Thursday, February 11, 2016

White Plume Mountain & Rightness

I know the White Plume Mountain post ruffled feathers: there were no comments.  I could practically hear the grinding of teeth.

If anyone wants to read people's thoughts on the post, try this bulletin board page.  It was put up by a reader who was anxious to help me in my crowd-sourcing proposal; I'm not a member of that board. It's an excellent showcase of first impressions people still have of me.

It shows how little patience the community has for content that does not embrace the sacred cows of the game's past.  In comparison with some of the strafing runs I've made against gaming content in the past, the WPM post was almost minimalist . . . but true, there was also that post about Gygax recently and I did suggest that he might have been a dick - that is, if you didn't prefer the sobriquet "liar."  It was left up to the reader.

It's fine if people feel I can't tolerate disagreement on my blog; I'm apt to defend my point of view when I see that I've been misunderstood, misquoted or misrepresented in another's argument and this can certainly feel to some people that I'm intolerant and inflexible.  I've encountered this same feeling in real life, many times.  We all feel that we're right and there is a strong sentiment on the internet that when we express ourselves we rarely understand the vitriol we arouse.  Not being liked on the internet isn't a character flaw, it's ordinary.  We are all disliked on the internet.

LOL.  15 minutes passed (2:26 to 2:41) between blackstone writing "I'll have to admit I'll give it a chance as I read through more posts" and the same fellow writing, "Calling EGG 'a complete dick'?  really?"  In fifteen minutes he was able to zero in on a post that was two months old, did not have Gygax's name in the title, read it and quote from it, then complete writing his response about me on the bulletin board.

Remarkable.

I did hesitate before writing the post - after all, I'm anxious to have people on my side, to step forward and give funds and have good feelings about me.  It makes the marketing people queasy if anyone causes the product to be seen in a poor light even for a moment, sending them around in spinning flurries of emails and accusations, a truly modern manifestation.  Yet I also have advice that tells me, "Be true to yourself, true to your product, true to your message - if you act differently just to sell something, the readers will recognize that immediately."

Eight years I've been proving I'm an asshole.  Eight years I've been pissing (and using swear words) on modules such as White Plume Mountain and the Tomb of Horrors.  Eight years have had endless bulletin boards and other blogs posting everything that is wrong with me and all the ways that I need to get over myself.  If I were really that adverse to criticism, I would have quit by now.

WPM is a terrible module.  Not only in that it is a potpourri hodgepodge of irrational elements bunged together like a bad stew that finds the toilet the next morning, but because it inspired an endless parade of other hodgepodge campaigns over the next forty years from people who never understood that the template was bad.  Like forty years of science that bought into the idea of ether because it sounded good, or forty years of the film industry that bought into the Hays Code because it sounded good, or forty years of Jungianism (the blog dictionary doesn't even recognize the word) or forty years of trickle down theory and neo-conservatism, it's a shit template that's been repeated and repeated and repeated because that's all there is.  Until finally all the people who embraced the thought as young, impressionable souls reach an age where their views are irrelevant and Carl Jung is relegated to the archive of history and film begins to feature sex and violence and space is proved to be a vacuum and the neo-conservative movement produces a Donald Trump.  Bad ideas that won't die because people fall in love with them to the exclusion of reason, innovation, evidence and the exhaustion of consumers who are numb from finding only the same shit modules for sale, year after year.

People went to their graves believing that space was not a vacuum but that there HAD to be ether.  People went to their graves believing that films like the the Graduate, the Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Alien were abominations that destroyed the experience of going to movies.  People died believing that the collective unconscious and synchronicity are absolute, inviolable truths.  And people have died believing that the trickle-down theory and job creation has worked flawlessly.  There are still people who believe these things and nothing, nothing, will ever change their minds - just as there are those who will go to their graves believing that everything ever made connected to the game pre-1980 was totally and sacredly brilliant and the only way that modules should ever, ever, be designed.

And those of us who think different?  Well, we just have to get over ourselves.  The case has been settled.  Shut up and move on.

I don't think we're ever really sure about anything.  Four years ago I couldn't draw for shit.  For shit. Last week, I drew this:




When our eyes are open, we get better.  When we live in the future and not the past, we gain better perspectives.  When what we haven't got yet becomes better than what we've had, we strive and create all the things that forty years from now people will love.

My daughter and I agree that White Plume Mountain succeeded because every room was an adventure.  The emptyroomism of the present age of module creation hadn't been embraced yet and an adventure like WPM tried to keep the readers interest by filling every inch and crevice with interesting things.  It didn't matter that these things made no sense together or that the individual elements defied explanation - none of that was important because we had not yet designed any format upon which we had to agree.  There were monsters, there was magic, the rooms could be hammered into identifiable dioramas and like a museum, the players could be marched along on the guided tour and shown all the exhibits one by one.  Like a museum, it did not matter if the dinosaur room included a diorama of the first hooved animals of the era that came after or the first bony fish of the era that came long, long before.  It's a museum.  It exists for capturing impressionable minds, particularly the impressionable minds of young people who may not quite understand that the exhibit with primitive man being fifty feet from the giant skeleton of the Apatosaurus might not mean that the two lived simultaneously.  That is all right.  When they get older, they'll realize they did not and if they choose to make this into their vocation, they'll laugh a little to think that they were ever so foolish.

But no academic expansion happened in the gaming world and the smashing together of monsters in a single format became canon.  The children who thought it was kewl when they were ten haven't yet shed those notions now that they are fifty.  They still think it is kewl.  They haven't grown.  They haven't learned.  And that is fine - except that they expect the world to stay exactly as it was.  They expect that everyone who has come along since will bow down to the idols of their youth and praise them in the way they were always praised.

That isn't going to happen.  That has never happened.  But these people will go to their graves nonetheless believing that it should have happened, because that is the way old people are.

I am so grateful there are young people in the world.

13 comments:

JB said...

@ Alexis:

It didn't ruffle my feathers...I just haven't had a chance to catch up on my blogging (and blog reading) the last couple days. Actually, at the moment I don't have time to comment either except to say I'm a long time fan of WPM and blogged about it extensively in the past, and can happily accept my silliness on that score.

If I can find the time (and the intellect) to write anything more, I'll try to come back to this. But please keep a-ruffling! Change is uncomfortable for everyone, ya' know? But O So necessary.
; )

Doug said...

I think I ran in it around 6th grade. So, thirty years ago? Your impression of the module was correct.

I didn't enjoy it, and having a funhouse inside a mountain didn't appeal to me. Even the goodies at the end were either supposed to be turned back to their owners, or owning the intelligent weapons would have been like adventuring with a Donald Trump monologue running in your head.

Nope, never going back there again.

There are a few people who, if I find myself in disagreement with their position, make me rethink my assumptions. Congratulations on getting on that list. It may not mean I agree completely, but I have to reexamine why I believe what I do. That allows me to understand better, not just parrot what someone else says.

Not a bad place to be, and it would probably do the world good if everyone realized they aren't the awesome being they've built up in their minds.

Ozymandias said...

Personally, I'd love to see someone pick WPM apart with exactly the same questions you've posed, if only to see what kind of dungeons would come from it. A friction-less room? Can you explain the physics involved? What kind of magic sustains the place? What are the side effects and how have they shaped the nearby countryside? Seriously, each of these rooms could easily fuel an entire adventure site if you just put a little thought into it.

As an aside, is it just me, or is it fiendishly difficult to register for the Dragonsfoot website?

Jeremiah Scott said...

I've never once played a module. Even as a child I believed they deprived the game of half its fun. At least half the fun of the game is making the game, no? I was flabbergasted when Alexis announced he was building a module. Everyone else was heaping apologetic praise and I considered for a moment doing the same. As I started typing the words, however, I realized I was being a lemming. Alexis selling a module? It didn't sit well with me and, honestly, still doesn't. It seems contrary to the ethos of this blog that I enjoy so much.

That said, I still plan on donating to the cause--and more than the minimum, if my wife agrees to let me. And I'll peruse this module Alexis has made. I'm sure I'll be impressed by it. I'm certain it will inform my future world building to some degree. But play it step-by-step? (This, assuming it is structured like a conventional module which, knowing Alexis, may not be the case at all.) Nah.

Despite my utter lack of empathy for the "as long as everyone's having fun crowd," I really enjoyed reading the linked message board. I laughed out loud at the vitriol directed toward Alexis, which was quickly followed by kindness and conciliation the moment Alexis popped up in the thread. That's one thing I've come to expect from Alexis--consistency. It doesn't matter who the audience is, he is consistent and he stands by his principles. Perhaps that's why the upcoming module has me so baffled. I wish I could ask for my donation to come with a collection of short D&D "war stories" instead. I'd get a kick out of that.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Amen, Jeremiah.

The facts are, I'm ashamed. I'd made the adventure for my players and it was my intention to portray the module step by step all the way through, as I started to do with the series of posts that ended here.

Then I got a threatening letter from my credit card company.

We sat staring at it, evaluating our options, talking to our daughter and friends; and the subject came up, well, you have that module, right? And you're working on that book, right? Have you thought about, you know, doing what every other artist in the universe is doing right now? Have you thought about crowd-funding?

So . . . I sat down and tidied up the adventure that was designed for me and my players. Then I sat down and wrote up all the details that I would normally keep in my head for the campaign; then I rewrote those details out so that anyone could make sense of them. My people went and investigated into things and we built a proposal and tidied that up. I worked throughout the week and wrote it up and put it forward on Superbowl Sunday - and then remembered that it was Superbowl Sunday. I had completely forgotten.

So there it is. My shame. My module. I apologize. I have tried to make it every bit as good an adventure for others as it would be in my hands; my players haven't even read it and that's hard for them, knowing they can have it right now for a price. But everything you say is true, Jeremiah. It is absolutely contrary to the ethos that is this blog.

Unfortunately, I'm being pushed into making it my livelihood for a while. And having broken my cherry and become a whore, I'm afraid it's probable that I'm going to continue as a streetwalker for some time. So it goes. I'm out of options.

I am sorry.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I love response with a good whore analogy. LOL.

Here is not my place to share my personal life, but in the interest of commiseration I'll say I feel your pain. I started my own business a little more than a year ago, building an intelligent sleep mask. Then eight months ago, I had a daughter (our first)--just two weeks before I graduated (albeit, a decade late) from engineering school.

In the time since then, I've racked up $10,000 in medical debt owing to my daughter's blocked kidney that required surgery, I've sold almost everything I own that isn't bolted to the ground just to pay my bills, I've maxed out my credit, I've borrowed from friends and family, and my marriage has been wrecked nearly beyond repair. During this time, I've been able to take just two paychecks from my business--though it's a 60 hour a week job. My wife was out of work after the baby was born and has only returned part time.

Now I've been forced to take a job I HATE just to make ends meet. I've run out of things to sell and my wife resents me enough already. On top of my survival job, I'm still putting in the work for my startup in the hope it will lift me out of my current state. Without a doubt, this has been the darkest chapter of my life (and, paradoxically, also the happiest--because of my daughter).

So you have my unbridled empathy for journeying through dire straits. It's not always pretty what we do in these situations, but I hope we both see brighter days on the other side.

Mujadaddy said...

I tried to write something about the WPM post, and ultimately felt that what I had written didn't contribute anything substantial. (I don't like the way the artist presents the material; I want to like drawings of old modules, but they are not presented in these drawings in an appealing way. The drawing does not make me want to explore WPM: it reveals the railroad & illogic.)

I always find it more interesting to attempt to reassemble, in part, the idols you smash than to echo my agreement.

Schick later admitted that it was gratifying to have his adventure published as-is, "but also a little embarrassing, since the adventure was really just a sampler of clever ideas that were never fully fleshed out. Its central conceit, a 'funhouse' dungeon full of tricky obstacles designed to challenge adventurers for the amusement of a mad wizard, was already a cliché even at that date." (WOTC site interview, 2013)

I had to look up WPM. There it is on Wikipedia, confirmation from the author himself. Modules are bad. Some people can't see why. So what?

You called the source of WPM "the land of games-ought-to-be-fun"... Shouldn't they? People can value more than one thing, and sometimes a long, carefully crafted campaign isn't the only medicine.

I think that logic and common sense are valuable tools for gamers. I don't want to run and absolutely do not want to play in a cartoon.

But...gaming is improvisation, not science. Many of us game for a sense of wonder, excitement, possibility beyond our everyday experience. We enjoy a hobby where "Because a wizard did it" is right there on the tin.

The author of WPM knew it was a silly mess. It's a relic, and historically baroque to boot. So what?

I would rather ten thousand people run through shitty white plume mountain than the alternative: no one picks up the hobby at all.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There are lots of ways to turn that last statement of yours around, Mujadaddy; but I think I see where you're going.

I've made this analogy before. A play should be fun for the audience; if it is fun for the writer, the director and the actors, then it is bound to be crap. I've been in plays where everyone in the back house was having great fun. No one worked, no sacrifice was made in manufacturing the product and the audience NOTICED. Some participants blamed that on the audience, as if to say, "We had fun making the play - they should have had fun watching it."

These people do not last in that business.

So yes, games should be fun. My proposal adventure should be fun. It wasn't fun for ME, however, because I'm far too worried about living up to an expectation of value and respect. I'm struggling with the pit in my stomach that says it's going to disappoint people and expose me as a fraud and a blowhard. None of that is 'fun' - it's angst and unreason and, as Schick put it, embarrassing.

I don't enjoy this hobby because a wizard did it; I enjoy it because people do it and they goddamn care. Because they're willing to goddamn suffer if that's what it takes to make this thing better. When I read Schick's words, I don't hear that he was a bit bemused that he was published; I see someone who felt so little concern for his own product that he LET people see it when it looked liked that.

Gawd. I'd rather live on the street.

Mujadaddy said...

Yeah, I always have to craft these sentences carefully for you.

I could discuss the particulars of Schick; I'd approach from the perspective that the gatekeepers at TSR had comically low standards (WPM was his resume!!!). Low-hanging fruit.

I think your analogy is very instructive: if the players are in the audience, they are less likely to have fun. If the players are on the stage, and there is no analogy for the audience, they can have a grand time. (We can easily extend this: if you can see the DM tramping across the stage, this will break verisimilitude; "Get off the stage, Jony Ive!")

Between games I have two weeks of intense concern that my adventure won't be good enough, that they'll see the whole thing is a facade, that they'll be disappointed and it will be my fault. No, that isn't fun: that is work. Between the adventures, a lot of work occurs.

I'm not giving Schick much credit, or saying that he produced something that I'm interested in running. Maybe with our decades of experience in the hobby it's easy to identify crap. (Maybe some people were demanding enough to call WPM crap in 1979, but evidence shows that only Schick thought so, and he kept it to himself for 34 years. That is whoredom.)

I haven't been run through a module (or vice versa) since before 2nd Edition D&D. But I have read a whole bunch of them. I use them in the same way I use your blog. Ideas. Inspiration. "I like this, but not that." By the time one of these inspirations arises at the table, it's gone through a hundred iterations to integrate seamlessly into what I am trying to do.

Maybe WPM has zero repurposeability and zero ideas to contribute. But just maybe its failure to inspire can itself serve as a guideline: How Not To Run.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"By the time one of these inspirations arises at the table, it's gone through a hundred iterations to integrate seamlessly into what I am trying to do."

As long as people get their money's worth.

Something that I am relying upon is that the module I've put forward isn't a paper book. It is a program file, with tables, chairs, walls, sacks, boxes, crates, trunks, bones, top-down character images, chests, barrels, bunk beds and beds, ballista, walls, floors and doorways that can be moved around and used as building blocks in publisher for the convenience of the DM - which can then be upgraded by still more images from the internet turned out by companies of every kind. More than a module, I'm promoting an ideal - supposing that I can keep a little bit ahead of the buyer who is just as free as me to try their hand at drawing an alligator, a yellow musk zombie or an orc.

It's way, way more than just a module.

Sorry, I fell into soliciting mode there. Wanna party?

Matthias said...

Hey Alexis,

I've been lurking for some time, and enjoying your writing, and your ideas, quite a lot. But this unctuous bit really had me laughing merrily:

Until finally all the people who embraced the thought as young, impressionable souls reach an age where their views are irrelevant and Carl Jung is relegated to the archive of history and film begins to feature sex and violence and space is proved to be a vacuum and the neo-conservative movement produces a Donald Trump. Bad ideas that won't die because people fall in love with them to the exclusion of reason, innovation, evidence and the exhaustion of consumers who are numb from finding only the same shit modules for sale, year after year.

Your superposition of Jungian psychoanalysis, trickle-down neo-liberal economics, and gaming fashions just sounded so right. So I've just hit that donate button, expecting quite frankly nothing in return. Or, rather, expecting that you can keep writing for this blog... or writing tout court.

I hope I could do this more often, supporting creative people -- such as yourself -- that I have so enjoyed reading and from whom I have learned so much. Alas, scarcity is around for all of us. I hope you meet your crowd-funding goals and, more generally, I hope you can keep doing what you enjoy, and sharing it with us all.

Mujadaddy said...

the module I've put forward isn't (just)a paper book. It is a program file with...

Yknow, I don't think that this is clear: I hadn't caught that until reading it here. You may want to emphasize this fact in the Rewards list.

Jason Raabis said...

A little late into this post, as I just discovered this blog. I ran WPM back in probably 1989 or 90. By my standards today, I wouldn't give this adventure a second look as the mash up of nonsensical elements is just not my cup of tea. At the time, however, little seemed available and I didn't have the skills to write out my own adventures from scratch. That said, the players overlooked the faults and we made a go of it. I'm glad the writing quality that can be found out there today is such that I can keep WPM firmly in the memory of days gone by.