Monday, June 30, 2014

The World You Live In

Restored. Thank you Alejandro.

There's no question that many of the adventures in my world embrace the fantastical. Speaking only of the online campaign, I have had the party meet a humorous ghost, jump all over my world in a teleportation booth, staged a war with an undead army, walked the party through Constantinople while in the Ethereal plane of existence and razed a town with worms from hell and a massive giant hundreds of feet high. I do not feel that a campaign must consist of mundane events.

It must, however, be grounded in reality. There is one reason for this - the players are grounded in reality. In solving problems, they will turn again and again to what they've learned throughout their lives. That experience must have nothing to grab onto - else the world will be hopelessly divorced from meaning. Arguments will become constant - or the DM will have to employ his or her fiat constantly - because the players don't know what's real.

Yesterday, Matt introduced me to a rather remarkable concept, apparently a meme from 3rd edition. I will allow him to explain it:

"The 'peasant rail-gun' is an example of rules abuse in 3rd edition D&D. It works by taking a literal wording of the rules, and then applying real-world physics to the effects that situation would create. It works like so:

"In 3rd edition you can hand an object to another character as a free action. In game terms, this means you can hand a potion to a buddy, and still move and attack in the same round. A free action takes "no time" and it is the "no time" wording that is abused.

"So, you create a line of peasants a mile long. The how doesn't matter, there are several ways to do it from paying them a days wages to taking the leadership feat and boosting the parameters that earn you followers. Now what you do is that you have the peasants pass an object such as an arrow, a crossbow bolt, or an iron rail down the line, one by one.

"Remember, passing an item is a free action. The peasants can each pass the rail with the action taking no time within the span of a 6 second round. When the object reaches the last peasant, he throws it at a target.

"Now, enter the physics. You have just instantaneously accelerated an object to 1 mile per second. The speed of the object when it is thrown must take that acceleration into account. It stands to reason that it will impact the target at that speed, as there is not enough time for proper deceleration. The result is that whatever you were targeting is likely obliterated due to the force of impact from an object travelling at that speed."

Matt then goes on to say that no good DM would allow this, and he's right. For my purposes today, however, I feel that it's necessary to ask a logical question that defies the 'gun' on its own level.

1) presuming that it does accelerate as it passes from hand to hand, at some point, the speed of the transfer will increase past the point where the receiver is able to direct it accurately to the next person in line; the object will 'get out of control,' and must be dropped, or an accident will occur where the next peasant in line will be speared and perhaps killed by the rail.

2) Why is there any presumption that the object will increase speed? The object from the first pass is considered to be moving 3 feet in zero seconds, and this speed does not cause the object to threaten the first person it is passed to. Therefore, upon what basis does acceleration occur? A whole number cannot be divided by zero, but nevertheless, 3/0 = 3/0 x 1000. There is no acceleration.

Unless I've seriously goofed at math again, and that may be possible.

The larger point would be that once we have begun messing around with logic and physics in the game, we quickly create a circumstance where everyone has a premise for argument, while no demonstrable evidence exists. Quickly the campaign descends for a time into bickering and zero gain, while role-play becomes a game of rule-twisting and not running characters.

Matt is right. No good DM would allow this - but not because it is silly or dangerous or gamebreaking, but because it is an example of players playing the wrong game. For all the people who claim that role-play is about fantasy and not reality, abstraction and not simulation, as soon as we depart from actuality, the game stumbles and falls.

Which brings us back to Averroes in the 12th century: God cannot make a triangle with more than 180 degrees. No matter how 'fantastical' the ideals of our world, math is still math. I have yet to see any DM sit down to work out an alternative computational system that does not include, in any degree, the math we already use. That would be really something.

What is the value in saying that 'math is math'? It is the recognition that if I step into your world, I would expect certain principles to remain in place. Wood, for instance, would still burn by virtue of carbon combining with oxygen, which would then turn to a gas that would manifest as fire. The campfire, out of doors, would still burn at a temperature of less than 900 degrees, depending on the type of wood used. It wouldn't burn at 1100 degrees. If it did, because the DM said, "Open fires in my world burn at 1100 degrees," it would take very little time before ever engineer in the game figured out a way to make that 200 degree difference break the world. Having stipulated one change in physics, you fuck everything.

Yesterday, I argued that people in certain professions think in a certain way, and I received comments that I did not print that were pure speculation that I was wrong. Not all cops do think the same way, I was told. Nor do all peasants. We are not all alike.

I find that very interesting. Not because it is right or wrong, but because it clearly speaks to a perception of experience gained, a perception of culture and a perception of how the game is meant to operate.

Let me begin with the last of those, and for the moment allow me to accept the premise that all peasants are not the same. Since the assertion is there because we have been all taught that we are special snowflakes in school, allow me to extrapolate from the original assertion and argue that no peasant is the same as any other. After all, two peasants being the same is as politically incorrect as all peasants being the same, since we are still labelling one human being as being exactly the same as another.

Wait a minute. Human being?

This is a game. A ridiculously complex game, with millions of variables and an elaboration of setting that is impossible to create down to the last individual peasant. The party is moving through the country; they meet a peasant; they know, from this DM, that the peasant is necessarily unlike every other peasant in the world, so the party says . . . what, exactly? They dare not suppose that the peasant is tired from a long day's work, or that the peasant is poor, or has little combat skill, or that the peasant in any way reflects all the characteristics we have associated with peasants from the dawn of history. This peasant is different.

How? What makes this peasant different? If we give the peasant more money, why would he be a peasant? If we give this peasant artisan skills, then why has the artisan-turned-peasant decided to dress as a peasant? That can't be very comfortable for him. The shoes alone are murder. And do all artisan-turned-peasants continue to dress like peasants? Wouldn't this make them all the same?

I dare the reader to come up with 30 examples of peasants that would still look like peasants, but not be like any other peasant. And having done that, please come up with 120 million more, because this is approximately how many peasants I have in my world. I simply haven't got the time, so it would be useful to have that list. Please designate addresses. That will also be helpful when running my world.

Since I have a lot of really interesting people to create for my game, I find it rather useful to present and think of peasants as, well, peasants. This works as a good shorthand for my players, as when they see someone dressed as a peasant, doing peasant things, they understand who and what they're dealing with. Granted, the party might meet someone, someday, who looks and acts like a peasant, who is really a powerful fighter, pretending to be a peasant, until the last moment when the party is surprised by the peasant that can really fight!

Only, why has my fighter not noticed the peasant's anterior and middle deltoids, or the tensile strength of the peasant's brachioradialis, muscles that I have been trained to look for in my opponents when engaging in hand-to-hand combat? How is it this peasant is in fighting trim enough to threaten me, yet there's no signs of his having developed weapon-using muscle groups as opposed to farming muscle groups? Is it possible to be a strong fighter without these features being obvious? Have we got another example of a campfire that burns at 1100 degrees? Because if we do, then this game is going to get broken pretty fast.

All right, let's look at our perception of culture. Let us suppose that the guardsmen of our town, like peasants, are all different. Guards are individuals, not carbon copies, so we shouldn't expect a guard to act like a 'guard.'

Let me say that I, for one, do not want to be in charge of this rabble.

If bad writing has done real damage to culture, it is this: the understanding that, if we're watching a movie about a cop, a politician, a soldier, a doctor, a lawyer, a writer, an adrenaline junkie or the 'one,' we are watching a film about a person who is 'just like me.' This, of course, sells. If we write books or movies about actual lawyers talking about the actual law, the average person is going to feel stupid almost immediately. This does not sell. The principles of profiting off art, therefore, demand that characters be ordinary enough to be identified with, while at the same time contesting continuously with authority in order to touch base with the average viewer or reader, who's biggest problem in life is being told what to do all the time.

Fighting the system feels good. Watching or reading about others fighting the system encourages us to believe that we are not alone. Except that there are millions of people who are part of the system, who are not fighting it, who are rather happy with the system because they don't have the time or the inclination to read books or watch movies about why the system is an oppressive hateful thing. These people are in the minority. But they are also in charge. They are the people that the average doofus wishes he or she could rebel against - only they don't, because the average doofus is far too dependent on the system.

To sort out who belongs in charge, we have a method. If you behave in a way that is in keeping with our principles, you're allowed to belong. If you are allowed to belong, then we will let you push around people who don't belong. If you start behaving in a way we don't approve, then we will drop you back into the doofus pile. Oh, and remember - never, ever, fuck with people who belong. Those are the rules.

Everyone in charge knows these rules intimately. That is why they are in charge. They love the rules. They think the rules are great. Unlike a film, where someone in charge breaks the rules almost immediately upon the start of the story, people in actual control almost NEVER break the rules. They don't want to.

So why do all guards act alike? Is it because they are alike? No. It is because they know the rules, and they'd rather be a guard than a doofus. They know they can use their status to improve their lives, of course. But they don't push around 'real people.'

Oh, certainly someone occasionally fucks up or steals from the wrong people or otherwise makes themselves unwanted. We should keep in mind, however, that while this happens commonly in our system, that is partly because there's a real chance that you won't get caught. If you're a cop, you don't live night and day in a barracks. You don't live in a very small world, where every person you meet every day knows you and knows every one of your buddies. You don't live in a world where the spoken word is the only communication. You don't live in a world where, if you screw up your job, they kill you. Without a trial. If you're 25 and still at your job, you're one of those who has learned not to fuck up - and you've seen all the other people who are bad at it executed, one by one. You're much more motivated to do your job in that culture - in large part, because you have no other job you'll be allowed to do, even if you want to leave. The alternative job is called 'living in a gutter, depending on people who don't care about you for food.'

Yeah. We have a perception of culture that is based upon living in a very, very soft culture. There is a cure for that. If the reader feels that not all guards are 'alike,' I recommend joining the police force. Get back to me then.

Fine. That leaves us with a perception of experience. I've already mentioned fighters building up certain muscle groups. Along with that, there are certain stances, patterns of behaviour needed to stay alive on the battlefield, habits gained through the maintenance of weapons and armor, a perception about people who are not as combat-capable as you and so on. As before, if you're a fighter and you are 25 years old, there are certain behaviours you've come to adopt because those behaviours kept you alive while others around you were dying.

Think of it this way. Were all the vets that came back from Vietnam the same? No. You know what made them similar, though? It was all the shit they saw in Vietnam that you never saw. When combat vets see each other, they see differences. But when they look at you? They just see the same pathetic, tubby, soft ignorant doofus that they see everywhere else. And you make them sick.

Or, at least you did for a time, until they began to get used to you. They still don't 'get' you. You're mostly stupid and devoid of any value, and easily broken in half. So don't bug them.

Try to imagine a guard in a role-playing game talking to soft, breakable you, the reader of this post right now. Try to imagine how . . . annoying you seem.

The guard may be different from other guards, but from the guard's perspective that isn't a difference the guard is interested in showing you. You don't rate that kind of consideration, maggot. So shut the fuck up and move your butt along. They're tired and at the end of their shift, or at the beginning of it, or there's still half of this goddamn shift to go, and they ain't paid to stand here to start conversations with maggots. Their job is to shovel maggots out the door or in it, and that's exactly what they think of you while they're doing their job.

The peasant is no different. The peasant knows his people, he knows his place in the world, he knows what he's allowed to say and he knows that chances are he isn't going to live to old age. He knows every time he takes this wagon out on the road to carry a load, it is probably his last. Try to imagine that every time you walk out the door on your way to work, you say goodbye to your family understanding that your chances of dying on this trip are about 1 in 40. He probably makes only three trips a year. Every one of those trips is fraught with danger. He's managed to live to the age of 35 and so he knows there ain't gonna be many trips left. But god loves him, so he's going to heaven.

And now he sees four rough, powerful, armed men on the road. Well fuck. Does it matter at this point if the peasant is a unique snowflake? No. No, he's pretty sure that his luck has finally run out. He hasn't got a weapon. What would be the point? If the bandits attack, there's going to be at least half a dozen, and he's not going to fight them off. If he tries, then that's just another thing on his conscience when he has to meet his maker. Better to accept. That's what he's been taught by the church all his life. Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Islam, all the same. You're a peasant. You're not going to live forever. Work hard. Be honest. Your next life will be better than this one.

This is a perception you develop when everyone that exists in your world has power over you. This is the perception you develop as all your life you hear about people on the road being killed. Or taken away and sold. Or raped, when there's nothing you can do. You've lived to 35, but a lot of others haven't, and you know you're lucky.

This is what makes all peasants 'the same.' It isn't their personality, or what they believe, or any of the crap we've introduced in the 20th century about feelings. It's the world you live in. The one that defines what you're allowed to expect. That's all you get. Better learn to like it.


Vlad Malkav said...

Powerful, powerful post there.

No snowflakes for the "outside world". Outside are maggots, or bandits, furture converts, whatever your path is. Keep yourself to your friends and family.

And the stiking to reality ... Very good advice too. We live in it, we've been thoroughly forged by it, of course we will see any world through it. And if you change it in your world, chances are we'll be lost. Get hurt, annoyed, and make loads of wrong decisions.

I don't have time for that, my players don't have time for that. We're here to play, to make meaningful choices, to make our characters survive whatever the fuck the outside world has sent their way.

Very pleasant reading. Another one for my best list. Can't wait to be at the table again...

Barrow said...

I remember reading this post the other day and really appreciating the remarks about Vietnam Vets. These men had their eyes opened to the grim realities of human barbarism. The rest of us spend our lives either ignoring this reality or actively argue against the existence of human barbarism in our time. Imagine walking around knowing that every man and woman, and hell, every child, could become like a savage killer. Or more, that a man could order another man to act this way. This knowledge would make me look over my shoulder at every turn. I would be disgusted and pity ignorant people who took civility for granted.
In the past, I often wondered why combat vets don't like to talk about their experiences. I assumed it was because they did not want to relive the events, but you entry made me think of another reason. Ignorance is perhaps the biggest gap between a combat vet and a civilian. Stories of human barbarism are lost on civilians. Using the same logic you applied in you excellent post on Mysticism (its worth a read), its clear that a civilian would be inclined to romanticize war and battle. We make it beautiful, because we are ignorant to the gritty, bloody details. This post and the one on mysticism really gave me some insights that I was able to discuss with some friends about vets. So, thank you.

Back to RPG. "The principles of profiting off art, therefore, demand that characters be ordinary enough to be identified with, while at the same time contesting continuously with authority in order to touch base with the average viewer or reader, who's biggest problem in life is being told what to do all the time." --Just as the peasant is conditioned to live humbly and subserviently, we DM's are conditioned by modern profit art to produce peasants in our campaign that follow the aforementioned pattern. So we produce fearless and crass peasants that buck the group and break our players immersion. Its like we are selfishly taking the hero roles away from our PC's by not offering any humbled peasants or status quo guards.

I never considered this at all and need to do an internal analysis of my NPC's. I imagine these types of NPC's would make a campaign noisy for players. They can't think on their feet or in character because everyone around them is acting out of character.

Dave Cesarano said...

Actually, not to disagree with you, but there is one particular circumstance one of my players described in which your scenarios actually made sense (in game) despite issues with the DM's execution--he said, "if the peasant, the guard, and the harbormaster are suspicious." He followed it up, though, with, "But there has to be a reason they're suspicious of the PCs, something that, for the sake of the game, storytelling, etc. should be made apparent to the PCs. And the situation that causes them to be suspicious has to be damn serious for them to behave like this." In other words, this behavior should not be normal and should strike the players for its absolute abnormality as a clue that something is going on.

The great thing about what he said, though, is how it is an exception that proves the rule. It fails to overturn your entire argument from the simple fact that, as a player, had I presented him with one of those circumstances in game, he would have immediately seen flags go up and thought to himself, Something is afoot here. I smell an opportunity for adventure, excitement, and maybe a little gold, if we can figure out what's going on!

Alexis Smolensk said...


Your player is thinking, I'll grant you. But your player is also basing those thoughts upon a world that operates by some sort of logic, in which these NPCs are exceptions. Not, as I said, typical NPCs. Which was the point of the original post.

Dave Cesarano said...

I'm probably miscommunicating a bit here. I should be clear though that when I say something like "not to disagree with you" I actually mean it, whereas most people say it and then actually disagree.

That being said...

But your player is also basing those thoughts upon a world that operates by some sort of logic...


... in which these NPCs are exceptions. Not, as I said, typical NPCs.

Well, I wouldn't say that the NPCs are exceptional, more like the circumstances surrounding their behavior. The antecedents for the behaviors are exceptional, thus the behavior is exceptional, although any typical NPC in role A, B, or C, given the same antecedent will produce the same behavior. Then again, perhaps that antecedent produces new behavior since it has somehow changed the psychological makeup of the NPC, making them atypical.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking it.

My point is--which I hope is clear--my player's response actually demonstrates what you're saying to be true, especially since he trusts me as a DM to produce a logically consistent and coherent world that makes sense.

Scarbrow said...

You're welcome :)

Paint a big smile on my face on seeing you come back. You got me worried for a while.

Anonymous said...

Really grateful you put this back up. This may be one of the things I personally get 'right' when running. It can be hard discipline though when low level characters get arrogant or just presumptuous... How do you handle that? Ooc discussion?

Alexis Smolensk said...


Yes. I remind characters that NPCs talk to each other, that behind every rock wall or peeking through every window there is a child, who then rushes to a parent to tell the story. Next thing you know, the parents are telling the local guildmasters, who pass the word in a few hours about the 'gang of ruffians' randomly killing old men or burning down places, and very soon no one in town feels very much like offering the party a trial first.

I TELL parties this sort of thing, rather than demonstrating it, to point out that the world they're in is real, and not full of phony "we don't care what you do" puppets. I warn them to tread lightly. I warn them that the world is there for their use, but that too much pushing around the minions only wakes the masters.

JB said...

With the latest series on hit points, I forgot to post my comment to this earlier. Just wanted to say:

This is a fucking awesome post. It's this kind of thing that makes you such a valuable mind to have contributing to the collective space.

Not trying to be a suck-up...just wanted to give you some props, and meant to a couple days ago.