Monday, March 31, 2014


At the age of 11 my father began pressing me to enter the school science fair.  He hadn't pushed me into sports, or music lessons, or even scouts, though I had touched base with some of those and found I either liked or did not like them.  The science fair, however, mattered to him - he felt it was critical for my future. He still had ideals, then, about my pursuing engineering or research.  So naturally I succumbed to pressure; I was free to choose whatever subject into which I wanted to invest in, and at the time human biology was my chief fascination.

The goal seemed clear.  I would research the human heart and the circulatory system.  I would build a model, which would be complex and interesting, along with a presentation that would impress people.  By the end, I'd learn how the heart worked, both intellectually and mechanically, as I tacked the hands-on process of making my exhibit.

It happened that I was wrong.  The science fair wasn't about that at all. It was about explaining what I'd learned again and again, all day long, to other children and parents who had a minimum of understanding, who didn't actually care or who couldn't quite get it.  Now and then it was a person who knew all about it, who wanted to see if I had done my work.  It was a strange combination of deliberately measuring myself against people both dumber and smarter than me - and most of all learning how to defend the knowledge I had, with words, not with demonstrations.  The fair was a performance ... one based upon the reality that knowing things or making things took a second and third place to communicating things.  That first fair, and the others that followed, were an education in marketing.  Sad thing was, I wasn't very good at marketing science, and my father was not granted an engineer for a son.

When I went into university, I had only a general idea of what courses I wanted to take.  I had a deep fascination with geography, and another with history, but I'd had a conversation with a fellow named Mike - who would later be the best man at my wedding - in which he convinced me that the place I belonged was humanities.  Thus in my first year I took a smattering of courses in philosophy, religious studies, languages (Russian and English) and in classical studies.  The last seized my attention, and for the next seven years - being the professional student that had been my dream - I would embrace Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius, Plutarch, Livy, Polybius, Xenophon, Tacitus, Ovid, Vergil, Homer, Catullus, Hesiod, Pliny and many, many others.  As I did, reading through not only the histories, but also a host of authors who did not hesitate to be biased with their assessments of those histories, I thought I was learning about Rome, Greece and ancient history.  As it turned out, however, that wasn't what I was doing at all.

Most people would consider Polybius and Thucydides to be dry stuff, but that's nothing compared to the books of commentary written by modern authors on ancient writers.  I read through tons of that stuff, shelves and shelves of books, to keep up with horrifically dry lectures delivered by professors who were as bad at marketing their own subject as I had been at science.

Yet somehow in the dusty, wearisome, bromidic pursuit of knowledge I was learning to read.  Not just in the sense of passing over the words and understanding what was being said, but in dissecting the material at the level of the author's decision to write the sentences in the order that they were written, or in terms of how the material's guts were meant to impress themselves upon the reader.  Why these choices were being made and not those, and how a perfectly innocent little aside could reveal things that an untrained mind wouldn't see.

We don't hesitate to understand that engineers looking at a bridge can evaluate and replay for themselves the bridge's construction, the process by which its made, the difficulties presented by the precise place on the bank where the bridge sits, the purpose of each pylon's shape, considerations made for the wind and on like that.  There are those, however, who raise an eyebrow doubtfully that a person can look at a paragraph of writing and do the same thing, recognizing each verb choice, each subjunctive, the repetition of certain prepositions and so on, and how these are used to construct thoughts and overcome structural problems.  It is another expertise, and no less understood to most readers than bridge-building is to most drivers.

Now you, the role-player reading this post, wondering perhaps at this time if RPG's or the subject of world-building is ever going to be addressed ... what are you learning?  You think you are passing your time playing a game that interests you, that takes up perhaps a little more time than you have, which isn't all that serious, or which might dig at you a bit like an old filling that isn't worth having a dentist repair.  It is a hobby, nothing more.

Yet, you are learning from it.  You're learning how hard it is to launch into a long-term project with uncertain goals and uncertain rewards.  You're discovering your limitations, in that creatively your imagination far surpasses your ability to sit down, night after night, grinding that imagination into something whole and meaningful.  You're being forced, session by session, to acknowledge your limitations, to accept that there's only so far you can go in playing the game, mostly because you haven't any knowledge to draw upon except your own fumbling experience, both in the effort of being a DM and in watching other DMs fumble around at their worlds.  There's some notion in your heart that something really profound is in the doing of the thing ... but you look at the complexities and interplay of a map like Middle Earth and scratch your head in wonder. You lay out the towns and the rivers, the shires and the horse-plains, yet it never quite gains the romance of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains.

There are other things you're learning, too.  You're learning how to manage people.  You're learning that for some people you need to draw a line on what's acceptable, and you're learning the consequences of not drawing that line.  You're learning that making your own way and your own world does not always play well with players who can't understand what you're doing - and you find you're not able to explain it to them.

Step by step you're realizing if you can't work it out, if you can't figure the means to get more players, or make the world equal to the maturity of the players you do have, it's all going to slip away from you and you'll have to quit playing.  Not because you don't want to play, not because you wouldn't do this in the old age rest home if you could, but because its impossible to live up to standards you can't point at and say, "those are the standards."  Worse, even if you have the least handle on them, you haven't the words or the evidence to force someone else's attention on those standards and comprehend why those are the standards needed.

You're getting older and the bloom is falling off the rose.  You're getting older and the world you ran at 15 isn't enough for you.  It still seems enough for many of your players, but you're in your 30s now and you've been running this same structure, these same combats, the same interplay between fighter and spell-caster for long enough to find it's not justifying the stress that sessioning is producing.  You know, in your heart, there's something deeper there; there's a more meaningful, emotionally rich land worth exploring, but except for one or two others like yourself, the community seems blind, dumb and stupid.  It's not, but it seems that way.

The players are drifting away because they're maturing too, and they're growing as tired as you of the same goal posts.  But they can't say it, because they feel foolish saying it.  They feel they're the only ones in the world that feel this way, as they pretend to feel this way just as everyone else does.  They're trying their own solutions, pretending to be people they're not because they don't know how to be more interesting being the people they are.

We're all learning things as we play.  We're learning that people, even when they really want something, are guarded, suspicious ... and uneasy about revealing their thoughts to others who are aggressive, needy and beggared in their need to have a good time pretending.  We're learning that being the DM over this assortment is trying.  We're learning that even at a game, managing humans is work.  We are getting a first-hand course in how damned hard it is only to manage ourselves.

Don't be too hard on yourselves.  No one ever told you how.  This is why education without a structure is called a School of Hard Knocks.  You learn things you never expected to learn.  And you either square your shoulders and take the world by the throat, or you bow your head and excuse yourself for having gotten in everybody's way.

The third option is just a lot of stumbling around looking like an idiot.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


No comments at all to that last post.  I could feel it was on the mark as I was writing it, but perhaps it just wasn't fair.  Rebuilding a kitchen is typically considered a less-than-ideal thing ... something we do because we are tired of the kitchen we have, or that it is so old it's not in keeping with our present income.  It isn't 'fun.'  And building a world ought to be, huh?

Building a world for me is more of a compulsion than fun.  I don't have any desire to stop; and even when I'm overloaded with work and I can't work on the world, I keep thinking of new angles and new possibilities that I'd like to add to an existing generator, or apply to things like the sage tables or the monsters' list.  When I get hung up on writing, or blocked as they say, I find myself going back to maps to get my head straight.

And it's work.  There's no way around it.  I'm literally feeling it in my shoulders and the tightening of my hands as I line up river after river, or shift things around in excel to make room for more calculations, more notes, more more more.

Maybe building a world isn't for everyone.  Maybe I'm preaching to a room full of people who don't see the sense of it.  Maybe the only reason why I'm still working on my world after all these years is because I'm crazy, and no sane person would do this.  Maybe there really isn't a need for a world, I've just convinced myself there ought to be because I can't stop.

Seems that a world just ... matters.  To the players, it's a home.  It's the place they keep their stuff.  I just can't envision a campaign without one.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Start, Then Stop Starting

Let's come back to design, then.  Off-line, the section I've been working on refers to different functions the world needs to address:  aesthetics, material, cost, style, purpose and so on, breaking down those aspects in order to offer the worldbuilder at least an idea of what ought to be considered.  At the moment, I'm finding it rough work, as I consider just how far I want to go with it - overview, or into depth on the individual subjects - and if the latter, how much depth?  But that's my problem, not the reader's.

Fundamentally, I want the DM to see the world in terms of being a project, such as building a house.  The costs are a lot less, but the failure for a lot of would-be makers would come from simply refusing to understand the dimensions of what's being planned.  I see someone on a blog producing a map, much like I described in this post, then following that up by plugging in some homemade modules here and there, spackled on the map.  There's a dungeon in this gap between the mountains, there's a ruin here by the forest overlooking the river, this town over here is deserted, there are grottos by the ocean here, and there you go. Cue the party marching from one part of the map to the next and we have a campaign, yes?

Actually, what we have is something that doesn't even hang as well together as the plot of Hangover II.  We have a lot of disconnected ideas that hopefully will be made meaningful in that they are all represented by circles on a pretty map.  Go campaign!

Try to imagine rebuilding your kitchen, randomly putting in the connections for the fridge, stove and washing machine without paying any attention to the ergonomics of the arrangement.  Imagine that you randomly draw the walls where the kitchen table is going to fit, without any actual plan for the table's size or the number of chairs needed to support your family.  Imagine that you're going to do it all yourself, but that you're sure you can just 'figure out' the power outlets or the gas connection.

A couple of years ago a house down the street from my parents, that I had passed thousands of times on my way to school as a kid, just blew up.  Turned out the contractor hired to re-drywall the dining room put his power saw into the wall to start cutting out a section of the old drywall so he could get started.  He got about two feet.  Power saw + electrical conduit =  BOOM.

That's how most DMs worldbuild.  'Course, nobody dies.  But somehow, the world just never takes shape. The makers do begin to understand that it is somehow a monumental task, but as Giordanisti said in the comments section of the above post, where do you start?

Well, where would you start if you were rebuilding a kitchen?  With the hammer and the saw?  With the demolition of the old kitchen?  Would you get up one day, drag out the tools and the six pound sledge and then start wailing away at the cupboards?  Dishes be damned?

No.  You make a plan.  One that includes all the things you want your kitchen to include.  But you're not going to have access to parts of the kitchen while you're rebuilding it, and that's going to be inconvenient.  So part of your plan has to include more than just the fact that you'd like the kitchen to look like this - your plan ALSO has to include the order in which you redesign your kitchen.  What is done, when, with how much time, so there will still be access to the fridge and stove for as long as possible.

What I'm saying is that while you're making a plan for what your world will contain, you also have to include in your plan how you're going to run part of that world while you're making the rest of it.  My world isn't done - but I run my world continuously.  And the players don't really notice that it's not done.  How does that work?

For me, it's because I run the real world, so I have a loose understanding pre-built even though it isn't finished.  But I've also done a lot of pre-made mapbuilding and made lists of what hex will contain what far into my future.  I also have it built so that those places I don't really need are only partially created.  I can go in and build more if I need it ... and most importantly, on the same premise as the world that is already built.

Most important of all, I'm not changing my plans as I go.  Ask a contractor sometime, what drives them right up the fucking wall?  It is people who do not know what the hell they want, and set about trying to change the plans long past when it's practical to do that.  Then not understanding why they don't have a kitchen yet, even though it's been 9 months, and wondering why the $35,000 charge has bounced to $90,000.

If you're not going to change your plans - and you shouldn't, ever, change your plans once you implement them - then the very, very FIRST thing you have to do in designing your world is settle on what that world is going to be, and then living with it.  If you had your kitchen rebuilt, and it cost you $35,000, and it wasn't quite what you wanted your kitchen to be, what would you do?  Rebuild it?  No.  You'd learn to live with it. That's what we all do. We live with the car we have, we live with the city and neighborhood we find ourselves in, we take it as fact that the state is going to be Republican until the end of time, we recognize that in order to be happy and resourceful and productive, there are things we can't change, or in the very least the change wouldn't be worth all the goddamn effort and money.

But because the world isn't 'real,' because it isn't made of something solid and tactile, because it can be changed without the change costing a dime, whenever the tiniest thing comes up, the first thing a worldbuilder does is scrap all their plans so they can start again.  And again.  And again and again and again and again. People are great starters.  What they are really crappy at is - no, not finishing - accepting that they're on the right road and just getting there.  No, the road isn't perfect.  Yes, the road fucking winds around and yes, it seems to be taking all freaking year to get there, and sure, there ought to be a lot more roadsigns so you knew where the hell you were.  But stay on the damn road, you idiot.  DON'T GET DISTRACTED by that stupid little side path that seems like a short cut but is really going to just sink your vehicle in a lot of stupid, worthless mud.

I can write a lot of advice on how to make a world.  I can give the directions, I can get you there ... but I can't make you drive the way I tell you.  If you're going to insist on driving like an idiot, no, you're never going to get to the place you wanted to be.  But then, you really didn't want to be there, did you?

Well, I'm floating between two metaphors, but what the hell, this is only a blog post. I ain't writin' for the fuckin' New Yorker.  Here's the real reality about kitchens and roads and projects.  People don't start them. They don't, because they've already learned from experience that starting is the way to disaster, because they can never be happy with ever doing anything, or going anywhere.

So in fact, they do learn to live with things.  They learn to live with the memory of a lot of shit they never did.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Doomed to Fall Short

Given yesterday's post, and the concurrent opinions expressed there that reality in combat is something unobtainable - and in my opinion unwanted - from a role-playing game, why does this particular will o'wisp continue to seize the designs of rule makers?  What is this certainty that if a game is more real, the game will be made better?

Aesthetics.  Despite the cold calculation in strategy or tactics that we may wish for, those alone will not create a compelling game.  The game must be beautiful.  It must evoke emotion.  In the mind's eye of combat, there is something precious in the thrill of holding a mace, spying the enemy's skull, and picturing the swinging of that mace into that skull and producing a spray of jewelled red droplets, meat and bone.  The crunch as the brain-case gives way, the escape of air from the lungs of the victim as he sinks beneath our gaze, and our own voice screaming at our men to "get them."  Our enemy, now a carcass, drops lifelessly at our feet and we leap over it's cold meat, swinging the soaked mace and waving our forces on, on to further killing and decimation.

There is a powerful urge to somehow codify the above description into a rule set, so that we will know where the mace hits, we will know how bloody the mace is, and so we will somehow know how precisely destructive we are.  The rule set will tell us, we hope, how damaged our armor is, how sore our arm has grown over the last hour with hit upon hit, how hard our heart pounds in our chest and how loud is the rush of blood in our ears.  Somehow, we think that if only we can make a rule set cover the various angles and elements of battle a little more grittily, a little more down to the nap as it were, we'll feel what is happening a bit more strongly, and we won't be as displaced from our characters - characters that are only sheets of paper with graphite strokes, only collections of numbers and notes, nothing more than a desperate attempt to codify life, and make it something that we can see in our minds.

Though we try, however, a rule set will not do this.

This knowing ... this deep, profound desire to know and feel and grasp with our minds a greater context than what we are limited to by being in a room with coke and cheezies on the table, is an age-old ideal, going far back in the history of creation, imagination and aesthetics.  Pygmalion was nothing more than a sculptor who dreamed so hard of his own work coming to life that for him it did, only to bring him much sorrow and misery in the process.  This has been a constant theme in the pursuit of fetish ... that we must be careful what we wish for.  No battle veteran of real war would wish to return to the moment of battle - but we adore the idea of Conan, eyes shining in the moment of bloodlust, unconcerned with the visions of that horror-scape and uncrippled with the terror that descends from actual experience.  Conan has no PTSD.  We understand that.  We don't want reality.  Reality would produce Pygmalion's misery.  We want Conan's fantasy, where none of the principles of reality exist.  Only ... we don't know how to make it happen.

We've tried descriptions.  We've tried adding images to our games.  We've tried miniatures, with paint and cool action-like stances.  We've tried costumes at the table.  We've tried lighting and theme music and speaking in old timey voices, with old timey sentence structure.  We're out of things to try.  All we have left is the dim hope that somehow a rule set will accomplish what imagination and desire and fetishistic compulsion cannot.  But like all the rest, it is a will o'wisp.

I wonder, though, how it is that we don't do a few simple things at the table to reduce some of the noise. That fellow working for months on his rule set to make combat more believable is completely unaware of the player at his table wearing a Michael Jackson "THIS IS IT!" tee-shirt; or a Nebraska Huskers football jersey.  Or the sideways-turned New York Mets hat.  Those things, for some reason, are never named as spoilers for the 'reality' of what's happening.  Nor is the cluttered pig-sty of the apartment where the game is played, or the coke, or the cheezies.  It's interesting that in the quest for realism, there's no compulsion to drink only water and unpasteurized milk, eating unleavened bread and shredded meat (if there's an effort made with the victuals, it's always something alcoholic and often made by someone not good at fermenting mead).

Fact is, we're doomed to fall short of the fantasy.  Some people accept that.  They make do with what they have.  Others cannot accept it, they want something more, so they complain about the lack of realism, or the failure of the DM to 'capture' the full-force of the role-play, because they cannot do it on their own.  The fantasy can never be manufactured for the player unable to manufacture it for themselves.  It just isn't possible.  I cannot make you or any player feel the power of my fetish.  I can, at best, alter the environment, adjust the lamps and the 'feel,' but in the end the last long step towards belief is out of my hands.


What I'd like to see are descriptions of aesthetic woes, such as the tee-shirt the really annoying guy across from the reader was wearing, or the worst sort of places imaginable where you were forced to play, that destroyed visually the verisimilitude of the campaign.  Those stories would be good for a laugh.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Watching an episode of Connections last night, describing the battle of Agincourt, I made my own connection.  James Burke was describing the French cavalry riding onto the spikes the English had set into the ground, and all at once I remembered an episode of a terrible show from four or five years ago.  This being the internet, I was able to find that episode - be warned, it's quite grisly.  For those who can't view the episode, an instructor runs blindly into the end of the javelin he's just thrown.

Perhaps this has been obvious to many of you, but I've simply never considered it before.  There was always something odd about the cavalry willingly running onto those spikes ... but in a flash, I realized they probably never knew what hit them.

Think about it.  The field is muddy, it's been raining all day and night before, as it usually does in late October in northern France.  The stakes themselves are probably the same color as the ground, as they've been fixed by muddy soldiers with muddy hands.  The knights are riding on horseback, with helmets, so all they can see is what's visible through visors - and their eyes are seven or eight feet above the ground.  If the spikes are five feet long, and bent at just the right angle, they're practically invisible.

My thinking would be they never knew what hit them.  The horses would hit the stakes at full gallop, throwing the knights at twenty five miles forward into more spikes ... those that weren't spiked would still hit the ground on the fly, points of the armor digging into the muddy ground and breaking limbs, landing on their weapons, the straps of their helmets grabbing at their necks and breaking them.  Most would have the wind blown out of them, meaning that before they could even adjust to the fact that they had just been thrown, there would be peasants standing over them.  Imagine you're on a horse, you're thundering at the enemy, and then you're flat on your back, in pain, and through the slits of your visor you look up, and a gnarled, grisly, pathetic-looking minion is raising a mace ... and you're done.

That must have been unbelievable to see.  The front line of ten thousand knights - two thousand, say - breaking against the wall of spikes, that you can see but they cannot, crashing to the ground with an enormous, unbelieveable noise, horses screaming, your commanders shouting to rush forward to that maelstrom of metal and flesh and mud, to "KILL THEM, KILL THEM ALL!"  How would you ever forget that?  How would you forget the nightmare dream of that moment?

I was going to write a post about the mess of battle, the perception of the combatants and the disconnect between combat mechanics and real life, but I think I'll just leave this post here, and write about those things later.  The reader has enough to think about already.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Knowledge Inside & Out

In answer to a statement yesterday that all knowledge does not come from 'outside,' let us have a quick look at intuition.  Mostly, let's just nail down a definition ... and for that, we have wikipedia.

Let us take note of a couple of sentences here.  First, that intuition is "the ability to acquire knowledge"; fair enough, things are looking good for Alexis to be wrong.  But let's look at the beginning of the second paragraph:  Intuition provides us with views, understandings, judgements, or beliefs that we cannot in every case empirically verify or rationally justify."

Oops.  Jeez, that doesn't work out very well.  That means that while I can have knowledge from intuition, I can't very well make that knowledge useful to anyone else if I can't empirically verify it.  That being the case, intuitive knowledge is pretty lousy if what we're attempting to do is establish a theory about how something works, so that it can be applied by other people.

So, I recant.  Not all knowledge is 'outward' based.  Only useful knowledge is.

Winston Rowntree was the first to tag the phrase for me, 'One True Human.'  I would have always defined this as primacy, the natural tendency in children to view themselves as more important than every other being ... but I like the Rowntree's phrase.  The appeal is the acutely description it offers.  Here's how Rowntree puts it:

"... you don't see other people as people - you see them as props, here to supplement the existence of the One True Human ... its so common there's even a word, 'sonder,' to describe the belated realization that other people exist in the same way you do.  Because they do."

Naturally, I had to go look up the definition of the word, which was not in my usual online dictionary.  I found it here.  In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows yet.  Which is to suggest that the recognition that others are just as miserable as you are is a sad thing ... whereas, of course, ignorant dismissal of other people in order to feed one's own self-gratifying ego must be a happy thing.

It is always presumed that I write this blog to feed my ego, which I think is quite funny.  It presumes that I have no other means to feed my ego, and that I am desperately applying my knowledge, my ability to write and my inner strength to this venue because it is all I have.  Uh, yeah.  I don't suppose it has occurred to anyone that were I willing to lie, and use other people, for the sole purpose of feeding my ego, I would do better to feast off even weaker people than the reader and get rich in the process.  I spent a summer once working with a fellow whose vocation was debt consolidation.  Here was a fellow who was rich, heartless, completely egotistical and absolutely content to continue in his lifestyle, which basically meant offering loans to people who had already proven by their six-figure debt status that they were unable to manage their money.

See, what you do is you open your doors, and some lower middle-class couple comes into your office owning a $450,000 property with $275,000 worth of equity that it's taken them 20 years of miserable, backbreaking labor to accumulate; sadly, they've also accumulated $135,000 in debt.  Now, Jim (his actual real name) smiles, promises that he'll get all that debt together for them in one place, with one payment, and once they make the payments, they'll be free and clear.  Then, 14 months later, when the nice couple helplessly default on their debts, because that is their nature, Jim cheerfully takes away their house. Because that is the deal these desperate people sign.

Now, if what any of us want to do is gratify our own egos, I suggest THAT job.

Okay, I'm way out in left field, let me work my way back.  If knowledge is going to have any value at all, it has to be knowledge that we are able to impart to other people.  And if we are going to impart that knowledge, then we have to recognize, FIRST, that the fact that we know a thing isn't enough.  That's where the one true human thing enters the picture.  Many people who are out there espousing their opinions on things, such as D&D, the so-called topic of this blog, are already of the opinion that since they know a particular thing, that ought to be enough for everyone.  Because we aren't really real, get it?

The purpose in writing about any of this, or in writing the book I'm writing, is not to prove I know a thing and fuck you very much.  It is to make the effort to cause you to know the thing, TOO.  And not simply by taking my word for it, but by encouraging you to step out of your usual world, investigate the thing itself and see if it is knowledge that also works for you.  If it turns out that the knowledge is only something that seems right to me, then the knowledge I have to tell about it shit.  It's not good enough.

I'm writing this, and my book, because I am not the one true human.  You are human too.  And you need a structure for you to work from.  Intuition is a really, really crappy structure.  What you need are solid boards, that you can plane yourself and shape yourself and use to make a strong, tactile world.  For that, you need knowledge that comes from 'outside.'

I hope we are at least clear that if my ego were my motivation, I wouldn't be feeding it here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ersatz Knowledge

Some weeks ago, a friend of mine commented that what he liked about this blog was that I tended to relate things that had nothing to do with D&D to roleplaying and D&D ... presumably about such things as history, psychology, politics, personal experiences and so on.  The reason I do this is simple - I don't believe that role-playing exists in a vacuum.  I believe that it adheres to the same principles that all interactive relationships between people do. In turn it can be understood just as anything else can be understood: by comparing it with our experience and our knowledge and deducing the answers to our problems logically. What is a world for?  Why make a world?  How do you control your players?  How do you create excitement?  And so on.  These are not only questions that apply to role-playing, but to every activity.

It is because of this belief that I think very little of unified theories where it comes to describing anything that is cross-cultural or highly reflective of individualism - such as art, say, or the correct means to action.  I am all for the idea of right and wrong.  I think, given a particular situation, and a particular point of view, and an eye to the greatest possible gain, that there is a right answer to be had.  The ideal breaks down, however, when someone starts to argue that in every situation, from every point of view, regardless of gain, such-and-such is the right answer.  It is the bottom level of thinking, the philosophy that sets out to conform everyone to principles that are convenient for some.  Statements such as, "Role-playing is only a game."  Or, "The purpose of role-playing is FUN."  Etc.

This is not to say that role-playing isn't a game, or that it isn't fun.  Of course those things are true.  And it is also true that things that aren't much fun rarely attract a lot of people (although, if there are people who are prepared to cut their arms with knives in order to feel something, we must assume there are people prepared to role-play in a manner that is most miserable).

My contention is the demand that it somehow be straight-jacketed to fit a previously formed conception of what it is supposed to be, as opposed to what it is.

I will confess at this point that the motivation for this post is from Ron Edwards' writings, and an exchange I had Friday with Dave Cesarano, who has been a regular contributor/reader to the blog lately.  Dave has been around for years and he and I get along; and I can't fault the desire to find some sort of logic in the fabric of role-playing ... which Edwards seems to offer.

I'm going to go way out on a limb here, just the sort of place where the limb can be sawn off and cackles of glee can be heard as it topples to the ground.  Mind you, I'm going to do this very gently, and I'm going to stand by my position.  The next few paragraphs are, however, not the subject of this post, and I am really not interested in debating them.  I only want the reader to have a clear picture of where my perspective lies.

There are a number of 'popular' theoreticians that have popped up on the last century which a very select portion of the population likes to look upon as 'geniuses and gods.'  The fact that these individuals are not embraced by the academic community is, for that portion, proof positive that these 'geniuses and gods' are truly as brilliant and far-sighted as they are judged to be.  My experience has been that whenever I encounter an individual with high regard for one of these 'geniuses and gods,' I am talking to someone who has not done the reading.  If they had, they would recognize that the academic world was right to boot these jackanapes out on their ears, in the cold where they belong.

And here is where the shouting begins, because I'm going to name names.  These are names that are, in effect, dirty words in academic circles, but like I say, "gods" to the common unread masses.  For 'unread,' the reader may understand that I mean, "does not read textbooks."  No doubt, any reader about to get affronted at the blasphemy that I'm about to espouse has read great heaps of really shitty books that serve to promote the religious worship of said names.

Carl Jung, for example, would be the first such individual of this variety that I encountered - and I did it at an age when I was too young to know how full of shit he was.  Oh, Jung is fascinating to read, it's an amusing set of passages about the so-called nature of man, blah blah blah, only none of it seems to be applicable, which is why the respectable psychology community has turned its back on the man.  Some readers here, as I say, worship Jung.  They're getting quite angry right now.  That is only because they refuse to accept that the book has been closed on him, and has been for some time.  Still, the books are out there, and as long as they are, someone who knows very little about psychology, and has a strong wish-fulfilment idealism about their own self-importance, will embrace Jung whole hog.  Another really fun character, in a sad way, is Wilhelm Reich, who started off being quite respectable before deciding to wander off into his own little fantasy world of UFOs, organomics, cloudbusting and so on.  The reader may believe me without question that this nonsense is believed steadfastly by a segment with all the fervor that defines the worship of Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha.

A real favorite among the role-playing crowd is Joseph Campbell ... and if I get any hate mail about this post, it is going to be in defense of him.  Even Wikipedia has no comment whatsoever about criticism of Campbell or the fact that the only credentials he possessed was a BA.  I took an education in Classical history, and a great part of that education included investigation into myth.  Campbell was never on the syllabus.  Why would he be?  He's only a respected scholar by those who are not in the field he purports to describe. Sigh.  But what the hell.  What do experts know?

Someone is going to write at me screaming about how he's respected by some Classical department somewhere, so let me just tell you to save your breath.  I've been in this discussion now for something like thirty years and I can tell you that people a lot smarter than you have failed to convince me - or any of the Classics scholars, writers or researchers I respect.  I am telling you now, Campbell, Reich and Jung are not the subject of this post any more than Jesus, Mohammed and Siddhartha - and the reader would get a lot farther with me arguing that the latter three were brilliant scholars.

This post is about the pattern produced in the writing of such people.  The pattern never includes motivations, ideals or associations outside the incredibly certain writings of the author.  Edwards, the inspirer of this post, doesn't appeal to the reader's knowledge of psychology; or the principles of contracts; or literary theory on narrativism or design theory on synthesis or simulationism.  That is because Edwards pulls his theory straight from himself - with the belief that being an 'expert,' all he needs is his own viewpoint. This is a pattern for this particular kind of theoretician ... and where it meets with the sensibilities of a particular audience, the theory scores.

Knowledge, however, is not self-derived.  It is outward derived.  That is why it is knowledge.  Being outward-derived, anyone might stumble across the same circumstances and, independently, produce the same logic and results.  In science, this happens again and again.

No one, however, who has not read Edwards is likely to reproduce Edwards given the available knowledge. When an argument about Edwards arises, the only source is Edwards ... so the argument remains, what did he mean?  We can, in fact, never know.  Worse, the words narrativist, gamist and simulationist have been hopelessly poisoned by Edwards' use of them, so that even if we were to speak about 'storytelling' in a role-playing game in terms of dramatic criticism (which has a longer, more contextual history), the water for many people in the game is hopelessly muddied.  Rather than trying to see the process clear and rationally, they are asking the question, "I'm sorry, is this simulationist or narrativist?"

Which is something akin to asking, "This play, is it meant to be a reflection of real events, or completely make-believe?"  That is a hard place to begin one's deconstruction.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Work Usefully

I suppose I want to throw out one simple point regarding design, and the efforts of designing, along with the results of design.

Perhaps the reason why I have so much work under my belt to show on this blog is because I am not spending a lot of time redesigning things in the hope that it will provide benefit to my players.  Instead I am working on projects that definitely provide benefit ... and having defined the project, I just go ahead and do it, day by day, step by step, testing it as I go, adjusting, until I have something that both the players and I can agree on.  A lot of maps.  A trade system.  A character generation system.  Sage abilities.  Rewriting the spells.  A combat system.  A bard.  An experience distribution system.  Etc.

Perhaps I have that not because I work harder than any of the readers on this blog, but because I am not rewriting rules, but augmenting them.  And perhaps it is because when something works, I leave it alone.

I did change the combat system.  I changed it to account for movement, the one thing that 1e completely ignored.  I stole my movement system pretty much from 3e.  But all the other things about 1e worked, so I still use them.

Try it.  See what happens.

Structural Realities in Design

Continuing with the theme I began yesterday, let me be more explicit about the wrong thinking that occurs in Ron Edwards' proposed "Big Model."  Within the context of what Edwards means to do, I don't have issue with it.  Where he discusses the 'structure' of the game in terms of the social contract, exploration, setting and so on, he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to accomplish - describing, generally, the relationships between different parts of the game.  However, this is almost totally useless if your purpose is to actually design a world..

Suppose we should set down to design a phone, and the entirety of our design scheme does nothing more than describe what the phone does, or how people will interact with the phone, or the general value of the phone within people's lives.  We've been very sure to describe how often the phone can be used, what all the buttons are for and so on, in order to convey the usefulness of the phone, and how the phone will affect the relationships people have.

Have we designed a phone?  Absolutely not.  We have followed through ONLY on the marketing of the phone.  We haven't actually engineered the phone.  Nor have we discussed, for one moment, what others will have to do in order to engineer a phone of their own.  This, the reader is expected to know already.

But who does know?  In 40 years of publication of role-playing manuals, where is the manual that does not discuss what your world does, or how your world needs to interact with your players, but actually tells you the components your world needs to contain?

Here is what we see.  A young player, wanting to be a DM, decides to 'make a world.'  Getting out a pencil, and paper of some kind - often graph paper, because inherently we understand distance is going to matter in the campaign - our player draws a little town, with eight or nine little squares meant to represent buildings. What follows is a road, a stream going past the town, a little bridge over the stream, another town next to a coast line, a forest filling up an empty space to the north of the road, a ring of mountains beyond the forest, a few islands spotted in the ocean, some labels here and there describing the forest as "Kettle Woods" or the road as "The Moneychanger's Pike" and so on.  Our player spends two or three days, fitting in a few other things, making the map very neat and pretty, and when its all finished, it is a fine map.  Our player stares at it, and imagines all the places, and is proud of the work.

Then our player takes the map and starts the campaign, and bleh ... nothing.  It's a fine map, but after the five minutes it takes to explain the name of the road and the reason it's called that, and the other features besides, our player discovers that the work done hasn't made a world, it has made a travel poster.

We are not concerned with the 'structure' between the party's social contract and the party's exploration of the world, those are marketing concerns.  What we want is the underlying structure that actually creates the world!  Once the party has put boots on the ground, we want to start regulating their actions, defining a functional relationship that defines the social hierarchy of the world, who can be approached, what will that approach accomplish - not in generalized terms, but in the exact terms of when the party speaks to the bartender in this town, this is all the bartender is able to tell them.  Exactly the same principle as the apps that exist on the phone.  The phone can only do this, and this, and this.  If you want the phone to do something else, you will need to build this app.

We argue endlessly about the apps - armor, weapons, amount of treasure, alignment, movement, limitations of interactive role-playing, weather, spell use and so on.  And no one, not Edwards or any other writer wants to wade into those arguments and say it is this and not that.  Yet what needs to be realized by the adjudicator of the game is that a decision has to be made on all these things ... as well as on the question, why does the town exist in terms of what it enables the party to do.  Is it a functional place where things can be bought, or is it a delicate arrangement which, if messed with, will produce two hundred citizens with pitch-forks and violence.  That has to be decided, and preferably before the party sets foot there.  It isn't just the rules, it is all the elements, or components if you will, of every stone and blade of grass that exists in the actual structure of the world.

True enough, you don't want to map every blade of grass ... but you DO have to decide, absolutely and with certainty, how the blades of grass function in your world.

Take the phone from your pocket and just think about this a moment.  Here is one of the most ubiquitous objects in our worlds right now, and it is quite new.  There are hundreds, even thousands of versions of this little thing you're holding, but this specific phone has specific rules about its nature.  Every single aspect of the phone has gone through diligent testing, from the weight of it to is dimensions, to the way the back panel unclips and clips back in to allow you access to the battery.  You're not holding a drawing in your hand, you're holding a real object.

If you make a map of your world, and think that is your world, you have to understand that your world is only a piece of paper with coloring on it.  You haven't made a world.  And if you think your world is in your imagination, then you have even less.  You haven't made anything at all.  Until you start producing the kind of hard substances that fit and click together like your phone, and transform your voice into electrical processes, you're only pretending to have created a world.  Structure is the synthesis of your thoughts and designs, the part where you make everything you can conceive of real ... real enough that someone else can pick up your world, just like you've picked up someone else's synthesized designs for a phone, and apply it.

It's nice to have a marketing perspective of what your world will do.  But that's not enough.  The real work begins when you settle in to lay down in stone the processes by which your world will do those things.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Will o'Wisp

A peasant, returning home from the fields after the sun has just set, sees a light travelling before him, moving as he moves.  He stops and squats close to the ground, and as he does the light stops also. The peasant catches his breath and holds it as long as he can, and soon enough the light moves a bit towards him ... and as it nears just a little bit, he sees that it's carried by a dusky little figure, holding a tiny lantern at arm's length over its head.  The figure moves away and the peasant gets up and follows, forgetting home and his warm bed.  They travel through the wood, and across a stream, and up to a hill, and all the time the peasant never gets any closer.  For miles they travel, until the peasant is certain the little figure is a gnome, and that it is going to its horde of treasure, kept far from anywhere.

Suddenly, the light disappears, and the peasant finds all around him is dark.  He turns around, unsure which direction leads to home, and at the same time he cannot see anything at all.  Cautiously, he takes a step, then another ... but when he takes a third step, there is no ground at all, for the peasant was standing on the edge of a cliff.  As he tumbles, he sees the light reappear, and hears the sound of a malicious laugh ... and then the peasant falls helplessly to his death.

We grow so certain of things that we doom ourselves.  That is the lesson.  This must be so.  This has to be true.  Like the peasant convincing himself that the figure is leading him to something wonderful, the peasant forgets where he is, or that he cannot see anything, until he is completely blind and lost.  So it is when we chase phantoms, even those that seem very real.

We should be less concerned about what seems or appears or 'feels' real in the fabric of the game, and MORE concerned with what is real and experienced by the actual players.  This is, however, something that most people will never, ever get, as they chase little lights that bring them comfort and hope.

Behavioural Effects on Design

I'm going to muddle through this post ... part of the reason I want to write it is to organize some of my own thoughts on design, and the process of design, specifically upon the behavioural response to design.  As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about yesterday's post, about Dave Cesarano's comments to that post, and about the inimical Ron Edward's endlessly present GNS theories.

My personal feelings - opinions, yes - is that 'GNS' is a will-o-wisp.  It is presented as an attempt to nail down the sort of game that people play, but it does so from a perspective that views the whole matter from an 'in game' perspective rather than a 'player at the table' perspective.  The effort reminds me of the endless hair-splitting arguments about whether a particular band plays 'synth-rock' or 'electronica' ... where in fact neither distinction means very much.  Whether the game is narrative or simulationist doesn't tell the outsider anything about what the game feels like for the players, nor is there any relationship between any of the forms and 'quality' - in fact, quality, or any measure of value of any kind, is deliberately left out of the mix.  In fact, the theory offers a great deal where it comes to contributing to a meaningless, unsolvable argument, the kind the internet loves, without there actually being any point in winning such an argument.  Whether my world is narrative or simulationist is a matter of complete indifference.  It is my world, regardless ... and stating that it is this or that doesn't actually tell the reader the least thing about my running style, or whether my game is something that others should avoid or embrace.  It is a will-o-wisp in the sense that because it seems to be the brightest, most interesting thing about the dark forest surrounding us, in no way whatsoever does it offer the least knowledge about the forest itself.

I think Mr. Edwards meant to offer insight into how a game should be run, or how by understanding how we do run games, we could tweak our behaviour in order to play the game closer to the purpose we hoped for. The difficulty, however, is that it is not the character that is playing the game, but the player; however much the argument may be advanced to make the character 'feel' more real, the player will always see the game as a thing to be utilized.  Some, yes, will want to feel the reality of the situation, but others will only be concerned with how to massage the figures to get the best angle on success for them.  That is, no matter behaviour you WANT as the designer of your supposed game, the players will ignore your want and pursue their own, as that is human nature.  Calling the game simulationist or narrativist, or going for either, without an eye to the actual behaviour of your players, and redesigning in order to take into account behaviours you never imagined, is only massaging your own ego and not addressing the realities of play.

Here and there I've been reading arguments about DMs beginning worlds where a behavioural response is deliberately requested.  For example, I am creating a game about pirates, and I want the players to behave as pirates in that game.  I want them to exhibit the behaviour of pirates, hopefully because they want to, and not to exhibit some other behaviour because that would be anathema to the game I'm creating.

This is something like saying, I am planning on creating a phone that will enable use underwater, that will be of use to scuba divers and so on, but I would really like it if you wouldn't use the phone unless you're underwater.  That is, in effect, the purpose of the phone, and if you're not going to use it for that purpose, we would just as soon you didn't buy or use our phone.

IF this is really the sort of thing that's wanted, the solution should be easy: don't ask people to respect your product wishes.  Make the phone so it doesn't work in the open air.  Don't give people the option.

Let me give a good example of the actual behaviour of customers compared to the expected behaviour of design function.  Back in the 90's, Panasonic decided to create a disposable camera.  This being the age of film developing, Panasonic's plan was that people would take their pictures, mail the cameras to Panasonic and that the cameras would pay for themselves through developing costs.  This seemed like a good idea. Only, it took very little time for people to realize they could just break the cheap plastic cameras open and either develop the film themselves or take it to anyone local.  The end result was that Panasonic lost a lot of money.

When I see someone online writing about an idea for changing the rules, I rarely see any mention of the desired behaviours that their players are going to offer once these rules are in place.  If there is a mention, it usually comes down to, "they like it."  How useful is it to you to ask someone about their phone and get no more answer than, "I like it"?  Do you not then immediately want to ask why?  You're not really concerned with whether or not someone else likes their phone, your concern is whether or not you'll like it.  Thus you want evidence or some sort of explanation that suggests you would.

If what you're reading about a rule is mostly, "Here's how it will better reflect reality," you're not getting any sense at all about whether or not it will improve your personal game.  You'd perhaps like an improvement for your game, and you might be looking around for such an improvement, but you need more than to be told this IS an improvement because it is more real.

Nothing about game design has anything to do with reality.  It has everything to do with evoking a chemical mix in your body that puts you on edge without toppling you past the point where you start to feel threatened or overwhelmed.  If the game is just at the edge of what you can handle, so that handling it is difficult but not impossible, and it fits with imagery and interests that compel you, then it is is a good game.  If you can handle it by moving very, very slowly, and the game allows that, the difficulty isn't a selling point.  It's annoying. Difficulty is only a selling point if you're also hopped up on adrenaline, dopamine, seratonins and so on. Difficulty without those chemicals is equivalent to filling out your tax forms (which might produce other, less pleasant chemical reactions).

What is wanted then isn't reality, but a sense of overcoming a challenge that is fast-paced, potentially threatening, requires problem solving without making that problem solving a dry, distended process, and ultimately packing that all together into a utilitarian form that you can adapt to fit your personality and perspective.  You want to fight combats in role-playing, but you don't want to get bogged down in things that don't contribute to your 'high,' you don't want to find that something has suddenly gotten very easy if you fit puzzle piece A into slot B (which destroys the problem solving aspect, as a problem ceases to be interesting once you've solved it) and you DO want to feel agency.  This is your phone.  You'll use it in the open air if you damn well want to.

If you look around, you'll soon find that virtually every past-time humans have invented for themselves includes aspects of the past-time that are based on no logic.  Why is the king only able to move one square? Certainly it isn't for a realistic reason.  But it makes for a good game.  Try to play the game with the king moving as a queen and see what happens.  Take note - the king's movement is the phone that only works underwater.  No other movement scheme works ... because every other movement scheme doesn't make for a better game.  It is irrelevant that other movement schemes are possible.  In this particular case, for this particular game, in 400 years no one has found a better scheme.

Because this is simply so, the players don't want another scheme.  They're not looking for it.  The improvement of the game is not based upon the design of the game, but upon the behaviour of the participants of the game, who set about to crack it by refashioning their strategies.

It would be this: even though the phone can only be used underwater, it is such an amazing phone that it thrives despite that drawback.  That is really, really good design.  So good, in fact, that even though this is your phone, you don't want to use it anywhere but in the water.  The behaviour it inspires might be to compel more people to spend more time under the water just so they can use your phone there.

This post is, as I say, a strange muddle, but it comes down to these principles:

A.  You need to design for player behaviour, because utilizing your design is all that matters to a player.
B.  The behaviour you want may not be the behaviour you get.  There's nothing you can do about that.
C.  If you want to deny behaviour, build it right into the design.
D.  If you deny behaviour the player really wants to have, your design will fail.
E.  If your design is incredible, it may change the world.
F.  You can never count on E.

Chances are, your design is pretty shitty.  And that your players will ignore the behaviour you're asking for. And that you were better off letting them continue the behaviour they already possessed towards the design that already existed before you waded in.  If you must wade in, however, do so on a better ideal than satisfying a wish to make something more 'realistic.'  Ask your players what they want, then make designs that give them what they want ... and to hell with whether or not the final design fits with history, physics or reality.

You're not designing for the approval of history.  You're designing for human beings.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Designing Rules for Strategy and not Reality

Today I want to send the reader to Alonzo's Credanzo, to read his post from Monday on the Thought Process.  It's a good post.  The dialogue is well-written and accurately captures the kind of discussion - without the crippling misunderstandings - that typically goes on between someone wanting to address a game issue and the critic thereof.  The reader should read it.

For me, it tags to an assumption that I see often, and is here highlighted perfectly.  I want to quote one line from the 'Self' character:

"Basically, I want armor to work as damage reduction because I feel like that makes more sense than armor class - it's too much of an abstraction when its like that.  I want this system to feel real."

Now, the reader needs to know I'm not going to riff on this.  I'm holding my temper these days, so this isn't going to be a rant.  I do want the reader to deconstruct the one line above in a couple of ways - from reading the rest of Alonzo's post, you should be able to see how important this one line is.

To begin with, the Self feels a particular way.  There's no actual logic to the preference.  The term 'abstraction' actually applies to either the old, AC method and the new damage reduction method.  Both are abstractions.  Every game rule is an abstraction.  The statement, "this is an abstraction and I don't like it," is akin to my saying, when I speak I don't make the thoughts in my head perfectly clear; I think I need to sing more.

We do a lot of game design based on 'feeling.'  There's nothing wrong with that.  Every kind of game rule is supposedly designed to produce feelings, such as fun, intrigue, triumph, anxiety and so on ... so feelings are important.  The only error here is in deciding that the problem is somehow based on what is, or what is not, an abstraction.  That's a neat, conveniently non-specific word that we leap to in order to justify our feelings for or against something.  Another is to say something is 'squicky.'  We get a feeling we don't like it; we can't be more exact. The word 'abstraction' isn't common enough in everyday use that everyone absolutely agrees on its definition.  That makes it a good word to use when we want to make our notion feel ... well, that it isn't just our notion.

There's actually no logic to the 'damage reduction' idea, either ... though it seems like there ought to be.  To put this into context, lets suppose you're going to go at a picnic table with an axe.  The table is made of wood (treated wood, usually, which makes it pretty tough, so let's say this is a table your father built out of untreated lumber ten years ago).  The wood is a bit rotten, because its been out in the sun and the rain and maybe the snow, so even though you know it will take a bunch of swings, that table is coming apart eventually.  Thus, it makes sense.  The axe does so much damage on a hit, the table can take so much damage before coming apart, when enough damage is done then so is the table.

Now let's suppose we cover the table and attached benches with a layer of iron metal 1 mm thick (1/25th of an inch for Americans), and that the metal is bonded to the table.  How long will the table last then?

I'm not adding all that much metal.  But if the metal is coated and won't come free from the wood, chances are the axe handle will break before that table will. That table is going to be immune to weapons that cut or stab.  This is what armor class is meant to describe.  That if I am squatting under the table, and you're hitting the table like crazy with your axe, I'm not taking any damage.  Thus, unless you poke your weapon or hack your weapon into the joints between the protection provided by the armor, you don't do damage.  The idea is that plate armor offers less gaps than leather armor. The actual damage to the armor in a ordinary fight is usually minimal.  A single good piece of armor could last through a dozen fights and still be more or less as effective as it was at the start.  Banged up maybe, perhaps not as pretty, but still effective at keeping a sword from drawing blood from your chest.

But then, armor can break with just one hit, can't it.  All that has to happen is that the hit be just so, springing a rivet or cutting a strap.  The durability of armor isn't based on how much damage it can take, but upon just how lucky you are when you're wearing it.  If the right strap is broken, then the armor is hanging loose from your left shoulder, getting in the way of your sword strikes ... and you have to rip the rest of the now annoying armor from your body if you're going to stay in the combat.  Complex collections of things designed to wrap around your body have a lot of weak points, and any of them could go at the wrong time.  If you're in full plate, how useful is that going to be if a piece of your shin-guard has come loose from it's strap, and is dragging between your feet and threatening to trip you up?

Some chance hit like this is going to affect the usefulness of your armor far more frequently that waiting for a hundred thudding blows to land.

In the bigger picture, however, we have to ask - what is the function in the game for having armor at all? Is it to provide a realistic reproduction of a set-piece battle?  Or to test the effectiveness of one sort of armor against another?  Or even, as Alonzo suggests, to produce an annoyance to the party member who must occasionally replace their armor (which could be done very easily by having everyone roll a d100 once per combat).

No, the purpose of armor is to create the ideal of being able to purchase your way into greater safety against your enemies, in order to feel safer on the battle field and, by upgrading, last longer and kill more enemies, feeling therefore more powerful and ultimately greater as a fighter.  In short, the purpose of armor is to provide bling and good spirits.  Supposedly, at low level you can only afford leather, while at higher level you get plate, or you find magical armor and so on.  As a materialistic society, we equate bling with feeling good about ourselves, and thus the players feel they're getting ahead in the world when they can buy better armor.

It also has to be pointed out that there is a strategy inherent in armor class.  The more armor you have, the slower you move.  The less armor you have, the faster you move.  If you have a medium amount of armor, you have a medium amount of movement.  This lends agency to the players.  They can pick how vulnerable they want to be versus how mobile.  Neither is technically better or worse.  That's what makes this particular strategy really interesting.  There is no right answer.

Change that rule and you have to offer a new strategy for them to experiment with.  If you haven't got a new strategy to go along with your rule, then you've forgotten that you're not making the rule for the sake of reality, you're supposed to be making it to add thrills and chills to the game.

You can incorporate the most horrible, annoying, crippling book-keeping rules into your game, as long as there is a strategy inherent in those rules that let's the players explore and manipulate the results.  If the various strategies each have angles that make them preferable, then you really do have a cool rule to add to the game.

Thus you can't work on just your feeling.  Game design takes designing.  What function is this rule going to serve?  How will the players interact with the rule?  Will they find angles on it you never considered?  Is there room for that?

Better go back to the drawing board and start asking the right questions.  The fact that a thing is more or less 'abstract' is really just a way of saying you don't know what you're doing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Somewhere, at some time, this conversation has taken place.

Vice President of Content Marketing:  Next on the schedule ... the time has come again to release the Wizard of Oz.  We're going to call it a 'Nostalgia Edition.'
Distribution Coordinator:  Good.  Good idea.
Content Manager:  Excellent.  What special features will it include?
Vice President of Content Marketing:  We'll get to that.  First, there's a matter that needs to be addressed.  As I understand it, it's an old film.
Content Manager:  Yes, I think it was made ... what, 60 years ago?
Operations Consultant:  75.  We want to take advantage of the anniversary.
Vice President of Content Marketing:  It doesn't matter.  The point is that it's old.  And as I understand it, parts of the film are actually in black-and-white.
Content Manager:  Yes, something like twenty minutes.
Vice President of Content Marketing:  Right.  A part at the beginning and (checks notes) about two minutes at the end.  What are we going to do about that?
Distribution Coordinator:  I'm sorry ... are you saying the rest of it is in color, except for twenty minutes?
Operations Consultant:  Yes.  The film runs 101 minutes.
Distribution Coordinator:  So ... what was that about?  Did they just run out of money?
Operations Consultant:  We don't know why they did it that way.
Vice President of Content Marketing:  None of this is the point.  What are we going to do about it?
Content Manager:  Well, people definitely don't like black-and-white films.  We have testing for that.
Operations Consultant:  We could colorize it.
Vice President of Content Marketing:  How much will that cost?
Operations Consultant:  Much less than we're going to make on the resale.
Vice President of Content Marketing:  Done.  Look into it, see if there are any issues and get back to me.  Let's talk about what additional content we'll be adding ...

I love marketing.

I have decided to go with the original title I planned, and damn the misery it may create for me.  There are some bitter realities that have to be faced, particularly in that I'll be selling to book to people who have never heard of the blog, and don't know that the content isn't horribly dry and dull.  There's a very real possibility that the marketing forces that are pushing me towards a title change are right, and that the book is going to fall flat on its face because it isn't exciting enough on the outside.

And still, there's the reality that I'm not trying just to pimp out another crap book on the market that needs a jazzy title in order to have value.  I only need to think about the times I have wandered the shelves of gaming stores, looking for something that isn't just more of the same.  'More of the same' is the watch-phrase for the role-playing world, and is a principle that is adhered to not only by the business end of the game, but by the grassroots as well, as is evident in bulletin boards and blogs.  If I post a particular point, I can count on getting the same basic response - take yesterday, for instance, when I titled the post Splitting the Party and the entire readership responded with, "this is going to be more of the same" ... only to be surprised when it was not.

On some level we're all trained.  We wade through the shelves, where every book's spine is colored with incomprehensible goo because it is a slice of the cover image that stretches from the front cover to the back, and every title is in the same collection of clever medieval fonts, as if THIS time the book you buy really will prove to be useful because we haven't deviated from the font that says it was written by old monks in the fourteenth century.  I'm not saying this angrily, mind.  It's all a bit sad.  I feel a bit sad.

I'm told now that the game store in my city, the Sentry Box, is the "Largest in Canada."  I have no idea how valid that is.  I don't imagine there are many game stores across the country that it needs to compete with, and at any rate we in Canada all know that's just another way of saying, "Smaller than many stores in the U.S."  That's a fact of life.

It's fairly big for a store, and it has lots and lots of stuff.  I never buy anything there.  The last thing would have been a battle map that was 4 feet by 3 ... I never use it.  There may be 46,000 items in the store, but for all the value they have for me, the store might just as well be empty.  There's a game association that meets there, that has been playing 4e (where I stopped in months ago), but now I understand they are making a rule that says if you don't play D&D Next, you're not permitted to play there.  That's a little fascist in my opinion, but it's probably good business for the store somehow.

My point is that what I have looked for over the past 20 years is something different.  'Different' is not in the offing.  I'm not sure I'd recognize it if it were, what with all the dramatic artwork blending together into one big swirl.  I know that when I've stopped there (it's across the street from my favorite music bar), and I take something off the shelf, all I see is more of the same.  Another set of skill-based rules, another collection of armor and weapons, another smattering of magic presented as chi, karma, voodoo or supernatural vampirism.  The words change but the idea doesn't.  You are this, you are part of this group, people in this group have these abilities, you can choose which ones to expand upon, here is your dress, here is your pre-made collection of moral-codes you obey, etcetera.  Pick from one of a hundred different groups according to what moral-code you like.  On every level it is the same as picking whether you prefer sea salt & dill Triskets, tomato & old ham, Greek gyro & fennel or menthol & old tire.  It's a choice.  It carries the illusion of freedom because there are lots and lots of choices.  More than you'll ever have time to play.

In all that, I mostly want to look different.  I want the book to sound different.  I want the fellow walking by my table to see the highest quality booth, with smart, together people talking animately and passionately about role-playing games, and then to look at the white book with a simple, sharp image on it and think, "This is unexpected and different."

I'm setting myself up for having to sell refrigerators to Eskimos ... but I have a team supporting me that have all made their living on the basis of sales.  I have done that, too.  There's a reality about sales that many people in marketing fail to grasp.

It isn't the product that makes the sale.  It's the salesperson.  The benefit here is that when I bamboozle the buyer into buying the product against their best instincts, because I've convinced them long enough to get their money, they'll be pleasantly surprised to find they've bought something valuable.

I'm counting on that.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Splitting the Party

From How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, 2nd draft.

"Within just a year of starting to play role-games, I could not help noticing that there were certain players who were willing to invest one-hundred-percent into an adventure or a campaign.  These were people who desperately needed to play, who would bend over backwards in order to play—and who rarely, if ever, disagreed with any ruling or statement I might make.  They never missed a game.  They never forgot their characters.  They obsessed over small things, like their dice or the miniature figure that represented them, or the ornamentation of their character sheets.  These were people who loved the game, and could absolutely be counted on to show up when it was time to play.

"I was not the only one to recognize their phenomenon.  In the early of the game, it was something parents tagged onto when seeing this behavior in their teenage children.  Because the game was new and unfamiliar—and difficult to explain—the degree of fanaticism that some players expressed created a sense of panic in small communities and the local media.  This would spread briefly into the general consciousness, culminating in a notably unfortunate film starring the actor Tom Hanks, and then it would fade away over the next decade as more people had experience with role-playing.  Video games aided considerably in making role-play ‘normal.’

"Still, however, there are players who need it.  And they sit at my table on game nights.  If I have to cancel a session, these are the first people who indicate their disappointment.  If I offer to play past the normal time of quitting, these players are always exuberantly in favour.

"What that means in terms of my personal power as DM is that if I’m in a dispute with a player about my interpretation of a rule—and I encourage such disputes—and I want to increase my authority by calling on other players to support me, I can always rely those players who need very badly to play.  That is a resource that I have in my pocket.  If I am the kind of person who has to be right, who isn’t willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong, or I just very badly want to win the argument, then I’m free to take advantage of that peer support.  If the player I’m arguing with is susceptible to peer pressure, I’m going to win my argument.  If the player isn’t susceptible to that ploy, and I’m the sort of DM willing to push my position of strength, then I’m going to divide the party between those people who unconditionally support me and those people who either recognize what I’m doing—and resent it—or simply despise or tend to resist group-thinking … and I am forcing group-think upon them because I am accessing that option.

"The result is going to be a split party, in which my authority has now become the crux of that split.  It is going to become harder and harder to motivate the party to act cooperatively in the future.  Some of them will feel ‘important’ for having supported the DM—and this support will lend itself to feelings of superiority over their fellow players.  Others will feel corralled, dismissed and even somewhat misused so long as they continue to play.  Eventually, even if they like me and my game, they’ll go, leaving me with nothing but players who agree unconditionally with all that I say.  These in turn will oppress anyone new who enters the campaign, styling themselves as the ‘old guard,’ who believe they’ve been in my campaign long enough to earn them special status.  This situation will continue until I quit running, I get rid of all my players or I severely change my opinions about how to handle power."

From Part III, Managing Your Players, Chapter 9, Power Politics

Friday, March 14, 2014

Let's Talk About Semantics & Other Things

Many, many times I have slammed modules on this blog, and the people that use them.  Yet, of course, I understand that most people do not 'use' them ... they steal rooms, notions, maps, monsters, etc.  What's more, I'll confess right here and now that I did the same thing for many years.

I do not believe that I ever ran any party I've had through a module start to finish.  The closest would have been the Keep on the Borderlands, which I bought along with everyone else back in the very beginning of my playing days.  Even then, running the party through as far as they got (long time ago, I don't know when that was, but they never made it past the lower monsters, goblins, orcs and so on, before we got bored and moved onto other things), I had to adjust treasure.  Treasure was ridiculous on that thing.  You'd kill seven orcs and there'd be a +1 sword, as well as 1,000 g.p. worth of jewelry and gems ... and then the next room would have twice as much.  And this was a module associated with the same guy who in the DM's Guide wrote against 'Monty Haul' games.

For those gentle readers who do not remember the 70's, Monty Hall was a sleazy looking game show host for a long running show called "Let's Make a Deal" - also famous for the Monty Hall problem (which, I admit, I still can't make sense of in my head - someday I'll kidnap a mathematician and keep him locked in a cell until he explains it in a way I can understand).  The game show was very big for its time, and famous for giving a lot of stuff to people that were, basically, extraordinarily dumb folks who didn't deserve shit.  At the time Gygax coined the term, Monty Haul, it would have also incorporated the idea that the party getting all that treasure loot had not earned it.

But I digress.

Suppose we try to break down the module into that which is stolen, and that which can be ignored.  Images are always compelling, both for showing the party and also for inspiring the imagination.  A particular magic item, or something ornate, as well as a wide host of things that fall under the heading of 'toys' can be used in any personally-created adventure.  Traps are good.  Puzzles too.  The arrangement of rooms, as well as any kind of floorplan, can be used more than once.  The motivations behind an NPC's action is good, that can be translated elsewhere.  In fact, virtually any element of the module can be stripped and reused, like tearing a building empty of its guts in wire and other metal pieces until all that's left is broken concrete, plasterboard and old wood.

The real wasted part of the module comes down to two things: the railroad, where A must be done before B is found that makes C work, opening the door to D and monster E with treasure F; and the 'mood.'  The mood, of course, would be the module's author trying their own distinctive emotional perspective of the tone or attitude that the module is supposed to be run with.  The mastubatory part, if the reader will, that the writer really likes, and virtually everyone else ignores.

Now, defined, the word "adventure" is a bold, usually risky undertaking, a hazardous action of uncertain success and outcome.  This is something I see being totally and absolutely under the control of the DM.  The DM ought to know the world being run, ought to know precisely what sort of adventure that world needs, and ought to be able to invent the adventure that is needed.  To keep with the building analogy, the materials that are stolen from the module serve to create a space in which business can be performed - but the actual business itself is not created by the builder, but by the business owner.  The builder can take instructions and shape the space for the owner, but the builder shouldn't tell the owner the owner's business.

Trying to incorporate a railroad or mood into a host of source material that is going to be demolished and reworked to suit the owner operator - the DM - is a waste of time.  Or more to the point, it is a self-indulgent waste of time, for the module builder that wants you, the buyer, to get really excited about the builder's building, rather than in the actual business that is being run there.  Builders have always wanted this.  Most of the time, people just don't care.  The only reason they ever go to that building is because the place they want to buy from happens to be there.  The owner relates to the building, but if the builder was more concern with being showy and impressive than in actually just providing a well-designed, organized space, what the owner thinks of the building is, "I goddamn hate this place, and I look forward to the day when moving is practical."

I have been both building my own buildings and running my own businesses inside them for a long time now, and getting my source material not from other fantasy module creators but from deeper, more compelling sources, like religious studies, fiction of every stripe, modern events, human nature and my own twisted take on virtually everything.  If I really need source material, there's always time to investigate into some core works like Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, Spenser's the Fairy Queen, anything by Shakespeare, Coleridge or Alexander Pope, some great source books I have for general trends in world history, Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius and Plutarch, Barbara Walker's great fictional sourcebook, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, any encyclopedia, Google Books, the internet and an ordinary newspaper.  The idea that ideas are scarce and hard to find is really just evidence of an imagination that needs a kick in the ass.  Appendix N?  More like, Appendix Life.

I don't want to co-opt the word 'adventure' and use it to describe organized source material.  The 'adventure' is the business part, and should be left in the hands of the DM running their own business.  I'd prefer to keep my nose out of that.  However, there is an issue with all the source material in the world, in that it's really cluttered and scattered, and therefore not particularly cohesive.  Cohesion is a process, and one that is worth being paid for.  So where I think of creating some kind of source material for a campaign, what I am thinking of is the cohesion of a lot of source material so that it is juxtaposed conveniently for the business' use.  The building of the building, with a lot of empty space, good hookups, terrific lighting and convenience to local services, transport and suppliers.

Personally, I'd love to do that sans imagery.  I'm not an artist, and that means the choke point for any book containing fantasy/fictional source material is going to be finding an artist that a) has my work ethic; b) has my perspective on how work is first created and THEN sold; and c) is able to produce in any style that's needed.  That's not always easy.  Artists typically want money up front for work they haven't done yet (often all the money), which only makes them the most annoying unregulated contractors in the universe.  At least if I give money up front to the cabinet maker who's going to rebuild my kitchen, I know that someone is looking over the contractor's shoulder, and that licences have been obtained and fees paid.  But an artist ... artists don't answer to anyone, they don't respect anyone (unless they're a better artist, in which case they are silently hateful, also), and most really don't believe that there's another knowledge in the world that matches their own special snowflake derived mind-sets.

I can work with musicians, sound techs, printers, designers, actors, costumers, writers, editors, poets and dancers ... but artists are a whole different mind-set.

If the reader tells me that I can produce a book of source material without the need to suck up to an artist, I will be deliriously happy.  Unfortunately, that's probably not the case.  I have engaged an artist recently to do the front cover, and we get along great ... and I pitched the idea of working on a series of sourcebooks together, but ... I don't have an answer on that.  I can't afford to pay up front for 10 or 11 pieces per source books, so I need an artist that is willing to work for the possibility of profit - like every other craftsworker, including myself.  We'll just have to see.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Good News

In other news, I have made an arrangement with a sponser.  It's the fellow, Spencer Estabrooks, for whom I did work last year as the technical advisor on his webisode project, One Hit Die.  He is willing to grant me high resolution images from the work for inclusion in our table banners for the Expo.  Good on you, Spencer.

Small Books

I received three good suggestions for a short book.  I'd like to go through them and give a few thoughts.

Create an Equipment List

It was suggested that this would be easy, given that I already have extensive lists and that they are fairly popular.  A different list could be created for different parts of the world, using my generator to create prices.

This sounds 'easy' but it really isn't.  I mean, it would be easy if I weren't concerened with old fashioned ideas like verisimilitude, continuity, context and so on.  For most people, however, I think that an Ethiopian equipment list would look odd and a bit concerning compared to, say, a Rheinish equipment list.  For one thing, prices for most things would be sky high in Ethiopia, given that it doesn't make anything that a growing party needs, meaning that it is either shipped in or people do without.  There's plenty of gold in Ethiopia, very little iron and even less traditional manufactures.  I have very little trouble explaining this to players in my world, but it wouldn't be easy setting it up for strangers.

That is not to say it couldn't be done.  In fact, I've pitched an idea to the artist I procured a couple of weeks ago, who is working on the Advanced Guide's cover, that was very much like this.  I'd like to produce a series of illustrated 8 by 10 books that covered parts of my world in the manner of this post I wrote last October.  This is a long range project, something I mean to do after How to Run and if I am on board with an artist willing to jazz up the book.  What with the world being a complicated, endlessly detailed place, I think I could produce such works as long as, well, I live.  Heck, one small part of the modern Czech Republic, Moravia, could be such a book.  Or Paraguay (Blackrazor could be helpful there).  Or the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua (the town of Bluefields was a pirate den in the 17th century).  The world offers plenty of inspiration.

I could add equipment lists to it.  For now, however, the idea is on the shelf.

Create a List of Essays from the Blog

Well, that's fairly easy.  There are some very popular posts, and they could stand a serious edit.  The post about the State of D&D, the old one about Mustard, one or two about Dungeon Mastering, definitely the humour pieces and so on.  I could dig out about thirty or forty and set up a poll, or just go with the ones I like.

I don't know how well this would sell to you folk, given that you know me and that you've already read those.  Some of you I know would purchase it just to support me (some of you beautiful people out there have cheerfully donated money to the cause from your own good coffers - thank you!).  I am sure, however, that with a good, lively cover, it would do fairly well at the Expo, as it would be another sales item sitting on the table, one more thing for someone to buy.  I think on some level whatever I do, I ought to put that book together just because it will pay for itself eventually.

If people have ideas on which posts to rework, shout those ideas out.  I think the How to DM post can be passed over, given the main book, but the other might serve as half such a book's content (20,000 words, 11 point font, 5x7 book ... would be a neat little 120 pager).

So probably, this one is being made anyway.

Write about How to Play

Well, I have covered this with the 10,000 word post, so I'm a little thin on what this would contain that the 10,000 word post does not.  Perhaps I could say something about total immersion involvement, or person-to-person conflict from the player's point of view.  The idea of having a book on the table (even a thin book, and it would have to be) that had the word PLAY in the title is mouth-watering.  I could use some suggestions on content.

It would definitely be an opinion book, which How to Run is not.  The latter is founded in principles that are not D&D, that have been translated to D&D in order to make you a better DM.  A suggested tag line from the press agent I spoke to yesterday was, "DMing is easy ... If you know how."  That comes out of my certainty that most DMs are wallowing.  They're unsure of what they're doing, and even when they are doing something right they don't know what it is right.  So DMing is definitely hard for most people.  I've heard that all my gaming life.

I'd like a similar perspective for the player.  Being a player isn't hard; but it is a combination of uncertainty and I think vulnerability.  I haven't played that much in the last couple of decades, and now when I do I feel so goddamned comfortable in that I can read the DM like a book.  Too damn comfortable to talk about the discomfort of a player without someone reminding me what that was like.  I've included a passage in How to Run about the importance of making players feel safe and secure, in order to encourage participation.  What would a player's angle on that be?

Pitch me something.  Don't worry if it ends up in right field.  The best ideas are sometimes thrown in - ie., highlighted - by the least experienced people.