Monday, December 30, 2013

Behind the Curtain

"I think perfection is ugly.
Somewhere in the things humans make,
I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion."

- Yohji Yamamoto

I think perfection is intimidating.
Somewhere in the human brain is a need to create bullshit philosophies
to justify not having to strive towards something that is very difficult to achieve.

- Alexis Smolensk

Saturday, December 28, 2013

True D&D

I have a running in a few hours, and I thought I might outline some of the things my players expect on a regular basis from someone who hates 'fun' as much as I do.

To begin with, I insist the players do not speak to me or each other as they enter the gaming space.  Like monks, they have taken a vow of silence and they must adhere to it absolutely or be cast out into the darkness.  Normally at this time the players, silently, bow respectfully to each other and to me, then quietly take their seats and unpack their books and gaming equipment in readiness for the game.  They also frequently give me gifts at this time, nothing extravagant, merely little things worth twenty or thirty dollars, to gain my approval and beg my consideration when the game actually begins.

Then, just prior to starting, the players stand around the table and sing a song, together, in two-part harmony. This is a little work that I wrote, which I'm afraid I can't share with the reader, as it is private and only heard in the bowels of my living room.  Rest assured the song has no pleasant or 'fun' lyrics of any kind, but is instead mournful and affected by the death of characters in the past.  There is one verse that heaps disdain upon players who have not lived up to my expectations and have been dismissed from my world, but the remainder addresses directly the players who are about to play.

After the fifteen-minute song, then, we are ready to begin.  I set out my dice, ready my walloping stick, and begin to run the campaign.  Usually this involves my giving a 45-minute speech about everything that the party did wrong at the last running, wrapping up with a sincere admonition that they'd better do better tonight ... to which the party nods vigorously, not wishing to invoke my wrath.  If need be, I threaten one or all of them with the walloping stick, and then we get down to it.

The party states their intentions in cold, emotionless tones, intended to be very clear and wholly focused upon the part of the adventure at hand.  No one is ever allowed to make a useless or otherwise unimportant side-comment, else the walloping stick will be brought into play.  I try to apply the stick primarily to the softer, fleshier parts of the body, as this will raise bruises that will remain for three to five days.  A sharp strike on the knuckles hurts much more, but the hands tend to be resilient and cease feeling the pain within a few hours.

Once the party has stated their moves, we usually have some kind of combat.  This is a highly organized, tactical affair, very unforgiving and pedantic, where any player who fails to use the correct parlance automatically suffers the loss of three levels and is rendered ineffective for two combat rounds.  If this results in the death of the character, so be it.  Players have to learn.  Combats tend to run for a very dull hour, hour and a half, and at the end I dole out ten or twenty gold pieces in treasure, IF the players win.  Most often, I explain that the game is about trial and error, and not treasure, and this usually requires twenty minutes explanation from me.

The combat done, the players are given a break, during which time if they wish to speak to one another they must move out of earshot ... preferably completely out of the building.  This is so my zen-like state of Dungeon Mastering brilliance is not disrupted.  The players are then let back in after half an hour, regardless of the weather, and play resumes.

After a requisite period in which the players express their gratefulness to me for running them in one combat, I consider if they deserve another similar experience during the second half of the game.  If not, then everyone draws out their character sheets and settles down into some rigorous and enlightened accounting, adjusting their characters for how much weight they're carrying on which sides of their body, recording carefully how many crumbs of bread they have in addition to loaves, whether or not they have achieved their daily intake of iron and magnesium, that sort of the thing.  This can run for a few hours, during which time the players are allowed to ask me humbly for information.

When it is done, the players express their gratefulness for playing in my world, and when I dismiss them they are allowed to go.  I remind them that they will be expected to return next week, and that I know where they and their families live.

I reassure the reader, all this effort on my part ensures that I run the best possible world that can be run.

Friday, December 27, 2013


Shaking the cobwebs of the holiday season and stepping out into the good, D-vitamin possessing light, I recognize I'm free to write.

Hm.  On the subject of clichés.

I am a D&D player.  I have been one for quite a long time.  Most readers of this blog know this.

I do not live in my parents basement.  I actually have a rather pleasant downtown residence, with plenty of disposable income and a comfortable lifestyle.  I'm not dependent upon my parents in any way.  I haven't actually been since I was still in high school.  Most of my friends were living away from home by the time they were 20 because they were hard-working fellows attending university and mostly living in apartments they paid for with their part-time income.  I have run at public spaces both at game stores and on the local university campus, and of course in the cafeteria during high school ... but in fact the total times I've run in a semi-public place would be about 3% of all my sessions played over 30+ years.  If you take out high school, that drops radically, to less than 0.5%.  MOST of the running I've done has been in a space I owned, that I paid for, on my table and in my kitchen or living room.  The cliché therefore does not apply to me.

I don't particularly like Mountain Dew.  Coke, yes, I like the sort of sharp flavour, but most of my actual gaming is done on strong tea or coffee.  I tend to eat vegetables, fruit or sandwiches during a game, and not cheezies.  I did once, of course, when I was a kid ... but that was also 20-odd years ago and while occasionally some snack like that turns up at the table, I don't eat it.  Too salty.

I have never owned a cardboard sword.  I have never dressed in any sort of costume to run a game.  I don't play creepy music during my games because it is distracting.  The lights are usually on, since this makes it easier to see to write.  I've never liked the games of people who have dressed up.  It seems to be more about them and their ego than it is about the actual game, so that those campaigns are mawkish and pretty ridiculous.  Virtually every person I've ever known who has played the game would tend to agree.

I don't know where this thing started about D&D Players having little or no experience with sex.  I kissed my first girl at the age of 8; Barbara and I used to hang out on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons.  I had dates right through my teen years, and by 17 I was engaged to be married.  I'll never forget the girl and I being caught in flagrante by her mother when experimenting with bondage; that would have been the winter of '82.  Intercourse has been institutional with me all my life, as it was with the other fellows AND girls who played in my campaign ... very often, with each other.  I don't remember anyone playing my game, even in those early days of youth, who had any problem with sex, either the opposite or the same gender.  I've had a number of gay men in my campaign, and just now I run two gay women offline.  So I don't think this cliché applies to me or anyone I know, either.

The Lord of the Rings made a good movie, but really, the book is overwritten shit.  Virtually everyone I've known who's read it tells me they would rather not EVER read it again.  It's hard to find a page in the book that isn't a prepositional explosion, the characterizations are wooden and subverted constantly to manage the plot, and there are staggeringly long build-ups of 120 to 150 pages leading to a 2-page dramatic climax.  Total number of words to get Sam and Frodo across the plain of Mordor to Mount Doom?  About 30,000.  Total number of words depicting the actual destruction of the ring?  About 625.  The book gained its appeal because of a certain association with beatnik politics that was picked up by the drug-addled 60s movement ... and it continues to be worshipped by a sort of fan-boy clique that clearly eschews actual literature.  I don't think the book is necessary to the game of D&D, I don't think anyone who has played D&D without having read the book will find themselves playing differently or better if they sit down and plow through its pages.  The Lord of the Rings is superfluous.  It is dismissible.  It has nothing of value to add to the matter of role-playing.  The insistence that it does speaks volumes, I think, about the piss-poor worlds being run by these people.  As a cliché, it is probably the silliest.

People who make comic videos or who write songs about D&D never seem to know anything about the actual game.  This video, for instance, seems to think it's possible to "lend charisma" or that the 12-sided die is important for ... anything.  It also seems to think that "rank" or "restrictions" are words that have meaning related to the game.  And of course, the figure with the mage hat identifying itself as a "warrior who terrifies" is equally off center.  The vid also can't resist a stupid association with summoning demons, which is the trope leveled against D&D by Christians.  I'm sorry.  Is this a video about D&D, or about everything D&D isn't?  Like every media representation of the game, oops, missed again.

Oh, I know, it's supposed to be funny.  But 'funny' for me is, like, when you hear something you didn't expect.  Clichés aren't funny.  Clichés USED to be funny.  Now they are just pathetic and sad.

Humour is when you take an ACTUAL thing about the game and demonstrate how that is funny.  You make a joke that doesn't leave the listener thinking, "You don't actually play, do you?  You're just a dumb musician."

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Distraction

The embedded youtube video below is from the year 2000, featuring a Malcolm Gladwell who is less sure of himself, pitching his first best-seller, The Tipping Point. I don't expect the reader to watch all of it, though it is worth watching, particularly to see Gladwell gain his confidence so that he speaks like he always does now. It should be clear to the readers of this blog that I very much like Gladwell, though I often disagree. It is only because he sweeps away so many insisted-upon myths, while bringing to light institutional ideas that have been overlooked.

The relevant passage in the video begins at 13:00.

Gladwell talks about how children were sat down to watch Sesame Street prior to that show's launch, with two televisions in the room. The first had the proposed show concept that the creators wanted, while the other had content that was silent, but compelling. Then the creators watched children to learn when they were watching Sesame Street (that show being better) and when they were bored, their attention wandering. It's all very interesting. Gladwell then goes on to discuss how Big Bird was necessary to make the show work, and how the mixture of reality and fantasy proved to be a useful tool for enticing children into learning.

As it happens, I was 5 years old when Sesame Street began broadcasting. I'm of that peculiar age where I remember Mr. Hooper; I was 18 when Mr. Hooper died, so far too old for the show, but young enough to retain the nostalgia for the show, and be affected by it. One could say I was in the range of the target audience ... and since I am not conscious of any time before the show existed, I must have watched it from the beginning. On some level, my brain was affected by the very things Gladwell talks about that were done by the creators of the show. My understanding of person-to-person interaction, right along with speaking with puppets as though they were real, were established. Sesame Street has much to do with how I perceive 'playing pretend' - and in hindsight, understanding why the muppets interacting with humans didn't just work for children, it worked for adults, too. All through the 70s, Kermit and friends appeared on Carol Burnett and with Julie Andrews, and every other major television variety show that existed. The Muppet Show wasn't just a kid's show, it could be dark and full of black humour, which was even more true of the short lived rebirth that came along in the late 90s.

So when I think about role-playing, I have ideals.

Just about every example I see of "role-playing" on youtube, particularly that filmed at various conventions, I can only describe as absolute fucking swill. I really mean that.

And the poster boy for this shit is Chris fucking Perkins. Just look at this below. Take your time, wade through as much as you can choke down, and then we'll keep going.

There's are things that really bother me through the whole video. Perkins himself, for one, having this smug, self-satisfied grin that remains plastered to his face. It's not a friendly grin. It's not a man having a good time. It's a DM thinking to himself, "I AM THE SHIT. Be grateful I let you play." Just stop the video at any point, pause it, and stare at that face for thirty, forty seconds. Then ask yourself, do you like this person?

I don't know. There's an attitude that's here, that I see everywhere. Some player makes a PRETENSE of role-playing. They don't actually roleplay, because they don't actually believe what they're saying - the words are coming out, the shouting, the expressions ... but their faces and expressions always say, "Look at me! I'm so brilliant for making this grunting sound like a fighter!" And then everyone else at the table half-grins and half-laughs, with this nervous, pathetic look that has a mix of "jeez, what a fucking moron he's being" and "I wish I had thought to say that."

These people aren't playing characters ... they're playing this sordid, fucked up game of one-upmanship. And its particularly WEIRD when one of them tries for something really big, recognizes halfway through that they're being a complete, ridiculous idiot, so they break up in a gale of nervous "please don't look at me that was really silly" giggle/whining splat that is always followed by everyone else at the table laughing and the player looking like, "shut up, I was only roleplaying" while still trying to look like it was all in fun.


These are really, really pathetic-looking people. One says he wants his character to be holding the hand of the elf maiden and woah, does he sound pathetic. One is throwing a die while the audience chants "GO ROD GO ROD!" like he's running for the goal line, and it looks and sounds so ... gawdawful pathetic. And through it all Perkins, described in the comments as "awesome" and "a blast to play under" never, ever, gets rid of his ridiculous toothy expression that just screams for, I don't know, a fist through it.

I have been playing and writing about this game obsessively for 34 years, and I'd rather be in a Pakistani prison hole than to be forced to play at this table with these fucks.

At least with the hole, when I escaped that traumatic experience people would have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for me. Sitting willingly at this table would be ... signing up for the Olympic "I am a pathetic pissant" team.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that people regularly view D&D Players as sort of pathetic from the outside, but really, can't you just look at these people through the eyes of a normal person and see that there is really something wrong here?

I just wrote about muppets. The actors who had to act with muppets could see the muppeteer, they could see all the mechanical jazz and weird stage-setting that was necessary to make the muppets look 'real,' and they had to act without grinning stupidly or expressing with their face, "I'm acting with a sock puppet." EVEN IF THEY HAD THAT THOUGHT. Because actual roleplaying means sucking it up and actually fucking pretending to find nothing odd about this!

That is because the habits of grinning, chortling, making side jokes, breaking up in the middle of one's sentence, etcetera, DISTRACT from the actual value of the proceeding. It makes the process something other than a game. It makes the process about personal bad habits, personal weaknesses in the ability to dispense humour and personal failing as a human being, culminating in the lack of actual personal charisma. It ceases to be a GAME so much as it becomes seven monkeys flinging poo in a cage.

It makes the game a really crappy children's show, where what's showing on the other television is better. I'm sorry that these people in these videos, and indeed many of the readers who have gotten this far, don't recognize this.

Perhaps a lot of the reason that roleplaying isn't taken seriously by 99% of the world is because even those people who PRETEND TO DO IT don't take it seriously! Maybe it's because the DM running the game and the players playing the game sound like dumb infant morons with a disturbing dice-fetish.

I don't really like role-playing. I don't like it because it makes people nervous and uncomfortable, and people who are nervous and uncomfortable don't enjoy the game. They would rather PLAY than role-play. Most of the participants in my game have come from the sort of shitty one-upsmanship games depicted in the video (and most every video everywhere online) and they'd rather not participate. They're not much up for the sort of dull, plodding role-playing that you see people playing, that goes like this:

"Uh, friend Elfen, uh, Lady, do you, um, perhaps have a spell that would take away the hit points - uh, that is, the health - of yon ... er, yonder ... no, that's yon enemies." "Yonder," corrects someone else. "Right, okay, thanks, yonder enemies." "I think it's actually yon," says the DM. "Well, whatever, you mean the enemies over there."

I'm just going to go over here and ... bang my head a moment.

These are not things I think any advice or education can help. It's quite clear from the Perkins video above that these are all boys who have successfully overcome the attempts of previously encountered institutions to either educate or enlighten them. The only thing we could hope to improve about their existence would be to STOP SHOWING IT ON FILM.

That, unfortunately, is too much to hope for.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Commitment

The Adventure, so far as I know, has never been in the applause.

This is the second half of the previous post.

It is a pity that there's no path towards making many understand the difference between fun and satisfaction. That is because 'fun' has always been something easy to obtain. I am here where I sit; there are others but ten or twelve feet from me. We all wait for Christmas, our thoughts upon the holiday, upon the gifts we're giving and the meals with family we haven't seen for too long. There is anxiousness here, and to have fun, I merely have to walk over, greet these people, remark on the holiday, and in a few moments we'll be smiling, remarking about the days ahead, making a few quips and a few chuckles all around. I'll walk down a block or two to one of my favorite haunts and be greeted warmly, make a joke about the harsh weather, make a promise that I won't forget them while I'm gone on holidays, and leave them smiling too. Later, I might lay by the fire with my partner Tamara, or we might go out and laugh, shout, watch some musicians play, tease the server and enjoy the food. Fun is everywhere, it is easy, all it really requires is a willingness to share a kind word and meet the sort of people you like in a place you like.

The book, on the other hand, is misery.

I know that most think of work as a place where they go to sit and do repetitive work, and be paid. Sometimes the work isn't repetitive, but it's exhausting and perhaps dangerous, and it is good to set it down at the end of the day even if one's mind isn't pulp with boredom. If I may, I'd like to refer to this sort of work as labor. I'm paid for it, I pass the time doing it, it's occasionally stressful ... but it uses my mind and there are problems to be solved and the days are at least straightforward. For the most part, my labor is cut out for me, and I know what I am meant to do.

The 'work' I speak of is nothing like labor.

To begin with, I am not paid for it. It is done alone, and there is no one with which to discuss the issues - certainly no one who comprehends them. The problems that arise don't look like problems; for all I know, every word is a problem, or none of them are. Part of the process is to DECIDE that something is a problem, even if everyone else around is saying it isn't one. My mind is made pulp, but not with boredom - with the struggle of writing and rewriting a passage and still feeling at the end of it that it's wrong. There is no post to pass that says this thing is done. There is no end of the day; there is no moment when you put on your coat and say, "Good, I'll pick this up tomorrow." It is still in my head, every minute of every day, like a cloud I have to do everything else inside of. I'm tempermental. I'm obsessed. I'm distracted. I'm unreasonable. And there's no moment when I expect this condition to cease.

Art, as DaVinci says, is never finished, only abandoned.

And D&D is art. I have emphasized that from the beginning. Leaving me with wonder when I hear people remark upon how much work something is taking, or how much work it is going to require, or how little the work is worth it. 'Work' doesn't obtain reward. 'Labor' obtains reward. It may be that I am forced to define those two terms using words that are so ill-defined that the pedantic among the readers cannot begin to comprehend what I've said because they're disputing the definitions I've chosen for work or labor, but be that as it may - WORK is that which I do because I feel it deserves doing. LABOR is something I do for pay.

If you will work because you feel expectations of applause, then you are confusing work with labor and you are bound to be sorely, awfully disappointed. You will sit miserable in your DM's chair and resent that the players did not reward you for the work you did, or you will feel the appreciation was not up to what it was last week, or a hundred other payment schemes in your mind will not bear fruit. If you will write your first book expecting applause, you will get no further in your work because your disappointment will discourage you from writing a second book. If you are perhaps J.D. Salinger, your first book will gain you so much applause you will learn your lesson later, when your second book is spat upon. One book that you write, that you struggled for, sooner or later, will be spat upon. Just as your D&D world, too, will inevitably fail to reward your work as though it were labor.

We do not do this thing because it is repaid. We do this thing because we are compelled. Not by some mystical force that seizes us and insists upon our work, but because we perceive that this thing we do should be done. My world, the maps, the rules, that documentation, the structure and the random tables, should exist. I imagine it, I feel how it should be shaped, I rush about shaping it, it emerges as a shape and I spend more time shaping it further - there is no sense to the action, no rationale, no practicality. There's no compensation, save perhaps in having a thing that should have existed actually exist.

There are moments I contemplate what I do and have a feeling that it is good. I have a visceral, positive reaction. It sweeps through me. It is very personal. It is never shared wholly with another person, for even if another person sits beside me, and sees it, their understanding is not MY understanding. Their praise is hollow, because they only see what has been done; they do not know the means, nor the sweat, nor the errors, hidden in the lines, that I know. I see the thing not as it appears, but as it manifests. I see the history of the thing stretching into the past. I see more than anyone.

Those moments are brief, however. They are quickly followed by another moment, the moment when I realize it is still not what it should be, that the manifestation isn't complete, and that sitting in the glow of the thing isn't GETTING IT DONE.

I have never learned to be happy with something I have abandoned. I have abandoned books, and I can hardly bear to open them. I have never been able to abandon my world. It is the artwork I never will abandon. Not until by body abandons me.

Sound Advice

Imagine, if you will, standing on a stage. I know many of you have had limited experience with that, and that what experience you've had involved being pushed there by school events ... but imagine it nonetheless. Imagine a much bigger auditorium that the one in your school, more like the sort you would encounter if it were your job to speak to people. It's a fairly intimate setting; the audience can see you very well. Because of the lights, however, you cannot see the audience.

Now imagine that your reason for being there has nothing to do with your job. You haven't been asked as an expert in your field, you're not there to give a seminar to people in the industry, you don't represent a company, an organization or a cause. No one in the audience has come because they believe what you believe, or even with the expectation that you're going to say something worth hearing. They are just there. You have no friends in the audience, no family, no acquaintances from your various activities. These are all total strangers. Nevertheless, they are here to judge you.

You might be getting some money for this. It might be enough to buy a week's groceries.

On the podium is an rendition of your speech. You've worked on it to make it as good as you can. Now you are going to read it. Only ... part of the condition of your being on the stage is that you are not now allowed to improvise. You knew it would be so going in. Because of the conditions, you're going to have to read your speech exactly as written. If there's a misplaced word, a sentence that doesn't really make sense, a concept that isn't entirely clear, tough. You're stuck with the speech you have before you. Now get reading.

Most people would work really, really hard on that speech to make sure there are no errors. They would go over it repeatedly, a hundred times if necessary, changing, fixing, adapting ... but in this case, this speech will take you 13 hours to read. It is written on 400 pages.

You should know that the whole time you're reading it, the audience will be free to shout at you, criticize you, leave, insist that you stop talking long enough for them to leave and then come back again, and so on. And when you're done, that same audience will feel free to abuse or praise you wherever they please, including in places where thousands more people - who have never heard of you or heard your speech - will freely have strong opinions about what sort of person you are, what you're like, how boring you are and so on. Many of these opinions will arise from people who rose in the first five minutes of your speech, shouting that it's boring as hell, and rushing out to tell others it's boring as hell.

All of this will be firmly in your mind while you're methodically going over your speech to make it perfect.

I'd be willing to bet, given those circumstances, most of the readers here would never finish that speech. They wouldn't willingly stand up and give it. Who needs that kind of stress? Who needs that kind of abuse? No one. Better to keep one's thoughts to one's self, where they aren't judged, where the merit one has is assumed, rather than challenged. Where one's opinion, lightly or markedly given, yet possesses an inviolability - or rather, the pure righteousness of one who doesn't have to prove anything.

Better that, then putting one's head in the guillotine.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Favorite Food

Hearkening back to this post, and this post as well, my equipment list has a great many things on it that are not, shall we say, 'useful' - like roast rabbit, brandy wine, shark fin soup, dried prunes, licorice root, dried coconut, etc.  The sort of thing one might like to find by the ton for treasure, but not really something the players are motivated to buy.  Although, for those heavy into the role-play thing, they will order a turtle soup or buy melons instead of oranges at the town market (not shown in links).

But I had a little idea tonight that I thought I'd bounce around ... if only so I don't talk about my book again.

The character background generator could be put to good use here.

Suppose we had it generate some 'favorite foods' for new characters, in addition to 'hated foods' ... the sort of things the characters would really hate to eat.  Is this the sort of thing that one is allowed to pregenerate?  Is it not, after all, sort of beyond our control why we like or dislike a particular thing?  Isn't that physical ... and on the level of no one really knows why?  I think it very well could be.

There could be three levels of food generation - rare things really liked, common things really liked, general things really hated.  Then, if the player eats that rare thing (and the key is, in my world, can the character FIND it?) the character gains, say, a hit point for that day.  If the character eats common, liked food, the character gets a +1 constitution check.  If the character eats really hated food (presumably because they have to, there's no other food or they do not wish to be rude), the character is potentially unwell (-1 strength, -2 constitution) for 8 to 16 hours?

Well, some combination of minor benefits and penalties.  There's room to play around with it, try different things, see if it motivates people to get interested if there's almonds or pistachios or opium for sale in this particular town.  Causing them to grumble if its been a long, long time since they could find that one thing they really, really like.

I think it could produce some interesting emotional game play.  Ideas?

General Thoughts This December

To be honest, it's difficult to talk about ordinary D&D things.

Over the weekend, when relaxing, I was reformatting a trade excel file that had ballooned to 20,000 K in size, making it cumbersome and slow on my computer. It means moving the data out of one kind of format into another, with one sheet referencing another, so it's slow work to reformat it. It's down to 16,500 K and I'll be doing that now and then for a long time. So, not exactly interesting blog material.

I ran my party Saturday night, which consisted mostly of them being aboard ship and being assaulted by 42 tritons, along with the ship's crew. The tritons weren't much threat to the high levels, kept them trapped below decks for a bit by controlling the ladders, and the party was worried the crew would be all killed, leaving no one to sail the vessel, at that point in Greek waters (offline party crossed the path of the online party, nice coincidence that). The lower levels did okay for X.P. Moved the party along to Sicily, their destination, a lot faster than I'm moving the online party from place to place ... but the offline party is younger and less patient. These things have to be taken into account.

Again, not much meat for a discussion.

I haven't had time to read and work up a really interesting post about the relationships between the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in the 16th century and the passing of Prohibition in the 1919, so I have no idea if there even is a connection. Probably isn't. But you never know. I have a fair knowledge of Prohibition, but virtually none about the Spanish expulsion, so it would seem stupid to write a post about that.

Most of my research has been on the Kubler-Ross model of coping with grief, which IS connected to the way roleplaying can be addressed in the campaign, but if I write about that HERE, then what's the point in producing the book? Hm? Let's just say that I'm trying to rework the passage so I don't have to write five hundred words on what the Kubler-Ross model is. (Look it up)

So my mind is a blank. And I've taken 400 words to describe the blank that is my mind. It's not actually blank, it's just full of stuff I have to hold back.

I can say that it was suggested that a cover image could be an empty table with empty chairs, with undefined books and papers on the cover, in the whitest room possible. I do have a really good photographer who I've worked with in the past who could get the shot, if we could find the space (just have to look for it), the table and the chairs. Of course, the background can always be photo-shopped.

My problem has been that ANY photo has the possibility of stamping the game with a particular roleplaying genre ... whereas yes, it is true that saying 'DM' all the way through the book will do so also, I think if the actual cover can be made generic, then that will greatly improve the book's mutability. I feel that the Cthulhu people, the Traveller people and even the Masquerade people would get as much from the book as anyone else, and I don't want to lose those potential markets because they've been given an elf wench with tits on the front cover (which was suggested!).

A player in my offline put it best; "Yes," he said. "It will be a plain white book with a plain cover that will be on every shelves, everywhere."

Here's hoping

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Straight Title

I can discard all the suggestions for alternate book titles and debate on this post very, very easily.
The five most popular posts on this blog are:
  • How To Dungeon Master (The 10,000 Word Post)
  • How to Play a Character (The 10,000 Word Post)
  • Ornamental Gems
  • Mining - Metal & Minerals
  • Vegetation Classification
Why? Because these are the most GOOGLE FRIENDLY titles.

A flashy title no longer means shit. A flashy cover no longer means shit. We live in a world of previews, google searches and facebook. Word of mouth means everything. Flash only makes something obscure. Flash only makes a unknown title about a wanted subject HARDER TO FIND.

I'm sorry many don't know this yet. But I know it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Polar Circle

I wasn't sure about posting this, but hey ... can't be all book all the time, can it?

Last month, when taking a break from writing, I needed to do something fairly mindless, fairly structured and pre-determined ... and for a long time, I've thought about just working through all the parts of my world and JUST doing the coastline. So what you see above is the beginnings of that effort.

This would be the circle around the pole. It's as far as I've gotten in this effort, and at the moment I've gone right off doing this task. I'll leave it for awhile before picking it up again, and therefore I might as well post it in the partly done state that its in. Sometimes, this blog works like a diary.

The pole itself, well, that's almost all ocean. There's a bit of Ellesmere Island that pokes into it, and a bit of Greenland; Greenland is unshown, it will fill that white square at the right, that shows pink hexes on it. The cut off line is based on the most northerly point for which I have an elevation, the town of Alert on the north coast of Ellesmere. If you look closely, in the middle of the white square for Greenland, towards the center of the map, you'll see one pink hex. That's Alert.

That mess that's mixed blue and white, that's the northern islands of Canada. One can make out the northern edges of Victoria and Baffin, and all the relevant coast for Ellesmere is done. Devon, Melville, Axel Heiberg, Bathhurst and a host of other islands are done too ... but I haven't finished putting the nice blue shading that surrounds all the coasts here yet. It's only a few hours work, but like I say I've gone right off it. For the next while I'll be doing something else to relax between writing. Probably something to do with trade tables.

That's Siberia off to the left. Much of it was already done, as early efforts had made all the parts that are shown with grey and green hexes. Still, reformatted a few things, and there would be other work to do there, to get it up to the present layouts that I employ. All my maps go through constant upgrades, as I slightly alter colors, design and so on, which gets begun every time I have to upgrade my Publisher program. Real pain in the ass, actually, even though the maps DO look better.

Oh, I should also say that bit of land at the bottom of the map, that's a bit of Alaska.

This is the first time I've mapped any part of the New World. Big empty nothing, really. Don't know why anyone would bother going there.

Each map is 35 hexes by 30 hexes. Each hex is 20 miles across. There are nine maps shown here. I'll add a blow up of the messy partially done map of the coastlines around Devon Island in Canada - just because there were A LOT of coastlines. All told, between 60 and 80 hours work.

Sometimes, I like to show all the notes and flotsam
that get removed from the final version

Anyway, it's a very, very big world. We just use such a tiny bit of it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Cover

Gentle Reader, I cannot begin to describe how useful I find your opinions and your criticism. You cannot begin to understand how much information I gain, or the kind of information I glean, between having every sentence tweezed apart with deconstruction or a general statement of approval. When you suggest the change to a word or an idea, you do more than edit; you reveal the mindset you have, and therefore the market I must sell to.

Last night, a good fellow and friend, a professional ex-editor (I'll call him Phil), took a metaphorical club to me last night to correct my errors with regards to yesterday's post, making a very good case that while the content of roleplayng games is fair use, the TRADEMARK is not. And then he - incredibly usefully - actually found the trademark for DUNGEON MASTER. Here it is.

I've heard about it for years, people have chattered about it, disputed it, etc. WOTC ought to have a link to it on their front page.

Shame they have no intention of using it.

Now, there's a couple of issues. For one thing its in all caps. For another, it doesn't state that 'DM' is trademarked. The renewal deadline is next month, but ... somehow ... I think the company will renew it. Would be interesting if they didn't.

I'm not up on trademark law; like Phil says, I'm thinking like a journalist. I'm probably fine putting DM on the front cover, and putting it on a poster behind me at a trade show, so long as I don't make any money and I don't draw any attention to myself. Not much use there. At the same time, Phil is virtually shouting at me, "Why do it? Why take the chance? What the hell for? Why don't you invent a far more CREATIVE title? Why don't you use that brain of yours to be more creative?"

Phil is right about taking the chance. The image I've had in my mind is a table at a con, with a big glossy poster-board behind me, saying, "HOW TO DUNGEON MASTER." A sign like that will draw flies like vinegar. You don't need another word on the sign. The mere mention of the administration role will bring the curious and interested. But of course, that IS using someone else's trademark to sell my book. And it IS illegal.

What to do, what to do. There's a reasonable possibility that I'd still be free to use DM, DMing, Dungeon Mastering and so on in the actual text (though that does seem to annoy the pedantic among you - 'DMing' is NOT a word!). Just not on the cover, as the appearance of the cover is everything.

Let me go over the possibilities. Just doing this will give poor Phil apoplexy, as he can't understand what makes me so stupid I don't immediately take his advice.

  • I can adopt the title 'GM' ... or worse, 'referee' ... but I'll be fucked if I'm going to wear a black-and-white striped shirt.
  • I can ignore it, and expect to make such a little splash that it doesn't matter.
  • I can wait for the inevitable 'cease and desist' order, then cease and desist, changing the title and content of the book.
  • I can ignore any such order, and see what happens.  The "no news is bad news" argument.
  • I can risk being a success, then losing everything, even the possibility of being legally barred from writing anything else about D&D, including this blog.
Of course, I could shoot someone famous from WOTC in a scuffle (Chris Perkins! I vote Chris Perkins!) and become famous with D&D players for a few decades.

Decisions, decisions.

Well, admittedly, I don't want to take the chance. Phil is right about that. In the long run, it isn't worth it. I'll see how far I can push 'DM' in the text first, and keep it off the front cover.

That brings us to the title. And here Phil went off on me again, because I want to produce the book to have, well, dignity. Phil is anxious that the book actually sell, so he's shouting for AN EXCITING TITLE and AN EXCITING FRONT COVER. He's a bit aggravated that I'm like most writers here, in that I equate super-shiny with super-shit. Just about every published resource that exists in this hobby is a shiny, interesting cover wrapped around a lot of pages of useless dreck. It would be nice if my book did not emulate that format.

At any rate, an exciting cover is there so it will sell off a shelf somewhere. I don't think this book is going to sell off any shelves for awhile. At least, until people already know of its existence and are going to Borders specifically to find it. A random person picking the book off a shelf is going to be SORELY disappointed in the book. For one thing, there's no actual passage intended for the book that describes what a role-playing game is.

I got an excellent run down of the preview from a fellow yesterday, that I will call Vincent. He made a point that I can't fault him for making, but it was demonstrative of how the mandate of my Advanced Guide is meant to differ from other Role-playing books.

I included the passage, "... I questioned everything. I questioned everyone. I asked deliberately worded questions about why a rule was the way it was, or how it was expected to improve the game. I challenged people to play the game differently. I challenged people to tell me how the lack or addition of a rule had been better or worse." Vincent asked me (paraphrasing) to be more specific about what I discovered in asking these questions, and to give examples.

This is EXACTLY what I don't want to do. I don't want to write a book, like I write this blog, with examples of what I think makes a 'good' rule. What I want, what I feel is needed, is DM's who go out and do their own research. I'm not saying, "I went out and found the answers, and here they are." I'm saying, "I went out and asked for answers. Do it yourself."

It doesn't matter to me if people understand that in context or not; that's because those who DON'T immediately understand that, haven't been asking questions already. And those people who do ask questions will think, "Fucking A. I knew I was on the right track."

I'm not writing an answer book. I'm writing an academic breakdown of methodology and gameplay, which is going to make no sense whatsoever to someone who doesn't already play the game. Someone who doesn't already know what 'role-playing' is will come away very, very confused.

I don't care. This is an academic discussion. It's here for the already aware.

So where it comes to a 'creative' title, that's just silly. There's only two words that anyone already interested in the game is going to care about. ROLEPLAYING and ADVANCED. I know my audience. They'll open any book that says the word that describes what they LOVE, and adds elitism.

A title. I'll still need a title.

I suggested "An Advanced Guide to Role-playing Games," which was always going to be the subtitle of the "How to DM" book, and Phil harangued me for twenty minutes about how boring it was. Good old Phil. He does have my interests at heart. But he's wrong about making it something new and interesting, since then the audience won't know what the book is and they won't buy it. On some level, this thing has to have the content written on the wrapper.

So I'm thinking, okay, something with punch ... something short ...

Here is where I come to the usefulness of people's opinion. Because I couldn't help noticing how many times people wanted to change the words "in a running" or "during a running" to during a session or during the game ... both of which I do use. I take this to mean that there's a growing dissatisfaction with the 'running' of a game. As though, on some level, we shouldn't be saying, "I run D&D" or "I run a Steampunk campaign."

I really like that, you know? The word RUN - with respect to roleplaying - is a solid, immediately identifiable colloquialism, which you the gentle reader would recognize if overheard as proof positive that the person is a roleplayer: "I ran a few people last Saturday and ..." would be all you'd need to prick up your ears and listen for the inevitable mention of a game or system. You'd be disappointed if you were wrong.

So I mocked up a front cover this morning:

I like it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


My partner Tamara read yesterday's rant and remarked, "I guess you really are back to posting, yes?"

She knows me so well.

I guess the thing to talk about today is my unreasonable insistance at being called a 'DM' and not a 'GM.' Clovis Cithog  tried to warn me the other day that the term "DM" is owned by Wizards/Hasbro, and that they vigorously guard this ownership.

Thing is, I'm not trying to sell a game. The Advanced Guide in no way challenges or undermines the sale of any game by Wizards of the Coast, nor does it offer any competition to those sales. In fact, the book should actually HELP their sales, point to be made. My only copyright concern here is that I don't misrepresent the term DM in such a manner as to cause libel or slander. Which isn't my intention at all. Fair use indicates that I am entitled to reproduce copyrighted material (in this case, two letters) for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, TEACHING, scholarship and research. These things are not an infringement on copyright.

So welcome to my classroom.

Still, is the use of the term DM dead?

I had written a small note to the subject that I had intended to include on a lonely page prior to the preface:

"This book has been written to teach the reader how to be a better ‘Dungeon Master,’ or DM. This is the term originally used to describe the administrator of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the first role-playing game I encountered. The title DM is anachronistic. Many present-day enthusiasts prefer the term ‘GM,’ or ‘Game Master.’ I have never been happy with that watered-down alternative. The original title had zeal. The original title had mystery.

A ‘GM’ is a general manager, a modernistic, shareholder-serving drone, a caretaker of someone else’s business, fitting a neat, round, limited hole. I do not conceive that my role is to manage generally. My role is to master the dungeon of the player’s soul. This may variously be understood to be a cage, an asylum, a catacomb … or the dark, unplumbed tombs of the player’s psyche. I see my role as the builder of elaborate cages of gilded design, with far-flung boundaries and untapped possibilities. I need a title that carries weight. I need a title that promises the world. So I have always embraced the atypical, unique appellation of Dungeon Master. I am loathe to surrender it."

But perhaps I am being unreasonable. Perhaps I am being a literary Luddite. Perhaps it is time to accept the inevitable, and label myself a Game Master, and let the matter go. There is, after all, much wasted effort that is applied to shouting at the wind. I'm a long standing wind shouter; and in this case, perhaps it is time to let the wind win. Perhaps it is time to bend.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why Don't It Look Like Fun?

I must apologize for not writing more clearly. Yes, with my last post, what I meant was that the DM's fun should take a backseat to the player's.

Over and over, we keep coming back to this word 'fun' and what it means ... which, Christ-for-crackers, I'm not writing another post about. But I would like to get my licks in on this whole conception that during the game everyone's having a gleeful bouncy Chuckie Cheeze fucking fun fest. It's idiotic. In the first place, it's plainly the opinion of people who are remembering the last moment of playing with a soft focus lens smeared with vaseline, like a grammie remembering the last time her knickers got wet, and in the second place, where the fuck is all this happy-happy chim-chipperio when the game is actually going on?

Last week I was in a whole room full of people, playing at seven tables, about 40 people in all, with either bland, confused looks on their faces or pissed-off glares of determination and bloodymindedness. If there is a moment of humour, it is always some cold, cackling pleasure at someone's misfortune or humiliation, preferably another player's, or the sour rehash of some fucking Star Wars quote. "These are not the silver swords you're looking for" was the bastardization used this past Wednesday.

Fucking hilarious.

It must seem very ridiculous to these people, having such a gobsmacking good time as they pitch bad rolling dice at the table and swear, or look insulted and miserable because they're characters have dipped into the negatives, that my image of "FUN" is a little girl going around the merry-go-round actually smiling and looking, well, PLEASED. I haven't seen a roleplayer looked pleased since ever. They're either smugly triumphant or sordidly humping the air like an Californian prat on the fucking Tunisian tour of Star Wars film locations. BOO-YAH, motherfuckers!

The only association I make between a typical roleplayer and 'fun' is the three-days-later petulant snarl they produce on the bulletin boards when they screech about someone else daring to suggest the game isn't the best freaking thrill ride since the thigh-shoot at Mother's House. Taking them at their word, the game must be a really great time ... it's a pity it couldn't show on their faces.

For me, I'm damn busy running a game, I haven't got time for 'fun.' The emotional state I most identify with is frenzied ... and occasionally, wallowing in the crapulence of "What the fuck do I do now?" This latter seems to come up mostly when the party takes ten minutes to blast through an encounter I expected to take the next four hours. Luckily for me, there are ways to get the party arguing about something meaningless and time-wasting while I throw fuel on the fire of my brain, to think of something before the party has time to notice I'm blank.

But then, parties are having so much damn fun they rarely do.

When do we get to talk about how the game is a serious game, that it is taken seriously by the players while the game is going on, that it is reacted to with serious emotions that cause serious disagreements and serious resentment between players? When do we admit the fucking game isn't kindergarten, or at least admit that if there was no kindergarten teacher we would have spend our fifth year of life gouging out the eyes of our childhood peers like bloodthirsty animals?

See, to talk about this game, I'm really going to need some of the rose-coloured paint scoured off every damn element and object ... even if that means the nostalgia nocturne needs a good push into the river, where it can drown a malignant, freezing, unpitied death.

Advanced DM's Guide Preview

I'm in a position now to offer a 5,000 word preview of the Advanced DM's Guide to anyone who's interested. Please email me at Expect a response no earlier that this evening, 7 pm EST.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Don't Let the Lack of Fun Worry You

The reason I took so strongly to D&D from the very beginning had much to do with my previously possessed fascination with all things Earthly and humanistic. Before I had sat down for my first game, I had already possessed a passionate adoration for geography and for all things in maps; I had studied and adored almanacs and statistics, and had gotten a World Almanac every year for Christmas beginning at the age of 8. I had once gotten into trouble in the 3rd grade for reading medical & biology books that the librarian felt were better suited for older children, and my mother had to come to the school and sort the administration out. I had read quite a lot of books about both world wars, my particular favorite being about the Sinking of the Bismarck. I was stunned and intrigued with amateur astronomy, and spent many cold, cold nights with binoculars and small telescopes staring at the sky. I had read everything by Asimov and most of the major science fiction authors I could find, my share of occult books ranging from Stoker to Stephen King, with abridged and unabridged versions of classics by Dumas, Tolstoy, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Lew Wallace, Kipling and many others - I would return and find the unabridged copies of books I'd read at age 10 later in life. I would probably have read the unabridged book from the start, but they were not included in the libraries I had access to as a child.

What I am trying to say is that I already had mountains of stored, untapped knowledge that had been sitting in my brain for years, with nowhere to go, before I'd even heard of D&D. I played a lot of strategy games, Avalon Hill stuff like Panzer Leader and Squad Leader I mentioned yesterday, Tractics and various lesser-quality games, in some cases weekly with people I knew. D&D wasn't wonderful because it was so new and different and incomprehensible. It was wonderful because I could see immediately that there was so much I could do with a game like this. I only needed to plug myself in and get started.

Of course, it did not go well from the start. I was reworking this part of my Advanced Guide on Monday:

From the very beginning ... from the first time that I played Dungeons and Dragons ... I wanted to be a Dungeon Master.

It took months to pull together the courage to draw out maps and create a world, and to convince my friends to run through that world. It did not go well. I did not know the game as well as I should have. I did not have answers for all the questions I was asked. I was nervous, terribly nervous, so that my voice shook and I was easily flustered. My ideas were vague because I hadn’t prepared enough … and did not know how to prepare. I hadn’t committed the tables to memory and I scrambled for them through the game. I’d only been a player, after all—and at that, for only a dozen actual runnings. Heck, I’d only played two of the character classes. The monsters, too, were unfamiliar ... and of course, combat from the DM’s side was new. I think of all that now, and I shudder."

Initially I misunderstood it for the complexity the game possessed; and recognized as well as anyone how overwhelming it could be, how impossible it seemed to be on top of it all and actually manage the game. And now, when I see other people run, I possess a lot of empathy for their difficulties. Even someone 'great' like Chris Perkins ... you can hear in his voice when he gets past his quite clearly practiced script and is stumbling around for the right words ... "uh, um, you see ... I mean you walk into the room first ..." as he and any DM forgets for a moment where you are and what the party is doing and what should have been said first before already saying what should have been said second.

This is normal.

I was a really bright guy when I started playing this game, but I made a LOT of errors and misjudgements. I did a lot of the things that this blog rails against ... and it rails all the more BECAUSE I used to do those things, and I know from personal experience how shit they are. It has been much, MUCH harder to be a good DM that it has been to produce maps and designs and rules for the game, and to tell the reader the truth, I have no idea if I'm a good DM.

I know what a bad DM looks like, and what they do. I remember when I sat behind a screen. I remember when I couldn't stop grinning nervously while describing things. I remember when I couldn't keep a combat on track or when I pushed and pressed parties into adventures full of invisible walls. It was twenty and thirty years ago, but I remember.

I so wanted to be a DM when I first played, and I so think I was somehow preparing myself for it as a child. But sometimes, I think that it's only now, when I've become an old man, that I truly realize what was necessary from the very beginning; and now, as I write a book about it, it is goddamn hard to get that across. In a community where FUN is the watchword, the answer is that the DM shouldn't be having it. The DM is a sacrifice so the players can have an alarmingly good time ... compensated by a sense of satisfaction. I can get that through other artistic pursuits - a book, a performance, a job well done - but in every case it is WORK, not play, that produces that satisfaction.

It's a hard pill for a would-be DM to swallow. No, I'm sorry, it won't be fun. Don't let that worry you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Earth Still Orbits the Sun

Last night, I played my first game of 4th Edition. I journeyed down to a gaming club here in town, where they play pretty much ONLY 4th edition. The organizer told me that IF he gets enough people to fill a 3.5 table, he does, but they don't last long. He did not bring up the subject of earlier editions and neither did I.

I can't avoid a rant about the 'problems' with 4th Edition. Obviously, for the players of that system, there are no 'problems.' However, I have some observances that I'd like to discuss.

First of all, the thing that people most complain about, the dragging length of combat, was not so bad. Combat runs at the speed of an earlier-version D&D game played by floundering, inexperienced players ... except that of course these people supposedly know what's going on. It took me about ten minutes to understand at least all that my character could do, which as a 1st level thief wasn't much. A mage, I think, would have taken longer ... but all the characters seem to 'swing' like fighters. The same basic attack is performed in the same basic way from round to round - only the number of persons it affects, the damage it does, or the number of times one attacks seems to change. I found that aspect deathly dull.

As I did the process of doing damage. It is RARE that a character does not do damage in a given round, heaps of damage by early D&D standards, and the damage makes very little difference, like giving someone a firehose, letting them get a sense of the power of it, then asking them to extinguish a volcano. Little halfling thief that I was, I did 62 damage over five rounds and the total effect of all that damage was ... nothing. At least, there was no indication that the damage had any effect. I have forgotten what its like to play a system where a combatant with 1 hit point and a combatant with 100 hit points has exactly the same combat effectiveness.

The attitude of the players around the table, and the combat itself, reminded me FAR more of Panzerblitz or Squad Leader than role-playing. Perhaps Axis & Allies would be more apt ... because movement was treated VERY imprecisely, by a DM who was clearly worried about the length of the rounds. There was something about the running around and the total lack of movement adjustment to attacks that reminded me of Calvin Ball. No one seemed to mind; I certainly did not give any indication that I did. Everyone was pleased with my participation and encouraged me to return.

I have a little insight now as to why my combat system does seem a little ... hm ... restrictive. I argue that you can either run or fight, but there isn't time to do both. I argue that the process of generating enough power to create a lightning bolt, meteor storm or even an unseen servant actually requires time. I argue that being hit has, well, an effect. And I argue that one hit point of damage ought to have some actual meaning.

Very out of step, isn't it?

There were other reasons I was bored during the game, but all of that had to do with the actual nature and experience of the DM. It was particularly humourous when, as the battle went on and on, the bad luck of the party and the plainly superior powers of the monsters was deeply out of synch, and we were all going to die (it does eventually happen, but it's like the taxi you called at dinner showing up at your door after you've given up, taken the bus, come back and dressed for bed).

As he rolled dice behind a screen, I could watch the sequence of expressions cross his face, from oh damn I've hit again ... to I better tell them that it doesn't ... to smile or they'll think something's wrong before saying, "Miss." I wish I could say I was the only one at the table who saw it, but when the players discussed the game at the bar afterwards, sans DM, the fact of it was discussed.

The great observation made by the cleric was, "Well, we knew it was stupid and obviously he was lying, but hey, we're players, right?"

Yes, that's right. That's exactly what I expect players to do.

Nothing has changed. DM's still sadly concoct irrationally tough encounters and then guiltily adjust their die rolls behind screens. The Earth still orbits the Sun.

There was a table of people playing 'D&D Next,' but I didn't get the opportunity to observe. I'm not sure I'm inclined anyway. After a long time of staying away from DM's without gamespaces, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, in a venue without any amenity that dispenses food or drink, I'm quite content to make it another long departure.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

One Mean Look

A good fellow, whom I shall leave nameless, unless he wishes to announce himself, tells me that part of my DM's character is that I do not "take a stance against the players."

That's gratifying, but it makes me wonder. I suppose, in my recollection, that DMs often do - if by 'stance' we mean the adoption of a confrontational position that dares a player to step across an imaginary line, with the implied, "Do it and you'll see what happens to you!" sort of threat.

Last night I was writing of my belief that when a player has made trouble for themselves, and gotten themselves into a mess out of which they may not get, that my right action is to be sympathetic. Perhaps the player showed poor judgement. Perhaps the player has a habit of doing repeatedly stupid things in a campaign, out of sense of enthusiasm, a failure to make connections, or just because that seemed like the best tactical action possible. Whatever might be the reason, however, I don't think I should, well, jump on the player.

I have, though. I certainly have, and once lately in the online campaign, I won't say I'm innocent there. I was wrong, but I wasn't innocent. A player's choice took me by surprise and I overreacted. But I did tell the player that it was my responsibility to deal with my own behaviour, and I feel certain he and I share no hard feelings.

But I know there are those who feel it is their given right as a DM to make judgements on bad player decisions; who ride players; who make players feel punished for every action and who overall discourage players from even playing the game. I don't think they MEAN to discourage players; I think on the whole they think they're doing right, implementing negative reinforcement for negative decision-making, tit for tat.

It's not right. It's really not a DM's mandate to pass reviews on player behavior, any more than it's my responsibility to decide if my clients live up to a moral standard I've set. I only want their money, and I should only want their money. My judgement of their behavior extends as far as their manners and no farther. I deserve, I feel, to be spoken to politely. I want that as a DM, too. And I demand that players speak politely to each other.

Intimidating players with my expectations, however, is right out. I may intimidate them with a glowing giant of a skeleton undead lord; I may intimidate them with a growing sense that something is terribly wrong in the peaceful town of Dodge; but I draw the line at saying, "You're a bad player, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

I have seen DMs do that. Not in those words. Often, not in any words. It is quite possible to convey that whole message with one fixed look.

A look that can easily be delivered without the DM being conscious of it. Human beings are sometimes like that.

It is still wrong.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pay For It Later

The reception for the Advanced Guide seems very positive; I'm happy to hear interest in pre-ordering, which I take as a sign of exhuberance. However, I had no expection of taking pre-orders for the book, just as I had no inclination to write the book as part of a 'kick-starter' campaign.

I don't really understand kick-starters. I get about a dozen fairly serious-looking kickstarter invitations a week and quite a few more that look like a total joke. I can't see supporting any of them. Very nice and all ... and I've had people urge me to try it. Not really my thing though.

I figure, I don't ask for money up front, I can work on the project as long as it needs working. Writing doesn't take money. It can be done for free. All the things that take money - space, food, a computer, etc. - those things are paid for. I wouldn't get enough up front in pre-sales or a kickstarter to make it possible for me to quit my job and write full-time. So I'd only be trading in my free-time schedule for the risk of annoying people who had given me money without receiving a product. Doesn't seem like a fair trade.

Understand, I could take your money up front and make my life a bit interesting, buy some toys, buy some beer, what have you ... but that extra money wouldn't actually make my book go faster, or make it better, or ensure its existence in any way. The reader would just be out the money for four or five months, with nothing to show for it.

There are probably people who need to receive money for a project to feel encouraged to finish that project. They probably need your money now. But I really don't. I'll finish the book anyway.

I'll make a deal with you. Keep your money, buy some toys and beer with it, enjoy it NOW. Later, I promise, I'll have the book ready and finished, and you can pay for it THEN. What do you think?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Coming Back to Write

Ozzie's comment yesterday about the possibility that I wouldn't be coming back was a fair one, from his perspective or indeed anyone who doesn't personally know me. Given the circumstances going on around me when I left, the chatter, the apparent exhaustion I probably had conveyed and the fact that I was sick a lot in October, that's a fair conclusion. When mixed in with this being the internet, and the habit people have of saying, "I'm just going to take a time out" and then NEVER coming back ... I have to admit I'd conclude that I had finally bowed out.

I was exhausted; I think everyone gets there sooner or later. I wasn't exhausted with writing, though ... and as I've said, writing is a slow sinking in the cool water of a country stream on a hot day; its shucking off all the gear and accouterments and posturing to false gods, feeling restful and content, knowing my place the world. I've said this before, too: there are bloggers here who happen to enjoy role playing who are prepared to write about it. I am a writer who would write anyway ... this just happens to be the content I enjoy writing about. As long as I have a brain and a means to interface with a computer or some other recording means, I will never stop writing.

So when I say I'm resting, I actually mean that. I'm resting. I'll get around to not resting soon enough, and start posting again.

I don't know if the month was all that enlightening from the internet/blogging perspective. I did miss the feedback; I did miss scratching out every thought that hit me on a particular day. I sort of lost the motivation after the first week ... there were a lot of ideas that hit me in the beginning, particularly with the book and just generally feeling on fire. Those around me reported my curious, alive nature, since for about two weeks I could not STOP talking about everything. It was very cool. About the 17th I hit a bit of a wall, however, in formulating the chapter - the first chapter - about the art of presentation and convictions regarding how players should be motivated and allowed to adapt to the changing circumstance of the game. I had trouble organizing my thoughts, and wound up rewriting the chapter four times in an effort to finally nail down both the voice and the organization of my ideas. The rest of the book, then, sort of limped home after the twenty fifth ... I wouldn't call it "done" so much as "written" ... but I have plenty of time to polish all that. I admit, as I found myself writing tens of thousands of words up to the 17th, the November novel writing month ideal did prey on me ... and I did decide I would "finish" the book before the end of the month. Which I did.

Like most NNWM books, however, it is laughable to call it 'finished' ... it is finished like a house-shell with a room that yet needs the wiring, the plumbing and a whole lot of other interior work done.

I can, however, list the chapter headings, to give an idea of the book's concept. Since I keep coming up with ways to embellish the content within these headings, these chapters will need sub-chapters; the first chapter, at present (I'm calling it second draft), is 11,000 words, or 44 pages ... and it's definitely going to be longer when I hack through it again.

I do think this is a comprehensive list, however. I doubt very much I will feel the need to create a new chapter past these:


The Art of Presentation - recognizing player motivations, the nature of players, the needs of players, providing opportunity and encouraging ability, motivating your players and twisting the theatricality of the game.

Managing Yourself as DM - awareness, stress, the decision-making process, perception, comprehension and projection, mental simulations, distractions, checking yourself and organizing, training your mental strengths.

Managing Players - player comprehension, dissection of the character, understanding player decision making, party stress and response, player triggers, intra-party disputes, 'bad' players vs. 'good' players, improving player comprehension and enjoyment.

The Creative Process - determining the system and nature of your world, free associating ideas, DM and player objectives, settling on a satisfactory campaign idea.

The Design Process - function vs. behavior vs. structure, initiating a setting, play-testing the setting, player response and user tolerance, redesign, setting inventory; blocking, chapter organization and compartmental setting design

An Example of Setting - step by step implementation of the described design formula.

Aesthetics - finishing and polishing your presentation, attention to detail.

D&D and the Real World - a frank discussion of the usefulness of role-play generated skills and their practical application to vocations and careers in the real world.


That's a lot. Some of the above is written, at present, only as a series of gun shot notes, quickly overviewing what needs to be written ... and in fact there's nothing of the Example of Setting written at all (but it is only plugging the formula of the design process into a working example). But I don't think any of the readers here will doubt that I can tackle the subjects one by one and give a good account of them; the hard part was knowing WHAT to write and HOW to write it ... and I think I have that down.

I'm sorry to say, this is going to be obsessive for awhile, and I'll be writing often about the book and how its going. Hope the reader doesn't get bored.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The First Day of December ... and News

This is the first post or comment on this or any other place on the internet that I've written in a month and a day. I wanted to examine what that would be like. I wanted to remember what it used to be when I was younger, remembering that I am a person who worked in the private sector, raised a child, completed university and launched myself into theatre and publishing all in an age when there was no internet.

I think I am content that interaction on the net, is a positive, useful component of my life. I don't feel there would be anything to be gained by ever taking a break like this again.

As to what I've been doing all this time ... well.

When I wrote the last post, the Last Day of October, all that I said I meant. I expected a week of directionless inaction, scratching out an idea or two, followed by a fruitful, meaningful breakdown of either the combat rules for my game system or perhaps tackling the ever-present rewrite of the characters that never seems to have an end. I had in mind a book I wanted to write a few chapters for, an idea I had a few years ago that had never quite reached fruition.

And then, November 1st at Nine in the morning, things changed. A car accident couldn't have been more efficacious.

I was wandering around on youtube, looking for something to listen to during my workday. Occasionally I like to dig up an old documentary, or run a series of lectures if the sound quality is good and the professor chats a good line (tons of this stuff if you go looking for it) ... or I'll find an audiobook. This particular November 1st I found ... well, I don't really care to say. But as it happens, my head exploded.

Not all at once. As the speaker initiated the discussion and carried it forward, my interest was peaked. I ceased working and drew up a word doc and began writing notes. For the rest of the day, I found it difficult to concentrate on my job, which I interrupted - as I listened - to jot down a relationship or sketch and idea. Before the day ended, I had more than 5,000 words of notes; more than 20 pages.

I had realized at last how to write this book.

To explain it in terms that helps identify my frame of mind right now, November was shot all to hell.

I am happy to say that I have written the first draft of my Advanced Guide on Managing Role-playing Games ... although, to tell the truth, it is still dribbling out of me.  I think there's a chapter yet that I'd like to insert into the content, and to be honest I haven't written any sort of conclusion.  I have written 53,000 words of content, description, notes, format and expandable material that will serve as the more voluminous second draft, which I have already started upon this morning - by reworking the Preface, that I intend to share this morning.

This isn't a book like this is a blog.  Perhaps the separation of book from blog helped.  However,  since that separation came as a bolt from the blue in less than 24 hours after ceasing to blog, I doubt it.  I think I just needed a bit of serendipity.  It was always there; I just needed to be there too.

The Preface should give some idea of what I mean by a very different sort of writing than blog writing.  In many ways, I've 'taken the advice' of a lot of people who have railed at me over the years, who have failed to grasp that I write the way I do on this blog as a matter of choice and purpose, and not because I don't know how to write - or present ideas - otherwise.  I think, in the long run, the shift between this book and this post will surprise.

Anyway, here is the Preface:

Dungeons and Dragons is an unfortunately named game created by various persons in the 1970s, who failed to realize that the game would evolve so that neither dungeons nor dragons would matter in game play.  The game was intended to incorporate a ‘fantasy medieval setting,’ similar to that of traditional European fairy tales, but in fact the game setting is unrestricted with regards to what time, place or social condition it wishes to reflect.  D&D is described as a ‘role-playing game’—which meant that a player took action through a ‘character,’ limited by the statistics of that character.  However, players are in no way actually required to assume a ‘role’ in order to play.

        It is an odd game.

        I did not write this book in order to address any of these contradictions.  Every activity develops its host of idiosyncrasies, which the participants eventually adopt as normal.  There’s little merit in dissecting them.  Honestly, they add flavour.  Rather than argue the vocabulary, then, I intend to embrace it, however incomprehensible this may make the book to those who have little or no experience with D&D, or any role-playing game.

        This book is not written for the uninitiated, curious bystander.  There are more than enough books and materials on the market to introduce people to role-playing … but there are none I have encountered that presume the reader already knows about dice, characters, spells, monsters and so on.  This book does.  The gentle reader, then, shouldn’t expect to find an explanation of what an ‘adventure' is’ or what is meant by  ‘running the game.’  There’s no glossary of terms to be found at the back of the book.  No time is taken to explain the origins of game rules or how they came to be.  This book should be taken as an advanced guide for those who have run the game, or have had the game run for them, and know the difference.

        I’m afraid that this book may disappoint some.  I have written what follows expressly for the DM, and not the players.  A player will no doubt gain something from the reading, but there’s no content included that will tell a player how to be a better role-player, or succeed in a campaign.  Those things are left to another book.

        It is well understood that role-playing games are difficult, tricky things to manage.  That explains why there are so few game-masters … and fewer still who run the game well.  Most DMs are wallowing; they understand the rules of the game; they understand practicably what they’re supposed to present; but they haven’t the skills or the experience to do the job well.  They have a surfeit of materials on the market to help them with the game’s mechanics—but little that explains the game’s presentation, or how the setting is made.  Every game master is given nothing more than the observation of their peers and a few scant paragraphs here and there among scattered rule books.  It is hoped that trial and error will win out.

        I expect to offer something better.

        This is not a rulebook.  This book does not contain rules.  It does not discuss systems for combat, or for spell use, nor does it offer any templates for characters or skill sets.  This book has not been written to offer any arguments about the amount of authority or control a DM has in a game, or how much agency a player has; there is no diatribe contained herein about the evils of railroading.  The contents of this book are not bound by whatever edition or game system the reader happens to play, or Old School vs. New School.  The mish-mash of house rules you may possess, or your strict adherence to the rules of the game you play, is not addressed.  Indeed, it should be found that all the methodologies described herein will apply reasonably well to any sort of role-playing … from fantasy and steam punk to space, from vampires and old evils to superheroes, from roll-playing to diceless games.  That is because this book means to explain how the game is presented and managed, and how the setting is made … regardless of what sort of game or setting.

        The improvement of the game is not in the game; it is in the mastery of it.

        Make no mistake.  The position of this book believes is that to master the game, you must work.  You will be asked to strain your imagination; you will be directed to write and advance ideas to your players, and to defend those ideas.  You will be shown the bare bones of how to structurally design a unique and meaningful setting for your world … not with a set of checklists for what a world ought to contain, but with a comprehensive discussion of what purpose a setting serves, and how it works as a tool in your campaign.

        This book asks the reader to reconsider what ‘running’ is.  It challenges preconceptions about what makes a player act as they do, and what players want.  It offers insight into your own motivations, your weaknesses and your frustrations as a DM … and offers strategies that will enable you to compensate.

        Most of all, you are invited to change your mind.  For an idea to grow, the hard, packed earth must be furrowed.  The soil must be shaped to allow the seeds a place, and there needs be time and care for them to germinate.  It will be easy to dismiss much of what is written in these pages.  Many of the items will seem frivolous, unnecessary or enigmatic … but rest assured, an adoption of the policies and ideas contained herein will make the reader a better DM.  The mere consideration of those elements will do as much.

        I do not wish only to inform; I wish to enable.  I wish to end the irritation DMs have with the rules and the players.  I wish to provide a means by which this game can be run effectively and enjoyably.  I hope this book provides the reader with a deep and profound understanding - and that once you’ve obtained this, that others will view you as a significant representative of your craft.

 -          Alexis Smolensk, DM

That, I trust, will encourage the reader's mouth to water.

I don't know how much else I can add for the moment.  I am a bit shell-shocked; I had to end a game session early last night because, well, I was frankly burnt out.  There may be a lot of that, at least until the actual content is fixed and the writing left to do is merely reworking the language (something I don't do for this blog ... because, well, it's a blog).  Until then, I have a tiger by the tail ... and I'll be talking about book a lot.  The reader may be comforted by the knowledge that I won't be slipping away again.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Last Day in October

That's pretty much it for me. I'll be around today to answer questions, then I'm signing off until December.

Through November, I will still moderate comments for the blog for anyone wishing to add anything. I won't answer any questions ... at least, not until December. But the gentle reader should feel free to bring up anything of interest.

I'll be doing some writing; working on my world; pursuing some other interests. I am not going to be participating in the November Novel Writing Month - any book of mine would need more than 50,000 words, and I don't intend to rush anything. I know some people thought this was my intent.

Be well. Work hard. Press the game forward.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Pretense of Simplicity

Criticism is not persecution.

The western culture has a tendency to treat everything that disagrees with individual taste as a 'persecution' of that taste - as if an argument, "X is bad" is obviously equal to "Everyone who does X is a reprehensible criminal who should be shot and killed at sunrise." This is a very Western attitude. It spawns from the cultural bias of several cultures that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries who were being persecuted, who then took every resistance to their extreme. It has also proven to be a great way to spin media, as people in this culture are more afraid of words than ideas ... and a word like 'persecuted' is a beauty. It conjures such lovely, abusive images, such templates of vile hatred and irrational, cold destruction, that it serves to sober an otherwise narcoleptic reader, causing them to sit up and take notice.

But persecution is not criticism.

Persecution is a systematic mistreatment of a specific individual or group, based upon the infliction of suffering, harassment, isolation and imprisonment. It is the spreading of fear for the purpose of imposing one's own will upon all those who listen. Persecution is produced by fear mixed with a desire for power.

Criticism is a corrective exercise. It is an effort not merely to find fault, but to suggest room for improvement, with the expectation that persons will accept and understand that growth and re-invention are key.

Often, criticism will seem abusive. Yesterday, on this blog, I wrote a post that was as creatively vindictive as I could manage. I wrote that playing the Red Box set was equivalent to playing a children's game. I presented that point with derision and mocking. I did so in order to juxtapose my perception of the Red Box set with the praise for same, in order to instigate a dialogue. I have no intention to systematically abuse those who play the Red Box set, nor to inflict further harassment, nor to spread any fear about playing with that system.

I do wish to wake people up as to what's possible. I do wish to compel the gentle readers of this blog to recognize that the adoption of a simplistic version of D&D will do nothing to advance your value nor your potential as a DM. This blog exists in order to spread knowledge, ideas and a philosophy of D&D. The Red Box set is anathema to that philosophy.

I read quite often that the more complicated versions of D&D - including 2.0, 3.0/3.5 and 4.0 - are difficult, confusing, labyrinthine and counteractive to ease of play. Yes, they are difficult. Yes, initially, they can be confusing. It is true that, to an uninitiated reader, or a reader who refuses to initiate themselves, the various books and rules can seem labyrinthine. But it is NOT true that these things undermine the ease or the practicality of playing the game. To demonstrate this, I will produce a metaphor.

Sie trinkt deinen Apfelsaft.

The above is German. And 46 days ago, I would have had no idea what the hell that meant. None at all. And yet, somehow, it is possible to learn the language. It is possible for anyone to learn it. Two things are necessary: the will and the means.

I have wanted to learn German for a long time, and recently someone produced the means. A means which happened to coincide with my will. And here is the result:

I am quite proud of this achievement.  The little flame symbol on the right with the 46 beside it represents the number of consecutive days that I have completed a lesson or practice sequence in the Duolingo system.  I discovered this system on my birthday, September 15th, and I have not missed a single day since. Today is the 46th day since my birthday, inclusive of my birthday.

I would not say I am finding German to be easy. I am crap at languages, I have always been crap at languages, and it has taken some will to dig in and adapt myself to the system. Duolingo teaches language the way it is taught to children. There are no lists of masculine, feminine or neuter nouns. There is no memorization or explanation of irregular verbs, or irregular pronouns. The language is learned by reading it and reproducing it, until one simply recognizes that it is "das Pferd" and not "die Pferd." For me personally, determiners in particular are frustrating as hell. But it doesn't matter. I'm not in a class, where a Prof is impatient with my progress. I'm not working with a program that insists I learn at a pre-arranged speed. I have all the time I like to practice whatever aspect of the language that I like, for as long as I like, and I comfort myself with the knowledge that German children have years and years to learn the language. There's no reason I should expect to produce miracles of knowledge in six weeks.

And still, I know a surprising amount of German now.

Is German difficult? Fucking A. It is confusing and labyrinthine? For me, so far, it sure gawddamn is. Is German ultimately counteractive to ease of communication?

Well obviously not. Germans have no more trouble communicating with one another than the reader does in this language.

COMPLEXITY does not equal impracticality.

In fact, I'd like to argue that in far more ways than I need to describe, complexity improves practicality.

This system that I am using right now, this collection of language, requires a considerable comprehension of words and ideas in order for it to work effectively ... and it took both the writer and the reader a couple of lifetimes to get to the point where what I say strikes home in a particular way. Striking home is the important element here. In order to do it, the requirement is that we BOTH understand what the rules are. We must both understand the meaning of every ... single ... word ... and we must both understand them in the exact ... same ... way. Otherwise it is impossible to get the sense of what I'm saying.

It's not enough that the words that have been created cover just the simple basics of life. The 172 words in German that I've learned thus far won't do! 10,000 words won't do. They won't let me understand Goethe and Nietsche, they won't let me discuss medicine, politics and history - hell, they wouldn't be enough to allow me to discuss the manufacture of coffee. To precisely explain anything, I need all the words I can manage ... and my comprehension and value in the world depends both upon my ability to use those words and my ability to understand someone else using them.

DMs like the Red Box set because it is easy to run ... but it fails in so many regards. It has no rules for any of the things a party might want to do OUTSIDE the precepts of the simplistic game. If I want to establish a fortification, tax peasants, find some bitches, have one of them give birth, raise a child, determine its stats at age 9, train that child, create a treaty with another state by which my child and the stateman's child marry, expand trade, expand the intellectual comprehension of my citizens, plant crops, shear sheep, suffer the weather, sail a boat, drive a dog team, improve my nutrition, avoid disease, etc., etc., THERE ARE NO RULES.

This means that, over and over, any time I get 'weird' in the game, I must return again and again to the defacto judgement of one person, the DM, who has already made it clear that he or she would rather run a simple game by using simple rules. How can I expect to have an impartial decision made by such a person, about something that person hasn't bothered to consider might be important?

I can't. The decision won't be impartial. It will be guided by an individual who has selfishly chosen his or her system for no other reason than that it is simple, and therefore not a lot of work. Using the argument that their "choice" is as reasonable as any other choice. Further supported by the fiction that "difficulty destroys play."

It's all bunk. It's laziness dressed up as libertarian self-righteousness. It's the sign of a BAD world, run by people for whom BAD is the standard, who expect you, the player, to conform to that standard because it conveniences them.

Dump it. Get into a better world. Run a better world. And let's stop pretending that this Pretense of Simplicity is anything more than pretense.