Wednesday, May 15, 2013

20,000 Results

When I'm having a bad day, I just have to remember a few simple things to put it all right for me.  Once upon a time I worked as a cook and then later as a chef, between various gigs on magazines and in the theatre.  So, when I look around me, I remember than I'm not standing, mostly on a greasy, slippery floor, with a sharp blade in my hand, around other people with sharp blades in their hand, in a 115 degree kitchen, being shouted at by servers, sweating, greasy, and moving faster than any sane person would in that environment, for $11 an hour (which was the wage then).

Sort of puts life into perspective.

I originally decided after university that someday it might be a good idea to own a restaurant, and a friend suggested I work as a prep cook to learn the industry inside out.  Another fellow - who took a dim view of the business - suggested I read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London to get a proper view of what restaurants were like.  I did read that book, and I can say from practical, hard-earned experience, most of what Orwell describes is true.  He worked as a plongeur in Paris in the 1930s, when they still used to toss down straw to keep the kitchen floor from being slippery - and by end of shift Orwell describes the mulch of oil and food parts and garbage and straw getting to be ankle deep.  No, that I haven't experienced.  But people picking food up off the floor and serving it?  'Cross-contamination'?  Wiping plates with a dirty apron so they could be used for food?  Really, really bad accidents?  Yes.  I've seen all that.

I think, honestly, that if people knew what went on in kitchens, many would never eat in restaurants again.  Restaurants work on such a fine profit margin that they can't afford to throw away food that someone has happened to drop - so the cooks scoop it up off the floor, wash it and move on.  I remember working for one place, which would subsequently go out of business, that was shocked and horrified that anyone would do that.  By chance, I learned that because I was making a burger for myself to eat on my break, and the bun bounced off the counter onto the floor.  I cheerily picked it up, to finish my burger, and the effect from the  other fellow on the line was ... memorable.

Believe me, if you've eaten out more than ten times in your life, you've eaten dropped food.

Well, this is a blog about D&D, so I should pull the subject around to that.  I could profess to giving some insight into the eating habits of player characters, the insides of inns and taverns, etc., but really, I'm not interested.  No, what I'm really doing is giving a long, rambling introduction that has nothing at all to do with the post ... for no particular reason.

This post was intended to be about how you can really tell someone is reaching for straws in an argument by the uncommonly stupid things they say.  I can pull together the intro for this with that point by saying that during my twelve years in kitchens, I met and worked daily with some extraordinarily stupid people.  Profoundly, bogglingly, stubbornly stupid people who truly failed to meet the standards one would normally expect for cognitive intelligence.  Some of those in positions of management ... which will naturally surprise no one, certainly no one with restaurant experience.

The recent grabbed-for straw seems to be an argument that "a random table doesn't work to create a sandbox, because the DM chooses the possible results of the table."

I suppose that for those who are gifted with deep, abiding stupidity, that sounds rational.  I mean, after all, since the results are in fact made up, it's clearly evident that all the results are therefore subject to the subjectivity of the DM, who would, undoubtedly, only choose results that absolutely balance the game towards whatever it is the DM wants or desires.  Obviously.

I don't suppose anyone who makes this argument realizes that anyone who makes a table in the game, for anything, puts down as many possible results as come to mind.  If we had another idea - any idea - that seemed like something a creature might do, we're going to rebuild the table for that idea.  Because we want more and more possible results.  The last thing any of us want is a table where we get the same result over and over.

This is why so many of the tables in the books are so crappy.  It's also the reason why so many other tables, those found online, are equally crappy.  We don't want a table with 20 results.  We want a table with 20,000 results.  And we want every result to be something interesting and profound.  And it would be nice if the options on the table evaporated as soon as they were implemented.

Sadly, however, my previous attempts to produce tables with those kind of totals have been frustrating and - well - useless.  The more results you add to a table, the less likely the added results will be something that actually makes sense in the instance for which you're rolling.  Or the results get more and more cosmetic, while in fact making very little difference.  Look around the net for the number of examples where - like this from Roles, Rules, and Rolls - someone has to save or suffer from "gutworm infestation."  Roger of that site is not to blame ... there just are so many variants on the do-this-get-that result that mean something in a campaign.  And once you've had any one of those variants, having it again, or another of the same ilk, is tiresome.

Tables suck.  Everyone who knows this game knows that the suckage of tables is a reason so many drift into the railroading vortex ... because at least you don't have to roll on any sucky tables.  I personally don't feel that's a justification.  What's really called for is a different way to look at tables ... and at the game in toto.

See, it doesn't matter what the result is.  I roll that there's an obstacle on the road, I draw from some source what that obstacle is and I apply it.  What must be understood is that the obstacle is irrelevant.  What matters is how that obstacle is presented, and what is expected of the players.

For example, my game produces a wolf pack for the party.  The most natural thing is to presume its night, the wolf pack is hungry, it attacks, the party fights them off and the game returns to normal.  This is why, naturally, all of us who have played the game for a hundred years are tired of the result 'wolf' on any table, even tables we make ourselves, because in all honesty no matter how many tables you make about encounters in northern woods, you can't leave the wolf off just because you're sick to death of them.

What's needed is a rethink on what makes an encounter - and to some extent how the characters handle one.  More and more encounters have to be drawn away from 'encounter forces itself on party' and into 'party observes, party deliberates on action.'

I have encountered wolves about six times in my life - once in a graveyard in the center of the city past midnight.  This is Alberta and there's a lot of wide open empty forested country.  I have yet to be attacked by a wolf.  Nor have I had much opportunity to see wolves for more than a few fleeting seconds.  So I would think, if a party did encounter a wolf pack for real, what they'd actually see would be one wolf for about three seconds.

And what would a party normally do about that?  Nothing.  Probably nothing.  Why would they?  They're getting to where they're going, aren't they?

Something a bit more interesting might be encountering the wolves peaceably hanging out on the road ahead of the party, not attacking.  Or one wolf behaving irrationally, who in fact is doing so because her cubs are nearby.  Or two wolves fighting over a dead buck, which might well provide the party with meat.

In fact, where tables are concerned, such ideas just aren't going to work.  They're mostly good for a one-shot only, and you've got to rely as a DM on inspiration ... fitting this particular idea you've just had into the campaign as its ongoing.  You can't build a table for that.

What you can do is realize that describing an encounter - whatever might be happening as the party appears - is no different that describing a tree or a set of mountains or a town gate.  The participants in the setting are still part of the setting.  The party has to adapt and overcome to anything you produce just as they have to adapt to a twelve-foot hole in the hallway.  It isn't a question of WHAT they encounter - it is a question of whether or not they have free will in circumventing that hole.

When you invent something, and throw it at the party, and have it in your mind that it is circumvented this way, and no other way, then that is railroading.  But if I have no preconceived notion of what the party will do when something has happened to that party, then it doesn't matter a whit if my table has one possible result.  I'm not requiring the party to behave in any particular way.  I'm not restricting their free will.  I'm giving them a scene, and letting them decide what to do with that scene.

It takes an extraordinarily stupid person to think that the scene is, in itself, some kind of railroad.


Butch said...

There are many, many modern equivalents of Orwell's book, the most famous being Kitchen Confidential. Having worked as a short-order cook I know what goes on back there. I can only comfort myself by thinking, well, I haven't died of food poisoning yet...

YagamiFire said...

This is, incidentally, how I have been treating results from random tables.

I am sick to death of the "Walking...walking...walking...screen shakes and transitions to battle scene as you're attacked by...WOLVES!" *queue battle music*

...seriously I am so far over that.

"Encounter" has become too synonymous with battle and the fact that the game has become so heavily battle oriented (while presenting fairly shitty battle mechanics...can't even get that right, morons...) that the default mode for the game seems to be "Exposition or Battle" as if they're two totally separate game interfaces.

Hence, like so much that is garbage in this game and it's community, the problem becomes cyclical...

If everything attacks the players then every "encounter" is a battle...and is, as pointed out, kinda being railroaded, ain't it? It also seriously reduces the players ability to simply exist in the game world and make reasonable decisions.

Arduin said...

You have, on the old wiki, a collection of Behavior Codes of which I'm rather fond. Obviously these suffer as much as would be expected of a semi-random table, but I just wanted to know if it was an idea you had abandoned, or if they still saw some measure of play at your table, and if not what has replaced them.