Monday, October 29, 2012


UPDATE:  This post has been updated as 'Full of Holes,' and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

The large man in armor stood upon the ledge, looking up at the cliff from which a rope dangled. The rope extended upwards some fifty feet, and showed a little movement. Someone was fighting up there. The man gave no sign that he was worried about it. He calmly paced around, gripping the pommel of his sword and letting it go again, before looking up at the cliff and the rope.

A woman in armor sat on the ledge nearby; it was a large ledge. Her back was against the cliff wall, and she casually sharpened her dagger with a whetstone. “How is he doing?” she asked.

“He must be okay. He hasn’t called for help.”

“You could help him anyway, you know.”

“I know.”

The woman did not press her point further. But she did notice when the man furrowed his brow, and so she questioned him about it.

“I’ve been thinking,” said the man.


“Just strange things. Things I haven’t been able to put together.”


“Well, like my name for instance.” The man hesitated. “Xaxlan.” He repeated his name again, saying it slower. “Xaaaxxx...lan. Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?”

“Well, now that you mention it, no.”

“Exactly. I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. Why would my parents name me Xaxlan? I mean, your name is Melissa. There are lots of people named Melissa. I’ve never met anyone named Xaxlan. It sounds like a name someone would make up.”

“Someone did. Your parents.”

“Hm,” said Xaxlan. “Okay, what about this?” Calmly, he took his sword out of his scabbard, laid it on the ground, and then took his scabbard off his belt. He handed it to Melissa. “Look at this scabbard.”

Melissa took it.

“Do you see a mark on it? Any scratches? Anything that suggests use at all?”

“Well, no.”

“And neither do I. Yet I bought it more than a month ago; I’ve used it practically every day, putting the sword in, taking the sword out ... and remember, since I bought it, we’ve crossed through a forest, waded through a swamp, gone down into a deep series of tunnels and now climbed this mountain. Not exactly what you’d call a light month’s work, is it? But look at that scabbard. It’s not even stained.”


“None of my clothes are stained. Not my backpack, not my shirt, not my cloak ... and believe me, I’ve been sweating up a storm every day. But you can’t even smell me sweat, can you? No, don’t bother to answer. I don’t smell you sweating either. Yet we are sweating. Isn’t that strange?”

“Don’t think about it so much.”

“I can’t help it.” He took the scabbard back and reattached it to his belt.

She returned to using her whetstone.

“Now that’s a thing too,” he said. “You use that whetstone all the time – and I never use mine. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference. My sword is as sharp as your dagger. So why do you use it?”

“I like to use it. It feels right somehow.”

“Okay,” Xaxlan said. “I understand that ... strangely. Still, there’s all these little things. Like, for instance, everything I’m wearing right now – everything I’m carrying – I bought it all at the same time. I remember having a big fist full of gold – a month ago – and buying all I have. Why did I have to do that all at once? I have a vague recollection that just prior I was naked ... though I’m not sure about that.”

Melissa shrugged. “I bought everything I have at the same time.”

“YES! That is exactly my point!” Xaxlan waved his finger at her. “You bought everything you have at the same time I did. Isn’t that some sort of weird coincidence?”


He paced back and forth. “Listen, I know I’m onto something here. I’m going to put something to you ... and all I want you to do is give some serious thought to it before you say anything back.” Xaxlan stared at her.

She stared at him. “Well?”

“I’m working up to it,” he said. “See, this seems wrong to me, but I don’t know why. Do you realize that we’ve known each other only a month?”

That made her stop using the whetstone. “A month?”

“Yes. In fact, it was right about the time that we both bought all our stuff. Don’t you remember?”

She nodded. “I remember. I just hadn’t thought about it being a month. It feels like longer. A lot longer, like forty or fifty weeks.”

“It does to me too,” he agreed. “But it has actually only been a month. And despite that, I feel like ... well, like I know you really well. Like I’ve known you for years. Just think about it. We never argue; you don’t have any habits that bother me; most of the time, we talk everything through and most of the time we kind of always agree. It’s not that I don’t think I can have that kind of relationship with a woman, it’s just that –“

At that moment, two large, humanoid creatures suddenly climbed onto the ledge, on either side of Xaxlan and Melissa. The two did not hesitate. There was no hint that either was caught unsuspecting. Xaxlan easily snatched his sword up from where it lay at his feet, and Melissa was on her feet in a time too quick to tell. Her dagger went through the eye of the one humanoid, though it was much taller than she was. It died immediately. Xaxlan’s sword struck the other humanoid and it died immediately as well.

They kicked the two bodies off the ledge, and went back to what they were doing.

“That was easy,” said Xaxlan.

Melissa grunted agreement. She found her whetstone and, without cleaning the blood from her dagger, went back to sharpening it.

“I can’t figure out why just a month ago that was so hard,” said Xaxlan. “Seems a month ago I had trouble even hitting creatures like that.”

“Practice,” said Melissa.

“I guess.”

The rope started to jiggle, and Xaxlan looked up. He could see Rupert skimming down the rope ... then suddenly, Rupert seemed to lose his grip. He fell twenty-five feet, landing square on the ledge, right at Xaxlan’s feet, without so much as a bounce. Rupert let out a curse.

“Are you all right?” asked Xaxlan.

“Yes, dammit.”

“You’re not hurt?”

Rupert looked around himself. “Hm. Not apparently. Not in any way I can tell.”

“How did you fall?” asked Melissa.

“I don’t know. One minute I had my hands on the rope, the next, I didn’t. It happens.”

“Really?” Melissa’s eyes widened.

“Yes. There’s nothing I can do about it. I just sort of live with it.”

“How often does it happen?” asked Xaxlan.

“As near as I can tell, about eleven percent of the time. Give or take a percent. Don’t worry about it. What are you two chatting about?”

“Oh, Xaxlan was saying we’ve only known each other a month.”

“Thirty-two days,” said Rupert. “But who’s counting?”

“You are, it sounds like.”

“Yes, but I don’t remember counting. Seems I wanted to know how long it had been and I just knew. And when I calculated it out in my head after, I was right. What about it?”

Xaxlan moved next to Rupert and pointed at Melissa. “Just this. We’ve only known each other thirty-two days. Now tell me. Is Melissa attractive?”

Rupert tilted his head. “Yeah ... I’d say so.”

“Me too. Nice height, nice weight, nice curves. And that robe is tight and she has it pretty much tucked into all the right places.”

“Oh, I agree.”

“Melissa,” said Xaxlan. “You don’t mind if we talk about you like this?”

“No. Why would I mind?”

“I just thought somehow you ought to. But forget it. I’m making a larger point. Rupert ... do you want to have sex with Melissa?”

“Oh god no.”

“And me either!” said Xaxlan. “The thought didn’t even occur to me until just now. It’s like ... somehow, she’s not exactly a woman. If that makes any sense.”

“It makes a lot of sense, I guess,” agreed Rupert. “I mean, yes, I agree, I see that she is a woman ... but she doesn’t exactly strike me the way a woman normally does. Isn’t that odd?”

“It is odd. Melissa, do you find either one of us attractive?”


“Okay, I don’t want to bother you. It’s just that ... Rupert and I are kind of well toned, wouldn’t you say? I mean, he’s lean and at that last town, all the women seemed to fancy him ... and I’m huge and strong and women usually go for that. If you were my sister, I could understand you not wanting to sleep with us ... but we’re not related and we’ve known each other only a month.”

“Thirty-two days.”

“Right, Rupert. Thirty-two days. Isn’t that weird?”

“I guess so.”

“It seems weird to me.”

They all stood together, not talking.

“What should we do now?” asked Rupert.

“I don’t know.” Xaxlan craned his neck. “Is there a cave up there?”

“Nope, just a dead bear. Kinda hard to kill him. I’d have had more trouble last week, I think ... you know, before we found that treasure chest. Things have seemed a lot easier since then.”

Melissa stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get some rest. Got to memorize some spells before we get attacked again.”

“There, that’s another thing,” said Xaxlan. “Why is it you can’t remember your spells after you –“

“Just shut up and lead. We have to get back to the ledge where the steps lead down before nightfall. Harpix can play while you get started.”

“Harpix?” Xaxlan looked around, saw the bard with his lute, who seemed to have materialized from nowhere. “Oh, right, sorry Harpix. I didn’t see you there.”

“Think nothing of it.”

“Nice robe. Where’d you get it?”

“Shopkeeper gave me a list,” said Harpix. “Are we ready to start?”

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Sweet Spot

From a post last week:

"You want your players to get hooked; you want them to fight so hard and so long against it that they are virtually guaranteed to get that meat and leave you with a broken line ... so long as the players keep fighting for life, and they don't give up."

How do you do that, exactly?

To begin with, you want your players to care about their characters ... to care specifically if their characters live or die, but in the grander sense to care about what their characters have accomplished, and what they hope to accomplish.

Life, if we may step out of the game a moment, is a fairly piss-poor thing by itself.  The very process of human thought has been bent towards the problem of making life something that can be lived decently, pleasureably, with purpose.  Taoism, which lends its name to this blog, is deeply wrapped up in the process of 'detachment,' which is to say the separation of the human being from the desires of the world, desires which you and I are unlikely to fulfill unless we are very lucky ... which would only invoke new desires, and greater unfulfillment, and so on.

It is not much of a leap to comprehend that a group of beings sitting around a table, pursuing a game, are fundamentally in the same fix they are in their ordinary lives.  The circumstance hasn't changed just because they play act options and choices through avatars.  We continue to speak of things we want; we continue to speak of things we can't have.  And the disconnect between the two is played with, by a conveniently designated individual, in order to mitigate the cold, harsh realities of the ongoing world, where no such individual exists (in this writer's opinion).

They want, and the DM is able to award.  If too much is given, the players become detached from what they have and it ceases to have value.  Too little, and the players feel the sting from desires that are not achieved.  Where is the sweet spot in the middle?  Aye, there's the rub.

Figuring out how much treasure you give your players is similar to figuring out how much to pay your gardener for picking weeds from the begonias ... with things that conveniently have a price tag, you can say ye or nay, but when it comes to setting the price yourself, it is more about what you can afford, and what you can get away with.

Judge, then, how your players react at the table to the rewards you give for the pain they suffer.  Ignore the tables, ignore the nonsense spouted in the margins of your books ... watch your people!  Do they treat fortunes that would make their characters boost a level with calm acceptance, even indifference?  Do they spit upon sums a tenth as much?  Do they swear bitterly if there is no treasure at all?  Or perhaps they nigglingly count every fraction of every coin they receive, fighting over who gets the odd one.  Do they treat the lack of treasure with a knowing sign and disinterest?  If any of this is true, you may be missing your mark.

Treasure ... and indeed the whole scale of win or lose D&D ... comes down to offering the player enough to keep their mouth watering, but never enough that he or she is sated.  If your players sit back in their chairs, pat their tummies and say, "That was a good running!" ... you have miserably failed.  It may be enough to send them up a level and it may make them happy to do so, but they should STILL feel that some string is left loose and disturbingly suggestive that all this good fortune is going to come to naught.

That sounds cruel and heartless, but it is the stuff of life, and therefore good drama.  For your players ARE alive ... if you want their characters to live and breathe and be constructed of more than paper, they must behave in accordance to the same rules of living that your players carry in their tissues.  Life is NEVER perfect; it is NEVER a closed loop; it ALWAYS threatens; and however much the moment may feel good, one keeps a watchful eye for the next moment.

Consider this, from the 10,000 word post:

"The game is about obtaining power; power through coin, power through ability and power through influence; if you do not tease your players with the offer of one of these things, you are barking up the wrong tree.  You are a prostitute offering clients the promise to walk their dog."

And what is influence?  It is the means by which your players change their circumstance.  If you are able to follow what I say about treasure, and how its failure to quite measure up to desire is the stuff of life, influence is an order of magnitude higher.

This portion of the long post linked above comes under the heading 'Momentum' ... and the desire for influence is the long suffering key that will ultimately drive momentum in your world.  For here is the equation:

If your world is something that is unchanging, or if that which changes in your world is of no special relevance, that it will NEVER carry any purpose or value to your players.  Your world will be utterly detached emotionally from your players, and your players will never really care about anything they do there.

How do I mean this?  If your world is a collection of scenes - dungeon scenes, lair scenes, treasure scenes and so on ... then none of these 'scenes' is in any way dependent upon those that come before.  "Here we are on the cliff;" "Here we are in the Frog King's toilet chamber;" "Here we are in Jake Flakeless's Magic Cheerio Dungeon" ... and on.  What matters if the Frog King is dead if nothing in the Flakeless world knows or cares if the Frog King ever lived?  We the party drag ourselves from frying pan to frying pan with all the purpose of dishwashers, wiping clean the endless oily residues and for what?  Another coin, another gem, another magic item to throw on the third pile from the left.

I am speaking of the eternal desire of human beings to have resonance ... to cause an outward flow resulting from their actions that sweeps steadily through all the corners of your world, and bounces back at the party to show THEY MATTER.  You are not producing a world of stolid, intransigent stasis ... you must create a world the players can change!  And in changing your world, they produce for themselves the proof of their value, the proof that they can mitigate their circumstances, and the circumstances of others, by trying to do so.

This is NOT something you can give them.  This is something they must be able to take away from you, for the world of yours that they change for themselves must be changed in the way THEY conceive, not in the way you conceive.  If you are your world, then you must give ground when they prove themselves smarter than you.  Not too much ground - it mustn't be easy.  Not too little ground - they must feel positive about their expectations.  Just enough ground that they pay a price to wreak havoc or social justice to the corner of your world they've demonstrated the power to control.

As they go up levels, that corner increases in size.  You need not worry about that.  Change isn't your responsibility.

Flexibility is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Yesterday, a friend of mine made a comment that she was having trouble respecting people past their thirties who hadn't yet found their way into an office vocation.  I understood her point.  Obviously, she was not referring to professionals who did not work in an office.  She obviously would respect cops, health care workers, circus performers and field scientists.  There are ten thousand professions to which she was NOT referring.  Her comment was reserved for those people who are still working in 'grunt' jobs, coming home dirty, being pushed around by bosses and otherwise suffering through those miserable years we were expected to suffer through up until their early 20s.

I must admit, I was still doing hard, gritty labor into my late 30s, with breaks for intellectual pursuits and theatre.  At any rate, "30s" is an ad hoc figure.  It's simply that once you're installed in an office, you begin to gaze upon those hard-working, low-paid positions with something of a jaded point-of-view.  Yes, people become positively rude about it, and buy into their so-called superiority of corporate wealth.  Whatever - most people are loathsome no matter what they make.

Not very long after you find yourself in an office, you begin to notice that there is a certain game that is being played there.  It is the 'push-back' game.  Everyone is playing it.  Basically, the rules of the game are this:

No matter what it is that we are doing, there is some other way to do it according to someone with the authority to make the change.  Those wanting to make the change push to have it happen; those who do not want to make the change, for reasons of technical considerations, or inconvenience, or plain laziness, push back.  To control this push back, people in authority adopt strategies that usually translate into meetings.  To increase the push back, people not in authority adopt strategies that usually translate into passive aggressiveness.

Ground is not given or taken without very much drama - and all of that drama is played out on a level so low as to make the mute option on your mpg player seem uncomfortably loud.  People who cannot play this game on this super-quiet level do not do well, and find themselves shunted aside or disposed of altogether.  Those who can play on said level get promoted - either because they push back well enough to get people in authority in trouble with those in higher authority, or because they are good at negating push-back.

If you are not now in an office as you read this, you really won't get it.  If you ARE in an office - particularly a big office - you not only get it, you're silently grinding your teeth now.  Like you do everyday, all day, along with all your co-workers.

No matter what the change, no matter what the field, people push and people push back.  Most professions outside the office have a power structure that is so overt, push back is usually ineffective.  Outside of work altogether, pushing is typically never successful.  One of the things we like about our freedom - those hours in which we don't work - is that we don't have to take shit from nobody.  And "shit" is defined by whatever we want shit to be.

So changing someone's mind, when you have no authority over them, is virtually impossible.  But still we try.  We believe what we believe and hell, we think it would be a nicer place if others believed it too.

I'm thinking about why I was first resistant to changes in D&D, back during my first five years of play.  Why did I 'push-back' so hard that I am still playing AD&D, albeit my version?  When I moved from the White Box to the DMG and Player's Handbook, there was no hesitation, no resistance.  I adored the DMG the first time I got to crack the binding.  It took my 30 years to rewrite it in my head (I hardly make any reference to it at all, now), but the original structure it proposed was slashing brilliant.

Why, then, did I not just follow through like so many others and adopt all the ideas from later books and editions?  If I was interested in settling down and rewriting the DMG to suit myself, why didn't I just think, "Well, I'll rewrite all this shit too?"

Examining it, I think it was because none of the later ideas addressed elements of the game that were "new."  They seemed to be focused on rehashing the same elements ... weapons, classes, dungeons, abilities, spells and monsters ... from a different light or with a different format.  They were not interested in introducing NEW elements, like trade, scientific development, social structure, styles of play or player tactics.  When I had opened the Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979, I had never seen anything written about random dungeon generation, magic item creation or hirelings.

Such things may have existed prior, but the DMG was my first window into those concepts ... and I grabbed those concepts and ran with them full bore from the first games I started to play.  Like any other player in those first heady years, I wanted MORE.  More and more and more ... but when I rushed down with my low cash supply to rifle through the new books and magazines appearing on the shelves of the local gaming store - like a serial masturbator awaiting the new Penthouse - I was endlessly disappointed.

More spells?  I didn't need them.  More weapons?  Another description of the weapons we already used?  I'd found those in my local university.  More monsters?  They sounded mostly like the old monsters with different art.  We started to make new monsters from the first.  Was there anything in any of these books that we hadn't already conceived of ON OUR OWN?  Disappointingly, no.  Frustratingly, no.  Headbangingly, no.  Finally, when we watched the game begin to splinter in the 80s, shrugging our shoulders and wondering what made this so different from that, we shook our heads slowly in the sad reality that the game was beginning a long, ill-conceived demise.

Of course it was push-back.  We were selfish, previously propagandized droids who had learned to play it our way and we resented that anyone, anywhere, played it differently.  Older and wiser, I have to take the position that if someone wants to play 4e, that's okay.  It is still the same game.  It has as much right to be here as any other game.  15-year-old motivated creators can do as much with it as I did with AD&D ... there's nothing to stop them.

If there is anything to lament - as I get older and wiser - it is that it is the same game.

I don't think any of us believe in 1981 that thirty years later D&D would be so fundamentally unchanged.  We all thought greater ideas and greater tools were out there, waiting to be outlined and rules to be made, that would go farther and deeper into the emotional lust we carried in our hearts for those worlds we wanted to be lost in.  We did not think we would be in our middle age, sitting down at the same tables in the same chairs, rolling the same dice to produce the same results they did all those years ago.  That was because the shock of the game's rush onto the market - and into our lives - blew away any concept of push back.  We were instant smack addicts who had been given our first taste of heroin.  The old world of staid, dull Monopoly was dead and gone in one fell swoop.  We were riding the White Horse and we just wanted to get higher and higher.

We didn't know it wasn't going to get better.

Oh, don't misunderstand me.  D&D is great.   The game is terrific.  I've dedicated my life to this game.  But for most who are playing, it is the same great it was.  It is the same terrific it was.  For all its good graces, it is still - if you will forgive the term - in a rut.  It's in a fucking deep chasm, so deep that most players at the bottom have convinced themselves that the walls are vistas and that the thin ribbon of light way above them is a threat to their comfortable way of doing things.

I am aware that I look at these things differently than most people.  I have always found my greatest pleasures to be those moments in which I've been able to embrace change, with all its brutal, irreconcilable consequences.  Change, I think, can happen for the better.  Push-back derives from the certainty that change always happens for the worse.  It's a philosophical conflict.  I hold my position on the matter.  I expect push-back.  Such is how the game is played.

Let it be known, however, that I'm playing this game for life; and I'm playing it on a level more quietly than your mute button can imagine.  There's more in this article than just an overt, arrogant opinion ... but you're not expected to recognize that.

I'm not talking to you, the gentle reader.  I'm talking to who you might be someday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Many Times This Year?

In writing a post last week I found myself wondering just how often people do play the game.  As such, I've put up a small poll you can find in the sidebar.  Mostly, I want to determine (DM or Player) how often you actually participate.

For myself, not counting the online game, which can hardly be called anything but a single running, I would have participated in (by my count) about 25 runnings ... or something like one a week, with time off I took in the summer.

I encourage you to do the poll.  I also encourage you to 'own up,' if you're willing, and post in the comments section how often you've participated this year, or even how many different campaigns you participate in.  Be honest; there's nothing wrong with playing only once, for all that says is that you're A) busy with things in your life; B) unlucky enough not to know other players; or C) that you probably have a girlfriend/lover.

I haven't made any secret of the fact that I play in two off line campaigns.  One, three times as often as the other.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Damn Straight

"Ask yourself - are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
--Republican talking point

I don't know why President Obama doesn't just answer this by saying,

"Fuck yes!  Four years ago, in October of 2008, the country was in the hands of a corporate puppet with his head stuck firmly up his ass, helpless to do something about a disastrous situation he and his Republican party caused, the same Republican party that so clearly failed to address the disaster that they LOST the election of 2008 in favor of someone who would DO SOMETHING.  So no shit Sherlock, Mr. Romney, we are about a thousand times better off than we were four years ago."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fish Hooks

From the 10,000 word post:

"In order to inveigle the interest of a party, it is necessary to produce enough information to prove that knowing is in the party's interest.  If you as DM produce some weird, strange, apparently impractical device that inherently shows no personal gain for the players, they will look at it, shrug, yawn, and move on - no matter how really queer and strange it is."

There is a trope that is called 'genre savvy' ... wherein a character is so familiar with stories and plots of a particular kind that they aren't affected by them.  My own quote above is nearly the same as this, from TV Tropes:

"They can tell fairly early that the strange old man who's offering free lollipops is probably best avoided.  And they've seen enough Horror movies to know that when there's an ax murderer on the loose, the last thing you want to do is either split up, boink your significant other or investigate strange noises in the sinister subway ..."

The plot "hook" is so named for the method by which one catches fish.  Depending on how smart the fish is, the angler has to be one degree smarter - and so goes the sport.  Take note, however ... the best and most dramatic fights the angler experiences rarely wind up a good thing for the fish.

You want to hook your players.  You want to give them a fine hunk of meat, you want to bury the hook deep into it, and you want to play the hell out of your players as they fight bitterly for that meat without getting taken.  If you're very clever, they won't see how nasty and deep that hook is until it is buried deep in their jaw ... by which time, it may be too late for them.

This is fine drama, and it makes for a good running.  It can also make for hard feelings, since we ARE talking about the prospect of deception on the DM's part.  Even if that deception is forgiven, in the long run the effect will be to make your parties wary and distrustful.  If you react to that by getting more and more deceitful, your parties will grow so wary that you'll have to railroad them just to make them take part in one of your adventures.

One way in which some campaigns handle this is to make clear the hooks right from the start - and for the players to willfully adopt 'genre blindness' in order to have a 'good game.'  They deliberately carry the idiot ball around with them, usually because they don't care if their character lives or dies, just so long as they can get some fightin' in before the night is out.  So they run blindly down corridors, jump into pits without hesitation, attack the biggest monsters by the straightest route possible and never, ever identify anything before trying to use it.

Its a sort of joke campaign that thrives, so long as no one wants to break the mold by being savvy at the game.  Anyone viewing their character as precious is soon labeled the table malcontent, and usually mocked for being a "sissy" or such.  Why anyone plays in a campaign like this is beyond me ... but then, I'm far too serious to comprehend how much fun spontaneous emotional insults and bullying can be.  Probably, the best moments in these campaigns are likely to occur when everyone is on board with the program - and the DM too, with fabulous rewards in the one hand and a stack of ready-made character sheets in the other, to keep the fun rolling along.

I don't think the game need rely on deliberate ignorance in order to encourage enlivened play.  An intricate hook does need to be constructed by the DM to make the best possible 'play' for the character, ensuring that the fight for the reward is long and realistically possible, no matter how ruthless the deception on the DM's part.  It is, in effect, the difference between creating a horror movie that is deliberately camp and ridiculous - where everyone can feel superior over the stupidity of the genre blind, while enjoying the genre savvy - and creating a horror movie that is actually brilliant in construction and therefore terrifying.  Comparatively, to create camp is easy ... which is why so many producers rush for that means to make money at the box office.  A particularly genre-savvy film, like Cabin in the Woods, can do remarkably well, simply by stapling together bits and pieces from other movies with a rather remarkable stapler (sorry, no spoilers, but the means of stapling the movie tropes together was clever).

On the other hand, actual fear in a horror film is nearly impossible.  I haven't experienced it in ... well, let's say a long time.  I have nearly given up on the genre altogether.  It takes a lot of hard campaigning to make me watch anything at all.

And this is the trouble with DMing, too.  Any fool can produce a module full of genre-blindness dependency, so long as there's a few cheesy time-wasters for the party and some nice dressing of the walls and furniture.  For most folks, this will be GOOD ENOUGH.  They don't know there's another way to play, and since most players don't get to play as much as they'd like, there isn't TIME to get bored with it.

My feeling, however, is it reduces the DM to a sort of number cruncher, where he or she tosses out the monsters like crumbs to the goldfish, that being the only dynamic.  There's no one upmanship, since the DM's JOB is to see to it that the players have something to swing at.  The DM should not emotionally upset the players by throwing them something other than the crumbs they expect.  The crumbs most certainly should not include hooks the players can't figure out at a glance.

Admittedly, the goldfish are pretty and it can be amusing to throw them crumbs for awhile.  But marlin fishing ... now that is something else.  But that takes a boat, a big boat, along with the means to get where the fish are, the tools to catch the fish and the will to hang on for hours while the fight never seems to end.  For that, not only does there have to be a hook, but it needs to be a BIG hook ... and you know how damn hard the fish is fighting not to be taken.

You want your players to get hooked; you want them to fight so hard and so long against it that they are virtually guaranteed to get that meat and leave you with a broken line ... so long as the players keep fighting for life, and they don't give up.  I'm not talking about a game where when a player dies, you hand them paper with scribbling on it.  I'm talking about a game where when a player dies, you hand them a tissue.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A View To Turning Undead

A quick note on the practice of turning undead.

I think that we can all agree the system in the Dungeon Master's Guide (and elsewhere) sucks. I think it does for two basic reasons:

1) It either works or it doesn't work. There's no drama beyond one die roll and if that roll fails, the turning ability is useless.

2) When it works, it works TOO MUCH. It completely drives the undead away, making them ridiculously easy to manage and kill, especially with regards to the lower undead such as zombies and skeletons. By the time the cleric is 4th level, you might just as well not even throw either at the party ... and the same is true for many undead once the cleric is 7th.

I propose the following:

1) The die is rolled exactly like before, only if it isn't successful, the cleric can STILL roll again the following round. Failure this round does not mean failure next round.

2) Turning undead is an action that takes virtually the whole round; it will let the cleric move one hex while doing so.

3) When the cleric is successful, the cleric's turning will literally pick up and move the undead back 10 feet, or two hexes - during which time the undead may drop to a knee or be temporarily non-corporeal (with respect to shadows, wraiths, etc); and for the following round the undead is treated as 'stunned' and cannot move or take action.

4) The number of undead that can be so affect is up to 2 HD per level of the cleric - the cleric determines which undead are so thrust back.


This is not a forum for persons to interject their own solutions or propose their own, completely unconnected ideas.  I am not looking for different ideas than the one I'm proposing - I am looking for errors in my logic.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Offline Party Holdings

So drawing together some of the NTME issues from the material thus far, how do I apply these to an actual player's land in my world?

Let's take the offline party's holdings, which would be 300+ square miles in Transylvania, north of the modern city of Brasov, or Renaissance Kronstadt.  Because the Civ IV icons translate in a very crappy way to making your own map, I'm going to steal images from someone else ... and see if they come screaming at me.

There, that's not so bad.

In Civilization IV (C4) terms, all the hexes are "grassland."   Those without hills produce 2 food; those with a forest produce 2 food and 1 hammer; the hills with forest produce 1 food and 2 hammers.  The river hexes also produce 1 coin, and the village produces 1 additional hammer.

Translating this into D&D terms,  the lowland and the forests each can produce up to 300 million calories, or enough for 1,500 persons; the hills can produce 100 million calories.  All the river hexes produce the equivalent coin to 500 persons ... but what would that be?

Rather than pull this number at random, as I have proposed in earlier posts, I can turn instead to my macroeconomic system.  According to that system, Kronstadt imports 627.81 references of goods, from all over the world, based on the distance of Kronstadt from every other trade distribution point I have calculated so far.  The same system enables me to gauge the total number of persons affected by the Kronstadt market, based on the economic principle that supply = production/distance.  Population is "production" as much as anything else.  Kronstadt's market therefore serves more than just the local population, but has tendrils reaching effectively worldwide.  Total affected population: 3,730,878.

627.81 references translates into a total gross value from production of 1,429,105,750 copper pieces ... triple that, in accordance with monetary velocity as proposed in an earlier post, GDP equals 1,149 c.p./capita, or 5.985 gold pieces.

This, multiplied by a population of 500 (one base village), equals 2,993 g.p.  This is much less than the number I proposed earlier ... remember that only a third of it is coin that moves into the party's hands ... a mere 998 g.p. (rounding off). 

The party's land includes a total population of 1,500 - but note that the land itself only has a maximum production of three gold, even if the population gets higher.  I am presuming with this overall system that somewhere in the region of Kronstadt's influence there are hexes that produce the balance of said gold - the city of Kronstadt itself, for instance, must produce a ton.  I don't have to worry about those numbers, however.  I  only have to worry about what the party controls.  If the party ever gets to a point where they control Kronstadt, well, then I'll worry about it.

The population of 1,500 gives the player's land a C4 population of '2' ... which means they can work two of the six available hexes.  If they choose to work the rivers, they could gain for themselves the tidy sum of nearly 3,000 g.p.; or they could concentrate on hammers, or they could concentrate on food.  They could translate those hammers into the creation of farms, or knocking down the trees and diminishing their long term value.  They could import horses, sheep, cattle or pigs, or the 10th level druid in the party could import deer or beaver.  Certain crops may be practical; certain animals certainly would not be.  At any rate, the party must feed its own population, so 300 million calories would be absolutely necessary to stave off starvation.

As a sidenote, we could break down the exact food to get 'grittier,' less uniform production potentials.  Suppose we up the food production of a '1 food' to 105 million calories as opposed to 100 million; this would mean that '2 food' would be equal to 315 million calories.

Since 105 divides equally in 7, and since 2d6 has an average of 7, we could say that a piece of land has the potential to produce food equal to 15 million x 2d6 (1 food) or that number plus 30 million x 2d6 (2 food).  Thus, we would roll 2d6 twice for the open meadow next to the town.  The first roll multiplied by 15 million, and the second roll multiplied by 30 million.  If we rolled two eights, the total food production would not be 315 million, but would instead be 360 million.

A small change?  Perhaps.  But it makes the range of a piece of grassland from 45 million (double snake-eyes) to 540 million (double box cars).  Which piece of land the party works, develops or defends in time of war would very definitely be established.  A party could get very lucky, or very unlucky with the land they were given to work ... especially since the roll would apply to everything, coin and hammers also.  The production requirements would then be multiplied by seven for verisimilitude ... and homogenous hexes would be replaced with potential military targets and unconsidered backcountry.

My Country That Leaves Me Alone

I was challenged to describe anything about Canada that I don't like by someone who is no longer entitled to comment on this blog, as he has a long history of trolling and stirring up shit.  However, this is a valid question ... but to answer it requires a history lesson.  As most Americans do not know their own history, it would be unfair to expect them to know Canada's.

Admittedly, this is again not quite so much D&D; I wasn't able to keep this post relevant to the core purpose of this blog.  Still, it was an American essayist who said that consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds ... so we can stretch ours to include a post on this country's history.

During the Seven Years' War between France and England, a globally insignificant battle took place on the Plains of Abraham in what is now the city of Quebec, in the province of the same name.  It was 1759, and during the battle both the British and the French commanders were killed (how often does that happen in D&D?) - James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.  As a result of that battle, the French colony of Quebec came under the authority of the British, where it remained - the French never succeeded in taking it back.  For 253 years it has been the thorn in English Canada's side ... though I will argue that Quebec is the element that was the making of this country.

In 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, and after 15 years of English control, the British Parliament conceded in the enactment of the Quebec Act, which gave citizens of Quebec the right to declare their allegiance to England as non-protestants; it allowed the free practice of Catholicism; it restored French civil law for private matters, while retaining English common law for public administration.

In other words, while the American Colonies were arguing and agitating about their mistreatment by a miserable, unyielding king, George III, the neighbor to those colonies was granted recognition under the law for not being English.  Both the 13 Colonies and British residents in Canada thought this was INTOLERABLE.  Catholicism was hated, the French were hated, and any idea that the British Parliament had the right to dictate which laws would be obeyed in its colonies was hated.  Americans had already indicated their distaste for ANY British involvement in local affairs by the Boston Tea Party ... so it was natural that they would despise the Quebec Act along with those other "Intolerable Acts" which the British bestowed upon its colonies in 1774.

But when the American Revolution occurred, the people of this land - Canada - did not join.  In fact, the residents of this country, including the French Quebecois, fought on the side against the declared United States.  I have never seen any historical document or public declaration from any source in Canada that has either resented or regretted this choice.  It should be helpful for Americans to remember that our ancestors up here did not agree with American politics, or the choice to rebel against the crown in the manner that it did.

Understanding that difference between Canada and the United States is critical.

The reason for that difference does not derive from Canadians being 'different' or stubborn or lovers of the crown.  It has everything to do with our climate and our geography.

This country, it is odd to say, was organized as an homogeneous unit in the 17th century, long before any of these historical events ... indeed, long before the American colonies were organized.  The homogeniety was not based on a large population, but a very thin one, who happened to have a single purpose:  the beaver.  As Canada was not structured upon a policy of controlling the lands occupied by the natives - there weren't enough 'Canadians' to do so - what we sought was cooperation.  We did not manage that; southern entrepreneurs of the Dutch and English persuasion, when the French still colonized Canada, armed the Iroquois and pointed them full bore at the Hurons, who supported the French.  The result was the Beaver Wars ... a messy, stupid affair that would simulataneously weaken or irradicate both tribes for a purpose that was entirely avoidable, except for greed and ambition.  It would also serve to inculcate in the French, and indeed in the whole northern region, the seeds that would cause my people to let the Americans stew in their own juices when the Revolution came.

The beaver trade required that trappers make their way up the various rivers debouching into the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay, for hundreds and even thousands of miles, only to return again to forts that were built at the mouths of those rivers.  The North and South Saskatchewan, the Albany, the Francis, the Ottawa and the Assiniboine rivers defined the shape and reach of this country, more than the lines drawn by surveyors ever could.  The residents of this country knew from experience that the land could never be 'conquered,' as Americans perceive their country was.  That was possible for them - the land to the south was mostly warm, fertile and accessible.  Canadians know better.  For six months of every year, the country plunges into a deep freeze that is quite capable of killing you if you're stupid enough to think you're above it.  It is -3 degrees Celsius and snowing right now as I write this, and it is not yet halfway through October.

A country like this demands a government whose primary purpose is not to protect its people, but to SERVE its people.  Kennedy asked the American people to ask themselves how they could better serve their country; no rational person in Canada thinks that the government of this country is there to be served.  We created government for one purpose - to serve us; to perform the duties that no single person in this country could perform, and to do them in a manner that will keep us alive.  We are not left of the United States by choice.  We are to the left because it takes a warm climate to live where no government services are available.

When it came time to separate this country from the British Crown, it was not done by revolution.  There were two rebellions that took place in 1837 - one in "Lower Canada," or modern Quebec; and one in "Upper Canada," or modern Ontario.  Lower Canada was predominantly French Catholic; Upper Canada was predominantly English Protestant.  Both rebellions were poorly conceived, poorly organized and particularly unsuccessful.  But they roused a British parliament to the notion that all was not happy in their largest North American colony.

Following the reorganization of the country, to give more local soveriegnty, for the next 30 years negotiations were held to determine the shape and the future of Canada.  NOT a war, mind you.  Discussion.  Debate.  Compromise.  The application of reason, not weapons.  At the end of those negotiations, the various factions in Canada were given a demonstration of the sort of system the Americans had devised for themselves:  the Civil War.

Lest we forget, the fundamental policy of the southern states was States Rights - and so the south called themselves the Confederate States of America, in order that each region of that Confederacy would have control over its laws of custom.  I must remind the reader at this point that this was the purpose and ideal of the Quebec Act of 1774: that the French in Quebec would be entitled to remain French, and Catholic, with French Law, despite being a colony of Britain.

When Canada was organized at last in 1867, two years after the disastrous Civil War, which in reality represented the murder of 600,000 persons for a cause that had no real purpose except to impose the will of some Americans upon others, my country was organized as a Confederation:  The Confederation of Canada.  For those who may not yet get it, I live in a country organized in a similar manner to that which the losing side in America desired.  I live in this sort of country because Quebec would not accept a federal system.  We have no president.  We have no active Second House.  Executive Power in this country exists in the Civil Service, which will try to block legislation through malaise - but dares not do it openly, or else the service is purged.

We have a Prime Minister, but he or she can be removed any time the House of Parliament stands up and chooses to do so.  NO ONE in this country is entitled to five minutes of further authority if the House refused to give it to them.  We do not have to wait for the next election cycle.  We do not have to tolerate criminals until the next vote.  We can have a vote right now, if need be.

Because the politicians do not control this country, but serve it; because there is no president; because survival here is not installed by virtue of what we believe, but by how nature itself is ready to impose the law - Patriotism is a dismal failure in Canada.  I do not need to be patriotic.  No one suggests that I be more so, or that I am not a Canadian because I don't care to put a flag on my door.  Anyone who has visited Canada will take note that a flag in this country not on a government building is rare.  That is because we are ourselves before we are members of this country.  We happen to be members of this country because we cluster together for warmth; and because we need our neighbors for warmth, we're unusually polite and apologetic while doing so.

Is there something I hate about this country?  Oh yes.  I hate the policy of some provincial governments to let foreigners come and rape the country's resources.  I hate that some Canadians think we should be more like Americans.  I hate that most of the people who live here are too blind stupid to have any real conception of quality art or literature.  I hate that there's a sort of suburban thickness to the ordinary person's perception of politics or innovation.  As a country, Canada can be very, very boring.

But I'd rather live here, where its boring, where no one bugs me about how much I should fucking love my country, than to be part of the sort of shit show that we cannot avoid coming across our southern border.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


This afternoon, waiting in line for coffee, I noticed the hoodie of the fellow in front of me had a loose thread. The hoodie was new; he could not have bought it more than a few days ago ... it still had the crimping one expects from a new piece of clothing. The hood was thrown off his head, and the thread was in a place where he's unlikely to see it for weeks; perhaps a girl he knows will clip it off for him.

It put me in mind of something I have been saying since trying to watch TinTin on the weekend. I did not get very far. Spielberg is the sort of director who doesn't cost much emotionally for the viewer, making his work accessible ... but at the same time, he and his writers tend to broadcast their intentions for the plots they make with a veritable bullhorn. I got as far as the scene where the dog is chasing the cat around, knowing this would upset the boat and reveal the hidden item inside - which surely happened - to be witnessed through the window by the villain - which also surely happened. That was far enough for me.

There is a thing about furniture making, no so different from any other craft, where the goal is not to allow the nicks and chips of the chisel to make themselves visible to the buyer. Spielberg sucks at this. There's so many 'gouges' in his films that one wonders if he bothers to think on them at all. Perhaps he doesn't care. Perhaps Spielberg is the Walmart of filmmakers ... loved and cherished by the sort of people who do not care that their new clothes have loose threads, or that they're just good enough to be used and thrown out in three years.

No question: the Age of Shoddy that we live in bears so many nicks and scrapes from the manufacturer's tooling that as a culture we've come to expect it. In fact, as a culture we've come to identify shoddy crafting with homespun and geniune ... which has been a remarkable marketing achievement, in that all this homespun, genuine crap we buy in the culture's superstore is ALL machine-churned. Still, the fantasy remains. Anything seamless implies a threat, for the first impulse is to search for the flaw which we know MUST be there. This, too, has the marketing boys at Cheap-R-Us smiling proud. Lower expectations and rake in the profits. I'm surprised not to have heard a conspiracy theory that argues the Republican Party paid off the biggest dopes in the country to run against Romney and make him look good.

Crappy manufacture is the lettuce in the teeth of America. No one even mentions it anymore.

Recently, I wrote a post about how hard it is to convince people that something is true. Let me embed something here which you should watch if you remain a thinking person in America:

At five minutes into the above video, the lecturer, David Harvey, addresses the circumstance back in the early 80s when the elected right crushed the unions in America underfoot ... in part by rolling back their power, and in part by encouraging manufacturing to move overseas (aided by improved technology in transportational acumen). Now, I remember this happening. I was coming out of high school, where I had a particularly left wing social science teacher who would later wind up the head of the teacher's union for the province of Alberta. He was a unique fellow, who had won my respect two years earlier by ... well, I'll try to keep the story brief.

I started reading the World Almanac at the age of 7, mostly because I was fascinated with geography and with numbers. Each year I would get a new one for Christmas, and each year I would tear through it from cover to cover, comparing it year by year with the former information, particularly with regards to changes in population, national statistics, economics and recent history. It's where I got my grounding for the world creation I do for D&D ... its all part of the same rich application of knowledge that I came by early in life.

Because the Almanac was the most central thing in my life during those formative years, I carried it with me back and forth from school; it was always in reach, and I never gave a shit about people who may have thought that was weird. In most of my classes I kept the book on my desk, on the right hand corner - and if you don't think that's intimidating for a teacher who doesn't know the capital of Spain in Madrid, you have never taught school. Believe me, I intimidated the hell out of teachers, which I considered my right in exchange for the six hours a day of my life they were wasting.

This particular socialist teacher I mentioned above, the one I met in Grade Ten, was the first teacher I'd had who lifted the book off my desk to use it in teaching his class. I'd had teachers confiscate the book - you reading this cannot imagine how this once-twelve-year-old author righteously screamed about the freedom of truth and knowledge, though you may well imagine. Mr. H. respected it ... and thereby, respected me.

I remember discussing with him the events in the above film, while they were happening, in light of the media at that time. I was well versed in Current Events; I have been since. In '82, at eighteen, I was occasionally shouting at others about the Cruise missile's placement in Canada. So I have personal memories of the sort of shit Reagan and Thatcher were up to, and ways in which Canada was not on board because of the hated liberal Trudeau who had established this country's stance on such things ... the same stance that saved our ass in '08.

Yet there is hardly any way I can have a conversation right now that clearly admits those events without loading them up with a bunch of re-written history that is, frankly, utter bullshit. I am only a middle-aged man, and I am speaking of a span of time that is only thirty years ... but for all the accuracy I can expect to hear regarding that time, the freaking history may as well have been manufactured by the machine that made the guy's hoodie.

It is not in the interest of the ordinary person dwelling in this society to admit that the events that went on then actually happened. The same can be said for all the assorted events in the last thirty years - our history is not viewed in terms of accuracy, but in terms of convenience ... and not only just for the fools seeking office of the market sharks, but for the ordinary moron who just wants to believe that his or her country couldn't possibly be responsible for any of the bad shit that has ever happened.  They have to.  They are not well-crafted citizens; no matter how bad the stitching of their belief systems, they have nothing better.  Admittance of fault - or more to the point, admittance of guilt - would mean not only that their own lives have been stolen at the expense of other people, but that their cherished gods - their parents - were bastards as well.  Better to believe that it was someone else's mistake, someone else's error of judgment, someone else's failure to engage or adjust or simply improve themselves.

I said it above; we do not discuss shoddy in terms of its nature.  We dress it in patriotism and pride, that last being the seventh deadly sin that has always been touted by a certain class as a virtue.

I am not interested in shoddy.  I do not dress it up.  I do not seek to sustain those for whom shoddy is 'good enough.'   If its crap, I'm prepared to say so.  If it doesn't get the job done, I don't care whose feelings it hurts, or whose wealth it diminishes, or whose country it wrecks ... if the thing is a piece of shit, it has to go on the shit pile.  Calling Spielberg the greatest director in films, or America the greatest country in the world, or D&D the greatest game that's ever been made, doesn't change the thing.  Marketing the product doesn't make it work.

Fix it, cure it, re-educate it or smack some sense into it ... or take the fucking thing out behind the barn and shoot it.  If it can't perform the purpose for which it was made, then it has had it's day and it's about time we got something better. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


I’m taking the day off and finding myself in a downtown cafe with unscrubbed contract laborers and crews taking an hour in the morning to drop out between jobs. Feels like going home; spent a lot of hours in the 80s and some of the 90s chewing fat in places like this in the morning, between a dirty job we started at seven AM and a dirty job we were due to start at noon. I can remember months at a time without my hands being clean and being none-too-worried about details like laundry; it’s no surprise to me the number of authors who spent time down and out – intentional or otherwise – in order to get in touch with the daily core of work. Once you’ve separated yourself from the antiseptic office environment, there’s perspective there.

Quite a few of those in the office I can think of would be uncomfortable here; these morlocks are in their way scary. There’s no fear of swear words here; there’s no office protocol for employee intercommunication. Body language is aggressive; opinion-giving, more so. These guys live and breathe in a ‘team’ that would turn a human resources engagement officer green. They don’t give a shit about rules and there is a very clear idea they have about right and wrong. ‘Wrong’ is something that injures and kills people. ‘Wrong’ is someone too fucking stupid to know that. There is no grey area.

My natural misanthropy drove me into these circles, when I was too volatile and bent on truth-telling to willingly lie in order to get the kind of job that would challenge my intellect. What I cherished was freedom; to be able to speak as I liked, to openly argue as I liked ... and challenge be damned. I was busy challenging myself on my own time, as I still do. All I needed from work was money and an environment that did not encourage me to wretch from saccharine falsehoods.

Now, of course, I work in the big rock saccharine mountain; I nod my head with the other elohim and appreciate the cleanliness of the office, its soft physical effort and its lack of spontaneous injury. I lope around the office halls and conceal my natural misanthropy with good-natured sarcasm and all the generosity I can muster. I’ve learned the corporate environment can be made palatable by aggressively buying strangers coffee and lunch ... putting cracks in their false faces. It can be as satisfying to see surprise and incomprehension as it can be to see fear and revolt.

The workers are gone now. I’ve eaten an early lunch and so have they – they’ll eat again around two, when they stop in some other grease joint. It’s 11:20 and I’m the only one in the place. I’m in the area called Kensington, which is short on office towers, so the lunch when it starts won’t be a hurried press of well-dressed cretins between business meetings, it will be pre-shift brats and college students chewing up the time before working in the service industry. They’ll be yups living on their – sorry to say this – husband’s income, organizing for their charity work or their hard day’s shopping. And they’ll be the unemployed.

Going on a bit too long with this sight-seeing. I’m imagining what a party of adventurers would really be like, should you chance to meet them on the road between Ecalpemos and Erehwon. I don’t mean the perception that many effete soft-bellied computer strokers keep in their wishbooks, but the actual real people, with hard hands for their weapons and sinews made harder with marching, killing and burying the dead. Unsympathetic, I would imagine. Not long on consideration or kind words. Scary.

Hollywood – and I’m watching Firefly of late, for the first time ever – always depicts tough guys as a bunch of good old boys out to have a good time, fightin’ and fussin’, and cussin’ out women. Firefly is not covering any new ground there ... it’s as phony as anything like this I’ve seen, though it probably won the season’s trophy for the longest idiot ball yardage carried that year. “That’s right, we’re workin’ stiffs – we fight hard and we play hard!”

The only guys I see who play hard like this are the fuckwits at the office who pour their 80K incomes into the local bars – fuckwits who don’t work harder than jabbing down phone buttons while waiting for noobs to buy heaps of products for their venture capital businesses, or rubes in third world countries with lusty government contracts. These ‘hardworking’ fuckwits usually manage to hold their shit together for about two years before their daily incompetence finally catches up with them – whereupon they take their high-school football playing Nathan Fillion looks on down the street to the next human resources manager to pound their pud over.

Actual hardworking laborers are too fucking tired at the end of the day to do anything except drink. They do it at the kind of bars that don’t encourage the sort of people who have energy. If a fight ever broke out in one of these places, it wouldn’t be the funny Hollywood free-for-all you see, it would be seven guys breaking your arms and then your skull as you were dropped in the alley out back. The owner *might* call an ambulance.

Drinking is a sustained, practiced art that is done quietly, interrupted by a few acceptable statements about what is wrong with the government, employment, women, sports and – not so much – television. There’s no musician in the corner singing some story that causes one of the denizens to get teary eyed. Bards in bars are fantasy fodder ... I am guessing that if your fighter really had just watched his buddy slaughtered by orcs, his last desire upon returning to town would be hearing Fredrick the Flatulent singing another tale of Finkle Fingers and the Fat Fish. Fredrick, doubtlessly, would find himself at the cleric’s shelling out for a cure serious wounds to get his frets flushed.

It’s not pretty, but bloody slaughter rarely lends itself to bouts of weepiness; bitter hatred of the observed comfort of others is more the norm. It’s hard to imagine, however, that our adventurers might adventure not out of a sweet tooth for treasure, but from a measured hatred they’d naturally hold for things like family, home, community or faith. Grim the Warrior may have coin to spend; he may have willingly saved the local village and returned the princess to her father ... but that doesn’t make Grim a NICE GUY. If he were a nice guy, then why the fuck don’t he get married and raise kids? Why don’t he see that life on the road’s no kind of life for a gentleman? What’s wrong with him?

Players run their characters like game show contestants waiting to be paid off in magic items and Monte-Christoesque chests because most players ARE soft-bellied. For them, ‘hard’ means a Japanese-style game show ... embarrassing and messy and lasting five minutes of screen time. Grinding, brutal employment for year after year is quite beyond their capacity to identify; so when you need a TV Show’s captain to be ‘tough,’ don’t think scarred, experienced, mean old Ahab, think asshole high-school quarterback. Think the kind of prick only a MacDonald’s store manager can be. Not gritty and heartless with purpose, but a doof that shoots from the hip and smugly claims that most of the time he hits. You know, like a Goldman-Sachs banker.

The lack of character in the character is reflective of the lack of character in the player. Joss Whedon writes his characters in their flat, high-school interpretation because the last time Whedon had a hard time in life WAS high school; and he’s adored by high school minded fanboys because the hardest time they’ve had in their whole lives was high school. So they relate.

Roleplaying, whatever its appeal, has its limitation. Cry if you will for a more immersive game ... but don’t look to the designer. You must immerse yourself in real life before you have any hope of doing it in a game.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Prior to the Lineaus and the initiation of modern biology, medieval scholars believed in something called "The Great Chain of Being."  This was a heirarchical structure of all living beings in the universe, real or unreal, descending from God at the top to rocks at the bottom ... all inclusive, the gentle reader must understand.

The balancing factor was perfection ... God, naturally, was the embodiment of absolute perfection.  Man's existence at a high point in this chain did not result from man being a complex creature - it derived from Man's consciousness of God ... i.e., the knowledge of God made man more nearly perfect than anything else that was mundane - that is, of the earth.  Rocks and stones, presumably, lacked any perfection whatsoever, being that they exhibited no degree of life and therefore no comprehension of God.

Higher than man came the various creatures of the christian pantheon: cherubs and seraphim and angels.  Lower comes the various sorts of animals (with snakes, oysters and barnacles lower than cats, elephants or hawks), and below those the plants and so on.

I mention this to inspire the reader's imagination, in that there's possibility in a fantastical approach to the subject of biology that need not include listed by methods of reproduction and heat manufacture.  Obviously, that's useful to a technical world - but what is specifically useful to a D&D world need not be so rigorous.  The application of any biological principle to your world carries with it the potential to unify your world, in describing relationships between creatures and animals according to what works for YOU, and not necessarily what is needed for real life experimental applications.

Consider those animals mentioned by the Bible, for example: the sacrificial ram, the whale, the camel through the needle's eye or the scorpion ... animals with a thin biological association by the principles that science describes - but potentially a contingent of unified, blessed creatures within the D&D campaign.  Whatever the animals may be, whatever they may stand for - their very presence in parts of your world may have significant reflections upon the cultures, the people's traditions, their moral reprehensiveness or even their fundamental importance to your world.  Biologically, your world may - in Douglas Adams fashion - be controlled by groups of white mice in a manner which your players have yet to discover, yielding rich sources of plot hooks and social restructuring that has never occurred to you.

I don't mean to say that the animals are automatically in control of your world - I mean to say that your world's "biology" - as you choose to define it - is a MACHINE, one that you are free to disassemble and reorder in any way that suits your needs.  Like geneticists restructuring frankenfood and interspecies crossbreeding, you are the creator.  If you must get very weird, pegasi are bred from ordinary horses fed on extraordinary diets, or mutations occur from combinations of seismic activity and excessive local sexual activity ... who knows?  Once you've defined the perameters, you need only sell those to the players and let them off the chain.  Players will roll with whatever system you concoct ... they don't care.

I am only writing this because it may never have occurred to you to break the rules, biologically speaking, with regards to animal relationships.  Perhaps goblins ride dire wolves not because wolves can be ridden by anything small, but because goblin tails emit endorphins which when stroked against dire wolf hides endorphins are released.  Perhaps rocs satisfy their enormous appetites by eating rocks, being blessed with the sort of biology that one would normally associate with black puddings.  Perhaps ships in your world move three times as fast as one would expect because a species of intelligent turtle - not knowing what they are - waft the ships along with the peculiar way in which said turtles worship the strange shapes upon the "sky."  The rules are as endless as they are elaborate or imaginative.  However it works out, the biology will be what you impose.

Consider all the possibilities you CAN impose.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What Games Are About

"In a sense, all science, all human thought, is a form of play ... the neoteny of the intellect, man able to continue to carry out activities which have no immediate goal, in order to prepare himself for long time strategies and plans.  I worked with Johnny [John Von Neumann] during the war in England; he first talked to me about the theory of games in a taxi in London.  One of the favorite places in which he liked to talk about mathematics - and I naturally said to him, because I am an enthusiastic chess player, 'You mean the theory of games like chess.'

'No no,' he said.  'Chess isn't a game.  Chess is a well-defined form of computation.  You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory, there must be a solution; a right procedure in any position.  Now real games,' he said, 'Aren't like that at all.  Real life is not like that.  Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics, of asking yourself, what is the other man going to do - and that's what games are about.'"

-- Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man: The Long Childhood (Episode 13)

Here is a hint to why D&D strikes so deep into some people.  All the rules I have created for the game, all the guidelines and boundaries and structures I've developed in order to solve problems having to do with measuring the aspects of D&D for the players - the generation and distribution of wealth, for instance, or the limits of a monster's combat endurance - do not, and have never, gotten into the way of the fundamental strength of the game itself:  that being that the game is NOT computational.

I can feel for those who fear that some of what I've advanced on this blog might suggest it is my goal to make the game more computational; however, it must be noticed that although I may increase the measurement of a thing, I also increase the immensity of the thing that is to be measured.  I insist that everything ought to have a logical price - and then I create hundreds more things and objects, and vastly vary the price based upon a geography that dwarfs the silly simplicity of even Greyhawk.  I insist on rational principles for interactive mechanics - and then I greatly increase the variety and type of possible interactions that may conceivably take place in my world.  In short, I establish a law, and then I encourage exceptions to the law that require precedents, which in turn encourage further exceptions leading to more precedents and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Am I attempting to capture the world in a bottle?  Yes.  Is the world I am attempting to capture small enough to fit into any bottle?  No.  It is far too large for me to do that.  I haven't the time to do this much work to 'fix' my world in any rational sense.

My purpose in reflecting a real world is done with the expectation that only in the real world is there the flexibility to break all the rules, given imagination, cleverness and ingenuity.  It is not that I create rules so that they will not be broken; it is that I attempt to create rules which cannot be dismissed merely because it is convenient.

What I am seeing and reading in other worlds is a tendency on the part of DMs to simply handwave a rule - or a principle of logic - whenever it doesn't convenience them.  Everyone in this city is a court jester?  No problem.  The Gods can be killed despite being immortal?  Done.  This is your fifth wish spell in a campaign that has run a month and a half?  No issue there.  And so on.  Illogic, for illogic's sake; Santa's bag is open and out tumble the presents, all the children could want.

Convenience carries with it a disease:  apathy.  The greater the ease with which things can be overcome or redirected, the less meaningful they become, stage by stage.  Like a gentleman who degrades his reputation by making small sacrifices of his scruples, the campaign degrades marginally with every waved hand.  Steadily, the DM must trump his or her irrationalities with greater irrationalities, while the players grow to recognize that their life or death depends not upon their method of play, but upon how they emotionally stand with the DM.  It is the relationship that the worshipper possesses with the deity - those the deity likes shall be preserved; those for whom the deity holds indifferently, are on their own.  And if the whole table shall be blessed, the whole table shall do well and riseth in levels forevermore.

If the player will have it that the DM must bend the world to reflect the needs of the player, the player will strive less and less when things are not thus bent.  The player will pout in the mud, and if he or she is given a million experience, then they shall demand two million, and continue to pout until they receive three.

A game is not played when one of the players services another.  The DM cannot be made to service the players, and the players should not be made to service the DM.  Rather, both should exist upon a playing field where the strategy is to lie, bluff and deceive the other, challenging both to the heights of creativity in order to do so.  This cannot be accomplished where one side or the other can dismiss the 'rules' out of hand.

The scrub we played as children had specific rules.  But the rules did not describe how we caught the ball, or how we moved our feet in running to the base, or where we put our hands on the bat when we swung.  The rules only stated what ball thrown was a strike; but they did not specify that every ball thrown needed to be.  The rules stated consequences for actions - missing a ball with the glove, hitting a player, reaching the base too late - but the rules did not demand that consequences be avoided.  The rules did not specify where the fielders needed to stand; or how far from the base the basemen were allowed to be.  In short, while there were many, many rules, and while the rules that existed were absolutely inflexible, the rules did not deny free will and innovation.

If the rules were not applied, however, in even a single instance, the game was ruined.  That is why, instinctively as children, we fought bitterly about the rules, every time we played.  Yet we did not seem to tire of the game.  We did not fail to turn out an play when the opportunity arose.  We liked the game.  That we fought hard and long about the rules when we played was evidence of how much we loved the game as it was designed.

It was certainly not the rules we loved; rather, it was the degree to which we could circumvent the rules while maintaining the rules.  How far could we stretch them?  After all, the real world is full of rules - natural and judicial laws - and it is in circumventing those rules that life is given its very purpose.  The compromising of uncompromiseable rules is the reason art exists.  We know what we cannot do, and we know what we must try to do anyway ... and the grey area in between is so sweet, it is the stuff of our dreams.

So it is with D&D.  Handwave that away and the game is spoiled.  It is not as though the rules that do exist can ever account for every possible situation in a player's imagination ... no matter how many rules are created.

There's always another way to bluff the DM.