Friday, June 28, 2013

It's All Merchandising

The sales of my book Pete's Garage continue (woke up to a pleasant increase in my Pay Pal account, thank you for all that purchased this last month!) and I am content.  I do feel a bit bad that I've put off the production of my How to DM book - sorry, just needed distance on it - but I am turning my attention to what I am able to write, which is the reworking of a book called Act of God.

This is a story of a plot to quietly drop a biotoxin into the Missouri-Mississippi river systems, with the intent to kill millions of people and destroy the American heartland ... taking advantage of the fact that this can all be done from inside Canada at a place called Milk River.  The Milk, it so happens, flows out of Alberta and into the Missouri River in Montana.

So ... not a funny book about musicians at all.

I find myself now at a crossroads with regards to Pete's Garage, one of those moments when it is worthwhile to write a blog post to say more than "Hey, buy this thing."  The company through which I publish the book, Lulu, has stepped forward to contact me about the possibility of marketing the book through them.  This has culminated in a rather remarkable conversation between one of the staff and myself, that included some surprise on their part at the success and far-reaching audience of this blog, as well as one other project I have going but which - for the moment - cannot be talked about on the web.  I shouldn't even be saying this much, but I'm excited.

Here's the deal, however.  Lulu is prepared to front me the cost incurred by copying the book and making it available to media contacts, but they are asking that I step forward and contribute $500 - as well as my marvelous personality should opportunities arise - towards the overall process of getting my book out there and perhaps instrumentally reviewed by a reputable critic.  Obviously, I want to do this ... but I also want to do my best to source that amount.

I've never believed in Kickstarter.  I think it is a damnable scam.  I think there are far more people who are out there wanting to take free money out of your pocket than are actually interested in producing a product or starting a business.

I am not the Kickstarter type.  I have already created a product.  I have no interest in asking for any money for a product I haven't yet created.  That strikes me as ridiculous.

What I'd like is for people here to buy my product - $20 paperback, $9 e-book - and help fund my pursuit of finding more people to which to sell the product.

I'm not an idiot.  If anyone who has already read the book wants to show their appreciation of its goodness by kicking in a few bucks, or anyone who enjoys the content of this blog wants to help me out with the smallest contributions towards my well being,  two, five or ten dollars, I'll take the damn money.  I'll be happy for the help.

Mostly, however, I just want to sell the book.  I want to sell it enough to make other people - Lulu, a publicist eventually, book critics and so on - want to help me sell more.  That's the business.  You sell something well, that makes people want to help you.

So if you can't buy this thing, for the love of this blog, if you have any, find someone on this planet who CAN buy it.  Mention it to a musician.  Mention it to someone who likes Greek mythology (for the book contains that).  Get the book a little more attention.

Can you help me merchandise a good product?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ayn Rand: Not The Thing It Is Thought To Be

I have a collection of thoughts that have been building for quite a while, to the point where I think I'm going to have to write something.  Up front, I want to explain that this post is not intended to be about D&D.  Something may occur to me while I'm writing the post, but at present I have no ideas about D&D at all.  I just want to write.  I want to try to get some of it straight in my head.

I am reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and not for the first time.  It is more probably the ninth time.  That alone is a difficult confession.  Attitudes towards the book are so finely charged, both from people who have never read the book, but have heard critics, and those who have read the book, who find themselves wondering why there is so much fuss over such a bad book.  Most everyone I have ever known who has read the book, or tried to read the book, has hated it.  I feel quite confident that if any of you gentle readers come away from this with the intention of reading the book, the book will disappoint you.

There are several passages of the book that are understandably confusing.  The book at one point seems to condone rape.  The main woman character of the book, Dominique, has motivations that are strange and incomprehensible.  The principle male character, Howard Roark, is, most people find, wholly unlikable, unbelievable or otherwise reprehensible.  The language of the book promotes, it is understand, that 'selfishness' as a virtue, and that 'altruism' is the worst sin that has ever been perpetrated by anyone.

Overall, from the perspective of almost any well-read person, the book simply annoys.  Because they characters are so bizarrely motivated, they are hateful and one cannot identify with them.  And because the book seems to say, in effect, fuck everyone who are not these characters, there has arisen two philosophies - one that argues that the book needs to be destroyed because of its offensiveness ... and one that argues if you want to be important, the book justifies fucking over the world.

I don't agree with any of these evaluations ... but as I read through the book each time, I can see where each evaluation has arisen.  I see where the offense arises from the 'rape scene' but something more like consensual bdsm.  I can see where cold and heartless businessmen delude themselves into thinking they are Howard Roark or the other male power-character, Gail Wynand, and that therefore their selfish accumulation of wealth is justified.  I can see, again and again, how the characters of Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey, the proponents for 'altruism,' are misunderstood.  I get all the confusion.  On some level, the sheer degree to which people miss the point has a meritorious grandiousity.

All of it is based upon some singular portion of the book, or a singular character's stated viewpoint, in exclusion to every other part of the book that in fact denies it.

Dominique wants to be 'raped.'  It is a BDSM scene, a consensual scene of violence, without animosity or accusatory criminality.  It is no more rape than the millions of people who have experimented in the bedroom with things they would never do with a stranger.  Only the greatest possible sexual infant could read the words and see 'rape' just because that word is bandied about.

Roark at no time in the book insults, nor abuses, nor takes anything from any other person.  For a 'selfish' person, he has distinctly no interest in anything that any other person has.  In fact, repeatedly, he refuses the things that others strive like hell to give him.  That is very much the point.

The greatest misunderstand is, I think, regarding all the characters, almost all of the dialogue and certainly all of the relationships - except for that between Dominique and Roark - is that everyone throughout the book is, continuously, unreservably - and at no time with any distinct signs offered by the author - expressing themselves through lies.  Hardly a line is said that means what the words indicate.  I think this, more than any other element, makes the book very difficult to understand, and makes the book utterly brilliant.

It also makes many people reading the book utterly lost as to why the characters believe all these awkward, irrational things ... because they are used to characters in a book meaning what they say.  And these characters very rarely mean what they say.

So it sounds like ... well ... the highest demonstration of pretense.  Remarkable pretense.

And yes, the characters are pretensious.  They pretend to believe things they do not.  They pretend to have opinions they do not have.

Welcome to reality.

In my life, I have 'real' conversations with just one person.  That person is my partner Tamara.  She is the only person whom I believe says precisely what she means, because she doesn't hesitate to hurt me, quite often, with things she says to me.  She hurts me because the things she says need to be said, and although I am hurt I don't snap or attack or start a fight, because I know they are things that need to be said.

It is very much like the dialogue that you, gentle reader, have in your own head, where you know things about yourself that are very painful, things from which you recoil, ways you speak to yourself to motivate yourself, cruel ways, ways that are inconsiderate because you know if you do not do this, or start to do this, you're lost.  Those are the conversations I have with Tamara.  Those are not the conversations I have with anyone else.

People have the unfortunate habit of believing that a 'lie' is something that is the opposite of the truth.  In fact, a 'lie' is anything except the truth.  More to the point, a 'lie' is a tremendous simplification, where the truth is a complex, exquisitely difficult thing to nail down accurately.

A salesclerk wishing me a "good day" seems to be a reasonable thing to say to a stranger upon departure.

Truth is that clerk's requirement to make that statement, corresponding to the reality that he probably doesn't wish me any particular ill will, but in fact has said it so many times that it has ceased to matter, with the collarary that it is good business practice to seem to be sincere, even if one is not sincere, because human body chemistry responds positively to the outward expression of sincerity, even if both parties know it is not sincere.  All of that is true.  It is also true that the clerk hasn't the time to truly know me, or know my reasons for being at that store, or why I might be buying what I'm buying, or what sort of person I actually am, or even if I'm someone who ought to be wished a good day.  All life long, uncaught serial killers are wished a good day just like you and I, they are given 'best wishes' just like anyone else, they are told 'merry Christmas' and 'hope you have a good weekend,' just like anyone else.

It takes two seconds to have the relationship with the clerk that I have.  It has taken me more than ten years to have the relationship I have with Tamara.  And there was a great deal of fighting in the beginning.

If the gentle reader can understand, the ordinary daily lies of life are mitigation.  If a commenter says a post is 'good' ... the truth is probably that the commenter does think it is that.  But ... how good?  How much does the commenter protect themselves.  Is it really that good?  Is it just sort of good, does it barely meet the lowest possilble standard that makes it 'good' ... or is it really that the post wasn't that good, but there's a recognition that an effort was made, and that the effort to be good should be approved.  Plus that the poster was a friend, that no one else has commented, that one feels an urge to commemorate a person just because they're known, etc.

On the other side of all that, all human beings know better than to 'gush' ... there's nothing worse than being too moved by something we've read.  Our inter-relations, particularly in western society, mocks or dismisses those who LIKE something TOO MUCH.  We slap labels like fag, bootlick, suck-ass, etc., or anyone who seems to appreciate something, and even a tiny bit of too much approval will draw the attention of the worst little bastard trolls who will gleefully stomp on that enthusiasm with hob-nail boots made of soft and saggy penises.  So, if someone thinks a thing is 'really good,' they are sure to say just 'good,' because of the risk of being too approving.

This is why I rarely give a shit about an approving comment.  I don't know which it is.

Most people, I know, are more than willing to take everything at face value.  Exactly at face value.  Thus the much-used argument, "Don't think too much" ... because thinking tends to encourage investigation into what people really mean - and that almost never works out well for us.  What people really think is best not known.

NOT taking things at face value is the format of the book The Fountainhead ... it deliberately denies any character delivering the story through the usual expectation from written art that it means what it says.  Ayn Rand did not care about that.  She wanted to demonstrate how people really speak - both good people and bad people ... and both mitigate, mitigate, mitigate.  For different motivations, of course, and those motivations are very carefully HIDDEN inside all the mitigation ... except in those places in the book where the mitigation is dropped, to demonstrate the truth.

That long, long 40 page speech by Roark, which everyone hates, explains all the mitigation.  But then, most of the readers who have tried to read the book, don't know there has been any mitigation, so they don't understand how that speech doesn't 'fit' with everything that has already been said.  The subtlety is lost.  The point is lost.  The clarity is lost.  And people, who haven't the willingness to think too much about what people mean when they're spoken to in real life, haven't the willingness to think at all about that speech of Roark's.

So it is lost.  It is misunderstood.  It is rehashed into whatever people think they want it to mean.  It is taken in pieces and reassembled like a Frankenstein's monster to justify singleminded abuse of fellow human beings.  And so on.

I suppose all this does have something to do with D&D.  If you're not prepared to identify what people really mean when they're playing a character ... if you haven't got in your mind what motivations they might have to 'pretend' to be something they're not ... then you are going to miss one hell of a lot of subtext.

But that connection is a bit slapped on at the end of this.

I want to say that The Fountainhead is certainly not the book it is thought to be.  Just as people are not the people they are thought to be.

I felt it needed to be said.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It Only Takes Time

I usually don't publish comments written by anonymous or unknown posters, but every now and then I can make an exception.

The question from yesterday from one such poster was, "On the subject of making players unhappy, how do you determine how far is too far?"

Well, when they've stopped trying to reason with you, when they're swearing at you, when they've said for the tenth time without let up that this table is stupid, when they're packing their books to go, when they're on the phone before the session saying "Fuck you, fuck you bastard, I'm never running in your world again, die, die, die, die, DIE!" ...

You've probably gone too far.

I have, many times, forced something on my players.  I have taken a stand on a particular position and said, "Tough, it is going to be this way, suck it up and move on."  I have argued, cajoled, mitigated, redesigned and downgraded things of this nature, and yes, I have thrown them out entirely.

I have, I think, a very sharp sense of when a thing is doing what I want it to do ... and that isn't always creating 'verisimilitude' or 'fun' for the players.  Sometimes, it is something goddamn annoying - an obstacle the players have to get around, which they would rather not get around.  Obstacles are good things; they make for good times when they are overcome, and they offer drama and challenge.

They work when the value of the corresponding dopamine hit from overcoming the obstacle outbalances the pain and difficulty in making the obstacle happen.  For instance, where it comes to the party being surprised.  This is a very easy obstacle to implement.  One die roll, one immediate result, one consistent relief when the party is surprised and doesn't die.

The introduction of a new, complicated table has to carry with it an eventual expection that it can be memorized, and thus the difficulty in managing it can be minimized to where overcoming that table is worthwhile.  If you have to go back to the table every time for months, if you can't get it into your head, or if the players just don't care that they've gotten around the obstacle, then it's time to surrender.  Pack it in, tell everyone it's on the shelf and move on.

See, the real thing is that obstacle.  Think of a jigsaw puzzle.  You start one, it's two, three thousand pieces.  At the beginning, there's a big, long period where you have to flip all the pieces right side up on a good sized table.  As you go, you find the edge pieces, steadily assemble them together.  You collect the others together, grouping them by color, sorting out the ones with design from those that are flatly colored.  Steadily, you begin to build up the picture.

At the beginning, you can go for long periods without any success.  You are studying the picture, steadily memorizing the pieces, even though there are thousands of them.  It isn't easy.  For many, it can be frustrating.  But as you sit and relax and stare and 'puzzle' it out, you begin over time, sometimes weeks of time, while the TV runs or the radio does, to familiarize yourself with it.  You get to where a particular shape or color stands out, and you think, "I've seen that piece ..."  And as it turns out, you actually have.  You're able to reach down into your memory and sort out one piece from thousands, and after a minute or two of diligent searching, you produce it from a vast collection and fit it in place.

And in reward, your brain produces a little dopamine.

As you go, there are periods where you put lots of pieces together, and you get lots of dopamine.  There are days when its hard, and you get in a few pieces over as many hours.  But steadily, the speed of the pieces going in increases as there are less and less of them, until at last you finish the puzzle and it's all in place. 

(Sorry, I'm one of those annoying people who repeatedly finds every piece of a puzzle I'm putting together, losing none of them, even over months)

Mastering a table or a new system is like that.  It is frustrating at first; it requires a great deal of adjustment and patience.  You steadily familiarize yourself with all the goofy details and modifiers.  It seems like you'll never get them straight in your head.  But if you hear your players beginning to adapt to the table or system in their dialogues; if they begin to account for those changes, or figure out ways to get around or past them; you're on the right track.  Step by step you and the party get familiarized, you consume the table/system into your gameplay, you find you can instantly resolve the questions from memory ... and from then on the table/system is a cakewalk.

You can't dismiss something because in the beginning it seems difficult, overly elaborate or impractical.  From scratch, any complex thing is unmasterable.  But ... if everyone has the attitude that they are less concerned with its difficulty than they are with its potential reward - the dopamine hits of the puzzle pieces - you'll find you can include virtually anything into a campaign.

It only takes time.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

New Temperature Tables From Hell

Having written about the flood, let me bring the light to something else.

Every now and then I have an idea for a table or something that I loathe to bring out on the net, partly because of its density and partly because of the difficulty in the explanation.  This is one such case.

Let me start by saying that if you don't like it, don't use it.  Don't waste time explaining to me how its too involved or too much trouble or how math makes the gentle reader ill.  I know all that.  I'm also well aware of how difficult it will be to implement this, how much the players will probably hate it, etc., etc.  It absolutely flies in the face of all that is fantasy, where the cloak swirls incessantly because there is a set-fan just off screen that keeps it moving.  Yes, I know you're all heroes, I know you all sleep in your armor and that it is always southern California where your world takes place.

Nevertheless ...

Yes, most parties I expect want nothing to do with this.  And yet it addresses something that has bothered me for a long, long time ... how to express, in a practical manner, the effects of a change in weather upon party habits and expectations.
There are a number of nuances here to discuss, but first, let me admit that it is almost all invented material.  Some information was gleaned from the net, but for the most part everything on this table, and about this table, does not exist in any form I was able to find.  IF anyone out there would care to point me to a website that has PRACTICAL information on how many hours you can remain in armor at a temperature of 90 degrees, I'm certainly ready to read it.  On the other hand, if someone is only going to point me to another roleplaying game's rules, and how someone else pulled this information out of their ass, I'm not interested.  I want hard data.  Please send me hard data.
Lacking such data, however, I've decided to plunge forward anyway.  This is an adaptation of an earlier table I created about ten years ago for offline use, that simply failed to measure up.  I've never mentioned it; I always expected one day I would tackle it and put the refurbishment on the net ... no one was more surprised than I to find myself suddenly in the mood to do it starting last Thursday.
To begin, temperature is divided into orders of 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  I'm a Canadian, so I'm well used to the metric system, but divisions of 5 degrees Celsius seemed too small, and 6 degrees too much, so 10 degrees of Fahrenheit were 'just right.'  Frankly, it doesn't matter which I use.  The reality is that no person living in a pre-Enlightenment world would have any idea of 'degrees' at all ... thus my attempt to establish a description system for temperature.
In the past, I haven't had any arguments about it, since its based on my geographical experience ... it was funny to shoot it at the online players, who live all over, because of course they view 65 degrees very differently than I.  For anyone living in the deep south, 65 is anything but 'pleasant.'  But I have an answer to that.
On this table, 'cool' is a relative mid-point ... a nice working temperature, where naturally someone could wear armor and light clothing while travelling/working without much worry of overheating.  It is why construction work is best in the Spring/Fall.
However, it is based on the mean temperature of the individual character.  Because I operate a world based on the real Earth, I have mean temperature figures for everywhere.  So, if you were born and trained in a place where the mean temperature was about 53, like Seattle Washington, then this table would suit your character.  But if your mean temperature were 62, like Little Rock Arkansas, then the whole table would be misplaced up one level for you in particular.  For you, the 60s would be 'cool,' the 70s would be 'pleasant,' the 80s would be 'warm' and so on.
Thus, where a person is from is suddenly very important.   While one person in the party is quite comfortable, another is somewhat the worse for wear and a third, from way down south, is positively freezing.  Thus the descriptions for climate are relative.
So, the fighter from Little Rock can wear full banded armor for six hours in that same weather that only allows the fighter from Seattle to wear it for three.
How does the armor time work, exactly?
I see it as a simple roll.  I presume the character will want to wear their armor as much as possible, so when an encounter occurs, a d6 is rolled.  The number indicated as the maximum comfortable hours indicates the result or lower that must be obtained in order for that player to be in armor.
Yes, I know it takes time to get in and out of armor.  I have decided not to worry about that overmuch.  Perhaps with a little time I may fix some period of slowing movement rate per day based on whether or not the party is waiting for someone to get in or out of the plate mail.  For the time being, I'm prepared to consider it the time equivalent to hammerspace and let it slide.  See?  I can be about the fantasy.
If a player insists on wearing their armor all the time, regardless, they suffer damage.  Minimum damage across the board is 1 point ... even if 1/3 of a point is indicated.  For instance, the most damage you can take for wearing your armor in pleasant circumstances for the whole six hours is 1 point (I could have indicated that by a different table, but ... well, this retains a certain pattern in the amount of damage and saves on table size).
If a person chooses to wear their scale mail for six hours, when it is indicated by the weather that two is the maximum ('balmy'), then the total damage taken over those six hours is 4.  The reader might be surprised to learn that many players will refuse to take damage for any reason ... but if I had 80 hit points, and I felt it mattered enough, I'd just leave the armor on.
Some will ask if there's a difference for magical armor.  Personally, I would say no ... and since I'm the only one whose ever going to use this table in all the universe, then I guess that's the final word.
For the moment, let's leave off the column for clothing points.  That is addressed by a second table that is described further down.  Before that, we can move to general effects.
This is quite a tiresome thing to explain.  Basically, IF you're wearing enough clothing to protect yourself, then the green columns apply to you and you're not affected by any of the salmon columns.  However, if you're not wearing sufficient clothing, then it gets harder for you.  The salmon columns also address the issue of hypothermia and dehydration.  If you are damp or wet, then you're not wearing proper clothing; if you haven't taken in enough water, then it doesn't matter how you're dressed in the desert or jungle, you're still going to suffer the worst effects.
Right now, I don't have good numbers for how much you should drink at what temperatures, and I wanted to do more research; for the present, I'm going to hold off on including that column.
Some would say the effects are overly harsh, but personally I feel it should be possible for the environment to kill you if you're not dressed or if you haven't enough to drink.  Remember that these are damages taken over hours, and not days ... so that potentially, a very bad day could easily kill a first level character.
For the record, ability penalties are not cumulative.  However, they are rerolled and readjusted every six hours.  So, you may have periods of lucidity followed by the reverse.  Overall, the worst effects will be on combat and very much on spellcasting.  If you're less intelligence or less wise, you may not have all the spells you have, you may have spell failure and you may forget how to cast spells you've cast your whole life.  Such is the nature of a very dangerous environment.
Note the nature of some of those additional effects.  Where it says 'apart from combat' that was simply because I wanted players to be able to still fight - whatever other disabilities they have - for the sake of the GAME, not reality.  I could make the combat slowed too, but I think probably that would be going too far towards making the players unhappy.
Okay, that's probably not enough explanation, but clothing:
I'm sorry if this is more complicated than it needed to be.  I can tell this is a table I will be upgrading in the future, particularly after a few parties have ripped it to shreds.  I was trying to find the best language to use to describe some difficult aspects of this, but sadly I feel I failed all over the place.
The primary issue is that for some clothes to work, you have to be wearing other clothes first.  If you have no coat (overwear designation) then you're not going to get a lot of help from scarf, furry leather gauntlets, hat and muffler.  I can tell you from experience that is the case.  You simply have too much exposed skin to argue that you are getting 7 points of protection.  So, 'requirements to gain benefit' means that until you have this, you get no benefit from that.  IF you want your fur trimmed gloves to give you benefit, you had better be wearing a cloak, a jacket or a coat.
The second thing was trying to get across the idea that the material improved multiple types of clothing without having to write it all out again and make multiple entries.  I suppose that would have been clearer.  The idea is that fur with lining will triple the protection normally offered by gloves (not gauntlets) or overwear.
Thus, a full body coat made of wool will give you a protection of 3.  A leather full body coat, lined in wool or other heavy cloth, will give you a protection of 4 (see improvement/leather with lining).  And finally, a fur full body coat will give you 3x the protection of a wool coat (not a leather coat, fur IS leather), or 9 points.  Please note that the fur bonus to leather gauntlets is +1, not x3.
The idea is supposed to be that if you are wearing a full body coat made of fur (9), a scarf (1), a cap (3), fur gauntlets (4), a wool cloak (1), breeches (1), shirt (1), loin cloth (1) and hard boots (3) would give you a total protection of 24 ... the exact protection you need to survive a 'polar' climate as comfortably as possible - see that clothing column we skipped before.
At the same time, body oil, a cloth headgear like a turban, and loose fitting clothing will make you reasonably comfortable up to 'baking' heat.
For context, I see 'baking' as the temperature for those scenes in Lawrence of Arabia where they are at first journeying to find Prince Faisal.  It's not pleasant, but they can endure the circumstances well enough to travel each day.  However, where they plan to cross the Nefud, even the Arabs are like, "Screw that!" ... which would be the equivalent to 'scorching.'  In short, a temperature you can't fully dress for.
Naturally, there are magical alternatives.
Okay, to anyone of course, and to the party especially, are we prepared for the inclusion of these tables?

Flooded But Not Underwater

17 hours ago.
Let me start by saying that I'm fine.  There are those of you who may have heard, the city of Calgary, where I live, has large parts underwater.  There are many who have been severely hit.  Calgary consists of two escarpments looking down at a large river valley, and those in the southeast of the city - the last corner of the city to be developed, for good reason - have been most affected.  I live on the edge of one of the escarpments, hundreds of feet above the river, and where I am there's no sign of anything being different.  There are places where there is no power; many industries and places are closed more for lack of power than for flooding.  My place of employment is fine, but turned off at the moment.  Don't know how this next week is going to play out.

I heard there was a rush on stores, but as I said on my facebook, there's plenty of food.  I was there Saturday morning, right after the crest, and there were no line-ups, no panicked people, plenty of food on the shelves, and hardly any sign that something had happened.  Some of the junk food was scant, but that was all.

It's funny; Canadians have a sort of idea that whatever the problem, the government will ultimately step in and fix it.  I'm sure even if we were actually in trouble, the food stores would still be accessible.  If food ran out, the government would supply it (that's the thought process, any way).  No question.  Whether this is true or not is debatable, but all the conversations I've had, near and far from the actual site of the flood, has been calm, mild concern.  Even the press has trouble making it seem horrible, and you'll notice a lack of crying, freaked out people.

Whatever happens, I'll be at home tomorrow, trying to make arrangements perhaps to take off some time or have access to the restricted in-house system I usually work with.  I do expect to still restart my online campaign - I may even have more time than I expected.

See?  Everyone's smiling.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Query Regarding Crazy Notions

I am beginning to worry my regular participants in the online campaign with all this nonsense ... since they now are beginning to feel I might change my mind and not run, preferring to play around with this.

Nothing has changed.  I will start the online campaign again.  I'm never quite sure how much of my time it will take, or what's practical, and the situation has changed for at least one of the players, so things will have to be taken a step at a time - but what the hell, we've been playing since 2009 and a lot of ground HAS been covered, given the fact that the whole thing is in text.  Most campaigns, I think, don't last as long or have this kind of continuity.  However slow or fast we're able to move, I'm sure we'll make progress and I'm sure the party will feel engaged.

Now, this other thing, this suggestion yesterday.  I think it goes without saying that any DM is a megalomaniac in some regard; that we tend to conceive of weird, wild, woolly things to try, and that in the trying there's things to learn and fun to be had.  A bunch of people expressed a desire to run in my world and no, sorry, I haven't got the time to run everyone.  Running takes more than just describing a few events.  There's character creation for one, and explaining the complex rules of my world, all of which takes a lot of time.  There's mapmaking for combat, there's the processing of weather and other tables, there's keeping records, there's a lot of stuff that needs to be done to maintain the various elements of the campaign ... and doing it in text makes it doubly harder.  Something I could explain live at a table in three minutes can be virtually impossible to get across with sentences.  Thankfully, I think that the screencapture program I started using this year will help enormously with some things ... since I can demonstrate movement as well as describe it.

What I can do is fuck around with a sort of mass game, see if I can't get a dozen, two dozen, even more people playing a bit of simple combat with simple characters.  Some strategies might come to light, some realities about player interaction, and some FUN may be had.  A lot of work?  I guess.  The blog might suffer.  My writing might suffer.  I may have to play a LOT less time-wasting video games.  I may have to stop watching crap on Netflix.  Who knows.  Time is a movable feast, and there's always tons of it that gets wasted.

I have more time than most people, for a number of reasons.  I don't have any family that needs my constant attention.  I don't drive for two hours every day commuting to and from work.  I don't donate my time to causes.  I don't support any charities.  I make time for stuff; I'm not duty bound by anything or anyone to fulfill any commitment except the one that pays me.  This seems to make me more flexible than everyone, who tell me constantly how little time they have.

Do I get stupid busy?  Yes.  Do I sometimes find it hard to fulfill my commitments?  Of course.  But I let everyone know, I make my apologies, and I move on.  If you were to play this game I proposed on the Dungeon board, I promise your commitment would be a lot less than mine ... and when it ended, no matter how little time passed before it ended, the worst angst you could possibly suffer would be a mild disappointment.

What, you live in this world and you're not used to disappointment yet?  You poor bastards.

That said, I have some simple questions.  I want to see nicks and avatars, not just results from a poll, and the way people respond matters as much as what position they take.

1)  Would you want to play?

2)  If you did play, would you want a clear, transparent indication of what monsters, and how powerful they would be, there were at each level?  I remember the original Dungeon monster cards were pretty nasty on Levels 5 & 6, so they wouldn't be that harsh ... but I do think I need more than merely 6 orcs in the 6th level room.  Should my actual solution be revealed, or would people rather be surprised?

3)  If the monsters go up, so should the treasure.  Shall it be a Treasure Shower, so that succeeding a room practically makes one a higher level, or should it be a hard slog, with maybe three or four rooms first.  In other words, 4 people kill 3 rats on the first level.  If there's a thousand gold pieces in the room, that's only 250 each.  If you want to go up levels more quickly, there has to be something like 5,000 g.p. in a first level room, to cover the whole party.  Don't try to get too specific answering ... just, ridiculous treasure, or the expectation of having to suffer before reaching the next level?  The power of the monsters would have to be adjusted.  Also, greater monsters means greater slowing in the lower levels ... and a greater dependency on lower level fights.  If the danger level for the rooms in toto is flatter (less treasure per room, better chance of four 1st levels taking on a 4th level room) the spread of people on the map board is greater.

4)  Should there be Player vs. Player?  If not, what sort of victory conditions do we want to specify.  If there is, how should it be restricted?

5)  Are we just playing until we're sick of it?

6)  Do people who die get to start again?  How often?  Infinitely?

7)  It will save time if I pregenerate simple characters.  Who isn't good with that, and why?  I can always create a group of 20 that people can pick from.

I think the only thing I might be uncomfortable with is the too much treasure option.  Other than that, I don't care one way or the other.  I know I'm going to run until I'm sick of it, or until interpersonal drama kills it.  That's how it goes.

But tell me emphatically that you don't want to play.  Make it clear that there's no interest and then I can drop it and move on to whatever is next.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Even Crazier

Okay, I must be getting delirious.

Let's say, for the present, no money (what the hell, I don't need to be poorer).

Let's suppose you submit a character, very simple, along the lines of the stats produced on this post.

Every other round, one new player starts at the beginning of this map:

Orange = Level 1; Green = Level 2; Red (left side) = Level 3;
Purple = Level 4; Red (right side) = Level 5; Blue = Level 6

You get a two round head start.  You can run, you can wait for the next person ... or you can enter one of the rooms.

Everyone is first level, so ... a die is rolled on the 1st level monster table from the DMG, and whatever appears, that number of monsters is in that room.  If I roll orcs and you're on the second level, you get 2 orcs.  If on the fourth level, 4 orcs.  All combat in the rooms is straight rolling - enter, roll surprise, attack goes to whoever is not surprised, then roll initiative, then fight until you're stunned (still my general combat system) or killed.  Others can run in and help you.  Others can run in and try to kill you (they can try to kill you in the halls, too).  If you want to leave a room where the monster isn't dead, you make a wisdom check and if you succeed, you leave.

Rooms have 250 g.p. treasure per level; I'll make up a % chance for magic items.  You heal 5 hp per round in the Kitchen and Laboratory; you can buy armor (Player's handbook prices x5) in the Armory.  All rooms, including the Start room, are safe non-combat zones.  I'll take other ideas for other zones.

Pretty much as many who want can play.

How stupid is this?

Moving The Party To Charles Angus

If you haven't yet, take a look at this post here on principles of combat.  Quite good.  I await approval to have some questions answered.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Floating A Crazy Balloon

So here is the idea.

You are standing on the threshold of a cave.  You are a fighter.  These are your weapons.  You are alone.

You are in no way required to enter the cave.  You are in no way required to take any specific action.  If you take an action which is not directly aggressive, you increase the likelihood that something will take an aggressive action towards you, and that you will be surprised.

If you move into the cave, or into the wilderness, you will find monsters.  If you kill the monsters, you will get treasure.

You explain in the comments post what you do.  Time is measured in actions, not in minutes or hours.

Everyone can play.

I put up a post that describes the initial situation.  Everyone who wishes to play must answer their particular action within 24 hours of my posting the initial situation.

All those who enter the cave would then be given a post of what is in the cave.  All those who descend from the cave would be given a post of what is in the wilderness.  I will write as many different kinds of posts as there are decisions made.  "Rounds" will equal one action taken by every participating person.  Thus, all the persons in the cave will be given one action, all the persons in the wilderness will be given one action, and when everyone has taken an action, we will start again for everyone.

You have to kill to live, to get treasure and magic items, ordinary D&D.  The format is AD&D, my combat system.  If you're not familiar with my combat system, I will help you ... but familiarity with my combat system will be a plus.

You have to roll dice live to determine if you hit, what damage you do, etc.  You have to have a camera and you have to post your die rolls on you-tube.  Here is an example:

To discourage cheating, I will be rolling dice at the beginning of each round called a 'standard' die.  This die will work thusly.

Suppose you need to hit AC 4 and you have a THACO of 20.  Normally, this would mean you have to roll a 16 or better on a d20 to hit.  Whatever number I roll on the standard die, however, that is the NEW 20.  So if I roll a 12, then '12' is the '20'.  This would mean you would have to roll an 8 to 12 in order to hit AC 4.

If I rolled a 3 on the standard die, then you would need to roll a 19, 20, 1, 2 or 3 in order to hit AC 4.  These rolls will also be posted on youtube.

Why am I interested in discouraging cheating?  Because I plan to give a $50 prize to the last person standing.

I will give this from my own funds.  It will not cost a dime to play.


If you do not post your action within 24 hours of the time stamp on my post, then you are disqualified and you have lost.

If you die because you have failed to stop a monster killing you, you have lost.

If your die roll on you-tube is not legible, or if at any time the die you have rolled moves off camera, then that die roll is discounted.  I suggest you roll in some sort of container as I have done, so that the entire movement of the die can be filmed.

I am not ready to run this contest.  I have not considered every possibility, and I want suggestions.  But I think it can be reasonably argued that many, many people could play at one time.  Time between rounds will depend upon my ability to manage however many people are playing.  A 24 hour minimum warning will be given before the next round is posted, and of course you'd have 24 hours after that to answer.

I think there would need to be possible choices that would enable people to PVP.  Such pairings would teleport persons temporarily to a neutral plane of existence, and the winner returned to their starting place.

I think I'd like to award 10 times the normal experience I usually offer, to allow people a reasonable chance of going up a level.

All persons would run the same basic fighter, randomly rolled, with four weapons already chosen, etc.

Encounters both in the dungeon and in the wilderness would be rolled using the Dungeon random tables, divided by level, found in the Dungeon Master's Guide.  Probably, the wilderness would be designated as one level higher than the beginning cave in the dungeon.

I don't want to pre-create a dungeon.  I would rather create a set of tables which then the players had to try their luck against.

I also don't want any set list of possible actions.  I want people to be able to innovate; I'd certainly want them to be able to parley.  Unfortunately, I do tend to think this is ultimately going to come down to luck.

Everyone who went into the cave would experience the same encounter/results.  Everyone who went into the wilderness would experience the same encounter/results.  You'd only start to locate unique things when you shook off others and were able to go your own way.

If you killed an orc in a room this round, and others weren't able to, but they were still alive and fighting, whereas you had succeeded, then you would move on the next round, while they would remain behind.

You could ask me questions via email or a separate comment section before taking your action.

It is a bit like the movie Next, if you've seen that.  Specifically, this scene.

All right, what haven't I thought of?


Right off, short rolling does occur to me.  Part of the reason I want to see it on camera is because I know people will cheat ... and throwing the dice from a half an inch up is one way (short rolling).

Trust me, if I need other people to judge your rolls, everyone competing will be there to help me keep you honest.

Too Many Words

As of this year, things have been happening to the D&D blogosphere ... some sort of shakeup, apparently, which began as long-standing blogs began to drift away, one by one.  The most notable being Grognardia - who, as everyone knows, stopped posting mysteriously back in December ... and who has since appeared momentarily to give an explanation that his family requires his attention.  This would be understandable, except, well, he was given a bunch of money through - I think Kickstarter - just before disappearing.

Well, I'm not up on that, and if there's any new information I'm not the one to get it from.  My opinion of the guy's blog was that it was filled with the most sincerely boring corporate-style bullshit imaginable ... I continue to believe that he was somehow in the pay of several game companies simultaneously.  If it weren't for the fact that my daughter met Maliszewski once, I'd believe the name was a front for a gaming company.

I understand many people are mad at him.

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  Many people of late who keep blogrolls where the last post made drops the blog to the bottom of the list with time are seeing a lot of familiar names that haven't posted in months or more than a year.  Amendments here and there have been made.  One after another, sometimes with a goodbye message, sometimes not, blogs are ending.  The usual story is that people are moving onto something else.  That after a set period of time, there's less to say.  It may even be that after a decade or so, blogs in general have run their course.

It was always a bit goofy.  The culture we know isn't really a literate one.  Letter writing had long become a thing of the past long before it was replaced by email, something done by old people and furiously resisted by the young.  It was only with the explosion of chat in the 90s that there was suddenly a reason to write at all, for many people who thought the last essay they'd ever write came with high school graduation.  But take note that chat is a thing, too, that's run its course.  Oh, you can still find chat rooms, but they're filled with the most loathesome people imaginable, mostly on medication, prone to juvenile descriptions of kindergarten behavior, sensitive to any digression to the extreme, etc.  No meaningful person nowadays spends any significant time in a general chat room.  It has even gone out of vogue for Hollywood movies.

Perhaps its time to admit that 99% of the general public are not well suited for extended literature.  This whole 'wall of text' thing has a great many people seriously overwhelmed ... that is, any amount of words that would exceed those to be found in a detailed coffee ad.  The presence of words like 'malfeisance' or 'gentrification' fit like massive bricks in that wall, hazing the gaze of readers so as to defy comprehension.  There are just too damn many words in the language process to make reading them a practical use of one's remarkably brief time ... and all the worse when their plenitude demands some degree of puzzling out the inherent meaning.

People, as a whole, do not write well.  Many of those of the highest intelligence very often fail to grasp that writing is a separate skill from knowing or doing.  That seems counterintuitive (a larger brick).  Surely, if one knows a thing, or one can do a thing, the explanation in words ought to be no different than simply speaking to the reader.  But of course, if the reader can zone out when they listen to you describe the intricate details of your world in person, they're bound to do it in print.  After all, you're not there to see their eyes glaze over.

This blogging thing never made much sense.  I mean, I love it.  Good, bad, incomprehensible, waffling, irrational or discordant, I write like other people walk.  I don't say it's all good - I know for a fact that a lot of it plainly isn't.  But language is not hard ... not to write and not to read.  I don't pretend to understand how a multiplicity of words is a 'wall.'  To me, it's a feather bed ... something to fall into and lose myself, to sink so deep into the middle that the rest of the room disappears, until I feel on all sides hugged and gently smothered to bliss.

But this is me.

Others, I know, treat the expectation of reading a few paragraphs as a state of being something like jet lag, sucking out their existence and pulverizing them as if with two socks full of wet meat.  It's just not a thing that's wanted.  So why they would ever get into the reading of blogs, or the writing of them, was like a strange blip in the intellectual continuity of the universe.  Demonstrated as such by the revealing evidence that Maliszewski, a man with absolutely nothing to say that had not been said already, wrote easily the most popular roleplaying blog in the sphere.

Zak, over at the porn star corner, continues to do very well, and one cannot argue that it's the porn star logo any more.  He's dragged his keyboard through a spectacular number of posts on a wide variety of subjects, and so he's earned the right to be judged solely on the quality of his writing, and the quality of his ideas.

He's so accessible, so wonderfully, eagerly, mindbogglingly accessible.  You will not find a wall of text there, oh no, far from it.  Don't expect to find your mind expressly challenged, or any idea you have of yourself playing or running the game challenged either.  Read Zak's blog, and you will feel so much better about yourself; it will lift your comprehensions of yourself to the stars, for never will Zak's writing in any way make you reflect, for an instant, on your own mediocrity.  Compare yourself to Zak and you will always come out the winner.

Thus is the core of his appeal.

Of late, I've been reading someone who does not make me feel this way.  This is a fellow I stumbled upon through Cracked, who I quoted on the blog a couple of weeks ago, and whose back catalog I have since been reading with all the deliberate motivation of a flea market saleswoman trying to get one more raggedy anne doll made before Sunday.  This would be Winston Rowntree of Subnormality ... with the tagline of "Comix with too many words."  Here's a fellow who I have begun to respect far past my ability to express ... who regularly gets readers on Cracked and on his own site trashing him for daring to use more than a hundred words in any given example of his work.

Words, in the conception of many people, many of whom would certainly not be reading this blog, suck.  They suck hard.

If not listening to mind-blasting music, hurling oneself into situations of near-death through the use of planes, kayaks and belaying ropes, or flushing one's brain with highly complex drano alternatives leaves one to think, then reading positively forces one to do so ... and thinking is bad.  If you don't believe me, spend a lot of time doing it, talking about it, and then count the number of times people pause in the middle of a conversation to tell you that you are doing it too much.  That should be evidence enough for you.  Thinking, by and large, is a social disease.

But, I am not likely to stop.  I have this strange sense of being that where I'm beset on all sides, where I am intellectually over-reached and I should just goddamn stop, I just reach farther.  That seems to be my way.  And as things change, and people disappear, and interest wanes in a particular thing, then I move onto the next thing where interest is bound to wane again, for the same reasons as before.  For surely, if disinterest in blogs is in widespread evidence, then this is surely the time to get my online campaign started again.

I did want to bury that in the end of this post; I wanted to see if anyone was listening, or if all I have to left to write to are the bots.  I'm getting an enormous number of page views of late, but since they seem to be coming from sites like '', I have to contemplate the possibility that there are no real humans out there.

Oh, I'll send an email, see if anyone's interested ... but for the moment, let's take a rolecall.  The restarting of Tao's Campaign is on the table.  Any takers?

The Other Burns' Coney Island

Not many people know that Ken Burns has a brother, Ric Burns, who made some very good documentaries for the PBS series The American Experience.  I'm watching a long series at the moment, something that's taking me more than a week to watch, so I'm just going to insert this little one-hour doc on Coney Island.

This documentary is probably the saddest I could recommend.  There's something especially heartless in the eventual decay of anything that once brought a great deal of joy to so many people ... and the documentary does make me wonder what it would have been like, exactly, to walk along those boardwalks, visit the parks and see the spectacles described.  Images like this below suggest there's a wonder there that has been utterly lost.

But, too, there is a cynical part of me, born and living in modern times, and I wonder if it really was that sensational.  To the ordinary person at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, perhaps; how many fewer wonders had they to mesmerize them, to lift them from that much less media-driven culture, where ramshackle cars and bi-planes were the wonder of the age.  Could it not be, if the gentle reader and I found ourselves transported back through time, to pay our fee and enter Luna Park, that we would only find it a most disturbing plaster dump, something ugly and trite, to find ourselves after to be glad that is it all burned down and gone.

How, truly, would we see it?  Like the crowds above, or like persons enlightened, who are beyond the callous pleasure seeking of that time.  For you will take note, as you watch the documentary, of all the moments where the disinterest bestowed by the owners upon the customers, or upon the park animals, reach heights of bafflement and rife absurdity.  An elephant is electrocuted; rides where no doubt people were regularly injured, or perhaps killed, are demonstrated and little is said but the occasional throwaway line.

There's something odd about this documentary, in that although it was produced in 1991, it seems to dismiss entirely any social change that would make the parks themselves intolerable to many of us.  The real education here is not the elaborate nature of 'fun,' but the willingness of a culture long ago to risk things our present neurotic culture could not tolerate at all.  Almost none of the rides depicted could exist today, even if we had the money.  None would pass a licensing inspector's eye.

All things change.  There are three fires described in the documentary - and that in itself gives a clue as to what dangers the parks represented. Take note of how easily and quickly Dreamland, one of the parks, vanishes.

This is Luna Park burning, in 1944; we had no aerial shots
we could take of Dreamland burning in 1911.

Have we really lost what we think we've lost?  Or has the world properly moved on?

You can see the documentary here.  I heartily recommend it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

South Mediterranean Shore

After updating the map on this post, I'm adding also two other maps.  I've been sketching out areas along the south Mediterranean, mostly trying to work out what states control those areas.  Truth is, historically none at all ... but as this is a D&D world, such political vacuums offer opportunities to insert non-human races.  In this case, tauregs, which is an African tribe but which I'm adjusting to be a sort of desert-troglodyte (no offense to any real Tauregs conceivably reading this blog), strong, large, needing less water than a human and having a developed culture that reaches back to the time before the Sahara desert was completely desert-like.

The Tauregs comprise the Garamantes Empire, of which a part is shown on the linked map, Jafra.  Another non-human culture is the Kanem Empire, or jackalwere, which should prove interesting if any party ever penetrates this far into the desert.  The northern province of the Kanem Empire is Murzuq.

A third humanoid race occupies the oases of Kufra ... I am considering a rework of the Fiend Folio's qullan, perceiving them to be a contemplative, highly intelligent, semi-magical people.  Again, these people would be wildly obscure with regards to any usual party movements, as it would require a far reaching expedition away from traditional trade routes (desert crossing trade routes being something else).

Here are the maps:

Green areas and unpatterned brown areas represent
arable land. Yellow areas along the coast are thin grasslands.
Ferrous red areas have thin scrubland, but no oases; some such
areas might have deep unknown water sources. Gray areas
are pure desert.

This is turned 60 degrees with respect to the map above,
in keeping with my overall map-design

Here's all three recent desert maps fitted together:

Jufra and Murzuq show on the left; Kufra in the lower centre (I didn't
choose those names, by the way; those are actual names for those
regions). The coastline itself is entirely under the control of the
Ottoman Empire, including Egypt showing on the right.

Altogether its an extravagantly empty area to which I've tried to give depth and meaning.  The reader will not find much of either in an atlas or from maps online, for which this is almost entirely a big, empty white nothing.

Political maps coming at some point in the future, and infrastructure maps too.  Working on the infrastructure of Italy now and then, when I'm in the mood for it (suspended largely due to work I'm trying to do on monsters).


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Human Interface

Continuing yesterday's post, I will pause and send the gentle reader to the following link about Angry Birds ... be sure and read it.

If the reader has wondered how to explain, exactly, why your table-top game is vastly superior to any computer simulation of D&D that exists, here is your answer.  It has nothing to do with the amount of creativity you provide compared to, say, DDO.  It has nothing to do with the tactile sense of having your character in hand, as opposed to numbers written on a screen.  It has nothing to do with the drinks and the cheezies and the feeling of camaraderie at the table.  You have leapt to those things as an explanation because you've been short for one - that being the most glaring non-computerized evidence you can find.  You are like the detective who assumes that if the body was carried in by the tide, it's clear and definite proof that the victim drowned - there's no need to look for bullet holes.

Now, I'm not saying that you don't enjoy the camaraderie.  I'm not saying the tactile sense of having your character in hand isn't lovely.  I'm not saying you're not creative.  If you've seized upon those conclusions, this goes a long way towards why you're such a crappy detective - you can't even read a paragraph without detecting the critical causality denial.  Those are great things about the game, but they are not the reason the game is great.

There are those who presume that I am a simulationist.  They attach that description to me in the same way that one calls out someone who denies the holocaust.  They think that I think making the world real is what makes the world interesting ... and they know that's bullshit, because their worlds aren't real in the least and yet their worlds are just as interesting as mine (so they presume - no one knows for sure).  They don't do anything like the kind of work I do, so they laugh up their sleeves at my total waste of time ... it's not needed to make a good game!

They're right.  Oh, not that I'm wasting my time, but that all this creation in necessary to create a good game.  I don't believe that.  I do believe the in depth creation is intensely interesting and divinely satisfying, particularly at the end of the task, but that's an entirely different post.  I agree that none of it is needed to play a good game of D&D.

Some years ago, there were a group of Chilean miners who were trapped for weeks following a collapse.  All told, it took 69 days to free them.  They had access to the surface "with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit" ... and I remember at the time a lot of my more mundane-minded co-workers talking about how crazy they'd get being stuck underground with limited light sources for that long.

I know what I would do.  I would teach them all to play D&D.  It might be a bit odd for the surface people to hear a request for dice ... but I promise you I could create adventures for my fellows without the need for any maps, any character sheets - and even any dice if it came to that.  Naturally, it helps that I already have a tremendously detailed conception of the actual world in my head, and that my fellows would understand my descriptions of crossing fields in France because they understood what France was without my having to give that background.  All the same, the actual detail my world includes isn't necessary to making a good roleplaying game.

I have made the point before, years before, but it is one of those that needs to be said often to get it in people's heads.  It is not what you tell your players, it is in what you don't tell your players.  It is in what you hold back.  You have to give them information, yes - you have to make that information interesting and worth reading.  Consider this post thus far.  I've been talking, I've been filling up the paragraphs with ideas and proposed circumstances and argument.  I've been interesting.  But what is better is the fact that as you're reading this, you're thinking, "What the hell is he on about?  Is it this?  I bet it's this.  I bet when I get to the end of this post he's going to tell me something I already know."

That's a possibility ... but you're still reading, none-the-less.  I have your attention.  I don't have it because I've blown your mind with my observations - I have it because you're in the process of investigating the mystery I'm creating by ordering those observations in a very deliberate way.

Take a typical opening to a typical module.  WOW, says the module.  Look at this really amazing castle-slash-terrifying hole in the wall-slash-tiny indescrete shack that is nevertheless ominous.  What will you do?  Careful!  Careful, it could go off like a bomb!

The descriptions of such moments that you're likely to read are designed to IMPRESS YOU.  Pardon me, that wasn't quite enough.  They're designed to


As if in some way words on paper and descriptions of castles have any power to get past that media-drowned socialization you've learned to live with.  Your daily lives are spent shuffling from one attempt to impress you to the next, and for most people in marketing, making an impression is as far into the human psyche they're able to get.

How many games have you sat in where the DM began the adventure with a long, rambling description of the town or the local king and his exploits, or the frightening Smaug-like power of the local dangerous monster the party is now expected to kill?  Quite a lot, I'm sure.  Commonly, terror and interest is presumed to derive from something great an magnificent ... so DMs try hard to create that in the hopes of waving enough flags at you that you'll bite.  It's the Michael Bay rule of DMing.

The next alternative is that which is employed, nowadays, by the implementation of the subtle and yet altogether obvious clue that somehow the participants in a movie blithely ignore but which every genre-savvy horrorophile recognizes instantly.  Call it the Stanley Kubrick method of filmmaking.  Have the camera linger way, way too long on something completely unimportant, so that the audience can see instantly that this thing is incredibly important.  Then slowly drag the rest of the film along showing exactly how important it is.

(It really wasn't invented by Kubrick.  He was stealing body and soul from Jean-Luc Godard ... but Americans don't know that)

Now, of course, anytime the camera lingers for a split-second on anything its like holding up a billboard the size of the screen: TAKE NOTE OF THIS SHOT.  And DMs run a lot of their games like that.  The dragon is missing a claw, the third gravestone on the left is a different color than the other gravestones, etc., etc.  Sadly, this leads to overthinking, which has massively spoiled many a campaign.

The subtle clue is just another form of making an impression - one that worked in the 50s and 60s, but one which now is so hopelessly overused that it might as well be an elephant eating daisies holding the gun that shot Kennedy, dictating his memoirs to six Tibetan monks sitting on a carpet made from the Dalai Lama.

The reader has to understand that these things - these modes of making an impression, along with many others, are gimmicks, and they're unnecessary.  The 'overthinking' comic above is the proof; players will make up their own reasons to get interested in things, if only you as the DM will stop trying to tell them shit.  All they need is a fair description of their surroundings, without any of the buttons you'll find in a video game.  All they need to is have it driven home that they don't know everything about the environment, they CAN'T know everything about the environment, and what they CAN learn will be given when they go out looking for it.

No computer game can do that.  A computer game can't refuse to throw the dice (generate the number) until it is good and ready.  A computer game can't decide there's something under the bed, that never could have been seen before by the party, because at a given moment it's been hit with inspiration ... and once the thing under the bed has been installed, the computer can't decide when it matters.

Everything about DMing is timing.  It isn't about what's there, it's about how it manifests!  Not just in game terms, but in your personal, human presentation of it:

"Yes, the door opens!  Behind, you see a large, massive white ... wait, wait ..."  DM opens a book, rifles through it a moment, mutters, "Damn, you're kidding me."  Puts book down.  "Yeah, its huge.  It fills the large, open well at the center of the room.  It seems to be - wait.  Has the fighter got his sword out?"  Fighter answers, and the DM says, "Okay.  It's feeling a bit heavy, you're not sure why, it might have something to do with the damage you took earlier.  In fact, you're all feeling a bit down right now.  It's as though something has gotten inside you."  Party begins to chatter about that, asking questions, the DM gives curt, quick, non-descriptive answers.  "Anyway," the DM continues.  "The large white thing is quivering.  It looks vaguely like water, but it is sort of ballooned up from the edges of the well, perhaps a foot, and inside there might be things moving ... or it might be that the thing itself is alive."

Interrupt yourself.  Change up what you're talking above.  Move quickly from one aspect to the next.  Don't give a linear description of anything.  Talk about the room for a couple of sentences, then the creature, then what the air is like, then what the party is feeling, then more on the creature and so on.  DON'T explain overmuch.  Speak in vague, ill-defined specifics.  It's "huge," not "15 feet across."  If the party asks how big, it's "as large as the living room you're in," adding, "give or take."  Nothing is purely one color - it is white with red striations ... it is white with little blobs of algae green ... it is white but it wavers towards gray. 
DON'T let the party get too involved making theories about what a thing is, not if they're somewhere dangerous.  When they've talked enough, make something happen.  It doesn't have to be a real thing.  The large white mass releases a bubble that reaches the surface and pops.  The large white mass gives a gurgle.  The large white mass shifts so that the balance of it is towards the right side of the pool.  IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT.  The party is trying to decide if they should fireball, lightning bolt, fight at all, run away, try to parley, etc.

Wait for them to make up their minds.  Do not have the thing attack.  It has been quite comfortable for god knows how long waiting in this room, it probably is very tired from a long eternity's gurgling and has shows to watch.  Whatever.  The point is that it isn't, no matter what it looks like, what it appears to look like, or that it is exactly what it appears to look like.  That is information you must, must absolutely, keep to yourself until the party commits itself one way or the other.  Then all hell may then break loose.

The party must commit to everything that happens in your world.  You cannot lead them there.  You cannot put signs along the way.  The less they know about anything, where they are, where they're going, what they're going to find, who's watching them, what is it all for, why the hell they are doing this, etc., the better the game it will be.  No computer can do that.  A computer can only offer certain causality.  It takes a human interface to produce uncertainty, and therefore massive self-doubting insecurity.

Sort of like living in the real world, right?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Holding Off

Saturday night, my party had fought their way through a few mutant experiments, and were understandably on edge due to a number of clues and hints about an odorless, undefined gas that may or may not have had negative consequences.  I had been building up the clues all night long; they had found the dead doctor in a corridor, they had located his syringes and tools, and they had killed what they believed were his subjects.

You can feel the tension rise on a night like that.  All it takes are a few obscure references to something concerning or uncertain.  The usual ones are, of course, 'People go and don't come back' or 'No one knows what's past the [insert feature here].'

I have found, however, that anything not fully explained will usually fit the bill.  A torn letter with a few key words ... those that people are uncomfortable with.  Anything scientific or associated with the human body.  Anything overtly occultish.  One small reference to a removed liver or a gateway that can't be closed to ...

Works every time.

So when they got to the locked door near the end of the night, and discovered that the lock was fixed to a trap, they were good and uncomfortable.  They descended the last sixty feet in an odorless thick fog that was definitely not water and definitely not smoke ... but retained the features of both.  I have already been playing with rules for awhile now that thieves can be certain of opening a lock, given enough time.  I explained how the lock was hooked to a cord that extended through the door.  The 5th level thief could either try to remove trap, or he could try to open the lock without setting off the trap.

The way that worked, I explained, was that IF he could undo the lock quickly, there'd be no problem.  The number of rounds it would take would be 3d4 minus his level (slightly different from the post).  If he tried that, I'd determine afterwards whether it was quick enough.

He decided to try removing the trap.  His ability was 45%; he rolled a 58 and failed ... but didn't set off the trap.

So he tried the other way.  He rolled a 9 on 3d4.  Minus his level, that made a 4.  I then explained that if I rolled a '1' on any of three 4-sided dice, one representing each round before he got the door open, the trap would go off.  At first I was going to throw all three dice ... but my instincts kicked in.  I picked out one and started shaking it.

Now we come to the point of this post.  So long as I had that first four-sided rolling around in my hand, I owned that player's ass ... all the players, really, since they all depended on the trap not going off.  The last thing I wanted to do was to throw that die right away.  The thing to do is milk it, rattle the die around in your hand for a bit while you explain something else, anything else - where the party is in relationship to the door, the sweat on the thief's brow, the amount of time left on the party's torches.

When you let that die go, the last thing you want is for it to come up a '1' ... because you haven't lost anything if it comes up a '3' or a '4.'  You still have two more dice to go.

As you're shaking the second dice, the party will start to do your work for you.  They can see you're milking it - they know you're fucking with them, and they'll comment and joke about it.  That doesn't matter ... because a part of them doesn't want to see the die hit the table at all.  So long as its in the air, there's a chance.  So the more they point it out, the longer you can milk it ... no matter how genre savvy your party gets, the game is STILL in that die that hasn't been thrown.  And when it is, damn, hope its still good for the party.

You let it drop and again, the trap doesn't go.  You pick up the third die.

Now you can talk about anything.  The party has had relief come twice; they know the odds are in their favor now.  The tension is at a peak.  If the die hits the table good, there's going to be cheers and relief; if it hits bad, there's going to be fury and recriminations.  You can already hear the party starting to prepare themselves for the worst.

Meanwhile, you just keep shaking that die.  You talk about anything else.  Talk about what you plan to do the next day.  Ask how one of the player's sister is doing - if she got the job, whatever.  Drive the party freaking nuts, but don't roll that die until they are fucking screaming at you to do it ... because it isn't until then that the tension around your table matches the tension the actual characters would be feeling in the actual situation.  When you have that parallel, you can throw the die.

I don't know exactly how I learned to work this out as a DM.  Seems to me it was always there to some degree, even in the beginning, when I was just a kid.  A lot of DMing is fucking with people's heads, in a very particular way.  It's recognizing that when you stand up at the table to watch someone throw a die, that sends a definite message that THIS is something really important.  It's not that you should pretend to do so ... is that when the die actually is, you should demonstrate a body language that suggests it.  Your gestures demonstrate a great deal.  If you're relaxed, laid back, unconcerned ... this will produce a particular result.  If you roll a die and make no reaction, because you don't care, expect little empathy from the party.  But if you roll a die that sincerely bugs you, that sincerely does not fit with what you had hoped for (that you'll get to roll all three dice rather than just one, for instance), then get mad.  Don't explain why you are, of course ... the less the party knows, the less comfortable they are going to be.

I don't recommend inventing emotions and play-acting ... it will be insincere, it will be recognized as such, and you'll do it at the wrong times.  Random emotion will ruin those moments of true emotion ... which should generate naturally if you, dear gentle DM, are adamantly involved in your game.  You will feel frustration; you will find amusement in things; don't slap on a death mask to cover those moments.  Feel them.  Let the party see your responses.

There's NOTHING more disquieting than a DM that can't stop giggling - for no apparent reason - as you're trying to descend into the Pit of Despair.  Parties tell me they hate it when I start swearing and reaching for books out of the blue.  What the fuck have they done?  What's going to happen?  What's so goddamn funny?

And don't roll that critical die of certain death until you have to.  Hold that puppy, get on your feet and lean out towards the party and say, "God, I hope this doesn't kill somebody."  Then complain that you don't want to throw it because you don't want anyone freaking out.  Patiently explain that it's just a game, and that people can roll up a new character.  Tell the party exactly what number it is you don't want to come up.  Then put your hand over your eyes and throw.

You can tell from their reaction if it was good or not.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Smash It & Build Anew

Just to be clear regarding this, I detest nostalgia.  That's in part because I rail against so many of the things nostalgic interpretation of the past depends on, chiefly the mental removal of all the unpleasant nasty things that were never fixed and continue to plague society, as if to pretend somehow that those things didn't exist then, or that we were not in fact more ignorant in our childhood than we are now.  On the whole, this would be harmless, but so many older people use it as a weapon against the young, to dump on the problems on them as though these were never responsibilities of any previous generation ... along with the ridiculous notion that life OUGHT to be pure and simple and in fact based upon the brains of infant children, such as those attending kindergarten, and not the magnificent smorgasboard of intellectual gratification the actual unrestricted adult world offers.

I did not learn everything I need in kindergarten.  In fact, where it comes down to the mat, I learned pretty much jack shit in kindergarten - all that necessary wisdom about respecting other people and learning how to love was actually sourced out to my miserable, difficult, developmental 20s, where the only actual kindergarten teacher I knew was working as a prostitute because she'd been fired.

Yes, I did learn things from her.

Sunday, sacked out in bed, recovering from the game the night before, I found myself thinking of the campaign I ran back between 1984 and 1994 ... and about the fact that I don't remember any of the dungeons, any of the little adventures the party had, even any of the monsters they faced, really ... in anything like what one would think of in a typical adventure.  I remember they fought in a war against elves ... but seriously, I don't remember one detail about the leaders, or who killed who, or even who of the party may have died and come back to life.

In short, I tend to see those adventures the party has the same way I see my own, actual life.  I remember we went to bars; I remember we saw bands and got hammered and slept with people.  I don't remember all the time which girls I took to which parties ... hell, I don't remember ninety-eight hundreths of the parties themselves.  I remember a few really BAD parties ... but for other reasons.  People who got injured, or places I got stranded.  I don't remember the houses or the apartments.  I didn't try to remember.

I can remember generally what happened to that party over those eleven years.  I remember they started in Vienna; they slowly cut their way to the Black Sea coast, to Odessa.  I don't remember anything of that trip, but it was months of campaigning.  From Odessa they went to south Turkey, and then they decided to plunder a coastal town in Cyprus.  Limassol.  Funny I remember the places.

That was a huge battle, I remember; people died, but I can't remember who.  They took a lot of treasure out of the town and fled west, to Valencia in Spain.  There was some reason for them to go inland, and they wound up around Toledo.  They bought land, started raising cattle ... when that got slow I inserted a war.  The black elves of the Cantabrian Mountains in north Spain attacked from their underground lairs (I had different versions of drow/gray elves in those days) and marched on Madrid.  The party joined the King of Portugal and fought the Elves in a massive battle ... and for that they were awarded a fief in the province of Viana, at the very north of Portugal.  By then they were name-level.

After choosing to let ten years pass, to get married, build up their position, etc., they decided to expand their power into the Portuguese colonies of Africa.  The main party left their henchmen to manage their estates and they went to Guinea-Bissau, where they fought back apes, explored the interior, replaced the governor of the colony when he was murdered by British privateers (I've actually forgotten how that happened) and ultimately began to build roads in the colony.  Then they left more henchmen in Guinea and set out to return to Europe.

They were caught in a storm, crashed on the coast of Grenada in the Leeward Islands, hopped islands until they got to Cuba.  There they seized a ship of the Main, paid off the crew, and headed east ... but unfortunately they were again hit by a storm and had to abandon the ship on the Irish coast.  There followed months of adventuring in Ireland as they got embroiled in seiging a castle.  At last they returned home to Portugal.

We were playing side adventures, trying to rescue one of the character's daughters who had decided to become a cleric (she was 18 by then), and the African campaign was trying to put an acquired landless henchman on the throne of a small kingdom of northern Nigeria.

But what I've written above comprises almost everything I remember.  We played night after night, they fought miles of monsters and heaped up huge piles of treasure, they toppled governments and led men in massive great battles ... but the details are lost to me.

I compare that with those people who have their copy of the Tomb of Horrors and can relate step for step of a night of adventure 30 years ago.  They've had that adventure sitting on their shelf all this time and they can read through it like a book to lift those memories to the fore ... but I'm not sure this is a good thing.

My campaigns have been fluid, like my life has been fluid.  I don't have picture albums, I don't have home movies.  I remember being in this place or that, or meeting these people, or fighting with some political faction against some other ... but these are things in my PAST.  I don't care that I'm not able to re-live them.  There's a lot of waste reliving something that's been done and is gone now.  It's a decision to die in small parts, to surrender the present and the future in favor of something that really is dead.

I wonder how much resistance to expanding and developing a campaign is for people who hold so tightly in their memories to special runnings they had twenty years ago.  I wonder how many parties ran in the Tomb of Horrors this past weekend not because it is a really good adventure (it isn't, unless you want to call the fucked up, misplaced smarminess of DMs as iconic), but because the DM really likes it and just wants to "live it again," like they did in the old days.

I wonder how much D&D exists metaphorically in bubble-wrap, crated and bronzed, stored on neat little shelves where it can gather dust until its time to be taken down and marched through just the way it was, like a civil war battle.  I don't feel, you see, that what happened in that campaign long ago carries much relevance to me today.  I'm sure I learned skills; I'm sure with practice I got to be a better DM.  I know I invented rules then that I still play with, the combat formula I use, for instance.  I know that I grew as a DM those years, but that change is in me, not in the adventures I ran or in who killed what monster.

I never kept any notes from those days.  I never kept any floorplans or preparation.  I threw it all out as soon as it was used, because to me all that was worthless the moment the party finished with it.  Better that I make something new from scratch, even better that I remake whatever I made at that time from scratch again, so that new ideas and new life would go with the act of creation ... so that the person running the game wasn't some reflection of me from the past, but the me that exists right now, with my present outlook.  The one that is living new memories, not old ones.

I have always been the sort to leave the past in the trash can.  That, I think, is where the old school game should be left - in the trash.  If there is anything that is worthy in the letters OSR, it's the last one.  The actual Renaissance, that became the Renaissance because it gained the knowledge of Rome and Greece that had been lost, did not recreate Rome and Greece.  It surpassed them.  It manufactured a world that had never existed before.

That's the task at hand.  To recreate the game, to make it greater, to surpass the old guys, not to humble ourselves before them.  To do more than just reinvent the wheel, as WOTC is bent on doing forever.  To create something that has never existed, was never conceived to exist, by the simple-minded pagans of the ancient era (the 60s and 70s).  Learn from what has gone before, but don't emulate it.  Don't fetishize it.  Lift up from the muck and the mire, smash the old temples and build new edifices that would smash the minds of Gygax and Arneson.

You have it in your power to be Newton to their Archimedes.  Enlighten yourselves.