Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Yesterday my partner Tamara commented after reading the sandbox post, "What you're really trying to say is that D&D can be whatever anyone wants, no matter who they are.  It can allow anyone to do anything."  When I agreed, she added, "They don't get that, do they?"

No, I think for the most part, they don't.

If the sandbox thing gets under my skin as a sort of diminuative description of a game that is far more complicated and varied than that sandbox, then something that really digs into my spine is this eternal declaration, "It's only a game!"

Which would mean, I presume, that it's not important.  Or perhaps that it isn't complicated.  Or maybe that I shouldn't put any thought into it.

All three of those possible meanings piss me off.

Right off the top, surely we can at least agree the game is complicated.  Even the original crappy
Simple Simon stuff
rulebook, the White Box, is five or six times as much text as it took to describe RISK.  And the three original volumes of AD&D contained more text than the gawddamned LSAT.  Since there have been hundreds of books, and hundreds of different associated roleplaying games, all of which have contributed in some small part to the fundamentals of the way the game is both played and conceived.  I think it has to be acknowledged that being fully aware of all the rules of this game is not exactly something someone does rolling out of bed.

Not important?  Let's see, there are an estimated 20 million people who have played the game, according to Darren Waters of BBC News; more than a billion dollars has been spent on the game.  It has spawned movies, a huge publishing industry, and influenced the creative minds of vast numbers who have gone on to inculcate the ideas spawned in the game into countless video games.  Even where people do not play D&D, the effect of the game's popularity has been enormous.
Evidence of something that
lacks importance

Or is it that I'm just thinking too much.  D&D is a children's game (I don't see any children in the crowd there, but they do tend to shortness) and therefore it's wasted effort to apply adult thinking to something that's just supposed to be 'fun.'

Really.  Like the lack of thinking that goes into, I don't know, chess maybe?  Where uncounted millions of dollars have been invested in simply producing a better automated chess opponent?  Or perhaps we're talking about the total lack of thought that has been applied to other "children's games" like baseball, monopoly, the aforementioned RISK and the recent Settlers of Catan.  I'm sure there aren't groups of people sitting around bitching on the Catan boards about people inventing new strategies and posting them.  Is that because Catan is so much more complicated than D&D?

Just look at the rule book on this sucker

Maybe its none of those things.  Maybe saying "It's just a game" means something else.  Maybe what it really means is, "I'm such a fucking dumbass, that's the first thing I say when I feel stupid.  Which is most of the fucking time."

Generally, the phrase, "It's only a game," seems aimed at avoiding the ideal named by Tamara at the outset - that perhaps not everyone should do what they can do, or that they shouldn't try to make the game "more than it is."  That seems to be about as dumb as the first declaration.  What the fuck is the game that it can't be more than that?  Who decides what the game is?  Gygax or Arneson?   Lorraine fucking Williams?  You?  Me?

You know, really ... seriously ... fuck that.  This game - any roleplaying game - can be all that it wants to be, because there are no limits on imagination.  There are no limits on what freedoms or opportunities players can seize while applying their imaginations to a setting that is without question limitless.  Trying to impose limits, either through stupidity, or the ridiculousness of philosophical certainty - or cynicism, if that's what it is - is a pointless, wasted effort.  Yet it is an effort practiced by so many people - for the love of kobalds in green trunks, SO MANY PEOPLE - that one must begin to wonder what the motivation is for attempting to kill everyone else's motivation?

Yagami, who posts here, likes to argue that people who hate work hate workers.  And I've argued that people who hate thinking hate thinkers.  Perhaps its really that those who are hopelessly, bitterly, resentfully unimaginitive hate imagination, in anyone ... and are passionately driven to destroy the smallest little growth of it whenever that imagination dares to raise its little head.

It's frightening to think what sort of parents these people would make.  It is sad to think what sort of parents these people have had.  The course of the world goes on its way, and we have to expect that even the most dispossessed, chronically dishwater-minded obstinate stale hacks are going to float into Dungeons and Dragons like so much sewage dumped from every other useful occupation, where they can pollute our gaming space on the way to the next misery they can impart to whatever group they next happen to latch onto.  The wasted and used-up must so often grow weary and tired of the vapid perspective they attach to everything they see that they must systematically work their way through dozens of hobbies - and hobby communities - in their lifetime.  They enter, grow weary within minutes of lackluster examination of the local passion, deride that passion mercilessly for their own benefit, then crawl away after their fruitless familiar tune becomes a bit too familiar ... so that they can go through that process once again to the next hapless crowd.

Which is why it is SO important to divide between those who clearly produce nothing but fetid air, and those who are diligently working and striving to create something.  The various creators need not agree, but at least they are all creating, the very thing that makes life matter.  These other voices, who create nothing, who advance nothing new and who risk nothing, only exist to strangle to death things that might grow.  These other voices are weeds.

Let's not confuse them with vitality.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lego D&D

It happens that I wrote 4,000 words on my newest book on the weekend, all of it on the preparation done by gamers ... so if I tend to wax excessively on the present topic, please understand that I'm training myself not to sweep over subjects, but to get down to the nub of them. I have been thinking that the 'sandbox' is actually a fairly poor metaphor for freestyle roleplaying. Obviously it's very popular, and more or less understood by a wide audience, but as I contemplate what the sandbox is, and my memories of sandboxes, I'm finding on the whole that the equivalency is more than disappointing.

There were plenty of sandboxes around when I was growing up. The Holts next door had one and the Lukas's on the other side of us had one. The Nikoforuks down the street had one as well. I played in them all, and I can remember each of them; one had a child's seat that went all around, one had boards that were breaking loose, and one was strong will high walls. Since I grew up in an era were parks had sandboxes, and where elementary schools often had them - and even outdoor drive-in restaurants would feature them somewhere on the lot - I played in a lot of different sandboxes growing up. Seems to me, though, that there were a lot of limitations.

Sandboxes are great for digging holes, or making roads for cars, or using plastic molds to make shapes ... but on the whole they are pretty limited. Being in a dry climate, most of the sandboxes would dry up in the summer months, so that you had to add water - and when you have kids adding water to a sandbox, the goal always seems to be to make mud, to add too much water and make a mess of it.

The sand, too, never seemed to be good for much. Any master of sand sculpture will tell you that no two sands are alike, and so they travel to those perfect sand beaches in the world where you can make sculptures that are twenty feet high. The sandbox of your average child just doesn't contain that kind of sand. And none of us were master sculptors, anyway. My favorite 'sandbox' was a beach - Sylvan Lake Beach, where there was tons of nice, sticky sand all along the waterline. We did not just make sandcastles, we burrowed canals through the sand which filled with water, we piled up mountains as high as our chests and it was all made more interesting by the fact that there were hundreds of kids along the mile-long beach all doing the same thing. I made many friends for just one day with enthusiastic fellow sand engineers.

No matter how nice the sand is, though, no matter how enthusiastic you are, or imaginative you are, sand is transitory.  It doesn't last.  And that is why sandboxes ceased to be anything we were interested in after the third grade (though I did play in the sand at the beach, making larger and larger things, until I was doing it with my daughter in my 30s).

I don't like that my D&D is being compared to something the next storm rises up and washes away.  Or something that crumbles to dust after two weeks of a dry July.  I suppose my world is transitory on some level, but since I've been running the same world now since 1982, I think its a hell of a lot less transitory than than a sandbox.  I think it demeans the game to compare it with something that, fundamentally, lost our interest by the age of ten, was limited in scope and ultimately doesn't describe something more permanent.

It's fruitless to imagine that I could change the metaphor, now that its buried in the consciousness of so many people ... but I'd like to advance one of my own.  There was a sphere of play - included in the title of this post - which really does come much, much closer to D&D as a constructivist, imaginary, all consuming pursuit ... and one which in fact has resulted in a huge permanent location where millions of people go to play.  I'm talking about Lego.

For my money, Lego is a far better representative format than the sandbox.  To begin with, it is far more accessible to people with little or no skill.  It is far more adaptable, imaginatively flexible and profound than what sand can provide.  You can do anything with it.  It can stand for anything.  It never gets boring.  I could play with Lego now.  And it is as permanent as I want to be.

I have no fear of sounding like a Lego commercial.  Never in history has there ever been a product where one can more honestly say you'd have to be a fucking moron to hate Lego.  Perhaps that hatred might be an early way to identify serial killers in society, or other people who should be put to death quickly.

We used to play Lego in a friend's basement.  His parents were - shall we say - excessive in their willingness to purchase blocks and everything else.  Except where Legoland is concerned, I have never seen so much Lego, not before or since.  What a heavenly place that was, the entire basement, wall to wall, ping pong table and floor, covered in Lego.

If we must talk about a game where the imagination is free, where what's required is the ability for the players to construct and develop the process of gaming as much as the DM, then surely we want to invest those players in a tool more comprehensive, no?  And what is more comprehensive than Lego?

Well, the computer I suppose.  This is fairly comprehensive - and I do believe that we won't truly free ourselves from tiny-thinking D&D until we ditch the paper and the pencil and embrace the computer like every other element of the world has.  It's here, people.  Get used to it.

Is the computer really the best metaphor, though?  Perhaps ... and feel free to quibble if you must ... perhaps the best metaphor is life itself.  The process of life.  The complete and utter freedom to stand up, declare you're for or against something, and then pursue that decision to the best of your ability.  That is really all we're trying to offer players who are not on rails.  The freedom to live a life.  To 'lego' the restrictions on what people can do.

But I suppose I made that point last week, didn't I?  Meh, so what.  It's a point that needs to be made often.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Trade Video, Part 1

If the last one was death for some people, this will be ten times worse.  This video was made for an exclusive, small but very loyal readership of this blog, who are interested in this sort of thing.

I'm choked that I've made at least one error while describing the process, simply because it is complicated, and requires focus to manage all the details.  I screwed up on one point, 9:33 in, where I forget to adjust the positive/negative.  Ah well.  It's not like I rehearsed.

This, at least, should show to what extent I'm willing to go for this business.


Well, you could do it with pencil and paper ... but, it's going to take longer than you have to live.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Good Old Days

Having resolved to write a book about dungeon mastering, I have been contemplating for some months now about the legitimacy of becoming, and remaining, a dungeon master.  Rather that discussing here how one does it, or for what motivations, I'd like to discuss the core idea of who is entitled, and who is not, to run a gaming group.

I would expect the gentle reader to bristle at the word 'entitled' ... the reply I would expect, voiced loudly, is "ANYONE!"   But then, that assumes anyone with friends willing to participate, or the 'opportunity' to play.  If, by chance, there are no players, there is no gaming group.

By default, and largely because of the need to sell product, I believe the gaming community has presumed that the final arbiter on what makes a game - and who defines D&D - must be, without question, the dungeon master.  Gygax and crowd were dungeon masters.  Dungeon masters create adventures.  They know what will happen, what is happening, what ought to happen during the game.  They do all the work ... and to those who do the work goes the respect, indeed, the humble gratitude of mere players who need only sit down and play.  If there are no dungeon masters, there are no games - and the various foundations of commercial product know very well who it is that buys their shit.  Players buy dice, they may buy a book or two ... but it is the DM, or the would-be DM, who enters and drops $500 in an afternoon.

And so the community has operated on this loose ideal that IF you're prepared to draw the dungeon map, and IF you're prepared to spend the money, and IF you have the space and IF you're willing to present a world in that space, THEN you are one of the elite, the dungeon master, the most important person at the table.

I can feel the bristling again, as I've very carefully written that so that it rubs in just the wrong way.  Still, whatever your egalitarian indignation, it is impossible to present a world as a DM and not feel the gentle waft of adulation that arises from your long-time, appreciative players.  Nor is it difficult to recognize the stiff, okay-motherfucker-prove-you've-got-what-it-takes from the occasional new, experienced player that steps up to try your world.  The latter comes from having a lot of DMs preen and strut their shit like it doesn't stink, where you recognize that a DM having a few sycophantic admirers doesn't prove a quality game.

Have enough people suck up to your grandiosity and that shit will go right to your head ... and I have sat in on more than a few games where the DM was one amazingly pompous bastard, nevertheless with players whose mouths were surgically attached to that DM's anus (this is physically impressive where the number of players rises to more than three).  The circumstance has made me - I must admit - physically ill.  Nevertheless, we've all seen it ... except, I suppose, for that substantial portion of the community that is actively living it.  I don't imagine they're the least bit aware.

All I'm saying is that, while the community pretends that its one big happy family, that every DM is of course a dreamboat and that no one could ever possibly be exploiting this power position for their personal emotional sense of superiority, the fact remains that there are many, many DMs who ARE.  Exploiting their players, that is.  Mercilessly.

We are meant to ignore this.  The commercial elements aren't interested in discussing it, the convention atmosphere isn't interested in curtailing it (as is obvious to anyone with a brain who's been to a convention) and we are absolutely NOT to discuss it in any public forum, ever.  We are to pretend that ALL players are exactly equal, that none have been duped into playing with DMs who actually know jack about fresh, exciting or imaginative ways of presenting the game, and that everyone who has reliable, loyal players has clearly earned them through being such a remarkable, spectacular DM.

Please, please, please pay no attention to anything we have come to know about psychology in the last century, behind that curtain there.  Pay no attention to the fundamentals of dependency, or the social need for approval, or what we've learned about bullying or how group dynamics have been proven to favor the loudest, most aggressive person in the room.  None of that is relevant to gaming, none of it has anything to do with a DM railroading his or her players, or those players piping up to say they "like railroading," or anything else about how the game MUST have a story or how players MUST be controlled to keep the game from descending into chaos and ceasing to be "fun."  None of the people who play in a roleplaying game are subject to the forces, the pushes and pulls, of biochemical response, nor mental abuse, nor emotional manipulation ... because once a person begins to play a character, they are magically exempt from all the influences of every day social interaction.

Because, as we all know, the only way to do anything, ever, is the OLD way, because it is the only way.  And we know that because all the people who have spent all their lives investing in that way just happen to know more than we do.  It isn't because they're old and lazy and can't be bothered to change anything about themselves.  It isn't because they're just barely bright enough to do what they've been doing for thirty years, and that a new way of playing a game is a blatant threat to their security or their stuffy pomposity.

Yes, that's right, the reason "we" don't want things to change is because they SHOULDN'T, ever, at least not as long as I, a DM for 30 years, am alive.  And I don't say that because I have my head up my own ass and it's warm and comfortable in here.  I say that because, well, I'm just older than you are.  And you should respect your elders and stop trying to change things.  Because I said so.

So let's have that straight.  Everyone who wants to treat players like shit has a right to, and if the players had any problem with that, they'd say something, because there are no psychological forces that exist to make people accept a situation they think can't be changed.  The game is about a story because that's the way it fucking IS, so fuck off.  And DMs ought never to create anything except for module-like adventures, because I don't and I've never had to, and my players LIKE it that way.

So there.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Libertarianism's Gold Standard

Found my name referenced on this page and so I read through it.  It proports to be a frank, querying discussion of experience points, but as usual, it winds up being a sort of hen session where DM's quibble about how much to give and in particular what player behavior should be rewarded.

I don't suppose most people see what the problem is there.

Apparently, one of the responsibilities a DM has is to make sure that the player ain't gettin' too much experience for doing whatever the player wants with his or her money.  I think most gentle readers are familiar with this idea - that experience points should be rewarded according to what the player spends their money on, and NOT upon the actual total of money gained.

When I first heard this - from James Raggi, I think - my first reaction was, "Gee, that sounds like a good idea."  If you look really, really hard through the first year of this blog, you'll find an example of me saying that.  (Tell me when you find it - I couldn't myself, but I know the sucker's there).

Then I had a fridge logic moment and never actually implemented the idea.  Why?  Because who gives a fuck how much experience the players get?

Here's a very simple matter, that won't take a lot of words ... but what's wrong with the players going up levels, exactly?  I mean, at whatever freaking rate you choose to give them coin for.  If you don't want them going up levels quickly, DON'T make up bullshit rules about what they can do with their money which gets your experience point sign off ... just give them less fucking coin.  How hard is that?  Or is it that you want them to be rich, you just don't want them to be powerful.  Or some other ad hoc ideal you have for what a player should or shouldn't be, according to the great Economic Policy Rules you've invented to stop what you think is your player's moral turpitude?

In case you're not clear on the concept, moral turpitude is "conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals."  And that seems to be all this "experience points for the RIGHT manner of spending" seems to be about.  FORCING behavioral standards upon players in order that they excel according to bullshit reasons pulled straight from the DM's ass.

Give them their goddamn gold when they kill the monster.  Then get out of their face, Mrs. Grundy.  Let them excel according to their standards, as far as they like.

You may be the DM, but their money is none of your fucking business.

(and this is as libertarian as you're ever likely to hear me get)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Let's Talk Business

Recently, after a long period of disinterest, I have four people, I think, querying me about subscribing to my D&D material, as first described here.

Yes, for a time, I did sell this material.  All told, I had 8 buyers.  Not a disaster, obviously - many would-be businesses make less money.  I withdrew the offer once I decided that the interest had been fulfilled.

I was a bit frustrated with it.  None of those who bought the subscription commented at all upon the material.  I still don't know to this day if any of it was useful for them, or what they did with it.  I did ask, without response.  One person did ask for more, about 10 months after first purchase ... but failed to do the one thing I asked, which was to promote what they'd learned (whereupon I'd update their material for free).  So the lack of apparent interest, too, encouraged me to withdraw the offer.  I did not wish to give out material which might be seen as unworthy.  No one actually replied, saying that the subscription wasn't worth the money; but I had no proof to the contrary, either.

The amount of money I was asking, $100, did draw some abuse from distinterested parties on line.  I myself find that curious.  That amount describes less than half a day's pay for me.  So, in effect, I am paid, for the space of a morning, to move numbers around and solve technical issues, the equivalent value of all the meaningful work I have done on D&D in the past 20 years.  I find this strange logic comparable with the occasional anger I encounter that I've dared to sell Pete's Garage for the sum of $20.  In this country at least, that's about two hours of labor a teenager might be paid for in exchange for the three years and approximately 750-900 hours I spent writing and rewriting the work.  An obviously unfair, unreasonable exchange, to be sure.

So, I was asking too much money for material which was likely to be too specific for my world, from people who had no interest in discussing the work with me, for income I didn't really need.  All in all, it just seemed problematic and therefore an idea that could be shelved.

I think, in the long run, I'm bound to contribute better to other people's worlds by concentrating on the wiki, future demonstrations on the blog and perhaps on youtube, and increased person-to-person dialogues on facebook (which have started, now that I have lowered myself to joining the rest of the human race).

BUT ... if you do want something of my making, some file or group of files that specifically interest you, we can negotiate those on the following basis:

1)  Talk to me.  I believe that I'm easy to find on Facebook, as there aren't many named Alexis Smolensk, and my email continues to be alexiss1@telus.net.  Befriend me, talk to me about gaming, get my opinions and give me yours, argue with me and show me you're serious, and I'll probably make all my stuff available for free.

2)  Buy my book and tell me about it.  That's bound to really get on my good side, and my book costs less than $100.  It wouldn't hurt if you read the book either, or told other people about the book, since it's a damn good book and you won't be disappointed (particularly if modern setting fantasy novels appeal to you).

3)  Donate to this blog.  Any amount.  The cost of a cup of coffee.  That's bound to get my attention.  I'm not adverse to tossing out files I've talked about on this blog for a few bucks, if I'm encouraged.  That's IF you don't want to talk to me and you just want me to stolidly come across with the material.  If you donate something that pleases your heart, then you can be rude as hell to me, just give me money.  (enough money)

That's how the actual real world works, you know.  You want stuff, you wave money at people and they give it to you.  Even when you're inconsiderate.

One of the ways the world does not work is for people - and I don't mean those who have graciously asked if they can still give me a hundred dollars and get my stuff - to bitch and moan at the price of something.   Boo fucking hoo.  I am an old, old liberal, and even I know that if you want to get served, you pay the price.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I'm smiling, because one of my online players, Maximillian, is worried about my level of ennui:

"I get the feeling, possibly without reason, that your ennui level as a DM has gotten a bit high, and it begs a question that I have been meaning to ask you for quite some time: Why do you DM? I know that you couldn't possibly not, but what is the kernel of enjoyment that excites you?"

No doubt, you write a post about ennui, someone is going to ask if you're feeling it.  Well, gentle reader, let me try to explain a little about my life these days.

Just recently, I've cracked this whole issue of hex generation in a way that, at least, defines how it can be done, in that its possible to break down an existing map of anywhere (say, Greyhawk, or even the Outdoor Survival board) in a completely random fashion and get good and interesting results.  I have a book on the market that is doing well, has FIVE STARS on the site where I published it and I'm hearing back from people every day that they love the thing.  I'd love to get more people writing stuff like this review here, but so far, a spectacular return, while sales are nicely in 3-figure country.  The video on the weekend was massively fun to make and I can hardly restrain myself from making others about my combat system and other mapmaking and how the trade  system works, etcetera.  I'm so damn busy with things to build and draw and make I can't even begin to start hammering them into the wiki I started a few months ago, because I'm too excited right now about what's NEW to wiki about what's old.  I have two offline campaigns that take up every week, full of excited, thrilled people who would rather have me pun for them rather than do anything else.  I'm trying to find the time to write another book that I laughably think will be ready in August (who the hell knows) that I laughably fantasize will redefine D&D in our time (what the hell, you've got to dream), and about three other books on the hopper I can't imagine getting to until this last one is done - including a sketchy idea of a sequel to Pete's Garage.  The blog numbers here are going right through the roof and every week I get someone writing a comment (sometimes on a post that's three or four years old) about how my blog has changed their complete conception of the game.  I even have my very own clique of hating motherfuckers who prove with every post that however unimportant I am, they can't stop talking about me.

How am I?  I'm grand, thank you very much.  How are you?

About the only thing I find frustrating, the only thing that contributes to my ennui, as it were, is that I have to sacrifice 47 hours a week in order to pay for it all.  What I really need is an internet crowdsourcing proposal that states, "I need $1,248,533 and 69 cents - exactly - to ensure I never need work at anything but my world and writing for the rest of my life ..."   I'll call it 'Project Alexis.'  Sounds as believable, realistic and productive as 95% of the ridiculous crowd-sourcing proposals that are all the rage now.

Let me see, what the hell is it that excites me?  Why do I do this?

"... How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty; in form and moving, how express and admirable; in action, how like an angel ... in apprehension, how like a god?"

I lack Hamlet's self-destructive, down-in-the-mind tendencies these days; Hamlet's just an infant, just eighteen, and like any 18-year-old confused and concerned with death and meaning and such an amount of crap that, come 30 years later, one ceases to worry over.  I began writing, I embraced D&D, and all that, because I loved more than any other single feature the possibility of moving my hand over my creation and casting into it LIFE.  I have had apprehensions, no different I think than any other DM, but as time has gone on and wisdom has been collected upon wisdom in my mind and in my heart, I have woken upon many mornings to invest my computer with the very breath of the thing I have sought to make live.  And there are those who come to this blog, who express their opinions, who have hated me for it, who have despised me for believing it, and who have anxiously asked how to have the same thing happen for them.

It it not merely that I could possibly 'not' play and design this game ... it is that playing and designing this game has been breath and blood for me.  It is atman.  It is the food upon which I dine, which excels and nourishes this brain that will never stop thinking nor shouting on what is possible, what must be tried and what can be achieved.

Ennui is when you feel you should be doing something other than what you are doing right now.  I'm not lost; I'm enraptured.  I am happy.


I have been giving a great deal of thought of late to the process of preparation for a game - not so much whether it is good or bad, though that's come up in the past and I'm on the record regarding putting the party on rails and so on.  My curiousity for the present extends to how it all started.

I think we have to blame the White Box set, which - perhaps unintentionally - set the standard for game play from the very beginning.  If the founders of D&D had been grounded in the social sciences, and moreso in the arts of presentation, such as drama or musical performance, I wonder if they would have included the semi-module Blackmoor.  I wonder if they wouldn't have taken the stance, from the very beginning, that the game was entirely about improvisation, and NOT preparation.

Blackmoor set in stone a lot of features which have haunted - and limited - the game since:  the dungeon 'room' ... the typical dungeon inhabitant ... and the process of hack, slash and haul away the loot.  Having been given the template in the rules themselves, most people immediately presumed the template was the whole game, and so they rushed to duplicate that template as quickly and rapidly as they could.

Yet at the same time that the game was being developed in the 1970s, there was a very popular theatre 'sport' called improv, which more or less worked according to particular rules.  Most everyone has seen Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but I'd like to emphasize that the format there was far more rigorous ... and invented for television access ... than what was done in dramatic classes.

Basically, two people are encouraged to begin speaking on a stage about any subject.  The challenge is to say things that cause the other person to break character ... whatever character they've created at that moment.  Other participants, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings, and any of them can shout freeze! at any moment ... whereupon the two participants freeze.  One is tapped out, and the new joiner takes the exact same position and then completely changes the scene.

For example - two people are having an argument, one pretending to be the father, the other the son, about staying out past curfew, and one of them gestures at the ground; someone shouts freeze! and jumps in, removes the one gesturing at the ground and immediately begins with, "I have never seen a girl puke this much."  And the other answers, on beat, "Do you think we should have mixed vodka with Pepto-Bismol?"

It's fast paced, the lines are sharp, witty, you have to dream them up quickly and there's a very strong element of keeping a straight face ... which I have long found is the most difficult thing for would-be roleplayers to manage.  You're trying to make the other participant break; and not breaking is considered a sign of good acting.

It may surprise some people to learn that not all improvisation in these sessions was funny, as it was presented on television.  In fact, every once in awhile, something serious and intense would be tried to see if you could get the other person to break character, and thus 'lose' ... while the audiences were treated to some spontaneous, compelling drama.  It was a much larger game than pure silliness, though I admit the best times I had were with actors who were most serious about their craft.  Less inclination to be insipid.

Now suppose that, instead of Blackmoor, it was possible to present D&D from that completely different perspective.  Suppose the emphasis had been made, from the beginning, for the DM to react to play rather than to control play.  Suppose that there never had been a dungeon template forced on the consciousness of people who had never seen a roleplaying game before.  Where would be the emphasis then?

I think probably, less rats-in-a-maze and more person-to-person confrontation out in the world, where it belongs.  I think there could have been a greater respect for dialogue risk taking than for structured, stale problem solving.  Probably - and I am sad to admit this - a far greater emphasis on player-vs-player ... perhaps even larger sessions with dozens, even scores of people organizing as teams to shout down, shoot down or emotionally/materially destroy the other side.  Not in the ridiculous larping sense, but as a theatre sport, with the DM as ejudicator.

I'm truly not saying the game should be that; I like the game as it is, for me.  But I do want to argue that most, if not all, the stern, business-like emphasis on nailing down on paper and in files the moment-by-moment process of playing a night's game is based upon the earliest tactics proposed in that one document Blackmoor, which was subsequently copied to death.  Still is being copied to death.

I'm an advocate of designing the world, the same way I love a good theatre, a flexible and elaborate staging area, a good view from the seats, ambience, acoustics and a cast willing to work hard.  But while a play does include hammering down every inflection and movement the actors present, I don't believe that D&D is a play.  I believe it is improv.  And where improv is concerned, no one has the right to predestine what's going to happen next.

Monday, April 22, 2013


A quick observation, or better a question.  There are those out there, never mind who exactly, that believe somehow that the argument, "You don't need to be a genius to play D&D," has merit.  I presume the people making the argument recognize they are not geniuses ... or perhaps they are simply standing up for people they consider to be stupider than they are.  Either way ... in case the gentle reader doesn't know ... the argument is advanced to explain to people like myself, redesigning D&D, that we should stop viewing the game as something complicated.  By 'complicated,' I'm guessing they mean doing work that is far too much trouble to duplicate.

For the record, I agree.  You don't have to be a genius to play D&D.  You don't have to be a genius to do a lot of things.

If, however, by chance, you happen to BE a genius ... or, perhaps, you happen to be intensively motivated ... then how does the ignorance-slash-incomprehensibility of other persons have any relevance whatsoever regarding what happens to be presented on blogs for the pleasure of the presenters?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mapping Garalzapan's Land

I've had several people lately ask me what program I use to make my maps, so I thought I'd address that further than saying that I use Publisher.  Also, I've felt that text and images hasn't gotten the idea of my recent hex generation system across, so I've decided to address that as well. 

I'm guessing people want to see something like this ... but I haven't high hopes that people will watch the whole thing.  If, however, you want to see me work, then, here you go:

It starts off a little blurry, but the video soon sharpens right up.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


In my youth I had been raised a Lutheran.  I remember having a conversation with a minister, where I brought up concerns I had about heaven.  Wouldn't I miss all the people that were left on earth, I wondered; and since I had been told that in heaven "all would be made clear," I asked, what if I wasn't happy with the truth?  The minister, as all good ministers will, also explained that in heaven, this perfect knowledge of everything would also make me feel good about the truth, whatever it was, and that I would not be sad for those I left behind, because I would 'understand' the reason.

Which would mean, I suggested, that I wouldn't be 'me' anymore.  I'd be so changed, that I'd lose everything that I believed now and that would be like being brainwashed, completely and utterly.  The minister, naturally, did not understand.  He perceived it as a 'healing.'  I was not comforted.  If being healed meant having my mind wiped and a new program installed, I'd rather be sick.

And I say this, writing now, sitting in a robe and suffering from some kind of cold.  Serendipity, that I would be writing about medicine today.

What I could not explain to the minister, because I was quite young and didn't know it yet, is that I am the product of my trauma - and trauma is damage.  If something happens to me that distresses my body or my psyche, it leaves a 'scar' that does not simply evaporate.  I'm thinking of the five inch scar I have on the top of my knee, which I obtained from five years ago when I snapped my quadriceps tendon while on a diving board.  That's the tendon shown in the image.  I succeeded in breaking it completely by running along the diving board, leaping, and landing on the end of the board with the intention of getting height to do a jackknife - a dive I'd done hundreds of times.  Only on this occasion, my right foot slipped on the board, and rather than bounding off the end, my body continued in a straight-down direction, doubling up my left leg under my left hip.  The knee overextended and the tendon snapped, and I fell into the pool with my left leg effectively 'hanging' off my femur.

The next day I was in surgery, and two days later I was released.  The knee, five years later, is pretty much 100% ... or perhaps 99%.  I'm no spring chicken, and both my knees tend to ache anyway.

Am I over it?  Oh, sure.  At least in the sense that I'm willing to dive again, or run or take part in physical activity.  But am I completely untouched by the event?  No.  No, that would be impossible.  I am not immune to the psychological effects of suddenly finding myself helpless and sinking in deep water ... nor to the conception of instantaneous terrible pain.  No one is.  If you've ever been in a car accident, then you know how fast they happen.  Bang!  And its over.

Your characters, however ... being fictional and not real, are little affected by trauma.  YOU, the player, may feel a bit of trauma at having lost something that was precious to you - a character, a +3 mace falling from your hand and lost in a gorge, that sort of thing - but it isn't going to compare with a real car accident or a spontaneously required knee operation.  Hit points are lost, hit points are gained, and there's no psychological loss.  If anyone out there really wants to simulate combat - if they really want to LARP - then they should pay a massive bruiser to sit at the table whose job it is to rise, walk over to someone who's just been hit for 10 damage and clock them across the jaw, or perhaps just thump them hard in the chest.  Bruiser cracks his knuckles ... player experiences trauma.

Somehow, I don't think it would catch on.  It would, however, really cause players to reassess the nature of combat and its place in the game.

It's foolish to think that we simply 'get over' the terrible traumatic events of our lives.  What we do is adjust.  We fix our patterns of behavior to compensate for the mistakes we've made, to ensure as far as possible that we don't make those mistakes again.  Sometimes, we adjust by increasing our aggressiveness.  Sometimes, we adjust without being conscious of it, fearing a particular highway, or choice of venue ... and we can get very surly and defensive if that fear is either identified or discussed.

We'd rather not be afraid ... but we are and that's the fact of it.  It took forever for the psychological community to finally accept that post-traumatic stress disorder is a real thing, largely because so many people respond to it in ways that socially we identify as 'chosen.'  Anger, resentment, avoidance - even the so-called pussification of the male sex - are things we don't associate with illness, they are things we presume are character flaws.  More often than not, however, fury is a response, not a decision.  On that, we're still trying to educate the masses.

Staying with the characters, however ... there are a great many psychological features that don't play out in their design, simply because they don't suffer from traumatic feedback.  They can afford to be 'heroes' because at heart they are wooden, two-dimensional false fronts, like the buildings that feature in old films (particularly westerns, satirized in Blazing Saddles).

Consider, if the gentle reader can, the effects of a stranger in a dungeon stepping up, catching your fighter by surprise with a military pick and breaking your shoulder blade.  In D&D, naturally, you respond by making a few ticks on your page, snatching up your 20-sided and swinging back.  In life, you may yet do that - but psychologically you're never going to forget that moment.  You will be traumatized ... and you'll never be able to walk down a dungeon hall in the same way.  You would resist suggestions to go down some corridors; you may even act irrationally and violently against other party-members suggesting that a dungeon adventure may be a good idea.  It doesn't matter that you're healed ... the after effect remains despite your present condition.  That is the very definition of PTSD.

Imagine, then, the effects of some spells!  If a military pick is a frightening object to be struck with, what would it be like to find yourself suddenly immolated by a fireball?  Only to then look around you and see three or four of your friends or associates dead and gently smoldering?  Fear?  Potentially ... but potentially also a rabid, insensate hatred of magic in every conceivable form.  Look at the effects of the hatred that arose surrounding drunk drivers ... and the social stigma attached to same.  How would it be with magic users?  Would you be able to even tolerate the magic user in your own party?  Knowing, always, every day, what he or she might do at any given second.  Talk about bouts of anxiety, distrust or aggression.  How long would it be before the fighter was being held down by the cleric and the monk, as he screamed, "I'm going to kill it, I'm going to kill the mage before he kills us all!"

Someone, I'm sure, will suggest that a cure light wounds spell would cure the spirit as well as the body ... and to that I say, we are back to the heaven example at the outset of this post.  Curing the spirit is a convenient gaming explanation for enabling a hardcore adventuring crew to go on fighting without any lasting emotional effects - but it is a terrible, awful form of brainwashing.  Perhaps, just for the sake of deepening the characters in the game, it might be better to consider that 'depth' of character begins with comprehension of what these characters have gone through.  Not just as stick figures, but as breathing, living beings.  Beings that understand that for some things, medicines don't really exist ... and that their lack defines us as who we are.  Not sticks.  Not heroes.  But flesh-and-blood beings possessed of doubt.

I don't expect anyone to embrace that.  Still, give it some thought.  And please accept my apologies for not writing the expected, long dissertation of the practice of applying herbalistic techniques in a D&D campaign.  Strictly speaking, that didn't sound very interesting.  Because, technologically speaking, the development of medicine in human history has almost wholly been about healing us physically; there still lacks any desirable means of healing us emotionally ... except, perhaps, the tremendous healing quality of sitting around on a fine evening playing a game with friends.  Preferably without the trauma ... er, drama.

Monday, April 15, 2013


A long quote about life, houses and privacy in the medieval ages, from The Culture of Cities by Lewis Mumford, 1938.  Dissapointingly, I couldn't find a source for Heyne's plan:

"As for the plan of the house, it varied with the region and the century; yet certain features remained common.  Viollet-le-Duc has shown us the ground plan of a French house, with a shop on the ground floor connected by an open gallery wit the kitchen in the rear.  The two formed a court, where the well occupied a corner.  There was a chimney in the kitchen and in the living room or grande sale above the shop; from the latter there is access to the dormitories above.  Heyne's plan of an old house in Nurnberg is not essentially different; but, as in the surviving houses from the seventeenth century, there are more interior rooms, a kitchen and a smaller room on the ground floor, a heatable room above the kitchen, and a number of chambers, with a toilet on the second floor directly above that of the first.

"The only form of modern hallway was the open gallery; this was a common feature in houses not built around a closed court.  It survived in the design of inns, where a means of circulation was specially necessary, and the internal hall, because of the absence of artificial light, was not an attractive solution.  The main outlines of this type of house lasted right down through the seventeenth century, even later.  But as one went downward in the economic scale, arrangements would be less differentiated and the space more constricted: the one room apartment, still common among the poor in many countries, possibly had its origin in the more industrialized cities of the late Middle Ages.

"... the first radical change [to the design of houses], which was to destroy the form of the medieval dwelling house, was the development of  sense of privacy.  This meant, in effect, withdrawal at will from the common life and the common interests of one's associates.  Privacy in sleep; privacy in eating; privacy in religious and social ritual; finally privacy in thought.  In 1362 Langland, in Piers Plowman, chided the tendency of the Lord and Lady to withdraw from the common hall for private meals and for private entertainment.  He must have foreseen the end of that reciprocal social relation that had mitigated its oppressions.  The desire for privacy marked the beginning of that new alignment of classes which was to usher in the merciless class-competition and individual self-assertion of a later day.  In the castles of the period one notes the existence, not merely of a private bedroom for noble owners: one also notes the private toilet, perched over the moat: the first hint of the twentieth century arrangement ... Monasteries, however, had long had collective latrines in separate buildings.

"The separation of the kitchen from the dining room is not characteristic, probably, of the majority of the population in any country today.  It had taken place in the monastery because of the scale of the preparations, and it was copied eventually in the manorial hall and the fine town house.  But the common quarters offered this incentive to social living: they alone were usually heated.  That the medieval house was cold in winter perhaps accounts for the development of inner rooms, insulated from the outer walls by air.  Yet the cold could not have been unendurable, or else people in the Middle Ages would have worn nightdresses, instead of 'going to their naked bed,' as numberless illustrations depict them.  Privacy in bed came first in Italy, among the upper classes; but the desire of it developed slowly; even in the seventeenth century maidservants often slept in trundle beds at the foot of that of their master and mistress.

"Until the curtained bed was invented, sexual intercourse must have taken place for the most part under cover, and whether the bed was curtained or not, in darkness.  Privacy in bed preceded the private bedroom; for even in seventeenth century engravings of upper middle class life, and in France, a country of refinement, the bed still occupies part of the living room.  Under these circumstances, the erotic ritual must have been short and almost secretive, with little preliminary stirring through eye or voice or free movement: it had its intense seasons, especially spring; but the late medieval astrological calendars, which depict this awakening, show the lovers having intercourse in the open with their clothes on.  In short, erotic passion was more attractive in the garden and the wood, despite stubble or prickly stems or insects, than it was in the house, on a mattress whose stale straw or down was never quite free from musty dampness.  For lovers in the medieval house, the winter months must have been a large wet blanket.  An endless succession of pregnancies punctuated the married lives of all but barren women, and brought many of them to early graves.  No wonder virginity figured as the ideal state."

I couldn't resist including the last part.  1930s academia wasn't all dull.

From the above we can make a few assumptions about what buying a room at the inn was like: first of all, it would have been a group activity.  As the description above says, privacy was rare, and in a lodging house, impractical.  A central eating area, attached or indeed incorporated with the kitchen, was idea; the fire the cooked the beef would likely be the same fire one warmed by.  The idea of hiding the food production from the clientele would not have fit in a society where people ate together, shat together and slept together.  So as you asked for the beef and ale, you likely did so with the haunch turning slowly on the spit over the fire just a few feet from your outstretched hands.  The floor would have been greasy with dropped food, with sawdust regularly spread overtop of it to firm the floor and make it less slippery.  Meanwhile, the clientele would drop bones, nut shells, fat and so forth, anything that collected on their plates, either into the fire or on the floor, to intermix with the sawdust and slop.  Through the evening, this layering would have thickened, until it was possible to dig one's toes under it to keep warm ... though there would have been less under the tables than beside them - if there were tables at all.  Often, chairs would circle the fire, or around the walls, as the patrons jostled one another, or exchanged seats like everyone normally does at a party - particularly if a vacated seat, by a customer on his way to the privy, meant a few feet closer to the fire.

A private room was possible - obtained from the gallery - and it would have been more expensive.  It would also have been uncomfortably colder than the common room, and probably drafty.  A roomer would have probably stuffed wax, grease, anything into the edges around windows and between boards in order to counteract the free flow of air.  Too, it might be difficult to get a private room, for many people in a town, even with money, were homeless and were therefore paying for their rooms by the month.  A party rolling into town may have the money, but if the town were particularly well-to-do, the rooms might be full of masons and teamsters, temporary workers but long-term temporary, there for the season until the work played out before returning home to their families or moving to warmer climes in winter.

But the common room was probably less insecure than many modern players would believe.  One was in more danger from losing the goodwill of the majority than in having something stolen; it was in no one's interest to encourage theft, even on a small scale, and there'd be a small contingent there who would viciously defend their 'turf,' perhaps insisting the party sleep in the coldest corner or adhere to other 'requests' that were perhaps more humiliating than truly discomforting.  After all, these would be commoners who slept in the same room night after night, for months at a time, who would treat the newbies with the same respect most old-timers use for new fish.  They might be bribed, obviously ... but that might not make the management over-pleased, that money is changing hands without their benefit.

In short, the common room would be run a little like a protection racket, with the accepted people doing well and being made to feel part of the family, while the recalcitrant and surly were pushed out - possibly right out the door.  And any fighting, of course, might mean exile to the street - without compensation for the night's rent - and most certainly for those the management does not know well, who have come in suddenly and created trouble.  Thieves, more than anyone, would quickly find the climate less than pleasant, since any theft would mean automatic and immediate rifling through everyone's gear, participated in with a mob's mentality.

That's life on the road for you.  If anything would contribute to ennui ... to address the last post ... it would be that unpleasant business of going from unfriendly town to town.  That is why there's no place like home.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


It was difficult to find a definition for ennui that did not merely reduce to 'boredom.'  It is a state of nihilism.  It is a sense of undefined purpose.  It is lifting one's hands to the heaven and crying, "What is it all for?"

Ultimately, the best definition I could find was from the French Wikipedia page:

"Dans l’existence quotidienne, lorsqu'un individu est occupé par des activités, il sait bien que ce sont ses finalités qui lui donnent un sens, que ce soit dans sa direction vectorielle ou dans son contenu de signification. C’est dans cette quotidienneté que peut survenir un ennui mécanique, par ex. un ennui au sens de quelque chose qui viendrait interrompre une activité, qui viendrait en différer la continuité temporelle entraînant l'individu à s'occuper à autre chose."

The sense that, somehow, one ought to be something better than THIS.

Core to the problem of encouraging players to expand their 'characters' ... that is, to play the character as something larger than a composite of numbers, and to seek something greater than treasure and the next level.  But if the game is ever going to be more than that, you cannot expect to stir players from their habitual play without giving them some sort of reward ... and where it comes to roleplay, more of the same reward - gold and x.p. - just isn't cutting it.

Maybe it is in your world.  But I've made the argument before in my world; I don't increase a character's combat ability by giving x.p. for talking.

There are two ways to motivate behavior, and the first is very definitely the positive.  Player doggy does good thing, player doggy gets treat.  Very simple, very comprehensible, even to the dumbest of players.  Of course, the treat has to be very good.  It has to be so good, in fact, that it continues to be a treat long after it has been given again and again.  And so treats work well for dogs.  Dogs are very stupid.  It doesn't occur to them that the treat today is the same treat yesterday.

People, however ... are a little tougher.  But again, gold and x.p. are great treats, and for the most part fairly reliable throughout a long campaign.

The other motivation is the wonderful negative ... which no one likes, which we are told doesn't work, and that only the most sadistic of game designers would build into a game as something forced, irreconcilable and endlessly annoying.  So naturally, every game designer does.  Inevitably, your Sim is going to have to pee.  Your ammo will run out.  So will your hit points.  One way or another, everything you possess, everything you love, everything that makes you a huge success at the game, will be worn down by old Father Time, in the way the old bastard does.  At least, it will if the game is worth playing past the 80th hour.

This negative aspect to life is something that we are very familiar with in life, and therefore it is central to our sense of pleasure and activity.  We're enjoying ourselves hard core in the here and now because they now is going fast and the here ain't going to be tomorrow morning at work.  Therefore, drunkedness, howling at the moon, wild sex, six days in Fort Lauderdale and 62 hours at PAX is all that we have to make our lives as rich and meaningful as we're able.

If you want you players to see their characters have a reason to howl at the moon, you will have to incorporate something that will make them absolutely flippin' miserable in the in and between time.  And with that in mind, I'd like to suggest - without any intention of incorporation in my own world - the implementation of Ennui.

Ennui is something that accumulated over time.  It is something that is accumulated directly in relation to the collection of gold and x.p.  Every time a character gets richer, gets wounded, comes near to death, travels with dreadful regularity upon the roads, seeing nothing but inns for weeks at a time, there's a little bit of Ennui that's added.  A point here, a point there.  Two points.  Three points.  Slowly, steadily moving towards a tipping point - one based upon intelligence and wisdom, naturally.  The higher they are, the more quickly ennui approaches that inevitable number, the "tipping point," where life just ceases to matter.

The effects?  Listlessness, obviously.  A lack of focus.  A reduction in strength, constitution and dexterity; lacking the will to avoid being hit, lacking the will to hit, for what does it matter anyway?  You kill, you are killed, it's all part of one great nothingness.  In fact, the sooner it happens, the sooner you'll be swept away from this ongoing, meaningless and exhausting existence ... "For the love of all that's decent, I hope the motherbastard rolls a 20 and ends my misery."

The cure?  Occupation.  Purpose.  Novelty, but in the greater sense, nuance.  The gathering of all ones resources applied to something more relevant than gold and x.p.  Yes, yes, we can seek the tavern for a night of debauchery, that might lower the ennui a few points.  We might seek the church, attend services, find greater meaning, that might lower the ennui a few more.  Or perhaps a swift, clean kill in an alleyway, some meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sadistic murder to fill one's spirit with a truly unique moment.  Perhaps a session with a roped whip in one's private chambers ... a little asceticism is good for the soul.  Or else, Festival!  Oh, let's travel the two hundred miles to Land's End to see the Festival that begins in a month there ... wouldn't that be something?  Lift our spirits, destroy a dozen points of ennui, refresh our appetites.  Or perhaps a pilgrimage ... on foot, naturally, eschewing the horses and moving along day by day, as the GODS intended.  When I am climbing the Thousand Stairs of Tuulaj's Sacrificial Altar on my bloody knees, then at last my ennui will be eliminated altogether.

There's only value if it takes a hundred hours of game play to accumulate enough ennui to matter; and only if it takes a hundred hours of game play to reduce it again to nothing.  And one must remember - if the tavern worked last week, surely it won't satisfy the bill today.  If the church is good for a few services, it too will simply fail to register.  True, Festival is only once a year, but if we begin to attend them all, month by month, then again, what is it all for?  It's just another everlasting road, another meaningless milestone that might as well hang about my neck for all the good its done me.

If I had any intention of following through, there would be two tables here ... one very short one for accumulation of ennui, and one very, very long one for getting rid of it.  With kept notes for how long its been since something was tried, and how likely it would work if it were tried again too soon.

But surely, none of us would want to live under this sort of regime, would we?  Let us keep our steady pace towards the next level, and let's not think too closely upon the vicissitudes of life.  Contrast is such an enormous effort ... who needs it?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Next Logical Step?

Just a quick post today, to sort of blurph out a few things so that they're in the atmosphere before I settle down to piecing them together later.

This, then is the logical next step:

This is Zante from the previous post, which was the largest city on the island, broken down into its "sub-groups" ... so that the 2 mile hex (really, 2.22 miles) can be accounted for in 434 yard hexes - the size of the small hexes shown above.  The question is, how does one define these "micro-hexes" ... when the infrastucture numbers that were there before have now ceased to mean anything.  This was (by the last accounting, and the page on my wiki) a Type II hex ... but that's not actually useful.

The population of Zante is 9,193.  It was founded approximately 1,600 BCE (which makes it old even for a Greek city).  The center of the city is actually 554 feet above sea level ... so that does tell us the streets are fairly steep, since the blue above IS sea.  I can also add that the city makes raisins, olive oil and that it collects and slaughters goats on the island for transport.  It also transports a lot of the other grown things on the island, oranges, lemons, cranberries, melons, wheat, honey, olives and grapes.  And of course the flint from the mine on the north end of the island.

None of this is especially helpful in guessing which of the black areas on the above map are occupied by shopkeepers, guild artisans, elite residences, slums, corrals, greenspace, shops, the market or the red light districts (with their taverns, inns and horizontal refreshments).  Nor does it tell me how much of the city is occupied by each.

Moving on with what I can measure.  Each of the small hexes above is 163,121 square feet, which equals 3..745 acres.  The area which I have (with no logic at all, just wanting to make it smaller than the hex in the last map of Zakynthos I drew) works out to about 28 hexes, or about 105 acres.  This adds up to 87.7 people per acre ... which, happily, works out to a reasonable number according to this document here.  Happy day.

That's also about 328 persons per hex.  If the average household is 7 (grandparents, parents, three children and one additional family member or servant), then that's 46 households per hex.  Interesting, but not exactly helpful.

I'm not sure if anything is.  Consider this city map below:

Glorious Lankhmar

All very stunning to look at, and really not at all to the least sort of logical scale (the building walls are dozens of feet thick, technically, even the minor buildings) ... but how is it USEFUL?  I mean, actually.  Is there that much that is gained by knowing the number of building fronts on Pimp Street between the Street of the Gods and Temple Street?  How often are you going to use that sort of information?

We generally use a large scale map to define how long it's going to take a party to travel between two distant points, so we can calculate the number of encounters, how much food they're going to eat and so on.  Are you really going to calculate how long it takes to walk from Carter Street to Ox Cart Road?  Do you care?  Or are you just going to say, "Hey you're there."  And even at that, does the destination need to be named something?  It's all nice window dressing for a Leiber book, makes you feel like you're somewhere, etc., but all the party wants to know is how much the leather armor costs.  They don't care if they bought it on Grain Street or Great Gate Road.  It's a suit of armor.  Maybe, if you cared, it might make a difference if it was bought on Cheap Street or Barter Street ... but seriously, isn't that a question of how it's bought and at what price?

And how flipping boring does it get when, as a player, you're having street names thrown at you in session after session, as a place you must get to.  I've done it.  It's cute ... but really, saying there's an address engraved in the key and "We go to the address" covers it pretty well, without there ever needing to be an actual street named.

So while I can go smaller ... and maybe work out something for what's where based on perhaps how high the group of hexes is above the city's lowest point (which seems like ti might separate the offal from the palace, as it were), someone will have to explain to me why its worth the bother.  For the present, I'm not crystal clear on that.

It's nice to know there's a cathedral in town.  Do you care where?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fun, Fun, Fun


Well, bit of excitement. The heat exchanger on the top of our building caught fire, which forced Tamara out of the building. She called me as she left, I caught a cab home and now twenty minutes later I'm in my living room. The fire department has said it is under control, the fire was small and mostly due to construction workers not properly maintaining their oil-based generator.

So everything is hunky dory. But life is so much fun. So much.

Zakynthos Expanded

Some few readers may have noticed that the online campaign just stopped, dead, without any explanation, about six weeks ago.  It was suspended by me due to increasing stress from other factors in my life, and was spoken of between me and the players in private.  I haven't given a date for it's continuation, but a continuation there will be.  However, no set date has been established.  My apologies for my laziness, for not writing a short suspension post on that blog.  That has been rectified.

In the meantime, the last known location of the party was on the island of Zakynthos, in western Greece ... an island for which I had little detail.  I could go to Google maps, of course, but those maps simply do not translate all that well to 17th century development ... there are far too many houses, roads, etc., including suburbs and towns that exist now and didn't then.  Moreover, sometimes I'm not inclined to follow the geography to the letter ... as it suits occasionally to muck with it in order to produce what I think is a better player experience.

Here's what I had mapped for Zakynthos previously:

It is that small island at the bottom, between the island of Cephalonia to the northwest and the western edge of the Peloponnesian Peninsula to the east.

Now, something that is true of any D&D world is that if you choose to upgrade or redevelop some part of it, it's always hoped that the players will roll with the changes and adopt them as if it had always been that way.  If you feel you want to eliminate elves from your world, for instance ... and one of your players was an elf, and wishes to go on playing, then you'd hope they could just pretend they'd always been a human, or whatever they chose, for the sake of continuity.

Every DM who works to improve his or her world knows that this is the case from time to time.  Islands appear, rivers change course, weapons that did exist no longer do, clerics can suddenly use edged weapons, the thief has to exchange their bow for a crossbow, whatever the case may happen to be.

In the case of the above, I made certain descriptions of the island as the party decided to foray into its interior, which I would want them to discount now ... for you see, using the recent hex generator, I made this in about an hour and a half last night:

It's still pretty simple ... but it has the benefit, now, of allowing the party to better judge where they are and precisely where on the island they might like to venture.  Even better, there are room for notes now ... lots of notes, potentially.  I've deliberately left the names off the towns, the citadels and so on, as the party has not investigated those places.

There's an exception there.  Previously, I had stated that the party went up a road into the hills directly west of Zante ... now, I'd have to restructure those events to say they went up the cobbled road into the center west of the island ... a 12-14 mile journey, or therabouts, the hexes been 2-miles in diameter.  So they would know the town that's on the north coast ... but we'll just say for the present that they noted the town, and did not learn its name.  Restructuring reality to fit the new paradigm, as it were.  They can always ask when they come back through it again.

The island above is, in fact, potentially detailed enough to allow quite a lot of adventuring.  Three citadels and a fortress must be protecting quite a supply of wealth, which we can also assume is siphoning off into those mediterranean-brush covered hills (green), waiting to be picked up by a party.

Most of all, I'm happy that this is something that I can now expand quickly in very little time, from nothing more than a few numbers and a small shape on a page.  It's as good as most anything I see in some module somewhere, and this is randomly generated.  Once I get down to work on the features that would spackle this map - and that is my next task, one which I have worked on mentally but which I must now begin to codify - this sort of thing should really spark some players.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


This may not be the post you're looking for.

I might write a post about the opportunities offered by electricity in a fantasy world; I might essay to explain how and where there are differences between traditional electricity and magical-generated electricity; I might pinpoint the development of electricity over the last five hundred years, or talk about ways to modify Volta's Pistol with magic to make it a death weapon extraordinaire.  I might ... but I haven't the motivation.

As these posts deepen into the realms of higher technology, it becomes more valuable to discuss what the lack of a particular technology has upon the D&D world, rather than what's added.  As we dwell in a world where electricity is as pervasive as air and water, we should give some time and contemplation to a world where none exists.  After all, none did, and very recently.

The first comprehension is always the modern presence, and therefore the medieval absence, of light.  After all, as the gentle reader looks around, you're surrounded by 'artificial' light, quite probably all of it electrically based (for all I know you're burning a candle right now).  You're reading a computer that throws light, and whether you're sitting in the glow of little vampire lights on your tower, your mouse or your phone, or in a room flooded with flourescents, you can't help but think that if there were no electricity, it would be a lot darker right now.  If you're outside, then you have to consider that its going to be much darker soon.

The absence of all that light is going to mean a lot more than you can't see what you're doing ... its also going to mean you're doing a lot less.  Most definitely, either entertaining or educating yourself, the two mainstays of human activity when not actually working to keep yourself alive - which of course, you're going to do almost exclusively in daylight.  In the 19th century, there was widespread working at night prior to electricity, mostly due to the increased availability of burnable fuel - coal-tar gas, petroleum gas, and even whale oil, the production of which leapt once steam manufacturing increased the rates at which ships could be built in order to hunt for whales to find the oil that would keep the lamps lit while making more things.

But this is all Industrial Revolution stuff, and we don't play D&D during the Industrial Revolution.  We don't even play it during the enlightenment, when newpapers became widely available, which became the primary way in which people educated themselves in the late 17th century.  Newpapers, one will take note, don't throw light, and therefore were expensive to read outside of daylight hours.  That's a difficult thing to consider ... that if you wanted to do something at night, you had to worry about more than your ability to do so - you had to worry about how much it would cost you.  Burning a candle, which you must replace when it gutters out, is more tactile than a bill you receive online; you didn't burn them unless it was important.  We love to tell stories about Abraham Lincoln reading books in his cabin by candlelight, as though he were poor ... when in fact, his family was doing awful well to be able to keep a kid of theirs in burnable fuel.

We so casually conceive of a party sitting around a fire in the evening, after a long day's march, eating haunch of roast beast, whittling stakes or whetting a sword, that we tend to forget that once the sun's gone down, there really wouldn't be much else a party could do.  The popularity of story telling wasn't a motif of the period because stories are really cool and gosh darn, the people just loved them, it was because your primary source of entertainment during those hours when you weren't doing the things that needed light could only be done with your ears.

How quaint and soulful it is to imagine people sitting around a fire, listening to the elders tell tales of the past, the family gathered together in the glowing light, so much cheaper than candles.  And how easy is it to forget that most of those stories were out and out lies, and that they included things like that the Jews murdered Christ, or that people who didn't suck up to the Church daily were going to hell, or that children who did not obey their parents would grow sick and die because God wanted it that way.  Far more of the tales were socially-motivated lies and propaganda, intended to encourage people to obey and act in accordance with social norms, than cute stories about fluffy bunnies and princesses in love.  The reader will get a far better idea of what sort of 'stories' were told by sitting in a bar in Bowling Green, Kentucky, than meeting with the Beatrix Potter fan club in Rye, New York.  The world was a nasty, dismissive, oppressive place, and you can be damn sure the elders made their younger clanspeople well aware of it.

Education - of the sort where you learn something that's true and you can compare notes about it - was everlastingly rare.  It was available only to those people who did not have to spend every hour of daylight supporting themselves ... because they had others supporting them.  The reason why so much science and social thought developed among the English clergy for hundreds of years was because, beyond having to produce a sermon once a week, there was plenty of time for those people during daylight hours ... when it cost nothing to read, write, experiment, produce artistic works, etc.  And if you didn't happen to have the will yourself to do this sort of thing, but you did have a lot of time during the day, you amused yourself by patronizing some other creative soul with your wealth; this meaning, naturally, that you could go around and bug him once or twice a week, getting the feel for creativity without the need for discipline or talent.

The ignorant stayed ignorant for century after century not because the various powers kept the knowledge from them, but because there weren't enough daylight hours to indulge in things that didn't stop you from being killed by starvation or the weather.

Not that candles produced in the 1300s very bright, either.  If you think you're getting a feel for the medieval atmosphere by turning off the lights for your game and lighting a few candles, think again.  Candles for most people weren't made from the same stuff as your candles, and beeswax was wildly expensive.  Candles were largely made from tallow - pig tallow, if you were lucky and doing fairly well.  Otherwise, you got by on vegetable tallow, which burned quickly and did not exactly light up a room.  Additionally, it took a lot of work, and so it was reserved for particularly important times of the day - ten minutes a day, perhaps, for eating.  Certainly not for reading.

So consider that the Bible doesn't offer much solace during the long hours of night ... so logically, if the devil was going to get you, it would be when you couldn't scan a few tracts in his face.  Of course, the common people didn't read, and didn't own Bibles, which weren't written in the vernacular anyway ... what would be the point?  If Gutenberg had run around making bibles for the poor in the 1450s, even in German, French, Italian and English, there was no light to read from them.  We like to think that once the Bible was finally translated, everyone ran out and got a copy ... but of course, that really only happened when reading around the table became an option two hundred years later.

Let's go back to your ears, now, and consider the influence of electricity on those.  What are you hearing right now?  Energy, going on all around you.  And it is always there.  If we get rid of the blower in your office, or the furnace, there would still be the soft whine of your computer.  There's always some noise in your life, because something is always humming or whining, somewhere nearby.  You may not be able to hear it now ... but if we mask out the louder things you don't pay attention to, there would still be the quieter things you would learn to hear also.

In fact, unless you've taken deliberate steps to leave every kind of device behind, you've probably not been without them your whole life.  Even in the country, you can hear the lamps you're carrying around your campsite; the distant cars on the highway.  When I used to spend some of my teenage nights with a telescope in a farmer's field outside a cabin development near Sylvan Lake in the early 80s ... I could yet hear the cars on the secondary highway three miles away, even though it was midnight.  It's very hard now to find somewhere truly remote - and truly quiet - and we can't begin to imagine it.

James Fenimore Cooper's inevitable twig snapping would have been like a gunshot to ears that were not assailed day and night by decibal levels in the triple digits.  Even a double digit sound would be rare off the guild streets of a town, or where people weren't gathered.  There would have been little need for a town crier to cry quite so loud, since there would be less to cry over than you standing up to shout politics at your university's Speaker's Corner.

So ask yourself - are night watches really necessary?  Parties are so used to setting them up, assuming that creeping up on a sleeping person is as easy in the 15th century as it is today ... despite the fact that six hundred years ago, it really was freaking quiet.  The lack of electricity, which runs everything with a little bit of noise, would attune a party to recognizing every imaginable sound within a hundred yards just as if it were a light shining in their faces.  A thief would have to be a lot better at moving silently then than he or she is now.  There's no ambient noise to cover it up.

Which is why, I think, I've never liked the thieves' hear noise ability.  Honest, this ought to be someone who automatically does it ... or at least, there would have to be considerable mitigating circumstances that denied the success.  10%?  You might as well argue that I only have a 10% chance of seeing a light when its turned on.

This has been going on for awhile, and I have to cut it off.  I'll just put in the reader's mind a few thoughts about how much of a day's fare was eaten raw because building a fire and cooking isn't as practical as running a stove, even in the house.  Or how much more comfortable a party member would be building a fire, having built them every day of their lives since infancy (which I admit, I hadn't considered).  Or that the ends of your fingers were probably burnt a hundred times from handling metal pots buried in coals.  Sex would be almost a completely tactile experience - you could go decades without ever seeing your wife or husband naked, not because they denied it ... but because except for dangerous forays into the isolated woods, nakedness only happened in the dark.  There are other reasons the 18th century invented porn, as light because more available to all.

Just general food for thought.  I'm sure others could come up with more.  Remove electricity from the field of human comfort and habit, and its truly hard to envision what the world really would have been like.  You almost certainly cannot, not in the environment where you live.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Gaming Design Tale

Having a conversation with a regular last night, who spent most of the time trying to convince me of something and very nearly succeeding.  It's only that it's so absurd to me that I find my old cynicism gripping me like grim death, and I have to throw it out into the void in order to corroborate the claim.  If this fellow wishes to declare himself, he may, but I won't give names.

The proposal runs thusly:  that there is a strong contingent in the community of people who play D&D, especially those who play 4e and who are closely associated with WOTC, who believe that the most important ideal of the game is 'balance,' the idea that every player, regardless of class or any other distinction, must be equal and the same where it comes to combat ... and moreover, or more to the point, WOTC's moves regarding the game in the last decade has been a strong effort to service this contingent of people.

This all warps in some manner to a gaming mindset that says that if I am playing at the table with A, B and C, then not only must I be as effective as A, B, and C in combat, but I must be exactly as effective, and the more exactly as effective I am, in every combat we have, the "better" the game system, because it doesn't play favorites.  Added to this is the concept that if I, as DM, offer the party a large gem, but only one, then I am being unfair to all the members of the party who did not receive that gem.  In short, by virtue of this balanced ideal, I am a "bad DM."

Now, I can believe someone as stupid as Mearls buys into this crap.  There's quite a few bloggers out there that I can believe might buy into this crap.  But I've never met anyone who felt this way, not personally, and I certainly haven't had any conversations before where anyone tried to pitch this at me as an "ideal game system."  The whole concept is laughable.

But then I am told, if a party is encouraged to play together and pit themselves as a group against monsters, without feeling the need to compete and win against each other, then that's a lot of kumbayah bullshit that many 'hardcore and serious players' don't buy into.  I can't imagine what sort of nitwitted, panty-bunched stick-in-their-ass bastards these sorts of hardcore players are, but I know for certain you'd never find them at one of my tables.

If D&D has descended down to the level where it is so boring now that the individual players have stopped taking enjoyment from the pursuit of monsters, treasure and glory, and can only see it in terms of "who has the most experience this week," then no fucking wonder that many of you reading this blog cringe at any reference to that game, and not S&W or some other acronym that hasn't been soiled, rubbed over with turpentine, shat on, pressed into a small cube and shoved up a monkey's butt.  It's a real shame.  D&D used to be such a pleasant game.  I supposed I shall have to start calling my game Brains & Brigands.

(note how the letters of the word 'brain' all exist in 'brigands')

WOTC's involvement in all this, apparently from a money stand point, goes like this:

1)  The Owners of the Franchise involve themselves in market research in the late 1980s, and learn from crawling convention cretins that what they really want in the game is more "balance" ... vaguely conceived as the sort of thing noted above.  More to the point, they are looking for a game where they can "invent their own characters."

2)  TOOTF game tests a lot of crap and comes up with the build system that is 2.0.  But it's crap, so they sit down and make a better build system, 3.0.  Which is still crap, even though they try to balance it further with 3.5.

3)  Each system that's advanced fails because the players, who are still saying they want a balanced system, make thorough efforts to break every system that's balanced.

4)  However, TOOTF realizes that by fucking around with the balance endlessly in book after book, guide after guide, 'patch' after 'patch,' they are making money.

5)  So ultimately the TOOTF are not building systems to produce better games, but systems which are in fact harder to break, encouraging a generation of stupid people to forget what the game was originally about, and concentrate instead on finding the best way to break whatever is the latest bullshit balanced system.  This is the real reason for 5e, because the players of 4e have grown bored with breaking a system that's too clumsy or impractical to 'break.'

And amidst all this, the OSR springs up.  True dat?