudently or with great success.  But it must be understood - this was not the imposition of a business strategy.  There were shareholders - but then, the money for ships and weapons had to come from somewhere.  A group of investors throwing together to buy a notorious adventurer a ship was a risk ... but it was better to sit at home on your ass and wait while someone else got bloody doing the dirty work, in exchange for your share of the plunder.  And remember, the shareholders were knighted, too.

These were interesting times.

Without the promise of pride and prestige at home, however, there would have been little reason to ever return with the ships or the plunder.  Remember that only a couple of centuries before, the way to India and China, or the way to America, was undetermined ... and company charters were hard to come by when the enemy were the Berbers or the Arabs.  Certain groups did get 'backing' by states to plunder in the Holy Lands - we call that time the Crusades - and certain groups, like the Knights of Rhodes, got rich doing it.  But you couldn't call the practice anywhere near as widespread as it became when the whole world became available for pillage.

Still, when you are thinking about adventures for your players, consider the presentation of a charter to enter into the orc lands and slaughter.  With the king's good wishes, its a lot easier to raise a force of a few hundred men, or to encourage a wealthy landholder or two to offer up a little investment ... and all with the expectation of pomp and ceremony when the conquering heroes come marching home, the blood on their boots nicely washed off of course.  And remember that modern sensibilities of honorable practice don't figure in the proceeds - blankets infested with brown or yellow mold, gifts of barrels of ale or wine - and throat leeches, or pretty hats including a resident ear seeker are just as partial to your players gaining a knighthood as straight up fighting.  No one cares how the orcs are massacred or plundered, so long as there IS plunder to bring home ... don't expect much regard for slaughtering enemies who haven't had the cultural wisdom to create hard coin.  The conquerors of Australia and Patagonia are barely remembered.

Does it concern you any that the modern incarnation which pays you an income began as something with even less morality than it is appreciated for now?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Motivations Behind 2nd Edition

UPDATE:  This post has been updated with the title, "Early in the Life of a Game," and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

Over the last 30+ years of DMing, I have had one hell of a lot of new characters rolled in front of me - by noobs and vets both - and most of the time, there's a stall where it comes to picking the character's class.  No one, it seems, ever knows what they want to be.  I mean, it's not a big problem ... there's a little hemming and hawing, and people decide on something, and the game moves forward.

But I began thinking of it when last night I caught a lecture on Aristotle's view of friendship.  During the lecture the prof took a few minutes and talked about roles:  you're a brother, a sister, a father, a mother, a judge, a professor, a street cleaner ... these are not just definitions of what you do or what you happen to be.  They are also descriptions of the responsibility you fulfill in society as a whole.  As a father you have certain expectations you must fill, in maintaining your children, in presenting a positive role-model, in the disencouragement of squabbling between your children and their friends, and so on.  This is sometimes a responsibility that is thrust upon you, and it is sometimes a responsbility that you relish ... but it is always a responsibility.

Where it comes to choosing what you do for a living, that is a responsibility too.  You've taken it upon yourself to be recognized as a given type, with the recognition that when people approach you as that type, they have the right to expect a standard of behavior from you that matches your claim.  In other words, if you will call yourself a lawyer, and I am looking for a lawyer, if I call upon your law office, I expect to find a lawyer.  I don't expect to find someone mocking the legal profession, or someone who is utterly incompetant.  If you are not a lawyer, you have no right to call yourself a lawyer.

If you will allow one more example, I present myself here as a pontificating, pretentious asshole.  If you come here expecting that, I will be ready to meet my responsibilities in providing you with what you respect - er, that is, expect.  To do less is to fail my ethical responsibilities.

Now, if the gentle reader will bundle up this argument and put it under his or her arm for the moment, we can talk about the ethical world Gygax and his cronies grew up in and compare it to the ethical world that launched 2nd Edition.  For this portion, I will be relying somewhat on Adam Curtis' excellent documentary, The Century of the Self, which can be viewed in its four-hour entirety here.  If you have never seen it, and you enjoy having your fundamental precepts about the world deconstructed, you are in for a good, long ride.  I will add the disclaimer that Curtis tends in his documentaries to simplify a lot of philosophical positions in order to get his ducks in order, so please retain a hard-nosed cynicism throughout ... but as a long-time researcher in modern history, social deconstruction and psychology, I can vouch for a great many of his conclusions.

The principle conclusion of The Century of the Self is the expectation that the average individual possesses about what they expect to have in terms of their own happiness.  Curtis presents the argument that in a former period, culminating in the 1960s, the ordinary person was driven towards obtaining specific kinds of material wealth, and fulfilling specific roles in society, driven by the social expectations upon that person.  You lived in a certain kind of house, and drove a certain kind of car, and lived a certain kind of life ... and society defined that sort of existence as 'normal,' and considered it absolutely necessary to hammer people into that existence in order that they be healthy.

A great deal of this hammering was driven by an industrial complex that feared overproduction.  If everyone bought the same kind of car, there was a reasonable assurance that the whole production of that car would be sold out ... making industry happy.  But with the start of the 1960s, a trend emerged which really hit its stride in 1980.  That trend was the multiplicity of personalized goods, whose sale became guaranteed by social movements encouraging the selfishly motivated consumer ... who insisted that things be individualized for their particular taste.  This came out of a revolution in advertising, manufacturing, personal bias, communications - and a host of other motivations described in Curtis' documentary - that transformed the world.  Any of us right now who can remember the world in 1970, and who can compare that to the world in 1985, can attest to that change.

Very well, let's come back to the subject of character classes ... which remains a contentious issue.  I propose to explain why it's contentious.

Character classes came from the minds of people for whom the 1950s and 60s were definitive years.  In that period, what you did was far more important than who you were, particularly in terms of narrative, both in literature and in film.  No one gives a shit who Philip Marlowe's family were, or how he was raised, or even how he came to acquire his personal feelings towards the law or his job.  Philip Marlowe was a detective.  His actions are those of a detective, his motivations are those of a detective, his background is a detective's background, his actions are those you'd expect a detective to take.  He's not a cop, so he doesn't have to be a nice guy.  He carries a gun and slaps people around, but he's not a crook.  His role in this world is defined distinctly.

The same is true for virtually every character in that period, right up to the era of widespread amateur psychology; the era of "I'm Okay, You're Okay."  We comfortably accept an absence of 'modern' motivational background even in psycho-analytic tales like The Caine Mutiny or The Sun Also Rises.  Even the character that does nothing is defined more by their doing nothing than by what they feel or believe.

For Gygax and crew, it was only natural to embrace this point of view ... it was, after all, the point of view of their time.  Gygax was born in 1938.  When he was 18, he was sitting in a movie theatre watching The Ten Commandments, The Searchers, Giant and Bus Stop.  Stories driven by what people DID ... who they were or why they were was a secondary consideration.  When it came time to define the characters in the D&D game, the central context was certainly more about what they did ... were you a cleric or a mage or a fighter?  And if a fighter, you had the responsibilities of a fighter and the expectations of a fighter ... and others had the right to see you as a fighter.

But as the world rushed into the 1970s, individualized 'personalities' came to be manufactured by the industrial world, the act of choosing to be something was much more important than being that thing.  Remember that the 70's were called the "Me Decade."  Young 18-year-old people, people twenty years younger than Gygax, were watching movies like Rocky, The Bad News Bears, Car Wash and Taxi Driver ... movies about people bitter and angry about the role society had chosen for them, and who fought to gain a more idealized role for themselves.  Not so they could be boxers and ball players and vigilantes, but so they could obtain personal satisfaction.

Personal satisfaction becomes so endemic to the culture that nerds playing D&D in the 80s chafe and rail against having to be boxed into narrow, pre-defined character roles.  It doesn't fit their perception of choice and of how the world should work.  It doesn't matter to them if they're fulfilling a responsibility or not.  It is about ME, and what abilities I want to have, and about how I want to personalize my character so that it is different from every other character out there.  Because that is what I want and what I want is more important than anything.

This, of course, is an illusion, as Curtis' documentary points out.  Manufactured 'choice' still provides tens of thousands of replicate products for the multitude.  Your lava lamp only seems unique and unusual because you're one of a comparative few that wanted to buy one ... but there are something like 500,000 lava lamps just like the one that you think personalizes you, just as there are thousands of other players who have 'personalized' their characters in exactly the way you have personalized yours.  But delusion is the grease that makes the present day market work.  It is only important that you have the perception of individuality.  Actual individuality is virtually impossible.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Evidence From Unlikely Sources

A couple months ago, Brad from Skull Crushing for Great Justice published a graphic describing his circular obsession with D&D.  I can imagine what he will think of my reprinting the graphic, and of cleaning it up a little; he doesn't like me very much.  My personal feeling is that it's the only smart thing I've seen printed on his blog.  I don't like him very much, either.

But I've been thinking about this for two months:

I've been thinking about this because it's very definitely something I used to suffer from myself; and it's taken me two months because I haven't been clear exactly why I don't suffer from it any more.  That is, until it hit me this morning.

I have to qualify a little, however.  It wasn't that I played different versions of D&D, but I did stop D&D consistently for Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, Top Secret, Rolemaster and other games, up until about 1992, after which I pretty much quit everything except for D&D.  I think I could call it a 10-year process of change.  What's funny is that, until seeing Brad's graphic above, I hadn't thought to question the change.  I just thought at the time, "Well, I guess I don't really care about the other anymore."

I think it was something more fundamental than just my mood.  I think I solved the problem because of my growing attitude towards the world I wanted to run.  I shall try to explain.

Prior to 1988, my general approach to running and designing a game was very much like most:  draw out maps, make towns, make lists of NPC's, draw up encounter tables, draw out dungeons, etcetera.  All very normal.  But in '88, I had two things come together in my head for the first time that changed my perception of game design.  The first was another after-game bullsession about what a crappy, crappy thing the equipment list was, and how every addition to the equipment list was weapons, armor and more crap for dungeons, and how crappy that was.  My players in general agreed there wasn't much point in accumulating coin if there was nothing worth spending it on.  I had to agree, but I couldn't see a point in making longer and longer lists of items that didn't really matter in the game.

The second moment came when I was in a bookstore in the north of Calgary called The Book Shoppe, which was a crazy, cluttered maze of far more volumes than one could expect to fit into a two-story house ... and it was there I found a whole wall full of old encyclopedias, about a fifty sets of them.  One set was a match to the encyclopedias I'd grown up with as a kid, dated back to 1952.  Why the old woman who ran the shop thought anyone would buy them, I don't know, but I did buy them, for about $40 as I remember.  I bought them because in that moment my trade system ideal was invented.

Why, I conjectured, should an object have the exact same price no matter where in the world it was found?  And if objects had different prices, wouldn't that encourage players to buy and trade objects, if they shipped them from high supply to low supply?  Wouldn't that be something really new and different for players to spend their money on?

Alas, it was never to be so.  I did have some players who were interested in trade, long ago, but the system was a disaster in the first ten years and it never really worked out.  The system is marvelous now ... but it turns out that I have no players really interested in buying and selling.

Still, that doesn't matter anymore, because the trade system only changed everything about my world.  Forced to hinge more and more on the system - maps, roads, demographics, treasure placement and so on - the world increasingly became an unified whole, just to support this one project I began 23 years ago.

But no, that's not what lifted me out of Brad's circular trap.  The real change began as I exchanged short-term loss for long-term game.

D&D is almost always played in terms of short-term gain.  "I want fun, and I want it now!"  A painful and difficult struggle through featureless landscapes doesn't make much for a game, so a dungeon is conveniently inserted and - since the travel times dwindle to nothing between rooms - we have solid short-term gain.

Except it's a very small gain.  Like anyone who has had a heaping helping of extended hedonism, even fun gets to be a sort of awful, hellish prison, simply because it does not take long for it to become woefully repetitive and dull.  Dungeons, for all their convenient distraction, are in the long term very empty distractions.  To quote a film: "Wealth can be wonderful, but you know, success can test one's mettle as surely as the strongest adversary."

They exist without point and without purpose, and after twenty sessions or so there is a yearning for some kind of 'point' to all the mayhem and bloodbathing.  Another level leaves one as empty as another bottle does a drunk, or another sexual partner does the promiscuous.  And all too often, the easiest efforts to fill that yawning emptiness are new rules and new games ... but these, too, all lack any cohesion, so that hobo-like the players drift, and drift, and drift.

When I began to see the problems of designing my world not in terms of the few days, or the fortnight it would take to draw out a dungeon, but the years of research and effort it would take to really build something deep and comprehensive, my world began to settle upon a bedrock that would fill that hole - not just for me, but for my players too.  All this railing I do against rails, this hammering chorus about the virtues of sandboxing, this is all because when you lift the goals for the players out of the pits of immediate gratification, the game offers something different.  It offers purpose.

When the rules are set in bedrock, they cease to be the libretto that scores the game.  Sessions become less and less about how the game is played, and more and more WHO plays them, and for WHAT they are played.  It becomes clear WHY the game is played. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Vlog the Fool

I had promised the first sunday of every month, but hey, January 1 was a holiday.  So here's January's vlog.  I don't have to introduce it ... the video says it all:

And I mean that sincerely.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Bubbles, They Form

More about the hex generator, then.

I am having no fun at all in programming river courses with excel, but then I am not a programmer.  I successfully worked out a method of determining the river's path through a seven-hex group.  Then I worked out a second river's path, entering the same hex, as obviously river confluences do occur.  Now I am working out the circumstance of a river originating in a hex.  This is all as dull as it sounds, but it's necessary, so I plod on.

I'm in a position, however, to show a little of my work, so I'm going to do that.  But first, I need to discuss a problem with hexes inside of hexes.

They are, to say the least, annoying as hell.  The main problem, the one no one talks about, is that you are left with partial hexes around the outside, as shown:

figure 1

This is all well and good if you're scratching out your world on pen and paper, but if you want to generate the contents of the larger hex, how do you handle those six 1/3rd hexes around the outside?  Ignore them?  Assume the internal hexes actually account for all the space, because they is a simulation?  Or do you accept that what's show above is the equivalent of 9 hexes, instead of 7, and write your programming to suit.  If you're going to do that, it would be easier to consider the whole representing 13 parts ... but let me tell you, when you are working out the path of a river, or where things might be place, you would rather work with 7 options rather than 13.  Trust me.

I've decided not to recognize those hexes for the moment, with an expectation that I will account for them in the future.  In the meantime, I'm going to assign each 'diamond' to the hex immediately counter-clockwise to it, and move ahead from there.  I hope the gentle reader can forgive my laziness.

Okay, let's take the seven hexes inside the map I posted of southern Russia last week:

figure 2

There's clearly not a lot of detail there.  I don't propose at the moment to add a lot.  Instead, I want to show generally the positioning of just two things: the rivers in hex, and those hexes which would be settled and those that are not, as shown below.

figure 3

There the reader can see the similarities, the one with the other.  Now of course this is drawn by hand, from the data created on the hex generation excel file I've built up so far.  I'm not such a programmer that I can concoct images ... I leave that to some bright entity a lot smarter than me.  The location of the town of Luka, moreover, has been determined by plotting it in place at approximately the same position that it appears in relation to the figure 2 above.  It's position was not generated.

To bring new readers up to date, if they haven't read these posts yet, the white hexes indicate settled lands.  The shaded hexes, wild lands.  We find we have four different kinds of small hex - apart from the one containing the town, of course:  river settled, river wild, highland settled and highland wild.  Without having any other kind of information, we can already conjecture the sort of thing these four hex-types ought to contain.

To begin with, the heaviest rural settlement will absolutely be located in the river settled hexes.  We can posit that at every point where a river crosses a hex side between two settled hexes, we have a significant settlement - probably not a village, as those have been designated on the map already, but likely a manor house of some kind, occupied by a minor local lord, plus a hamlet of 5-20 houses, along with a mill of some kind.  Since a lot of this particular area is wild country, we see there are only two such places.

However, we can alternatively surmise that any settled hex containing a river might have such a settlement, and devise a random chance for that accordingly.  We can also suppose that any settled highland hex might have a thorp, a small collection of 3-12 houses, probably without a local lord, but made up of independent cotters or villeins.  The existence of the river, then, determines the size of the settlement, and settlements can only occur in settled hexes.

The country around the rivers is undoubtedly planted; the highland hexes, on the other hand, would be covered with herders.  If a party moved away from the river, they wouldn't find farms ... unless you also incorporated a chance for the incorporation of natural springs - not large enough to initiate a river, but with a promise for irrigation.  The highland hex's available water supply could thus be determined first ... and then if it was there, the chance for a thorp could hinge upon that.  Things thus following one after another, and making sense.  It also leaves the possibility open that, if the party should control the hex, they could identify those water supplies without thorps, and make haste to move people onto those lands and start them farming.

Now, wild lands with rivers would probably be overgrown areas, with various marshes or soft ground.  They may also be canyons, with rocky ground and waterfalls ... that would be determined by the overall elevation of the hex, something I haven't yet incorporated.  It stands to reason that a river wild hex suggests the river drops significantly below any settled hexes (the settled hexes around rivers would feature flat country good for crops), but if the river doesn't drop at all, that would indicate swamps.

It also stands to reason that highland wild hexes would be higher than settled highland hexes - the tops of hills, mountains, ridges and so on would be less likely to be settled.  Thus, at the upper centre of figure three, where you see a patch of settled high country, the wild country all around would probably be hills and scrub.  It helps that I know already that this is on the border between modern day Russia and Ukraine, and that I know any wild highland is simply too dry to sustain herding (but a wild area might also have an untapped spring, and that might prove very important for monsters and the like).  And that probably, yes, the wild river valleys would be rocky places unsuitable for farming.

Inserting this information into a hex generation table is a monumental task, but that's the one I have before me.  I can see from just the start of it how it promises to better define my world, even those remote areas where nothing on the map or in wikipedia is recorded.  If I can tell where the monsters ought to be, and where the people are, and how the lay of the land creates ebb and flow, with patterns, for the manner in which those things group together and clash, I can really feel the life of the world beginning to bubble up from the cracks.

I don't really understand why this hasn't been tackled by some entity with a lot more money and creative firepower than just little ol' me.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

No Future

Last month I wrote that a DM should erase any preconception of an ending or a resolution in building up a narrative.  Some gentle readers might be asking why that should be the case, or even how can that be the case, since part of building a narrative should include some kind of point or purpose for it being there.  How can you produce an adventure for a party if the goal of the adventure is not inherent in the narrative?

What I'm proposing is that the DM will do better overall if the goalposts are simply removed from the campaign.  'Goals' imply that one will cross a clearly defined and static line, spike the ball and shout victory.  Life - despite what marketing managers might insist - is not like that.  We strive for things we want, and we obtain those things sometimes, but the process does not end at a defined victory line.  The process of life just goes forward.

Imagine, if you will, the incorporation of an NPC into your game, who informs the players of a potential MacGuffin which the players might like to obtain.  In traditional RPGs, the circumstances around how this MacGuffin is obtained are rigorously determined; the existence of the NPC, and of other NPCs, depends wholly and completely upon the pre-ordained plan in the DMs mind.  The party will do this, and then the party will do that, and then the NPCs will mess with the party just so, and the party will circumvent that messing, and the MacGuffin will be obtained.  Thence, proceed with the adventure.

I am proposing that, instead, you imagine the NPC as a living, functioning being in the campaign.  Rather than having ordained the purpose of his existence, you as DM merely propose that he is a being with no special importance or fate.  He has knowledge of the MacGuffin.  That is all he has.  He wishes to obtain the MacGuffin, and he makes a proposition to the party to help him.  But he has no better idea of how he fits into the game than the party does.

This is not to suggest that you are 'running' the NPC.  Very often, I will deliver the NPC into the party's care, for them to employ, choosing to Veto anything the NPC might be said to do which does not fit into the personality of the NPC.  Thus, if I perceive that he is a greedy, mildly sadistic thief, he wouldn't sacrifice himself for others; he wouldn't give up a chance at a nice gem; he wouldn't hesitate to murder someone, and so on.  If the party indicated then that he chooses to spare a woman who gave the party information, I might say, "No, he's really not the merciful type," and have the NPC kill the woman.  Whereupon the party would have to choose how they dealt with Him.

What I'm proposing is that instead of devising a purpose for your NPCs, making them cogs in your great machine, you devise instead a behavior for your NPCs ... which then makes itself evident as the adventure goes along.  To devise a behavior, you must be able to conjecture how a person other than yourself would act in a given situation.  It isn't enough to say that such-and-such is kindly, or pious, or selfish ... you have to have, in your mind, a very clear sense of how said person would respond to a wide variety of possible situations - and then in turn have that character respond in that fashion consistently.

This is, I am told, extremely difficult.  It may be that I've had plenty of experience with creating characters for stories, or with taking on the traits of other persons when performing in theatre.  I think it is more likely that I have a clear understanding of why I do things, and that I can imagine why another person might do different things for different reasons that make perfect sense to that person.

For example, I'm not a jock.  I have played sports, and enjoyed them, but I don't identify with the ideals of sport and I'm not motivated to breaking my body for the purpose of winning or for personal glory in that manner.  But I can understand how someone else might feel satisfied with success, and how they might be willing to take punishment and give commitment to ideals of that kind, and feel that a life spent that way was worthy and important.  It's quite easy to imagine how a person like that might respond to loss, or personal attacks or success ... at least, enough to be able to predict the actions of an NPC with those characteristics, when confronted by something the party might do.

The quest, then, becomes less about the goal and more about the difficulties in communication between the players themselves, the players and the NPCs, and the reactions that both have towards obstacles that come up.  If your NPC doesn't have to fit a shoehorned concept of what he is meant to do when Obstacle A arrives, you can simply sit back, observe how the party  deals with Obstacle A all on their own, and employ the NPC as you think the NPC would react given the party's choices.  And if the party can't figure a way to get past the obstacle, YOU as DM don't have to solve the problem for them.  You are not contractually obligated to give the MacGuffin to the party.  The party tries, the party meets some interesting people along the way, the party gets some experience fighting a few baddies, and when they run up against the thing they can't conquer, they shrug, they move on, and they think for the next three years of game time about how they could have done it.

Failure is a tremendous motivator.

Your role as a DM is to employ your worldly residents and your worldly circumstances in the here and now, and forget about the future.  If you respond to the actions of NPCs as beings with no more conception of how the future will go than the players themselves have, then you have available many more options than you're giving yourself by having everything happen in cut and dried fashion.

When you ARE devising a campaign, with MacGuffins and obstacles, you want to think of what those things are, where they are, how they work, how they came into existence and who might be connected to them.  But you should not be pre-planning the manner in which they are obtained, or who is meant to obtain them, or why they ought to be obtained ... and definitely not how they must be obtained before the next MacGuffin's existence is revealed to the party in order to make your world work.

All of that preplanning is exactly what we mean when we say you're laying the roadbed for the ties upon which you will spike down the tracks for the train that will run to the station you think ought to be the destination.

Let the party lay the tracks.  Be satisfied with having the ground exist.