Thursday, January 31, 2013


Peru Ubu in the comments post of my Intractable post writes,

"It's not easy even in real life to admit that there's things you just need to accept; I suppose the question lies in whether you want a brutally realistic game, or if you're willing to let things slide in the name of enjoyment.  How escapist are you willing to let your game be? (No offense, it appears you'd be less flexible on the subject than I might be.) ..."
Rarely have I ever had such an easy question to answer.

I want my game to be incredibly escapist.  I want the player to transcend the rules and demands of their earthly self ... I want them to forget, in that moment where the game is happening, what they want their character to do or what they imagine for themselves is the point of the game.  I want them to react to the game emotionally, violently, furious at the monsters, terrified at their own death (where they are ONE AND THE SAME with their characters), railing with vivid righteousness in their cause, laughing maniacally in the acts of their own brutality, screaming, shouting, seizing the dice in frenzied impatience, screaming at the bad result when it comes up, crying out in triumph when the walls come down ...

See, I don't care if the emotion I wring from my players is pleasure or not.  The easiest emotion to be had is pleasure.  Pleasure can be gotten by giving them a few gifts, or having some mild instance of good luck go their way.

TRIUMPH is not mere pleasure.  Triumph is the profound mix of relief and success that can only be gotten after the harrowing of the human soul, through misery, pain, doubt, uncertainty and most of all, DESPAIR.  There is nothing so rich and rewarding in the playing of a game that the manufacture of emotional transference from despair to triumph.  Until the party believes, wholly, with their complete heart and their complete certainty that they can never win no matter what they do can they ever truly feel the godlike resurgence of absolute, unfathomed TRIUMPH.

If it is easy; if it is serving the party's needs; if it is a joking, mocking, silly romp through moronic rooms, tramping between the rails of a pedantic, cliched ideal of a DM's tour, then the triumph at the end is the worst sort of footnote to the worst sort of escapist crapfest.

I'm not building a rollercoaster here, where your character gets a little thrill on a ride that's guaranteed to leave you alive at the end ... I'm building a terror house where there's every chance that in the next five minutes the YOU that you've been, fighting and suffering and investing in my world all these many months, even years, will be stone cold DEAD beyond all hope of redemption.

Yes, you're freakin' right I want it to be escapist.  If you're sitting on your ass still thinking of yourself and your character as being different entities, that's NOT escapist.  That's masturbation through proxy.

Now, you want to come and run in MY world?

They're Kids ... Scare 'Em

Well, it's been a strange week.

For those who are getting a little uptight that I haven't posted anything solid about game design for quite awhile now, my apologies.  I promise a nice, pretty picture of a three-level ship in a day or two.  I've just been putting my energy towards beating my fiction novel into submission and trying to find a blue Les Paul I can get a photo of for the front cover.  Things are looking good for next week, perhaps the week after.  Can't rush these things.

In the meantime, once again I'm being counselled - again - about my abusive, arrogant, inconsiderate manner in writing posts telling other DMs that they're idiots, they run shit worlds, they haven't done half the work they need to justify themselves and that in the future the game is going to leave them behind.  I'm being told - as ever - that if I were polite, and presented my ideas politely, then these people would be SOOO much more willing to discuss the issues.

Pure bullshit.  And here's why:

I love this scene.  It directly addresses the entire issue of being polite to people who consider themselves talented and capable, who are in fact prima donnas who need the royal shit scared out of them from time to time.  People do not improve with pampering.

People improve when they are shit scared.

I don't know ... I may make this film thing a regular feature.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Never By A Damn Sight

Last night I had a few chuckles reading someone defending the post I'd written last week on the Ethical Treatment of Rail RoddersYagamiFire did an excellent job reading me ... it's almost like I use words and they're comprehensible to people who can read.

Not everyone, of course.  Seems what that article was really about was the difference between preparing an adventure and not.  Ah well.  I don't have much to say about that.  Obviously, preparation is good.  That's why I spend so much time at it.  Still, there is a HUGE difference between preparing the overall context of an adventure and preparing a bunch of particular, inflexible circumstances which are to be imposed on the players.  This was NOT the substance of the article I wrote about ethics ... but it is a subject worth speaking on.

Before I do that, however, I just want to make a point about something tanstaafl (arguing against my position in the forum), regarding "effort:"

"But the amount of effort for some people would be dramatically larger, to the point were it's just not worth the time they're sacrificing. Which is the other half of this; it only 'universally translates' to pure laziness if everyone has some effortlessly sacrificeable chunk of time they can use for said training. If they don't (and I don't think many people do) then they have to make choices that have time costs." (6:58 pm, Jan 29)

Can I just say?  "tanstaafl" is a term coined by the author Robert A. Heinlein.  It means, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  I don't know if the fellow who chose that nick has any idea what the fuck that means, but just for the record, it means - straight from every Heinlein book you might read - if it looks like its free, you're going to learn the hard way that it ain't, so don't go looking for hand-outs.  Be prepared to get your hands dirty and work your ass off, 'cause no one, ever, is going to give you something for nothing.

Heinlein was a Missouri boy, born and bred in the first decades of the twentieth century, when Missouri had few roads, little industry beyond agriculture and a protestant work ethic that runs like blood through his work.  Using the nick tanstaafl to argue that not everyone should be expected to bleed in order to succeed is just about the most profound level of cognitive dissonance I've had the chance to witness ... and there have been some fine examples from commenters on this blog.

The common whine goes, "I'm too busy to work on D&D!  Waa!  Waa!  I have family and a job and responsibilities and things that take up my time and ... Waa!  Waa!"

Really, I don't fucking care.    No one in the world fucking cares.  Tanstaafl.  You don't do the work, you don't get respect.  There's a lot of people who might nod knowingly, pitying you, but I don't know anyone who wants pity.  Improvements in the game are not going to be made by people who would rather watch football on Sunday.  They're not going to be made by helicopter parents who must spend every waking hour of their children's lives smothering them.   Marie and Pierre Curie had two children and they still both won Nobel Prizes, in a world without vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, computers and about a thousand other time saving devices.  You're not busy because your a parent, you're busy because your priorities are out of fucking whack.

Now, I'm not saying D&D is more important than your kids (well, D&D is more important to ME than your kids are, but that's not really the point).  What I'm saying is that technology has made your life pretty freakin' cushy, and if the Curies could juggle a home life and world-class investigative work, so can you.

When I was in university, whenever I needed an extension for a paper I hadn't written because I wasn't in the mood, I was at the bar or my wife and I had decided to have sex, I would take my 2-year-old daughter to school and sit her on my hip while asking the prof for more time.  I always got it.  OF COURSE it was the lowest form of duplicity.  Still, what the hell difference did it make?  Truth is, parents learn damn fast that kids are the ultimate excuse for everything on this planet.  It is a truth of which single people are bitterly - I mean BITTERLY - aware.  For every parent who can comment on this screaming, "I never use my children that way!" there are two single people who can answer, "Yeah, right!"

Guess who's picking the ball up at your job when your kids are sick again?

'Course, there are some people who don't think the hobby needs to be changed.  They think it is fine just as it is.  The rules are fine, the structure is fine, their world is fine, their style of play is fine, there is no need for improvement in anyway.

Thankfully, none of these people have any real say about the future of the game.  The future of the game is going to be decided by people like me, people who work on it all the time because we are obsessed with it.  People who have long since stopped thinking of D&D as a game and who now think of it as a spiritual art form.  We can't stop working on it ... we know it can be better, because we've deconstructed the principles of the activity down to their base fundamentals and we're well aware that the experience enjoyed by the players depends on the preparation we've done.

I'm not talking about some willy nilly preparation such as sketching out a room or writing up the NPC who's standing outside the Grub & Grog.  Seriously, when I talk of working on the game, or given players options, or getting the hell out of railroading your campaign, I'm not quibbling about some stupid 'improv' you're doing where you paint the walls white in the dungeon instead of gray.  It makes no nevermind if the NPC is a mage or a fighter or six-feet-tall or if he comes from the planet Zooba-Zikzik-Zaffa-Bam 43.  That sort of thing is what we like to call in the development department a cosmetic change, and it don't mean fuck all.

NOT railroading your parties does not begin with doing a little nip and tuck here and there to fit the occasional hiccup.  There's nothing more annoying that a DM who claims on the one hand, "I don't railroad," who then proceeds to use language to frame their DM style like "campaign arc" and their "story writing skills."  The disconnect is exactly the sort of fog a DM like that needs to justify their perfect record where it comes to making their players happy.  As Chiba says on the top of this page, "... I've never had a party just completely abandon the storyline I have written and prepared for."

Never, huh.  Never.  Oh, I don't think he's lying.  It is far more probable, given the number of times he makes claim to the words story, plot and plan, that his players haven't a bloody clue the game is played any way but Chiba's way.

Many, many players don't.

Before one can remotely begin to conceive of a world without tracks, one must first have a conception of not needing them.  For most, the argument is still stuck between "but if I don't prepare, then what do I do when the unexpected happens?"  The very core of this question is the DM's fear that disorder and chaos will give way in their world, and they will lose control over the proceedings.

The terror of not measuring up to a challenge or a crisis has long been the reason for people doing far more preparation than they really should.  I have a favorite story from the film Marathon Man, which I first heard related sometime when I was just out of high-school.  The story goes that for the scene where Dustin Hoffman's and Laurence Olivier's characters meet - the brilliant dental scene where Ernst Szell interrogates Babe to learn "if its safe" - Hoffman, as was his usual style, did not bathe or sleep for days prior.  Being a student of the Stanislavski method, he wanted his emotional state to be as close as possible to that of the character in the film.  The story goes that Hoffman - who practically worshipped Olivier, as everyone did - explained all this to his idol in the hopes that the effort he'd taken to destroy himself for the part would be admired ... and Olivier is said to have asked in response, "Why don't you just try 'acting'?"

Here's the scene.  You tell me who did better on the 'preparation' front:

As I have already said, I prepare my world on a constant, continuous basis.  More to the point, I prepare myself just as much as I prepare my world.  I do that by not living in a world of self-aggrandizement and certainty that says I have the way to DM that works for me, no question about it.  I have been playing 33 years now and there is no way I think I know the best way to run my world.  I try a new technique every week.  I experiment, I dissect, I ask my players, I struggle to keep the game as lively and rich as I possibly can ... but I never, ever, think that the way I run my world today is the BEST way.  It's the best I can do right now ... but I'm sure that with more effort, with greater insight, with a higher level of research and examination, plus all the design I can muster to back up those investigations, I can make my world better tomorrow than it is today.

Because you see, O Gentle Reader, it is never good enough.  Never by a damn sight.  I simply cannot cripple myself by worrying about whether or not I have control over the sessions, where there's room for all this improvement.  If the thing goes to hell, and I've tried something that didn't work, then fuck it.  My players are playing the same game I am, and they're just as prepared as I am to reboot something that's not working, IF it's not.

Jeez, to hear some DM's talk about it, you'd think the players were the enemy.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Done a Thousand Times

According to my blog's dashboard, this is my 1,000th post.  According to the blog archive on the sidebar, this is actually 1,003.  Either way, its a large, round, meaningless milestone, so let's use it to take stock.

My experience has been that a blog, on the whole, can be expected to last about 30 to 36 months.  Somewhere after 25 months, a lot of bloggers start to feel the blahs.  They've run out of most everything they have to say, and it seems less and less important to write out another five hundred words to say it all over again.  The stretches between postings get longer and longer.  The posts get shorter and start to feature more pictures than words.  Eventually, a blogger realizes its been four months since their last post.  Some recognize the coming truth and quit.  Others write a few "I'm back!" posts before realizing that no, they're really not.

I am right now just four months shy, to the day, of my 5th year.  My first post was May 28, 2008.  I did feel a bit of depression around 30 months.  I was slogging a bit, feeling the crunch of too little feedback, or too much of the worthless, trolling kind.  However, I kept up the idea that I was doing more than just talking to people on this blog; I was commemorating the work I've done for thirty years into a written format, so as to make it concrete.  This sustained me through the hard times.

The invigoration of this blog began, I believe, when I set about the moderate the comments.  I got tired of writing long, difficult posts describing some fine-tuned element of the game, only to get back a disrespectful answer from someone who plainly did not, or could not read what I'd written.  I'd long run into this sort of behavior.  I've written opinion pieces since my university days, and been vilified for them, but once upon a time the worst, most ignorant sort of letters weren't published by editors.  All I did here was apply the same sort of process.

At first, I got a lot of angry replies, most of them personal, some insistent on their moral rightness or some other hooey.  The truly dedicated went back to their own blogs to write insulting posts about me and my lack of intelligence, consideration, etc.   I see that most of the truly dedicated occasionally still drop around this blog to see how I'm doing lately.  All power to them.

In time, the bad comments fell off and left me with people who tend to make an effort in their reply.  I'm amused by the fact that I'm so scary that some feel it isn't worth it to comment, or that they don't want the abuse that's bound to follow.  They're probably right.  There are many people who regularly suffer no abuse when commenting on this blog.  I wonder why this is.

I began writing seriously in the 7th grade.  I did not have much natural literary talent, but I had something to say and I liked the power and control that came from shaping stories as a writer.  I didn't hesitate to tell others at the time what my plans were - and I learned early on that if you answer the question, "what do you want to do when you grow up" with "writer," you get a lot of pushback.  No one thinks choosing doctor or researcher or engineer is a bad plan ... but a writer or any other kind of artist is living in cloud cuckoo land and the teachers and authority figures line up to explain that.

So right from the beginning, writing has been a bloodsport.

One of the more momentous moments in my process of becoming a writer occurred when Mr. Whitehead, my grade 11 drama teacher, offered to critique my work.  Basically, he approached the matter with, "All right, you want to be a writer, let me see what you've written and I'll give my opinion."  I had a lot of respect for Mr. Whitehead.  He talked straight to the students, he was young and hip and creative, he let us break a lot of rules where it came to what we wanted to put on stage and as far as I could tell, he was widely experienced and educated.  He had been in Hollywood, he said ... but I can't remember what his first name was, and I can't find him on IMDb.  So it goes.

I remember he told us that the reason he'd left California was because he was straight and he couldn't take being hit on by gays anymore.  In 1982, that was quite a revelation coming from a teacher.

I poured work onto Whitehead, since I was always writing and I had a lot to give him.  He distilled it for two weeks, then sat down with me and for an hour extolled all the reasons why I would never be a writer.  He meant well; he believed he was doing the best thing for me he could.  I don't doubt that based on what I was writing at the time (I still had no acquired talent) that what he'd read of mine was complete shit.  I remember handling the opinion very well.  I also ignored it completely.

Over the next seven years I wrote and sent things to be published and achieved nothing in the way of success.  I did not go to university out of high school.  I felt sick of school and its self-imposed superiority and so I went out into the real world.  I used my talents for math and statistics to land a couple of high paying jobs in the oil sector, the money from which I blew on a lot of sex and wasted fun, mostly hanging around musicians.  Good times.

University, which I started in '86, brought me face to face with the campus paper.  I found myself reading something completely imbecilic on the editorial page, I went around to explain it to the editor and was asked to write a reply.  He published what I'd written, then asked me if I wanted to write more ... and so between 1989 and 1992 I wrote an article about once a week, slamming government, students, political activists, sports, war, the campus administration, anybody I wanted.  Most of what I wrote was published, and most of it got lots of angry letters that made one fellow at the paper very happy - the fellow who sold its advertising.

One of the rules about old journalism - the limit on how much advertising you can sell is based on how much meaningful, worthwhile content you can create.  Too little content per ad and you have a rag no one will read.  Too much content with too few ads, and your business department is sorely lacking.  What's really desired is a 3/5 split in page space - 3 parts advertising, 5 parts content.

The problem is with most campus papers is that getting enough content on the page that's worth reading is HARD.  If the sales department is good - and Clark at the Gauntlet was very good - it doesn't take long before you're scrambling around to fill up the space between the ads.

When I wrote an especially nasty letter, we would get two pages of angry, interesting, padding comments that would comfortably fill up the paper and make it viable.  I remember in those days while the other students were sitting around in the editorial offices, I would get as much time talking to Clark as possible.  Of course he was working, so that was limited - but I learned a lot of good lessons.

I have a favorite story about the article I wrote in 1990 that got one of my editors punched in the stomach.

This may not win me many fans, but one of the things I have long held a grudge against has been Native Rights.  I am a fan of anyone who is a human being, even the occasional stupid person who inexplicably reads this blog.  However, I'm not a big fan of the cultural industry that has grown up around the unjustifiable misery caused by white people against natives in the last two centuries.  The misery was, unquestionably, of the lowest order.  But the INDUSTRY that has chosen to capitalize on that misery in its particular way - the welfare demands by a people who themselves experienced no personal part of that misery - this has always stuck in my craw.

In 1990 I wrote an article comparing the Native peoples of Canada with the white people in South Africa, round about the time that Aparthied was all the rage.  As I saw it, Apartheid was largely about a minority based on their race having more rights and privileges than persons in the country not of that race ... and I proceeded to identify the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Natives of Canada that I did not enjoy.  I then went on to point out, from statistics, just how small was that minority in Canada:  0.4%.

The editor of the time, a noble fellow I shall always remember fondly, changed one word that had absolutely nothing to do with the tone of the piece - it was something semantic, but I don't remember - then published it.  And the balloon went up.

The first thing that happened was the Native Association on campus tried to seize every paper that had been published.  They grabbed them from paper boxes, they grabbed them from local businesses and they knocked on professors' doors to get them from those who had subscriptions.

Then the Head of the Native Association marched down to try to seize those papers in the Gauntlet office, and to demand that the Guantlet a) never allowed me to write another article for the paper again; and b) that a retraction be printed apologizing for this gross malfeisance of justice, yada yada yada.  My Noble Editor refused.  He refused to allow the Head to seize the office papers, as those were private property of the Gauntlet.  He refused to deny me further access as a writer.  I remember as he explained this to the woman who was the Head, she got angrier and angrier, to the point where she was literally hopping mad.  My Noble Editor had, upon my first word, told me to shut the fuck up, and so I did, doing nothing but let him defend me.  It was quite the experience.

As it happened, the other editor of the Guantlet (there were two elected in those days) chanced to come in the door and this woman, well into the realm of hysteria, spun around as though attacked and slugged my other editor - an equally Noble Woman who is now a doctor, right in the stomach.  HARD.  The future doctor went down and the Head marched out through the door.

The only thing that came of that was a brief and quickly dropped assault case, reported by the editor who was punched and not pursued by the crown.  I continued to write.

So, as I said, writing has long been a confrontational bloodsport for me.

I did later write a couple of other articles about Natives, culminating in one I wrote about money unaccounted for among Ontario bands connected to the prevalence of ignored native youths killing themselves sniffing gasoline from plastic bags.  That got me called into the office of the later Head of the same Native Association, who wanted to cowe me with his 'authority' and privilege and connections with the Alberta Government - I'm not kidding, he quoted all three at me.  I explained that the events in Ontario that I quoted were a matter of record and that I didn't give a shit about his position or anything that he stood for, and that the mere act of attempting to coerce me into writing an apology was tantamount to fascism.  What came out of that was that I was banned - for life - from all native events in the city of Calgary.  I haven't tried to find out if the ban still holds.

Since leaving university, very little of my writing has been political ... and frankly, it has improved quite a lot since then.  It improves all the time.  Everything I write on this blog is one draft only, written as fast as I can type.  Rarely do I go back and edit.  I rather enjoy that I'm not duty bound to fix and fix this writing, as I am things I truly worry about ... like the novel I hope to expect to launch in February.  Right now, I'm through the complete edit and I'm double checking to see if I can't catch the sort of silly errors like a missing word here and there.  The cover is also turning into a problem, as we are trying to find a Les Paul that can be used for the image.

I've enjoyed writing all this time, these past five years.  Understand, however, that where it comes to feeling uncertain about what I believe or what I'm prepared to fight for, there's been nothing here on the internet that has ever challenged me.

The real scary people are in the real world. But I have the attitude necessary for them, too:

The Intractable

Given that you do not want to railroad your players by insisting that they work through the maze in the manner you insist, it still remains to be said that your players are not in control of your world, nor should they be.

Over the weekend I stumbled across this post by the Retired Adventurer, John Bell.  It's a good article, though somewhat unclear in its use of academic buzzwords which are generally used to obfuscate when simpler, more direct language would make the point better.  The other failing is that it hinges on an article that requires a password to read, which adds to the pretentiousness of the whole. 

Bell defines his "anti-narrative" stance thusly:

"I mean that my primary focus as a referee is not on "telling a story," moving PCs from rising action to rising action until an emotionally cathartic climax is attained, but on presenting interesting and meaningful choices with escalating consequences, and pushing the PCs to decide which option to take."

This more or less relates to what I've always tried to say on this blog.  But of what Bell has written, it is the word 'pushing' that I think is the most interesting.

My last post on Rail Rodders, the players who must ride the rails the DM creates, emphasized that there shouldn't be a railroad at all, not even one that is hidden.  However, this is not to say that the players are defacto placed in charge of everything that happens in the world.  Far, far from it.  The players may make choices, as Bell says, but the players must also put up with obstacles.

Where it gets easy to create a narrative as a DM is in that many, many things which happen to players are entirely out of the player's sphere of control.  This is true with all of us in our daily lives.  Count how many things - particularly dangerous, life threatening things - have nothing whatsoever to do with our choices, but which are pushed on us from outside by the chance of events.

You are sitting in your car on a road, dutifully stopped at a stop light.  A driver moving perpendicular to the position of your front bumper is hurrying to work and has no stop sign to contend with.  However, the night before a service truck passed by here leaking oil because the worker who was supposed to fix the leak was at the hospital attending to his wife who was injured falling on the kitchen floor.  The temperature this particular day is just right to give the oil the right amount of slickness for the tires on the other driver's car, so that the driver loses control.  A moment later, you're seeing his car skid towards yours ... you have seven tenths of a second to react before a large white bubble explodes in your face.  Next, you're staring at a hospital ceiling, aware only that someone is holding your hand ...

Not every action we experience is a 'choice.'  A vast number of experiences we have everyday are anything but choices, and it must be realized that in the fundamental construction of a campaign, there will be many times when events must conspire to force players to take the only rational action and hope for the best.  When faced with a lava flow, there is only one direction to go.

Moments of the game are going to be like that.  A host of goblins are simply going to be intractable.  The motivations of the local overlord are going to be intractable.  Fact is, many people ARE intractable, and imposing them into your D&D world can be a satisfying experience for a party.  You don't always get what you want.  You don't always get your way.  Sometimes, you get screwed and you learn to get over it.  This undermines that part of your players that make them haughty and pompous and on the whole intolerable.  Humiliation - at the hands of a speeding car, or an implacable enemy or a force beyond their ken - causes people to suck it up, sort themselves out and reidentify the world as something that simply cannot be 'got around' in the same old way.  Humility in turn breeds character.

This cannot be done by endlessly offering players a way out of every crisis simply by being smart enough.  Like the car accident above proves, we're all mortal - no matter how puffed up we are, there's always a moment when something unexpected can cut us down a notch.  Accepting this about the world is what makes us human ... and anything that humanizes your players will deepen your world.

So now and then - not all the time, not even as often as rarely - you have to give a three-card monty game to your players that they cannot win.  You have to choose these moments very, very carefully.  You have to make sure they apply to every person in the party, fairly and equally.  You have to design them so they seem to have happened from a place outside your decision-making process.

I shall try to give you an example, created by a writer, which John Bell above might describe as an unfair narrative, but which I would describe as the only possible result of these two characters interacting with one another.  This is what makes good writing - when the narrative has nothing to do with what the author wants ... but which merely describes a circumstance occurring in the only way it CAN occur.

The film is Hair.  In the clip below (starting at 5:15), the character George Berger tries to talk his way onto an army post.  Berger, being what Berger is, as defined by the movie, simply cannot understand why he can't simply do as he wants.  The guard, in character a million miles from anything that could begin to understand what Berger is or what he wants, cannot act or be any other way that how this guard acts.  There are no choices here.  There could never be a choice here.  Not in terms of this interaction.

Of course, Berger does find a way around it.  With very, very bad consequences. Berger doesn't find a way to win, he finds a way to lose more profoundly.

Once again, you cannot argue with a lava flow.  You can only avoid them.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pulse Check

If anyone who isn't a player wants to ask questions about the online campaign, here's your opportunity.  I've tossed out the opportunity once before, without much reception ... but nothing wrong with checking now and then.

I'll answer any questions anyone might have.

The Ethical Treatment Of Rail Rodders

Accepting that there must be a balance between the interactive and the immersive concepts of the game you present, where is the point of difference where the players are concerned?

As you sit down to play as a DM, you have in your mind a series of possible incidents that are likely to occur, based upon the position of the players and their expressed desires.  Last running, you left the players having just reached a particular town where they have stated their intention to hire a boat.  Then the session ended and you have a week or two to guess at what the party will actually do when the next running starts.  Possibly, the party will change their mind and not hire a boat - but honestly, this is not likely.  Still, you have to be prepared for both.

IF they change their minds, and decide to suddenly travel overland to their destination, or pick a new destination, you might simply throw an obstacle in their way for a session to give you time to prepare.  But IF they do decide to get a boat, it wouldn't hurt to make up your mind about who the captain might be, how the boat's crew might act, what the crew and captain might intend to do once they're at sea and so on.

This is not railroading.  The party is going to get some kind of crew.  Unless they sit down and interview every crew in the harbor - which will be time consuming and which might challenge you to come up with creative crew ideas on the fly - they're going to get the crew you give them.  What is important to recognize is that they COULD interview all the ships.  They could decide NOT to get on with the crew they've just been  introduced to.  They could sit and wait until an entirely different ship comes into the harbor.  They have options.

Something is a railroad when, no matter what the party decides to do, they wind up with the crew the DM wants.  If they take ship B instead of ship A, its the same crew.  If they wait for a ship, its the same crew.  If they interview every ship in the harbor, and no matter what they hear or see or are told, it turns out to be the SAME crew the DM wanted from the beginning.  There are no options.  And this is true even if the DM does not let on that there are no options.

What it means is that railroading is something that happens in the DM's head long before it gets to the gaming table.  It is a PHILOSOPHY of dungeon mastering, based fundamentally on laziness.  It says that as the DM, "I am entitled to make use of whatever adventure I have conceived, for the good of the players and for my own convenience."  Many DMs will defend it ethically on that specific basis.  They will argue, "A good, interesting story is GOOD for the players ... and the more work I have done on that story, the better it will be, because it will be a deeper, more meaningful experience."

It is a very dangerous mindset.  It is substantially a belief the DM holds that in any situation of the game, what the DM says is good must be good because the DM has worked on it (conceived of it, what have you).  The DM further will tend to believe that because he or she that is running the game has more experience, this further proves the value of their judgment in these matters.  "Trust me, I'm the DM," is a terrible sentiment and an awful, self-righteous way to determine what will interest a given player.

It is a common argument in other fields, and is refuted directly by the axiom that Home Rule is better than 'good' government.  The smug satisfaction that a DM makes a game great simply because he or she is the DM, and knows best, is a patriarchal pile of bullshit that many players unwilling to walk out on a game will have to live with.

See, it isn't just an argument that railroading is good or bad ... it's the argument some hold that railroading - to some degree, they will always qualify - is necessary.  They believe that it's necessary to produce a 'good' running, necessary to make the best use of the DM's time and so on ... and they will not be dissuaded from the belief because, in their eye, the proof is in the countless sessions they've run where the party didn't know they were being railroaded.  If the party doesn't know, its all right, isn't it?

There is a great deal I could say about the ethical quality of this argument; your government has been making the argument for, oh, about 6,000 years, and so has your spouse, your children, your employer and a host of people who blithely sell you flour mixed with rat turds and lettuce with possible - but not proven - e-coli.  What you don't know won't hurt you ... at least, of course, until it does.

It isn't just more ethical to quit screwing over your party in this particular way, it is one fuck of a lot harder, too.  If you don't pre-plan the shipboard denizens of your ships, you're bound to slip into the laziness of always putting on a boat the first idea you have; and if you do pre-plan, you're bound to stick stubbornly to whatever it is you've designed.  Neither gives the player much of an option when the time comes to play, and thus the only tactic you have is to LIE like a rug and say no, you never did have anything set in stone when the party started up again to look for a ship.

Which is utter bullshit, because of course you had something set in stone.  You had the idea for a boat waiting for them.  You'd be an idiot not to.  One would hope you've spent the intervening week or so thinking about the party and the adventure, and that you have the wherewithal to be inventive and conceive of some kind of captain for the ship and the crew too.

What you have to teach yourself to do, however, is to A) give the party an honest chance to make up their mind about real clues about how the captain might act once at sea ... and B) to be prepared  as a DM to throw away all that you've created and start from scratch.

And yes, that is so much harder than just railroading the party, you're probably not going to do it.  You're probably going to justify your deception to yourself in the ways already described, or in exciting new ways of duplicity, and go on cheating your party out of their choice for their own good for as long as you play.

If you haven't understood the error of your ways yet, let me try this:  if you are being this wonderful DM to your players, giving them the best games you know how by making sure every door they open is the one you want, then you haven't very much respect for your players.  You have even less respect for yourself, knowingly deceiving these people regularly that you claim to be friends with ... and the more successful you are, the more you have to wonder.  They're obviously not your friends in the way that they know who and what you are; or they're such loathsome little worms that they don't care how they're disrespected.  If the former, how many would be your friends if they knew; and if the latter, how many of them would you want as your friends if they were just that weak-willed?

Meh.  It's only ethics.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Balancing I & I

For a few days now I've been contemplating the essay I need to write on the subject of How To Manage Players, specifically the relative importance of immersion versus interaction in the campaign.  As such, I want to float the subject a bit, and see what mines it hits and how far out to sea it gets before its lost completely.

To define our terms, immersion is generally understood to be a state of consciousness in which the individual has the perception of presence - or mental experience, if you will - in a fictional, non-physical environment (world).  Wikipedia says, "The term is widely used for describing partial or complete suspension of disbelief enabling action or reaction to stimulations [sic] encountered in a virtual or artistic environment."
In other words, you think you're really there.

Conversely, interaction is the potential multi-direction influence which various parts of an entity may convey upon one another, such as the interconnectivity within a system by which all parts in that system affect one another (as opposed to a one-way cause-effect relationship).  The most interesting result of this is something called emergent phenomena, in which complex patterns or systems arise from a multiplicity of relatively simple inter-reactions.

In other words, you actually are really there.

Now, video game designers are really fascinated by the idealism of immersion.  It is generally assumed that if you can create a visual experience which grabs the senses of the viewer believably, the viewer's pregenerated experience and social familiarity will fill in the gaps that you, as the designer, can't really create.  That is, if it looks like a war zone, and the blood on the screen looks like blood, the viewer's in-brain conception of blood and a war zone will produce all the necessary biological chemicals needed to really experience the situation - the adrenaline, testosterone, seratonin and other neurotransmitters necessary to bury the pleasure of the situation into the user's experience.

Obviously, interaction is important for this.  The physical trigger of the gun - translated into a button or stick or whatever - creates the physical sensation of affecting one's environment, encouraging the immersive qualities of the game.  At one point, interactive was conceived to be raised to the point where you would be helmeted, provided with a super-skin of contact points which you would wear, and placed on a platform, all of which would increase the button-pushing experience to the highest level.

Unfortunately, however, while the brain could be fooled into thinking that it was rushing through wind down a ski slope that was virtually 3-dimensional, the body was not.  The body was not moving, and because the brain thought it was, the result was the precise same causal effect of sea or car sickness.  People plugged into too much physical interactive technology tended to vomit.

The interactive part of the video game has never really recovered.  Actual physical interaction with the video game is minimal at best ... and hasn't really been improved with systems like Kinect or the Wii.  You may be using your arm to throw a virtual bowling ball, but there's no ball in your hand and the contribution to an immersive experience through interaction is minimal.

But we're not talking about video games, are we?  We're talking about D&D.

Here the immersive experience is limited to what I, as a DM, can say, to what I can display, and to what the player can imagine.  If I am not especially skilled at description, or the depiction of an NPC, or if the player has difficulty freeing his or her self from the stresses of the day, their hunger or the physical sensation of sitting at a table and not standing in the deepest pit of a dungeon, the situation is challenged at best.  Those people who do not like D&D are those people who cannot imagine D&D ... largely because they have not had pregenerated experience with dungeons and dragons like they may have had with war zones and blood.

I hesitate to give the 'interactive' quality of the game in the same terms as they are with video games.  Because video games are pre-scripted and electronic representations of reality, in the game one is extremely limited in what you can do with regards to the environment.  You have your weapon; your weapon has effects; you can move things which have been pre-specified as moveable; you can do what you're allowed to do.  You cannot, however, sit down and spontaneously choose to knit children's clothes in Call of Duty ... though admittedly that would be a poor choice of action given the circumstance.  You cannot get down on your knees and beg for mercy ... which can and DOES happen in war zones, often resulting in the pleading person not being killed.  And so on.

D&D is not as limited to the mechanicals of devices inherent in video games.  The dice can be used in a rich, creative number of ways.  The players can potentially affect any part of the given world in an infinite number of ways, limited only by the willingness or flexibility of the DM or of the players themselves.  Still, the interactive is also limited by the conception of interaction - if the nature of interaction is something which neither DM nor player understands, this severely limits the number of emergent patterns that might emerge from the situation.

That is to say, close-mindedness could and does disregard elements of play that are fundamentally unexpected.  "This could never happen" is a common belief that is structurally inherent to every game that's played, based on whatever it is the DM thinks could never happen.

It is difficult to conceive of an example.  The real world has an infinite number - they are called 'coincidences' or 'miracles.'  Generally, when they occur, they are either discounted in large part by skeptics, even when physically observed, or they are venerated inaccurately by a large number of non-observers who have chosen to co-opt the event.  In probable fact, these events are now conceived to be necessary fallout from an inherently complex system which allows for so many possible variations that such coincidences must happen, as can be proven mathematically.

But I am getting very far out to sea now.  Let me come back.

What I mean to suggest is that as a DM designing your world, you are bound to produce an environment that bends towards giving the players an immersive experience or an interactive one.  Obviously, you would want to provide the very best mix of both ... but being a human being and being limited in your ability to produce one or the other, you're probably going to lean in a given direction.

My strongest advice on the matter is to be aware that you are leaning towards one or the other.

If the largest part of your campaign design is bent towards creating an unreal yet magnificent world of rich and profound originality - as I bad-mouthed people for doing a few days ago - then be particularly aware of whether or not your players know how to interact with that world.  IF the world is so different and so unusual that your players are universally dependent upon you to tell them how one interacts, then I am sorry, your world is probably only a mastubatory reflection of your own need for importance.  This was what I was trying to say before, only I'm repeating it a little more scientifically now.

If, on the other hand, your world is so rigidly interactive that it has no emotional quality at all - visceral quality, if you will, to pull in the other really mean essay I posted this last week - then it is probably very, very boring.  Pull sword A and kill monster B to collect treasure C over and over again is and has always been the worst form of campaign in D&D.  And the easiest to manage as a DM.

Personally, I've always been able to compensate my highly statistical bent with the ability to fabricate imaginative worlds of fiction ... two sides of the same coin.  It's not much use, I've found, to create all the esoteric parts of my world ahead of time - and I seem to be able to do all that on the fly anyway.  I have found that creating the structural basis of my world on the fly is pretty near impossible, and results in a crappy and crude structure that goes against my nature.

Thus, I seem to spend a lot of time on this blog building the boring frame of the world, and thus it would appear to the unfamiliar that the esoteric is ignored or non-existent.  This is why I started the online campaign ... to demonstrate that I am not all numbers, tables and rules.

Those are just the things it makes the most sense to talk about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stolen Adventures

I have a confession to make.

Recently, in my online campaign, the party there was captured by bandits.  It's an occasional sort of event that happens to parties from time to time, and usually it plays like death.  The party gets angry, a few search for ways out of the mess, revenge is vowed and until the party actually frees themselves, it is boring as hell.

The context, or 'story' as some DMs call it, doesn't allow for much interaction.  The characterization of the bandits is usually wooden and horrifically cliched, making it impossible for the party to have any emotional response except resentment or embarrassment for having gotten themselves in this position.

Now, let me pause here and say that the famous Appendix N from the DMG is shit.  I don't mean that the actual content there is shit - though admittedly, some of it is - but that it is completely worthless for Dungeons and Dragons.  Everyone has read it.  Most of it is pulp fiction, with little or no literary characteristics, and while adventure rich the adventures themselves are for the most part as flat and staid as the above interaction of bandits.  Pulp fiction isn't meant to appeal to people with an education, it is meant to appeal to the necessarily ignorant - which Gygax and Arneson must have been, for just look at the shit they read.

(This is two posts now where I've crapped all over popular fanboy wank-text.  I am so having a good time!)

I think I was very lucky to have had parents who possessed a library of over 2,000 books, including a dozen different series including all the classical literature I could ever ask for.  But of course, a lot of it was completely out of my reach when I was only seven.  I was deep into atlases and geographical statistics at the time, but I didn't have the experiential context to manage a book like Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick or even Call of the Wild.

Fortunately, my parents had seen to that too, and in the 1950s - before I was born - they had begun collecting a simplified form of those classics - namely, Classics Illustrated.

Now, I wouldn't suggest that the Classics Illustrated library - as comic books - is a stand-in for Appendix N.  I am suggesting that the length and breadth of deeper, well-written material kicks pulp fiction for six ... if you have the time, the patience and the wherewithal of mind to realize the possibilities offered - for staid and dull campaigns like the party being captured by bandits, among a thousand other possible adventures.

One of my favorite examples of the Illustrated library was one called The King of the Mountains (Le roi des montagnes), which is so wonderfully obscure now there isn't even a wikipedia entry for it.  That is, in English.  The French Wikisource has an entry.  The author was Edmond Francois Valentin About, who was extraordinarily popular in his day.

The story of the King of the Mountains is about an ordinary German botanist who, while collecting plants north of Athens in and about About's day, is kidnapped by a bandit chieftain in the mountains, who then insists that he must write a letter in order to obtain a ransom of 600 pounds.  The bandit, Hadji Stavros, is extraordinarily charismatic, strong-willed and temperamental, and enjoys the loyalty of a large number of men.  The bandit is also heavily involved in the business and maintenance of the countryside around Athens, even contributing some of his own money to the repair of roads (2,540 francs), as they had gotten so bad no one would travel them, "leaving us no one to rob."  The King has a daughter in school, upon whom he tries to impress virtue, and he loans his men occasionally to persons of his family to fight in war.
I stole all this for my campaign, and I'm confessing it now.  I am concerned with the party's perception of me now, since they seem to believe that I thought the whole thing up on my own.  However, as T.S. Eliot said, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal."  I needed something extraordinary for the adventure, something that climbed to a higher ideal, and Edmond About had conveniently supplied it for me.

Incidentally, when I grew older and obtained a copy of the original book - translated, I'm afraid, I don't read French - I discovered the plotline of the original book was very little like the Classics Illustrated comic.  This, naturally, was rather enjoyable, as it enabled me to read the book for the first time as a thing in which I did not know everything that was about to happen.  I would strongly recommend the book.

I would strongly recommend reading a lot of intelligent, complex, difficult, proven literature that's been created by dedicated authors these past 28 centuries of human development (and Gilgamesh too, if you must), instead of all the worthless crap that's been written since the 1940s.  If you did, you might begin to understand why I am so angry about the film that was described so nastily in the last post, and about the simple-minded fanboy culture that permeates the D&D world right now.

There is better than this.  Players deserve better than this.

If you are interested (and I have to laugh at how juvenile it is now), I did find a copy of the classic comic online.  You should be able to find a copy of the real book if you bother to search - and of a thousand other real books besides.

Toss Appendix N into the trash heap.

Monday, January 21, 2013

You Wouldn't Know It Anyway

Because I like Anne Hathaway, both in film and in interviews, I was forced to put up with what now measures as an acceptable scene in Hollywood.

A football stadium, full, capacity 64,000, has a series of explosions occur in which the field is so ripped apart that the surface literally crumbles into the ground ... and none of the fans in the bleachers stand up and RUN.  Moreover, they sit quietly - politely even - and listen to a speech that includes a murder and lots of words about total death and destruction.  And they do not panic.

Uh, yeah.

Moreover, a city of 12 million people, surrounded by water, and presumably with access to boats, helicopters, scuba gear, etc., comes under the announced threat of a nuclear explosion and ... behaves itself.

Oh, there were many, many problems with the film that these two points above come from.  There were horrifically cliched flashbacks.  There were endless dead-eyed babble fests between secondary, uninteresting, plot redundant characters.  There was a policeman's charge that could have been led by General Pickett himself, if only a Gettysburg had been available ... a charge that somehow did better in the present decade than Pickett had managed to do in the 1860s.  Yes, indeed, there was much silliness, much poor design and plotting, much, much, much to speak about.

Most of all, however, the most pathetic part of this saga is that the film that contains all this is rated as #43 on IMDb of the greatest movies of all time.

Obviously, this is because it's recent.  And because a substantial portion of the 522,000 voters are younger than 14.  And because, well, there are a great many people in the western world who do not consider plot or character, nor a competant story resolution, nor even production value to have any meaning or value with regards to what they think is 'good.'

I have known for some time that, for some persons, the thing that is sought is not 'quality' ... not as any artistic person would understand it.  The camera operators, the set designers and the costumers, the CGI techs, the gaffers, that grips, the caterers and the people selling the film know the money was made the moment the rights to the title were secured.  The film above was made by a lawyer, working on the premise that a VAST proportion of the population is reliably visceral in the extreme.  So reliable, in fact, that even bullshit medicine relies on it: 

"A visceral reaction occurs quickly, before you become aware of it. Paul Ekman, the famous emotions scientist, reported "We become aware a quarter, or half second after the emotion begins. I do not choose to have an emotion, to become afraid, or to become angry. I am suddenly angry. I can usually figure out later what someone did that caused the emotion." The nervous system processes all the available information and drives you to anger, or despair, within just half a second. Each visceral response occurs before you know it. Nature also provided laughter to counter this response."

I, for one, certainly had a visceral reaction to the film.  I happen to not enjoy visceral reactions of that type.  Others, of course, do.  And in terms of the money, and the popularity, the viserility of the thing deserves, I think, the rating it gets.

If you are the sort of person who finds your mind controlled by visceral reactions on a continuous, unrelenting basis, I would like to state here and now that I'm surprised you have the capacity of mind to interpret words and read sentences, such as are appearing here.  I'm quite certain you do not comprehend as much as you think you comprehend.

If you are the sort of person who thinks the film above would make a good formula for a roleplaying game, I think you should be aware that sales will depend on the name you pick (or secure from the relevant lawyers) and not the quality of your effort in game design.  I think further you should also realize that if you are a game designer, and you have a good, positive opinion of the above film, then you are a very, very crappy game designer.

Your belief to the contrary is proof positive of your inability to judge the value of your own judgement:

xkcd, Jan 21, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

DM Like a Human Being

I don't know what to think of people who play this game, this D&D game, with no interest in portraying any sort of 'realism.'  I don't know why they keep using that word.  I don't think it means what they think it means.

It's a good thing that as we get older, we find ourselves in less and less situations where we have to put up with bullshit.  I don't think most of us are really aware of how much complete crap we had to eat in school, or from coaches for teams we played on, or tutors of piano or violin.  It is as though when we were children, at the age of five someone came and gave us a spoon, pointed to a large heap of steaming shit with a sign on top saying 'CHILDHOOD' and said, "All right, come on, get eating."

And now we say these things to ourselves, and we say these things to our children.

One of my favorites has to be, "Never Assume.  When you assume, you make an Ass of U and Me!"  Oh, to be 12 again, and have some fart tell me this, just so I can stand up and say, "Um, sir?  Does that mean I shouldn't assume that I'll be alive in five minutes?  Um, sir?  Since I can't assume that my house will still be there for me to go home to, I think I'd better get leaving now, just to be sure.  Um, sir?  I seem to be healthy, but I don't want to assume anything.  I'm just going to run to the hospital now."

Philosophy is not something we teach our children.  If it was, that would only make it harder for us to fill them up with shit.

Along the same lines, there are people in fantasy roleplaying who will tell you they don't play 'realism' ... which they think is the opposite of 'fantasy.'  Naturally, these people are full of shit, and they are extending the spoon to you, expecting you to dig in.  That's because Realism is NOT the opposite of Fantasy.  It is the opposite of Idealism.  From Wikipedia:

"Idealism is a term with several related meanings. It comes via idea from the Greek idein (ἰδεῖν), meaning "to see". The term entered the English language by 1796. In ordinary use, as when speaking of Woodrow Wilson's political idealism, it generally suggests the priority of ideals, principles, values, and goals over concrete realities. Idealists are understood to represent the world as it might or should be, unlike pragmatists, who focus on the world as it presently is. In the arts, similarly, idealism affirms imagination and attempts to realize a mental conception of beauty, a standard of perfection, in opposition to aesthetic naturalism and realism."

Now tell me ... what does that have to do with 'fantasy?'  Precisely nothing, obviously.  It has even less to do with a game that has concrete rules that define possible actions, determined by a concrete die that results in a physical universe, outside pure thought.

In a moment of desperation, people will seize upon any word that sounds like something that's the opposite of what they want, and slapdash the use of that word into their arguments.  "Realism" sounds like the real world, which of course is terrible and unpleasant and full of limitations.  Thus, Real = "BAD."  Fantasy = "GOOD."

This is just the worst sort of math.  Well, it isn't math at all.  But people think it is.

I'm not quite clear on what's wrong with all this 'real' life.  Real life gives me opportunities to think, to take pleasure in the company of others, to create magnificent artworks and designs with my mind, to communicate those designs, to argue passionately, to believe passionately, to be astounded, to be thrilled and so on.  All the 'fantasy' I will ever have or experience is fantasy that is accomplished with my REAL mind in the REAL world ... so what the fuck is bad about it?  I mean, you can get all caught up with the fact that you don't have a perfect body and you have trouble getting laid, or that people are slaughtering each other with guns, or that your government doesn't give a shit about you - which it doesn't, by the way - but all that doesn't make 'fantasy' something that takes place outside of your present reality.  You just don't have the kind of power it takes to make reality stop happening.

Yes, of course you can seek an escapist ideology for your gaming ... but the problem with believing that escapism alone is enough to make it interesting is all the inconvenient biology that is still going on while you're pretending its not.  The real you is still getting hungry and thirty.  Your sexual parts are still dead to the world or alive according to their own hormonal priorities.  YOUR PLAYERS ARE STILL SUBJECT TO BOREDOM.  If you want your world to be at all interesting, you have to apply it to the biological necessities of your player's real bodies.  You're not somehow exempt from that.

And sadly for you, if your world is SO different from the real world - that is, if your world just tosses out ideas like logic, morality, familiar social structure or economics as unpleasant or unnecessary, you're creating a huge obstacle for your world's success.  Your PLAYERS, whatever their intellectual interests might be, are nevertheless habitually designed to cope with a real world.  They can't help themselves.  They respond to real things every day.  They react to given intellectual stimuli and social expectations in a way that is quite beyond their choice.  They've been raised on a particular variety of shit, which they've been eating with spoons since grade school, and as shitty as it might be, they're used to the goddamned taste.  Just cause you want to now feed them a different sort of shit doesn't mean they're going to gobble it up.

I suppose if you're seriously bent on making your world stick to the wall - as shit does - then you can work night and day to overcome this obstacle ... but for the love of little green puppies, why the fuck make yourself work that hard?  Why not take advantage of the present packaged shit bars your players are already programmed to respond to and use those to create tension and drama?  Why insist on your particular brand?  Why beat yourself up changing the product, when there's still so many ways left to cook the one we're born and raised with?

Fantasy, yes, but not fantasy in a way that denies reality.  The two aren't opposites!  They're twins, and they work together just fine.  Don't throw out one for the other!  Mix them, you stupid, bloody idiots!

Get this ridiculous notion out of your head that you're such a magic creationist that you can build ALL the concepts of human interaction from scratch.  You're not playing with Kaswellians from the planet Kaswell.  You're playing with humans from the Planet Earth.

You are a human from Planet Earth.  Try liking it for a change.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fridge Logic & Dungeons

While we're on the subject of dungeons and treasure, as we were on the last post, I might as well bring up a salient point.

Why would monsters have coins at all?  This is a serious question.  The coins aren't worth anything to them of themselves.  They can't be eaten; they serve no immediate function so long as they retain the shape of coins.  If the monsters were intelligent enough and liked the metal, surely they would have hammered down the gold into shapes of convenience or delight to them, as our very distant ancestors did with the gold nuggets found in streambeds.

Think.  You're an orc, you've got a strong hate on with the world - that depiction of 'evil' we take for granted - and you can recognize that the figure on the coin is that of a HUMAN.  In effect, something that sickens you to look at.  At the very least you would use your hard metal weapon, or two heavy rocks, to pound out an image that disgusts you.  It would be like keeping an image of Hitler or Lady Gaga (obviously the logical reincarnation) in your pocket (if you like, insert anyone who truly, honestly disgusts you).

Now, you might tolerate it if it were worth something.  If you were in Saudi Arabia, say, and still felt sensitive about the destruction of the Two Towers, you might not like the images on the money there ... but you'd go on keeping it because it IS money.  You need it to buy things.  But an orc doesn't need that coin to buy anything.  It can't go to the market ten miles away, plunk down its coin and buy a sack of green leafy food ... the sort it can't get at home.  (Arguably, an orc might be allergic to green leafy food - who knows?)

Once the image is ruined, so too is the coin.  No reputable clerk would take it from you.  The point of the image on a coin is to prove that the item has the value it says it has.  A lump of hammered 'gold' could be anything.  It could be 90% copper.  No one would accept it for trade as a 'coin'!

More to the point, how is it presumed the orc gets the gold coins in the first place?  It steals them.  Yes, that's right, the orc and his buddies roll into the local village, kill a few peasants and guards, plunder the gatehouse and ... march off with 40 lbs. of heavy metal that serves no purpose for them.

Um, logical?  No, not logical.  At the very least, they'd probably be more interested in the copper than the gold, since it serves to make good pots and other kitchen utensils.  But gold?  Well, its pretty, but if it comes down to a sack of gold or a haunch of horsemeat, I think we can figure out what the orcs really want.

It gets even less logical for creatures further down the dungeon scale.  Maybe the orcs might want the gold to pay off a group of local bandits who, in the daytime, roust anyone approaching the dungeon entrance.  But what is the troll four levels down keeping it for?  My best argument might be that the troll uses the money to pay off parties, in the sense of "Take my money, leave me alone."  The strategy has a long history of success with kings and princes.  Apart from that ... we're back to the fact that it would be hammered into shapes unrecognizeable ... pieces of jewelry that the trolls might enjoy but which people back in town probably would not.

Yesterday I made a joke in the comments field, in reference to the many desperate suggestions to explain why wealth would not all be found at the bottom of the dungeon.  I said, why not just assume there are fountains of gold at every level?  I'm stunned that no one jumped in to yell at me that gold and silver mines are exactly fountains of the kind I suggested.

But what reason would any creature have for mining gold and silver, if they had no contact with a trading economy?  The Dwarves of Moria would probably have the option of dealing their gold and gems with the surface cultures of Middle Earth, though they might hate to let go of their gold - which makes no sense, culturally, since the only purpose to having gold in large quantities is to get rid of it for things that keep you alive.  Granted, I have no idea how a dwarf's mind works.  Or a dwarf's biology.  It's a mystery to me that they don't all die of rickets and scurvy long before the arrows get them.

If you're a troll or an ogre, however, or something more fearsome like a beholder ... what the hell is the point in all this coin?  I might grasp a ghost or a lich, keeping this hoard of gold out of a twisted sense of nostalgia ... but for races that just keep the gold out of sheer hatred for the surface creatures, why keep it in pristine fashion, so that without any modification AT ALL the surface people can come pick it up one day and spend it at the Medieval Mall the next?  Does that make any sense?  Wouldn't it be more satisfying to transform all the gold coin into paper thin squares and hammer it onto the walls of the cave, as many religions have done throughout history with gold that actually meant something to them?  Imagine a party being told that yes, there's the gold of 50,000 coins here ... but it is all less than a tenth of a millimeter thick covering all the walls of the gnoll's cave, and it will take several lifetimes to scratch even a third of it off.

There might be some kind of spell that would make it easier.

In short, I'm saying that if you really think about it, even the 'coin' that sinks to the bottom - along with a lot of other treasure, using these same distinctions (what purpose would a beholder have for a gem?), would simply cease to be.

I know that someone's going to say that adventurers would drag their ass into caves, die there and leave behind piles of treasure that could be found by later parties ... since the monsters wouldn't have any reason to disturb it.  Yes, but you see, they would have reason.  If there WERE creatures roaming around in the underworld, eventually all the gold and iron there would have been consumed by the things that eat gold and iron; the gems would be picked up, skipped on ponds and lost; or collected by gooey things that dragged them along for months before pooping them into a crevice or a river; or deliberately smashed by not-so-intelligent but hateful creatures.  Destruction is much more fun than treasuring something, and if you're arguing these creatures are EVIL, then destruction is de rigueur.

Unless they're not evil ... in which case, why wouldn't a trader do business with them, and bring peace to the world?  Come to think of it, even if they ARE evil.  Why wouldn't a trader do business with them?  Have you met a successful trader?

(Please, for the love of heaven, don' t think that justifies monsters keeping coins.  It would only mean that a monster's lair wasn't any more coin-heavy than a peasant's hut).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Leaks Like A Sieve

Suppose we start with the following proposal.

A group of monsters roaming around the outside of your world stumbles across a "dungeon" that is completely empty of treasure-hoarding creatures.  Oh, there are probably beasties there already, but let's say nothing intelligent.  If you like, this is hundreds and hundreds of years ago, long before your party shows up to plunder the place.

Let's further imagine that these monsters are carrying only 100 g.p. with them.  We can envision them as a few orcs, goblins, whatever you like - but not some enormous band.  They settle down into the top level of the dungeon, near the surface, and for a year they do little or nothing.

Now, these creatures don't have much purpose for the coin they have; they're not going out to the local market or anything.  But they like the coin, its shiny and it has pretty pictures on it.  They give it to their children to play with.  And now and then, some of it is dropped, some of it is stolen by the little beasties in the dungeon, and so on.  Call it 'spoilage.'

At the same time, these creatures are occasionally going out into the world and snatching more treasure from other things, but not much - just enough to say that in a year, they steal about 100 g.p. worth of hard, valuable, endurable treasure.

Now, I'm a great fan of the 1% per month maintenance rule in the DMG, and I've argued in the past that this could be read as general loss.  So for the purpose of our proposal, let's say that 12% of whatever treasure our 1st Level dungeon creatures have is lost ... it drifts down deeper into the caverns, where it is picked up by gelatinous cubes, wandering troglodytes, giant rats and so on.

Suppose that once every three years, a group of somebodies - a party, a local constabulary, what you will - comes along and clears out the upper level of the dungeon, taking all the treasure that is there.  And still, the caves are comfortable, so let's say that something else moves in, and in the process brings in some of a hundred gold pieces, depending on how long they've been there that first year.  We can roll a hundred sided die to see how much precisely.  And the new creatures go on accumulating a hundred gold a year.  For centuries.

And let's add that of whatever drifts into the 2nd Level, 12% of that drifts into the 3rd Level ... and 12% of that drifts into the 4th Level, and so on.  Only the 2nd Level is only plundered 1 in 9 years.  The 3rd Level, only 1 in 27.  And the 4th Level, only 1 in 81.  And so on.

Now what would that look like?

Here's what you do.

On Row A of your excel sheet, in Box B1, Write "Year".

In boxes A3 going down, write "Level 1" "Level 2" "Level 3" and so on.

In box B2, write "1"

In box B3, write "100"

In box B4 going down, write "0" for as many levels as you want.

In box C3 going down, write "=RANDBETWEEN(1,3)".    You might want to make this column a different color, so that you know these are random numbers and NOT your results.

In box D2 write "=B2+1".  This will serve to duplicate itself and count the years for you.

In box D3 write "=IF(C3=1,RANDBETWEEN(1,100),(B3*0.88)+100)".  All that says is that if the random number generated is a 1, the first level of the dungeon was cleaned out.  If it wasn't cleaned out, then 12% is gone (spoilage) and the rest is added to the 100 g.p. the creatures on that level gathered that year.  It also says that if the dungeon was plundered, 1 to 100 g.p. is accumulated in on the first level AFTER the plundering.

In box D4 write "=IF(C4+C3=2,0,(B3*0.12)+(B4*0.88))".  Which says that if the dungeon above was cleared out, and the roll for this level was also a 1, then this level was cleaned out too.  Spoilage from Level 1 pours into Level 2, and we minus the spoilage from Level 2 into Level 3.

In box D5 write "=IF(SUM(C3:C5)=3,0,(B4*0.12)+(B5*0.88))".  Level 3 is only cleaned out if the two levels above it are, so the sum of all three random numbers must be 1 x3 = 3.

In box D6 write "=IF(SUM(C3:C6)=4,0,(B5*0.12)+(B6*0.88))"

In box D7 write "=IF(SUM(C3:C7)=5,0,(B6*0.12)+(B7*0.88))"

And so on, remembering to adjust the sum for each number.

Now, you can copy everything in column C and D into columns E and F.  That will give you the results for year 3.

In fact, you can now copy as far into the future as you wish.  The numbers get quite interesting as you get past 80 years or so.

If you've done it right, you should have something that looks like this:

I've colored the random numbers in coral, so that the actual results in g.p. are in white. 

Yes, I know, it does not look very impressive for Level 5.  What is particularly interesting about this generator is that no matter how you fool with the numbers, you're going to find your dungeon pouring out its gold into the bottom.  You have to define one of the levels as THE bottom level ... and that one level will pile up gold impressively ... but none of the ones between the top and the bottom will.

You can reduce the number of times a level is plundered, but that only makes it drain more gold through.  You can reduce the amount of "spoilage" ... but that only makes it harder for the bottom levels to accumulate gold.  Reducing the likelihood of plunder down to 1 in 6, and decreasing the spoilage to only 2%, it generally took more than a hundred years of dungeon just to get the gold on the 5th Level up to 100.

In other words, I'm saying that if anyone else in the world is plundering dungeons, the idea that the space between the top of the dungeon and the bottom are filled with treasure just doesn't fit mathematically.  And if no one is plundering these dungeons, then they must be very remote - which begs the question, where are they getting the gold from?

Please, don't argue that the people below are robbing the people above - that just makes the dungeon sieve move faster.

I'm not saying I'd run a dungeon differently ... but one has to recognize that, economically, the process CAN'T work like you think it works.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


There are times when I must admit that I grew up in a very different world from the one that exists now.  In the spring and summer of 1978, when I was coming out of Grade 8, I read the book Mein Kampf.  There was a copy in my junior high school library, and when the end of year came and I still hadn't finished the book, I purchased a copy at a local bookstore.  It wasn't hard to find.

Of course, I did not understand much of it.  I comprehended the geographical references just fine, I had a strong working knowledge of both the 1st and 2nd World Wars (because I was a boy and I was fascinated with those things from even a much younger age) and I knew what hatred was.  What I did not understand was the context ... why anyone would write these things, believe them, pursue them.  Like anyone today, I knew about Hitler, I knew about his rise to power and I knew about his demise ... they were making movies about it all the time, and there was practically a Hitler section at the W.H. Smith's at the mall.

Still, most of the events and circumstances - the Weimar Republic, the inflation, the psychological effect of losing the war, even the history of the Jewish people in Europe - were things unknown to me.  I knew the war; I did not know the people.

I was very affected by the book.  Mostly, I was concerned about how appealing it was, particularly since at the time I was a mostly abused, brighter-than-my-classmates nerd who had already learned how easy it was to lie and get away with it.  Frighteningly easy.  Mein Kampf did not encourage me to rush into the arms of a fascist ideology; it scared me right away from it.  I think probably, had I not run across the book, I could have conceived of some of its contents on my own ... which may have had more frightening consequences, as I might have embraced those ideas from a place of anger and ignorance.

If you have not seen the 2008 German movie The Wave I would strongly recommend it.  It is a better film than the original 1981 movie, which was based on the 1981 novel by Todd Strasser, which in turn was based upon the actual experiment performed by Ron Jones, a teacher in Palo Alto California, in 1973.  According to Wikipedia's page on The Third Wave,

"Jones started a movement called "The Third Wave" and told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy.  The idea that democracy emphasizes individuality was considered as a drawback of democracy, and Jones emphasized this main point of the movement in its motto: 'Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.' "

The effects ... as the gentle reader can obtain from the last page linked above ... were educational.  The German movie goes past the reality, but the presentation was excellent.

It is the speed with which the movement took effect that is the most terrifying element of the experiment, which cannot help but demonstrate for anyone willing to look hard and thoughtfully at the results how deep is the craving for unification.  It helps one to get a sense of the preparedness people have in assigning legitimacy to something which, on the surface, seems honest and positive.

Models upon which armies were built throughout the 19th century took advantage of the psychological acceptance of human beings in this regard to compile the forces that massed themselves together and marched to their deaths in World War 1.  While it may seem impossible to comprehend how so many hundreds of thousands could willingly take part in the kind of mass butchery that was that war (quite different from the technological struggle of WW2), the fact was that the armies themselves were convinced they were behaving rightly and that they were spending their lives for a good and noble cause.  That nothing good came out of it was unimportant; veterans continue - have continued - to believe that something DID come out of it, something that must have been for the good because it was believed to be for the good.  It is as fine an example of cognitive dissonance as ever was, celebrated annually every November 11th by people who did not even fight in it.

Hitler's Mein Kampf did nothing more than tap into the groundwork of the 19th century's fabrication of mass armies, mixing in the added special ingredient of an imaginary good purpose towards which those armies could be put.  The imagination of that purpose tapped into something that had been there all along as well - the fear of prejudice, the fear that is so easily turned to hatred when all else fails to resolve it.

But why did it take so long to hit upon the formula?  Or technology, if you will, since we are talking about the technologies described in the game Civilization IV.  Why is there no fascism until the early 20th century?  The armies were there.  The social behaviorism of humans was there.  The racism was there.  What was the combining factor?

A better question:  Why does D&D go all the way back to the medieval age, and why does that time hold a romance the 18th century never can?  Why are roleplaying games based upon the French or English or American revolutions not more popular?  Why do we not pretend to play mauling street toughs on the streets of New York in 1810?

It is not merely that the Industrial Revolution made everything squalid and unpleasant, and we want no part of that.  Industrialization made possible the plentiful distribution of weapons and uniforms, the educational apparatus that could encourage everyone in the same country to grow up the same, think the same, have the same aspirations and respect the same peoples.  Industrialization established a rigidity to life that transformed us into ... well, neurotic freaks.  Waking up at the same time, marching to work in the same way, collecting our paycheques together and celebrating in the same establishments ... and all the time with our minds turned towards a reconciliation of the ambition that was installed in us in school and our utter failure to achieve what was expected.

We are neurotic, in a manner that no one pre-Revolution ever was.  Think about the symptoms:  anxiety, moodiness, worry, envy, jealousy ... we are a patchwork of failure and fear of failure, of the resentment of success, the fear of being unloved, the fear that we will be expected to 'love' others we simply never will and so on.  As biological creatures we are a fucking mess - and something that arises that seems to untangle that mess, even for an hour, is manna from heaven.  Why was Ron Jones' experiment embraced so heartily by children almost immediately?  Not because it meant they did not have to think, no; it was because it gave them something to think about that seemed pure and fresh and CLEAR.  Compare that to what your parents and teachers tell you about getting an education and getting a career.

D&D provides that exact same escape.  It offers a universe where the principles are understandable and without equivocation.  I am a fighter.  I fight.  I am an adventurer.  I adventure.  I do not march, I do not follow, I do not take orders from above, not even from the Dungeon Master.  I want freedom and I want an total absence of moral responsibility for my actions.  Kill orcs?  Please, yes, more.  Abscond with heaps of treasure?  That's nice, thank you.  Ignore the beggars, slash the throats of guards, steal and pillage?  Oh my, feels good.

Only I said at the top of this that I am very aware that the world is changing.  You can't buy a copy of Mein Kampf quite so easily now.  And there are many, many more influences in the game telling you that a moral free-for-all isn't acceptable any more.  There is a steady, subtle instigation of social responsibility that is continuously invested into the game, most of it under the disguise of those seeking status and respectability.

Perhaps they're right.  I've just written a post associating our social predilection for fascism with the game of D&D as it was originally played ... and unless you've stopped reading, your head is spinning with the socially-inculcated insistence that the association simply ISN'T possible.  No doubt you're going back through the words, looking for the sleight of hand that I've pulled to make it seem reasonable.

Well, I won't cheat you.  The sleight is simply this.  People frustrated with the pursuit of traditional success - and most people are, since they don't achieve it - are ripe for the influence of fascism.  And people frustrated with the social stratum that dictates they must be rigid round pegs are ripe for the influence of D&D.  Once you accept that the first half of the equation isn't an opinion, it is psychologically reproduceable.  And you are not magically exempt from the dictates of your psychology.  You're the sort of social deviant to which D&D appeals.  You may be vulnerable to other things that have equal appeal.

Now, you may hurrumph and tell me how full of it I am.  You ought to be frightened.  You ought to be re-evaluating your motivations.  But that is only going to contribute to your neuroses, and lets face it:   YOU HATE your neuroses.  You hate them so much, in fact, that you'll do just about anything to get around them.

Yes, that's right.  Anything.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


So, speaking about the present state of D&D, the game, and how it is perceived.

Having a discussion tonight on the perceived legitimacy of institutions, I made the point that as interest in obedience to Western religion began to wane in the 19th century, with the rise of Romanticism and the principles usually accorded to Jean Jacques Rousseau, violence against churches did not increase.

Now, I don't want to go into a vast rhetoric to support the notion that churches began to die something like 200 years ago; I presume that you, the gentle reader, can at least attest to the fact that the Western church's power is less now than it was once, and that this lessening began to occur at some point.  You can take it for a fact that the substantive portion of this lessening really began to show in the mid 20th century ... but that it was certainly a matter for lively and humorous debate in the mid 19th, in a way it could NEVER have been in the mid 16th - when it did, in fact, lead to an increase in violence, and not even over the subject of whether or not Christianity was silly or laughable (as it became in salons 200 years ago).

Why was it that as science and humanitarianism rose, there was no occurrence of mass burnings of churches across the lands, as had happened when Christianity pushed Paganism under a cart, or as occurred when Protestantism did the same in select parts of the world to Catholicism?  Was it simply that the 19th century was more civilized about such things?  Were the poets and philosophers pussies?

In fact, it was because the persons who had become non-believers, or at least non-followers of the sacred institution, continued to believe that on some level the institutions still had a legitimate right to exist.  Consider:  here we are in our day, with the majority of the persons in the Western World having no interest in attending church services on a sunday, to the point where churches are closed everywhere and those that are still open stand mostly empty ... and yet STILL one of the most sacred rights defended virtually everywhere is the right of religion.  Not habit, mind you, or belief, or the way you choose to live your life - though the defense of religion covers those things - but in the religion itself, which we will staunchly defend even though most of us know it as complete bollucks.  Such is the power of that legitimacy that we believe it IS legitimate, even though we know it is not.

Legitimacy has nothing to do with truth, or facts, or right or wrong.  It has everything to do with perception - and so long as the perception of a thing is stronger than the exact circumstances of that thing, the perception will always win out.  That is why the overwhelming majority of people who just don't care about religion won't do anything about the continued existence of religion.  After so many generations of its core existence in our culture, we feel it deserves to have its place recognized and lip service duly paid, as most do when they put a religion they do not follow on their census forms.

It is the same legitimacy that is accorded to a dead and defunct business like TSR, or the initial White Box set of D&D, or the various long-standing elements of the game that have been introduced from time to time.  It is unimportant whether they have any real value for the game.  They are perceived to be part of the game nonetheless, and are therefore deserving of respect, like a piece of the Cross or the finger bone of Christ.  The Latest Edition demands to be given all the respect of every other incarnation of the game, more even, because it has been the most recent advancement of the Holy Sepulchre of WOTC, which has been given its privilege to change the game as it seems fit.  This is the highest standard accorded any business that 'officially' produces a thing, as Spalding did the first official baseball, or Billboard does the official top 40.  Whatever the actual value, the perceived value is that it MUST have value, because of its source.  Actual quality is immaterial.

So where it comes to the right of anything, or the truth of anything, it is the demand of the masses that judges that thing's legitimacy ... not from a position of authority, but from the position of bowing before it.  From a position of impotence.  From a position of willful ignorance, or the refusal to investigate or experiment.

From a position on our knees.