Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Pretense of Simplicity

Criticism is not persecution.

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

But persecution is not criticism.

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

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

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

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

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

Sie trinkt deinen Apfelsaft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPLEXITY does not equal impracticality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chris Blauwkamp said...

I don't quite understand two things about your stance here, and perhaps my difficulties are related to one another. You seem to have a certain amount of disdain for simpler games, and a desire for a complete system. But there is no reason to think that a simpler set of rules makes for a game that is more appropriate for children. Go and Chess both have rulesets that are orders of magnitude simpler than Monopoly, but I don't think anyone would argue that they're inferior games. And, of course, all three are far simpler than even the most basic form of D&D.

Your desire for a complete system is widely shared, but the issue with believing that your system is the perfect one is that no system that has the complexity that D&D has can ever be complete. The reality it models has inputs too diverse to ever allow it in principle, not even considering the limits on what any individual DM can accomplish. So any DM's system, whether it's your more complex one, or my simpler one (lightly house-ruled ACKS), is going to reflect a trade-off between what is convenient and what makes for accurate modeling. And reasonable people can and should disagree about where that balance should be struck, but you rule out entirely the need for that sort of compromise.

It is perhaps significant that in your last post, you took the attitude "B/X is for kids, so we should play this game for adults." It is common for teenagers to be afraid of appearing childish. But once you are adult, you put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. (To quote C.S. Lewis)

Lukas said...

Goddamn, now I want to drive a dog team.

That said, I've found that learning new 'languages' (systems) gets easier with practice. I wouldn't be surprised if that were how it worked with verbal languages. It definitely is how it works with programming languages.

Clovis Cithog said...

The brilliance of German as a language is that evolved in a time when paper was precious . . . no punctuation is required and the clever use of capitalization means that German reads easily intheAbscenseofSpaces between words (a common ancient technique)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Wow, and there is the pretense.

First, chess and go, while engrossing games that one can spend a lifetime perfecting, are highly restricted, ritualized procedural games that allow for innovation is a very specific and restricted manner. D&D is absolutely NOTHING like chess or go ... and if you think it is, that's a demonstration of how limited your idea of a 'campaign' is.

Secondly, this other bullshit of my perfect system (I made no mention whatsoever of "perfection") or the reality it models (I made no mention whatsoever of modelling reality) is a Straw Man in the extreme. You've invented arguments I never made, then produced arguments to your made up arguments, as if this isn't blatantly obvious to anyone who can read English.

You've actually argued for your 'convenience' while ignoring my point that your convenience breeds my lack of player agency with spew about "accurate modelling" and "reasonable people." Holy fuck, dude. You recognize you're writing English, right? In a complex and complicated manner, EXACTLY as I describe in the post, while at the same time saying that things that are complicated CAN'T describe reality.

Wow. Just wow. So writers and poets, scientists, philosophers and so on should stop bothering to use this complex language thing because it will NEVER capture reality?

Just who the fuck gives a shit about capturing reality? I just want rules that will let me drive a dog team without the DM jerking me around like a half-brained fuck wit.

Too much to ask?

Lukas said...

I believe the issue you're running into with the Go vs Monopoly example is the grade of abstraction and the association to existing material.

While not personally having ever owned or gone to looking at the Red Box I can pretty easily interpret how someone could strip the rules down to 1/4th the pages.

In the Go vs Monopoly case, Monopoly is complicated due to it's emulating property management. You have rules for purchasing, selling, mortgaging, improving, maintaining and losing your properties due to bankruptcy all given a 'fair' method of achieving each in a controlled manner. What is Go emulating? Or has it been abstracted to the point where those extra rules no longer matter?

The red box didn't turn players into 'pieces' they still clearly represented living beings with assumed traits. These traits no longer had rules (Or never did). It's much easier not to think of those missing traits when it's not something you're familiar with, or it's something abstracted to the 'circle goes 3 spaces' level.

In this case not only do they represent people, the most recognizable easy to associate thing a person can find, but they are also creating a game in parallel to an existing system as an alternative to that system. When you play a game 'like monopoly' or 'like Go' you are then comparing it to that standard of game. This means that the Red Box was 'simplistic' compared to the standard. It had less options compared to the standard. It has less of the cracks in humanity filled making it 'less perfect'.

JDJarvis said...

" If I want to establish a fortification, tax peasants, find some bitches, have one of them give birth, raise a child, determine its stats at age 9, train that child, create a treaty with another state by which my child and the stateman's child marry, expand trade, expand the intellectual comprehension of my citizens, plant crops, shear sheep, suffer the weather, sail a boat, drive a dog team, improve my nutrition, avoid disease, etc., etc., THERE ARE NO RULES."

There are no rules for the above in A&D without obtaining additional volumes of rules beyond the first three and DM invention. I'm pretty sure I've never seen the sheep sheering rules anywhere really. The value of a bushel of wool: unexpressed in the DMG.
Finding "bitches" and raising children is also not addressed in any of the original volumes that I'm aware of. Does that mean AD&D suffers from an incomplete complexity, that it only has a thin veneer pretending at comprehensive rules?

Anonymous said...

There is a deal to be said for economy of effort in preparing rules, just as for economy in narrative. I expect that in writing Pete's Garage there were some ideas left out because not essential to the flow. Similarly in prepping to run, I leave out many rules ideas that do not feel central. This does not mean that I think they are trivial, nor that I would be unwilling to negotiate them with a player who needed them and who could provide valid and helpful input on mechanics. However I am not willing to spend my limited time finessing the details of sheep shearing - until there is a reason I need to know the price for a cart load of bulk wool, or until a player wants to establish a pasture and a flock.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Which only means that the rules should be increased, not decreased.


I appreciate the word "negotiate" in your comment.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the ultimate argument here really one for better rules? That there or more or less rules is beside the point, the ones we have need to be good, however many there are.

I've never played in any game, mine or anybody else's, that wasn't house-ruled to the nines. I mean, come on... anybody bothering to read a D&D blog is kit-bashing and house-ruling, aren't they?

Raise your hand if you're playing any RPG "by the book" as your norm. Your problem probably isn't the rule set, buddy.

Anonymous said...

And isn't what Alan is describing when he says "negotiate" really what should be happening, whatever set of rules one starts from?

Lukas said...

For me the question of which ruleset is answered mainly by how much work I would have to do to force it into shape for my goals.

Taking a big system and giving it less rules is just saying less work is already done. If I didn't like those rules cutting them out is the easy part.

Anonymous said...

Having done it for both AD&D, 3.0 and a Basic derivative let me tell you Lukas, that was not my experience at all... particularly when it came to documenting the rules for the players. Starting with less was easier.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I also accept Kanye the Giant's gods, bitches and money.

Lukas said...

Documentation is usually one of the hardest parts of anything.

Letter of the law vs intent pretty much requires you hire a lawyer to do the job for you.

I think the next problem becomes not just documenting, but parceling out the information at the correct times and in the correct amounts.

Anonymous said...

"creatively vindictive"

I think that those two words sum up your approach to blogging nicely. Those that get their pantaloons in a bunch when it comes to your approach are just not getting it. Call it the "path" of provoking dialogue, quite literally!

Alexis Smolensk said...

LOL, James. Language is everything.

Matt said...

I think the arguement against complex rulesets, especially when levied against later editions of D&D are not so much an arguement against rules. I think the issue at hand is the amount of system mastery it requires for the player in order to actually do the things they want. In particular in 3rd edition D&D the rules to, say, sheer sheep for income are directly tied to the rules for classes, skills, and feats.

Playing a 3rd edition game, if I want to start an organized sheep farm, with many loyal workers that will produce enough wool to make a marked income, I will probably need to understand the prerequisites for the leadership feat, and the number of skill ranks I have to put in to profession, animal handling, appraisal, and persuade. In order to make an informed decision on those things I need to understand the skills I have available, the difference between a class skill, and a cross class skill, the value of feats and whether or not my class gains bonus feats, and the impact of the charisma attribute on the leadership feat. That's a good bit of information for a player to keep track of. Much of it also involves irrevocable choices that are made at character creation.

I prefer a system that doesn't try to cobble skills and characteristics into its combat engine. I prefer a system where play can start quickly with a few dice rolls, and a handful of choices, because when I start a new game or introduce new players to the game I want them to play as quickly as possible. If they decide they want to start a wool trading empire, or get some bitches after that point, then cool. We'll figure out how to do that.

For the record though, I've never played Red Box D&D.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Back at 'cha, cbakerson!

The purpose of rhetoric is to foment discontent.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The ideal you describe, Matt, doesn't need preclude having the background system in place without that system needing to impede the players in practicing a simple game, if that's what the players want.

The complexity of the law does not preclude you ignoring it, living your life in tandem with it, largely avoiding its direct effect upon you and your doings.

But when you are confronted with all that law, aren't you glad the judges and the proscecution aren't just 'making it up as they go along?' Aren't you glad there are precedents upon which you can depend that back your play and compel ALL the participants to accept the same rules? And that others will also have to abide by those rules when your turn is over?

A DM that insists that 'making things up as we go along' is just fine will also 'fuck things up as we go along.' Because what difference does it make to the DM?

But then, I realize, most players aren't invested, are they? To the point where they'd care what the DM ruled. I wonder why that is ... he asked rhetorically.

Chris Blauwkamp said...

You accuse me of a straw man, but look at your complaint: If I want to establish a fortification, tax peasants, find some bitches, have one of them give birth, raise a child, determine its stats at age 9, train that child, create a treaty with another state by which my child and the stateman's [sic] child marry, expand trade, expand the intellectual comprehension of my citizens, plant crops, shear sheep, suffer the weather, sail a boat, drive a dog team, improve my nutrition, avoid disease, etc., etc., THERE ARE NO RULES.

As JD points out AD&D doesn't have rules for many of those things. Moreover, ACKS does. It has rules for trade, settlement, stronghold building, realm creation, etc., etc. Who's playing the incomplete ruleset now?

Second, if you're adding the rules to the AD&D ruleset, how is that different from me coming up with rulings on the spot? You might argue that having a set of rules ahead of time allows you to be consistent; I'd argue that making a ruling at the moment allows me to adapt that ruling to the situation, some relevant aspect of which even you may have failed to consider beforehand. In both cases, what is required is that the players be able to trust the DM, and no amount of rules is going to create a game where this trust is not required.

Your list of things you want rules for is illuminating, I think, in two specific examples. First, you write that you want rules for how to give birth. In my game, if it comes up, I might look at historical rates of pregnancy and assign a percentage change each month. Could I do this ahead of time? Sure, but I'm not sure what it would gain me, and I'm not sure what makes your method any better. Or consider your example "create a treaty with another state." Even limiting it, as you do, to a treaty of marriage, it is such a complex thing I'd hate to reduce it to a set of rules.

What it comes down to is, your argument seems to be either that you don't like simpler variants of D&D because "it [is] something someone's baby brother was using to play with his kid friends," which isn't much of an argument, or that you don't like simpler variants of D&D because they don't rules to cover everything you might want to do. But no version of D&D provides rules for anything you might want to do, and you give no reason for thinking your heavily house-ruled AD&D is the optimal level of complexity.

You seem to believe, when you write that 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 are difficult and can be confusing. But let me tell you, I've run games in 2.0, 2.5, 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4.0. I understood the systems. I simply did not like their complexity. I did not like the hours it took to create a dragon or an NPC in 3.5. I did not like the three hours it took to run a single combat in 4.0, especially given I can only play three hours in a given week. The complexity gets in the way of the play for me. And you obviously have a different level of desired complexity in your game, for whatever reason. But it's hard for me to tell from your posts what this reason might be, or why it makes your games objectively better, rather than just the games you happen to like to play.

Lukas said...

Well Matt..
If I may argue a short counter point.

Joe the Barbarian decides to farm sheep having no background in the art.

Joe: "I have found two sheep, how do I now sheep farm?"

GM: "Roll your profession shepherd."

Joe: "I don't have that."

GM: "Ok, roll d20 + your wis modifier.

Ok you make your result in silver pieces in the first week.

However since this is sheep farming and traditionally seasonal work we'll rule that is added value until you get to shearing season when you can claim it."

Joe: "Can I hire someone to help?"

GM: "If you get workers they can give an assisting profession shepherd roll (or take over the job) you have to pay them the going rate for the skilled or unskilled labor though.

Or when you meet the prerequisites you can take leadership to get free labor, you just have to house and feed them."

Joe: "Ok, can I do anything to get a bonus?"

GM: "If you buy a farm I'll give you a bonus for not just scrounging in the hills."

All these rules are real rules (without checking the book and circumstantial bonus for farm). The only made up portion is the seasonal sheep value one. Cause yeah, sheep don't shit money.

Of coarse Joe the Barbarian may or may not decide this is a worthwhile task when it comes to making money compared to the many GP he COULD get.

All that complexity of the 3rd edition rules just paid off. Oh and were even simpler than you remember perhaps...

Alexis Smolensk said...

Chris, I've made my argument perfectly clear. I can't help that you've chosen to ignore it. It's understandable that you've had a visceral reaction to what I said about children and children's games, you were meant to. Got you involved here.

But what I've been arguing is player agency.

You say you've run the systems and that you did not like the complexity. Please understand that not everyone who plays these systems needs hours to create a dragon. The fact that the complexity got in the way for YOU is irrelevant. People try things and FAIL.

Did you fail? No, I don't think so. But in my eyes, you did not fix the rules in the places where they confounded you; you failed to adapt yourself to the complexity because you never understood what all that complexity was FOR. And now you rail against the complexity because you still don't see what it adds to the game. You have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by returning to a simpler game. And you don't comprehend what you've lost.

D&D isn't EASY. Oh, it is for you, now, because you've opted out for the Kiddie version. And that is my point. By dismissing the value of the complexity, you've lost its benefit; and by refusing to recognize there IS a benefit, you've crippled yourself. You'll never be the DM you could be, because you aren't playing a system that challenges you to improve yourself every day.

You're right. There are no rules for those things. But there OUGHT to be. And for everything else in the game. I've been arguing all along that people whine when things get hard, or they say its impossible, and I bring up the law or medicine or language to demonstrate that people are able to learn and operate in the sense of really complex things when they want to do so hard enough.

This has been missed. Perhaps I needed to argue that the simple life is always the crippled life. There's no accomplishment in overcoming something a child could do.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Joe: "Ok, can I do anything to get a bonus?"

GM: "If you buy a farm I'll give you a bonus for not just scrounging in the hills."

Aha, Lukas, thank you for the example.

How much of a bonus? Does the size of the farm change the bonus? Does the type of sheep I run change the bonus? Does the climate and the amount of water in the area matter? How much bonus is everyone else getting? How is it my WISDOM defines how much money I'm getting for my sheep. Do less educated people than me automatically get less money? Doesn't it matter how long they've been doing this? Do they get a special wisdom for being experienced, that only applies to sheepherding? How will my bonus change over time? How much sheep are there in the area? How many do I have to buy to corner the market? How far does the sheepherding area extend? Is it all in this one kingdom? Are adjacent kingdoms also raising sheep? Is everywhere in the world raising sheep? Then what is the export market - is there any at all? If there's no export market, who's buying all this wool? Do the people buying the wool card and clean it? Is there more money if I card and clean it? Is that another wisdom check?

Thing is, I can answer these questions in my world. WITHOUT making anything up. Unlike 3.5, which is STILL simple-simon cheezy kid's stuff where it comes to game design.

Still ... some rules are better than no rules, I suppose.

Lukas said...

Wisdom is the attribute based modifier. Skill points which are acquired with levels (commoner is a class) thus assuming the commoner advances, yes they gain more ability. Without skill points, you only have the wisdom modifier. Joe never had any experience in sheep farming, therefore he has no skill points, therefore he only uses his wisdom.

(Formula: Skill Points + Attribute Modifier or for Joe: 0+1, for trained level 1 character with 12 wis, 4+1. Wisdom was chosen as the default profession trait, however it is noted somewhere that if another attribute is more appropriate it should be used. I would consider it attentiveness to repetitive work as well as mental fortitude to maintain said repetitive work.)

The more setting based questions will require more working out. Admittedly the game assumes most players will be more interested in the adventuring aspect than the sheep farming.

How much bonus for a house? Unfortunately this is where you would have to fill in. Suggested bonus for having masterwork tools is +2, so a home would have to be greater than that as it is the equivalent of a workshop. I would say +4. Ideal conditions like weather another +2 each. Weather, Terrain, High Quality food...

I'm not asking you to change from your system Alexis. However, you did 'make it up' you made it up from research and effort. If I had to answer on the spot I would make it up with little research and effort. If it became something obviously important overall, I would research and add complexity.

It sounds like you aren't upset with 3.5, you're upset that 3.5 isn't your system which is no longer the original system it sprouted from.

Yes, it sucks that WotC hasn't gotten into the business of making breathing worlds. They're still in the business of maximizing profits. Until that day, I recommend picking your favorite base system and evolving it to meet your needs.

In your case that's chosen. I'd never suggest you abandon your work. In the case of the rest of the audience I suggest you find a base with enough jumping off points to increase complexity in stages.

Marjan said...

Just to confirm any stereotype about Germans sometimes being Grammar Nazis (but my correction is just intended to improve your language ability):


Sie trinkt deinen Apfelsaft.
She drinks your apple juice.

Keep up the good work, Alexis! And enjoy your month off from blogging :)

If you keep learning German, you may soon be able to read my take on some of your ideas - even though my system never used DnD as a starting point to begin with. I would apreciate any help in that regard... building a coherent world is not easy, not at all. But it's worth it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Heck, got that one wrong.

Funny thing about Duolingo ... there's no 'book' to go look up stuff. Thanks, Marjan. I'm going to change the words in the post; but just for the record, I said "dein."

Marjan said...

You're welcome :)

I'd argue that some knowledge about grammar ('the book') at some (later) stage in your learning process would enhance your learning speed and your linguistic ability at the same time.

It's especially useful with the cases, like

dein Apfelsaft (Nominativ)
deines Apfelsaftes (Genitiv)
deinem Apfelsaft (Dativ)
deinen Apfelsaft (Akkusativ)

deine Apfelsäfte
deiner Apfelsäfte
deiner Apfelsäfte
deinen Apfelsäften

There are way too many of those tongue-breakers for anyone to encounter by naturally ocurring speech alone. I have to confess that it took me a while to figure that one out, even as a native speaker. But there are rules which cover that point. Learning those rules would save at least some time.

I love your metaphor, by the way! Language learning really is like building/enhancing a system (in this case DnD) to your own needs. You can always opt out and stay within your comfort zone by ignoring more complex issues at hand and 'making up stuff on the go' - but you'll pretty much miss any fun part in the long run if you do so. Plus, within the context of languages, you'll get it wrong most times.

By the way: Now that you have my Blogger account, feel free to ask me about German if you have any questions or if you need advice or material. I'm happy to help. :)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I have a couple of German books, which I have tried to learn from in the past (fruitlessly). Back in university I did three years of Latin, over which I banged my head on the table most nights, literally screaming at the book, getting through the tests by hook and by crook and barely managing my course requirements with a C-. So I've learned grammar from Latin, and know what you mean by genitive, dative, accusative ... and the later fun with subjunctives, active vs. passive, etc.; I'm sure it's all in my future.

I have no doubt that in frustration I will eventually get out those books again, when they will make much more sense. I could always get the meanings and the sentence structure, but I could never remember anything. I'd pick it up again and have no idea what Diese was or Knopf. The Duolingo is amazing for me because it lets you check the vocabulary continuously, so you're not staring and staring at a word, and breaking your concentration to go find it in a list somewhere. Scan the mouse over the word and there's the translation; and that does not stop me for memorizing it anyway.

In my first six weeks of Latin my vocabulary wasn't this good. I'm amazing myself.

(... more)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Another source of contention for me in learning a language is the insistence, always, that you have to SPEAK the language. I really don't care if I ever speak German. I know, I know, people say that it improves your memory and so on, but as a writer who really spends far more time writing words than speaking them, its nice to have an interactive system that doesn't insist that I spend tons of time speaking words. Mostly, I just want to be able to READ German ... composing is secondary, and chatting in the language quite incidental.

If I ever found myself living in Germany, constantly in the midst of people speaking the language, I'm sure I'd catch on in a reasonable amount of time - though of course my accent would be abysmal. Makes no nevermind to me, I'm sure they'd still tell me the way to the Mainz Cathedral or how much the Biere would cost me in Erfurt. And if I really must learn to speak it at some point, then I'll step back, tackle the chatter with a different tactic and have someone reshape my tongue with pliers. That would seem to be necessary.

Thanks for the support, Marjan. I'll take you up on it if anything occurs to me. My partner Tamara is also taking the German side by side with me (she's speaking it, because it pleases her), so she might have a question or two.

Issara Booncharoen said...

Right I'm trying to get a picture of what you're arguing and come to a conclusion on it, so I'm going to break it down for my own benefit.

1)If presented with any player action the DM should be able either to refer to some rules on the matter.

2)The human mind being what it is it is impossible to put all the rules for whatever might come up into one system. Similarly if the DM is playing with imaginitive players they will eventually decide on a course of action the DM does not have rules for.

3)Since the Red Box is selected because it is simpler a DM using it is more likely to handwave those situations or create temporary rules in favour of the outcome the DM is most invested in.

If I'm following so far I have a question, why the red box in particular? Many systems have an in built assumption of what players are going to do, no systems can accurately predict anything players might choose to do. You argue that the Red Box uses simplicity as a crutch for handwaving, however the fact that games have rules at all means that there is the assumption that what has been left out is unimportant for the purposes of that game.

This chain of thinking suggests that any game which does not give you the tules to make new rules with an eye for how rules click together and how they support a theme is a bad game in the same way the Red Box is. I do not know of any roleplaying systems which encourage you to fill the gaps and give you the tools to do so fairly.

No matter what ruleset you are using if the DM has not made the leap to adding more rules on the players are losing out having the outcome of out of the system choices in the hands of the DM as opposed to fairer rules.

Does the simplicity of the Red Box encourage this conservatism in DMs more than any other system? Why should simplicity be more important than the other factors that cause this behaviour in books, such as explicitly stating the game is focused on a particlar set of activities in the front page of the book, (undoutedly false) claims to be all encompasing, or game systems so intertwined that attempted change cause cascading unintended affects.

There's a lot of problems out there, and simplicity is merely a hurdle ro forming the idea that rules can be added, intertwined game systems are actually much more discouraging to someone who is actually trying to add rules to the game.

Well that went on, so I shall sumarise, why particular ire for the Red Box instead of general ire at all games which a)give no useful tools for adding rules b)discourage adding rules in the first place? As far as I can see your concerns are agaisnt every published roleplaying book, rather than any one particular book.

Homer2101 said...

I remember learning English some years ago. It involved a lot of swearing, in Russian.

You've probably read this already, but if not, it may prove entertaining:

ANYWAYS. The best way to learn a language is to use it. Beyond that, one speaks the language to become better at speaking it, writes to become a better writer, and reads to improve reading proficiency. An understanding of the structure of the language helps, but is not necessary, because fluency requires that the language be intuitive. The time spent thinking about verb conjugations is time spent not thinking about the meaning of what has been written or said, or what is about to be said.

As far as system design goes, I think of systems as akin to staplers. Your system, Alexis, is like the heavy duty stapler which can staple two pages, or two hundred, or a hand. The Red Box is like a $0.99 plastic stapler which can barely handle a dozen pages. The heavy-duty stapler is clearly superior in every way. But if one only needs to staple a few pages a week, then there's no real benefit from having a heavy-duty stapler -- the small one will do nearly as well.

Game systems are no different. You have developed rules for a huge range of situations, and have done a much better job than the folk at WotC in every respect. Sometimes I wish that they'd scrap half the work they have done with DnD Next and just pay you for a system license or something. But the folk who use Red Box and similar don't need a system which models sheepfarming, or childrearing, or mass combat, if all they want to do is kill stuff and collect shiny things twice a month.

That said, rules heavily influence player behavior, and players not infrequently won't attempt things not provided for in the rules. All things being equal, it would definitely be better if players knew that the rules allowed them to start a sheep farm, and what exactly would be needed, without them having to come up with the idea spontaneously.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Starting with Issara's question, why the Red Box set in particular, I wanted an example to describe the very strong and powerful consensus that D&D must NOT be complicated. Make any statement about putting hard work into your system in a forum or other venue and there will be Mobs of players who rush to tell you, "Don't make it more complicated!" I picked the Red Box set to make the point for two reasons: 1) most people are familiar with it in principle; 2) It was the first time in my life that I encountered any idea of retail D&D that was 'dumbed down' for people.

Until I saw that box, the thrust was upward leading. Since around 1983, the game has sawn off at the knees in order to merchandise it to the Lowest Common Denominator. As such, the game has not especially advanced these last thirty years - it has wallowed in a sea of editions, re-editions, efforts to 'balance' the game and indulged in a plethora of useless game design that continues to push the head of innovation under the water with cries of "Simplicity! Fun! Heroism for ALL!"

Now and then I have to kick that bullshit.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My point exactly, Homer. Tell 'em there will be weapons, spells and characters, tell 'em it's treasure and quests, and not only will they think that's the whole game, they'll argue down the dissenting voice of anyone at the table who might have a mind to, I don't know, pursue a fantasy.

A heavy stapler might be overkill, but once it's purchased, and once it's in place on your desk, you won't care how heavy it is. You'll even grow fond of it, and even scoff at lesser staplers.

Strix Nebulosa said...

If you're a foreigner visiting Germany and you use a German word incorrectly - you will be politely corrected.

This is almost identical to the process of watching Alexis post house rule after house rule after homemade system after spreadsheet after map after addendum on a blog with 630,215 unique page views.

If he posts an error, he will be politely corrected... well, there's a few genuine assholes out there who are incapable of contributing or creating anything of value, but I digress.

I think what Alexis is getting at here is that his players have something your players don't have. 1,000 eyes a day sharing their opinions on a rule that directly affects their character.

It doesn't matter what they could possible imagine to do with their characters (see the OP for the clever list). Should a player decide that their character would like to do something Alexis doesn't already have a rule for. Let's say, "drive a dog sled" or try to turn a profit on their trip to Gamon (What? You guys just cross off a couple of rations and call it a trip?! LOL. I made almost 1,000 GP's on my last road trip after paying the guards, cooks, etc... You don't know how much a caravan guard makes? Come on guys, you can search this blog for the answer.) You bet Alexis will be posting about the rule here.

If you were at his table and saw 33 people agreed with the new rule, except the troll who nobody gives a shit about anyway, then how would that make you feel?

I'll tell you what it feels like, it feels like you can do anything, have a fair shot at achieving your goal, and that you're sitting across the table from a DM that's not just pulling some shit out of his ass to get you to shut the fuck up about driving a dog sled.

I find this blog to be a huge resource at settling any argument that comes up. Hey DM guy, I want to buy 100 bushels of apples here in Paqack and sell them when I get to Gamon. How much money will I make?

Well, what kind of apple? How far away is Paqack from an apple tree? How long is the voyage to Gamon?What season is it? Is the road there safe? What kind of demand for apples is there in Gamon? What is the political agenda of the ...

Fuck the Red Box. And it's kiddie crayon. Even when I was 11 and we only had the Red Box we made up our own rules.

Ozymandias said...


I'm writing this comment before I read the other 34 responses. I want you to know, whether you share with the world or not, that there are people who appreciate the work you do. The stand you take. Your position inspires more than you may know.

I look forward to reading more when you return from your hiatus.

Matt said...


I understand that 3rd edition indeed had the rules for ruling how much the proffession skill makes, and how to handle unskilled rolls. I also agree that for someone versed in the system it is pretty easy to find that reference. What is hard is explaining to a new player, or even an old player who's looking in to a new niche, exactly what their ROI is going to be on the irreversible feat and skill choices they make at character creation, and every level thereafter.

Further, as Alexis already pointed out, this doesn't take in to account any economic realities. The barbarian just makes a wage for the skill roll. What happens when he decides to use force of arms to take ownership of the surrounding farms, train the farmers as a rudimentary militia, and roll up on to the manor of the local land-lord and explain that the price of wool just got a lot more expensive?

I don't think that 3rd edition has a rule for that.

Also, Alexis, I agree. I am glad that there are laws, and precedents. In the same manner, I try not to make an RPG ruling without looking at how some other part of the system works, or seeing how someone else handles it. That's why I read gaming blogs, have 4 editions worth of DMGs on my shelf, and look at rulesets I never intend to use at the table.

I think that having complex systems and minigames is a good thing. I just think that those minigames should be divorced from the combat engine, or only connected in such a way that mastery of every system is not required by the players before play begins.

Skydyr said...

The distinction made between a system of codified rules that encompass all things and a bare-bones and simple system that the DM then rules on as situations come up seems a lot like an argument over whether common or civil law systems are better. There are, of course, benefits and drawbacks to each approach.

Anonymous said...

This. Some rulesystems are light but still place a premium on having a systematic way of resolving actions, even unexpected ones.

There's also the YAGNI (you aren't going to need it) principle, from computer programming, which suggests that you don't need to spend time building something unless it's actually something you think you'll use.

Being prepared to handle the basic situation where my character decides to open an apothecary shop is desirable. Having a ruleset already prepared that can answer questions about the sellthrough and demand elasticity of every item in the store so that I can maximize margins and inventory turns is going to be a complete waste unless you have some reason to think it will be needed.

Alexis, having done this for a long time, I'm sure you're very used to the level of detail and kind of rules that are likely to be beneficial in a campaign you run. But expecting someone to learn a Master's Degree worth of information on gaming before they try to run a session seems a bit over the top.

My impression is that the current iteration of the Red Box set simply isn't a very good game. But there are good games that start with very light rules and only have rules added to the degree that they actually add to the players' enjoyment of the game.