Saturday, December 15, 2018

Naga (as requested)

This would be the third monster that was requested for me to expand.  I have to explain first that I've never incorporated a naga into any campaign in almost 40 years of game play.  That's because while I have liked the naga in concept, I always hated the picture in the old Monster Manual and the actual description is both lacking and profoundly both over-powered and under-powered at the same time.  There is so little meat on the bones of the naga in the books, and is evidence of so little actual research done into this creature which is very definitely not western in conception, that I never felt assured about throwing them at a party.  So, for decades, I've added them to lists, kept them around, thinking one day I'd rework them.  Well, the day has come.

The following is based on both Hindu and Buddhist legend, while taking the position that both are right about some things and wrong about others.  If I had players that adventured in Burma or eastern India, I would very definitely have them meet one of these ... most likely not as a combatant, but as an ally.  Of course, that would depend on whether or not the party pissed one off.

Naga

Naga in Takshaka form
These semi-divine beings are known best on the Indian Subcontinent and throughtout the Far East of tropical Asia, from the Brahmaputra valley to the Banda Islands. Inconsistent myths exist in both the Hindi and Buddhist traditions, naga were more common in the millennia before the incarnation of Krishna. Early in the time of Hammurabi, the creator deity Brahma banished the naga to the nether regions of Pandemonium, commanding these snake creatures to bite only the truly evil or else perish. Since that time, naga have reappeared among upon the Prime Material Plane, often serving as advisors, itinerant holy persons and ~ particularly in the case of female nagas ~ as consorts who rule lands through a puppet king. This is possible because of the naga's natural shape-shifting ability.

The naga will appear in three forms, none of which should be considered their "natural" or true form (for additional discussion of the naga's powers, see Advantages, below.

Vasuki ~ a large, rearing cobra snake, up to 9 ft. tall with a body 18 ft. long. Much thicker and heavier than a cobra, it weighs between 650 and 700 lbs. In Vasuki form the naga is able to snap at enemies with its huge cobra head with terrifying speed. This is the most dangerous form of naga.

Takshaka ~ possessing humanoid upper-bodies with a large cobra head and a curling tail that supports the creature's swaying body and allows rapid movement in any direction. In this form, the naga is 7 ft. tall, weights about 325 lbs. and is able to wield weapons and command other snakes.

Shesha ~ with human appearance and anatomies, immune from detection spells of less than 5th level, such as penetrate disguise.

These three forms, Vasuki, Takshaka and Shesha, derive their descriptions from three great nagas that were birthed at the time of creation.

Though most often naga will display goodwill towards earthly creatures, they are prone to act impetuously or forcefully. Many naga, though not all, are vindictive, murderous and zealously ambitious. Naga may exist as Shesha for decades without any witness being the wiser.

Advantages

The naga is able to shapechange at will from one form to another, though it will transform into a Vasuki form only during rituals or if it means to kill its opponent without mercy. It is more likely in combat to transform into its Takshaka form; if winning the battle, it is more likely to offer quarter than to kill its opponent. If the naga is found in its Shesha form, it will avoid combat to the best of its ability, until circumstances force it to act otherwise.

In any form, some nagas that have trained in spellcasting are able to rise to the 6th level as clerics, illusionists or mages. For these naga, spells are performed as any other caster. Nagas usually choose non-threatening spells, often chosen to bring aid to those who suffer. The naga may cast spells while in any form. Most nagas do not possess spells.

Nagas also possess abilities that are available in its other forms.

While in Vasuki form, during which time they are deadly poisonous. The naga receives a +4 bonus to initiative and if it hits, it will release enough poison into a victim to cause 10 damage per round for nine rounds (1-10 damage per round if a save is made). The poison type is quietus. If the naga rolls a natural 20 during this attack, it will swallow any opponent up to half its weight (max. 325 lbs), causing an additional 2-12 damage as the victim's body is twisted into the naga's throat.

While in Takshaka form, the naga will receive two attacks per round with weapon and will be proficient in up to six different weapons. Preferred weapons are the ankus, khatvanga (club with skull), tulwar, gada (mace), kukri (thrown long dagger) and bow. While in this form, the naga cannot be attacked by reptiles of any form and will be able to command snakes at will. If encountered in this form away from humans, most likely it will have 2-5 cobras in attendance.

Contrary to myth, nagas do not spit, cannot constrict opponents and cannot charm their opponents, except with spells. Nagas do swim very well, however, while in Vasuki or Takshaka form.


And So Say All of Us

"My city is a sea city, always full of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Persians. My family’s sect was the Pah-nami. Hindu of course. But in our temple the priest used to read from the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Gita, moving from one to the other as if it mattered not which was being read, as long as god was being worshipped."
from the film Ghandi, 1982


There was a time in America, Canada and other places of the world where a Catholic priest and a Protestant reverend could meet in the afternoon at a tavern and discuss the holy writ of the Bible with a Jewish rabbi, with none of the three being in full agreement with the other but all three fully respecting one another's beliefs, accomplishments, responsibilities and efforts in bringing aid to a community that relied upon their guidance.  While interpretation mattered, none were prepared to judge or condemn the other, since the greater struggle was not what god wanted, but how to enable the parish, the congregation and the synogogue to overcome the constant misery of domestic abuse, crime, poverty and ignorance that plagued all three of those institutions.

Of course, today, we have other religious institutions who encourage misery and fear, who are less interested in curing the world's troubles than putting them on a placard to scare the shit out of the weak and the desperate, as a way to fill their pockets.  In the last scrabbling throes of the dying religious institution, steadily being eroded away by science and technology, the evangelicals and fear-mongering moralists care only about how much coin they can glean from the fields before they're caught.  Religious is a convenience, a cherry-picked rod of correction and a balm, where ninety-nine percent of the holy word is ignored in favor of those choice phrases that are bound to squeeze the flock for another buck when the plate rolls around.

Naturally, in an atmosphere like that, other religions are a natural enemy, a great fear-worshipping flag to be unfolded when the time is right for the sheep to be fleeced.  It is no wonder that religions look like dogs snapping at each others' throats, when that is the best image to be shared on Twitter and Facebook to get paying customers in the pews.

I received an extremely good question from Rec that I'd like to address:

"I've always been super interested in your posts regarding religion/faith, but here's a specific question:  How do different sects of Christianity (or any religion), e.g. Catholicism and Protestantism, reconcile the fact that the other guy also gets miracles/divine aid?"

Inherent in the question is our recognition that if we're Protestant, we don't like the other guy.  One of the things that brings us a great deal of comfort is knowing that Our God is a great guy, but that the other guy's "god" is a big pile of bullshit.  People who believe in god (I don't) have no trouble reconciling this completely baffling conclusion, because in reality, they don't really give a damn about their god.  They just don't like the other guy.

It is a pervasive misconception, pervasive because it is fed to us on the daily by people who have an agenda that makes our eating this shit of particular benefit for them, that hatred between religious groups has to do with what we each believe or what god we imagine exists.  Yet we should notice, when the groups we don't like DO worship the same god, in the same edifices, with the same words, arguing the same sentiments and religious logic, the hatred doesn't go away.  White baptists in the American south hate black baptists.  They hate 'em.  Not because they worship god "wrong."  No.  Because they're black.

Remember what the white supremacists at Charlottesville were chanting?  It wasn't a theological argument.  Theology, god, who believes what, none of that is actually important.  Those things are just occasionally used as crutches to defend hatred that is fundamentally indefensible.

If it were true that gods really existed ... that there was a real Christian god, and that he passed out spells to both the catholics and the protestants alike, one side would scream that "we get spells because we're honest" and that "they get spells from satan."  It wouldn't matter where the spells actually came from.  All that mattered would be where we said they were from.

And if the other side said, "We get our spells from god, just like you do," the one side would say, "You're lying."  And there we are again.  We hate you.  We don't want to be like you.  So we see this our way, and god be damned.

If Jesus Christ appeared for real and redrew the congressional districts for Georgia, then magically transformed every bible in the world so that the definition of those districts appeared in the Second Book of Judges, we wouldn't have to wait a day before some "christian" began finding a way to fuck with those districts again.  I have no idea why this isn't obvious to everyone in the world, but it ought to be.

My game world takes place in 1650 ... two years after the The Years War, which is THE war where it comes to killing the other guy on masse over the principles of religion.  In every way imaginable it is a free-for-all of butchering your next door neighbor that your family of 400 years has been putting up with their family of 400 years.  It is the Montagues and the Capulets to the 24th power ... millions were killed, Europe was burned to the ground and when it was finally put to an end, the result was ... nothing.

No religion was eradicated.  No fundamental belief was changed.  No religious institution changed their service and no side embraced the other like a brother.  But ... continental Europe mostly decided that maybe it would be a good idea if we stopped killing each other.

England continued to go at it for another century, mostly because the English, the Scots and the Irish really, really hate each other.  The Irish kept on, not calling it quits until 20 years ago.  Brexit is threatening to give them a reason to start again.  But understand: the religion was incidental.  The fight was about "They're not us" ... which, incidentally, is still the argument for why people voted for Brexit.

This is the long way around the barn to explain that the other guy justifies miracles/divine aid by calling it evil curses and a plague brought upon us by demons.  We, us, the good guys, we get miracles ... because we're the only ones who are entitled to get them.  And so say all of us.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Bone Throwing (occult practice)

Pandred, a reader and former player in the online Juvenis campaign (hoping for a return) asked that I work on the Occult study, a specialty of mages and illusionists. I've done some work on the initial page, which in turn links to this content:

Bone Throwing

A form of occultism by which wild magic is comprehended through the casting of bones or various objects. For players with little experience in this practice but with sufficient knowledge in the occult, the bones are typically represented by dice. A more dedicated player may, if wished, employ a more authentic collection of throwing bones ~ though players should be warned that the actual practice of bone throwing is not to be taken lightly. For the role-playing dilettante, a simple set of dice are recommended.

The player is asked to obtain six unique six-sided dice without numbers, called story cubes or story dice. Desirably these dice would contain images that were appropriate for the time period. of the role-playing game (nothing anachronistic). Every image on every die should be unique, a total of 36 images. To this should be added an ordinary six-sided die, preferably with pips and not numbers. It is important to understand that none of these seven dice should be thrown for any purpose other than rolling bones.

Of the six picture dice, one should be designated as “the self,” the die that specifically defines your game character. Obviously, the die should be chosen with this purpose in mind. Each of the other five story dice must also be assigned a meaning. These meanings can be personal, but unless the player has much experience with bone throwing, it is recommended that these five meanings should be health, wealth, relationships, magic and morality (evil vs. good, wrong vs. right).

The numbered die may then be used varyingly, as a 50/50 to designate male or female, few or many, friend or foe, yes or no and so on; or it may be used as a measure of 1 to 6 to describe importance, danger, chance of success and so on.

Much of the reading beyond this is an art form. The player must interpret the throws based on the meanings of the dice, how they fall, where they touch, the distance or lack thereof between the pieces, what falls nearest to the bone thrower and what falls furthest away. The dice must be thrown with two hands and then effectively a story is made from the results. The story must be explained and accepted as reasonable by the witnesses of the bone thrower.




Authentic Sets

If the bone thrower wants to perform a more authentic means of bone throwing, a collection of objects such as small rocks, bits of driftwood, smoothed pieces of glass, crystals, carved wood figures or whatever feels right should be collected. Each item must have a genuine memory of location and meaning for when it was acquired, the emotional state it conveys and a comprehension for how the object falls, else a reading is not practical.
For instance, if a bit of petrified wood is included in your collection, that you gained as a child when on a journey to Arizona with your family, the wood will have a distinct shape and ways in which it will come to rest: “facing” away from you, towards you, laying on its back, pointing at another object, pointing at nothing, etcetera, as you interpret it. In this aspect it is your mother, in that your father; its relationships to other things are memories, conflicts, unresolved issues and so on. Bone reading can be extraordinarily esoteric and profoundly personal.

Ten or fifteen “bones” with these connections can make for an intricate reading, one that would be highly difficult for the non-bone thrower to see, since the pieces would be familiar to the reader alone. Still, as long as the lay of the bones can be defended by the player, this form of authentic bone throwing can be accepted into the game.

Resolution

As ever, the reading made by the bone thrower causes events to come into being; an ill omen occurs, an expected relationship creates a compatible non-player character, enemies or friends turn up to threaten or sustain the party, while events spontaneously occur in keeping with the reading. This can be a difficult process for the DM, who must be as flexible as the readings themselves.

Some players will attempt to manipulate the results by interpreting every reading as “good luck” or some promise of benefit or success. The DM must be cautious, designating certain pictures or patterns as clearly bad, whatever the player may say. For example, if the die symbolic of the self lands far from any other die in the throw, the player should not be encouraged to see that as “proof” of anything except the obvious meaning that the character does not benefit from the span of distance. Likewise, if the character’s self die lands close to wealth, but far from health, that too speaks to a particular kind of interpretation. Beware of players who will try to massage the interpretation as a means of controlling the results.

For this reason, bone throwing can be particularly troublesome as an occultist knowledge. Remember that it is often to the game’s benefit that the results be good; it does not mean that benefits will simply fall into the player’s lap. The DM is still entitled to create obstacles and require risks, though an occultist will have some warning of those risks.

Post Script,

I'll add a few words that are not on the wiki. Obviously, I don't believe in bone throwing or reading ... however, the practice has been around for centuries and has its interesting angles, just as all religion does. I feel the value of the practice here in the game is that it gives the player a different means of influencing their environment, adding dimension to the game and opportunities for insight. I have no doubts that it would be tricky to DM ... this more than the other practices I've proposed, because much of this is very subjective. But it is still group story telling; the other players should be encouraged to give their own take on the thrown bones, whether dice or objects, as this adds a puzzle-solving dimension where there is no definite "answer" ~ only an interpretive innovation that encourages thinking and discussion. I always appreciate these things.

For the lazy player, however, one that does not wish to invest in the dice or hazard the difficulty of getting a result that isn't clearly written out, I would recommend not taking the occult as a study and viewing the slow accumulation of occult points as a sideline of going up levels as mere trivial interest. There's nothing in the above that says the players must roll bones; the choice is left entirely in the players hands. No rule exists that says a player who knows how to throw bones must employ that skill. The best rules are those that do not require participation.

See also Astrology.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Trolls (per request)

A species of mutant humanoid whose origin has puzzled scholars for a millennia. While often confused as a form of giant, ogre or corrupted demi-being, trolls have no biological link to any of these. Because of the troll’s regenerative ability, post-mortem examinations of the monster are extremely difficult, requiring a complex method of magical stasis and tools. As such, troll studies lag far behind research into other monsters.

The noted theoretical magician Albertus Magnus of the 13th century posited that these creatures were hylomorphic in construction, compounded of human-like material and wooden matter. He believed that the presence of trolls in virtually every part of the old world confirmed that their origin most likely dates from the Hyborean Age, some 40 to 60 thousand years ago. The troll’s regenerative properties are related to an unnatural magical growth related to the troll’s fibrous tissue. It is believed that some trolls are lived as long as six to seven thousand years. It is not known if or how trolls breed. It has been suggested that the hylomorphic transformation of wood and flesh occurs spontaneously.

The myth that trolls "turn to stone" when confronted by the sun seems to have arisen from the last century's wide-scale efforts to eradicate trolls from civilized Europe. The description is metaphorical, in that trolls caught outside during the day would remain as still as a stone as they waited for patrols to pass them by. This was imagined as the reason why efforts to kill every last troll seemed to leave survivors, regardless of the effort taken. There is plenty of evidence that trolls are destructive during daylight hours.

Despite their size, trolls are emaciated creatures with little flesh on their bones, so that in build they are approximately half as robust as a human. They stand on the toes and balls of their feet, so that they are lithe and quick when they attack. Their hide is very tough, colored a moss green and is typically marked throughout with patches of dull brown. An oily substance supporates from knobby boils on the troll's body. A thin, straggling patch of hair drapes from the troll's head; as trolls age past four or five hundred years, this begins to turn grey.

Advantages

In addition to possessing infravision, trolls possess a strength of 18/60, allowing them +2 to hit and +3 damage. Trolls may occasionally use clubs as weapons, causing 2-7 damage on a hit (5-10 with strength) in place of a claw attack; if so, the troll will continue to attack three times due to its unusual balance (with claw, weapon and bite).

Most dangerous, however, is the creature's ability to regenerate. This is done at a rate of 3 hp per round and requires no effort or rest. To render a troll motionless, the creature must be reduced to -4 hit points ... and even though "dead," the troll will still revive if regeneration restores it to -3 hit points or more. More damage may be heaped upon the troll, but the body cannot be reduced to less than -10 points with normal weapons. To end the troll's regeneration ability, the troll must be burnt or reduced with acid ... however, a lit flask of oil will only burn for three rounds, whereas vials of acid will cause only 2-8 damage each (potentially reducing the troll deep into the negatives, but the creature's regeneration will eventually restore the creature). The only sure way is to immerse the troll in acid or to create a sustained fire that will burn continuously until the troll is reduced completely to ash, a period of about an hour (a troll burns much like dense, damp wood).

If dismembered, each part of the troll will continue to move and attack, though ineffectually unless approached and causing only 1-3 damage if not part of the body. However, the parts will seek one another to rebuild the troll, eventually creating enough of the troll's shape to begin fighting effectively again. A leg or a hand may regrow an entire troll ... though for reasons that are not clear, multiple trolls will not arise from the body parts of one troll; rather, the essence of the original troll seems to inhabit a favored part, which will call other parts to it or, if forced, abandon the other parts to recreate itself. These abandoned parts will become inert and will not form into a troll.

See Bestiary

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

20th Class: Application

With our last class, we finished by talking about the repetition.  Briefly, let's look at the arrangement of scripts as they occur in typical game session.

Most commonly, game-play begins with a script where an authority or better informed entity gives the players the adventure, either extorting the players or bribing them with promised treasure or moral responsibility.  This is followed by a script where the players purchase gear; sometimes this includes a script where the players bargain with a storeowner.  The next script will be journeying to find the location of the adventure, then a script where the players enter a dungeon or other edifice.  Scripts follow relating to battling monsters, solving puzzles and overcoming difficult obstacles.  This continues until all the scripts for the adventure are completed, whereupon the players return home and receive their rewards and potentially their next adventure.

Take note of the linear arrangement of these scripts.  Each follows in order ~ and for the most part, the players are in control of that order.  Occasionally the DM will interrupt the players with a traditional story twist, such as a surprise attack, a turncoat or an item that serves as a gotcha!  Even then, these scripts are timed by the DM to occur at certain points the players reach when moving through the linear story ~ so in effect the players, by agreeing to move ahead, unlock these scripts as they go.

The expectation that forward movement unlocks scripts is understood and accepted as a fact of gameplay.  However, as the linear quality of unlocking scripts becomes first recognizable, then predictable, the excitement of unlocking a script wanes.  Because of this, we want to understand why some scripts continue to possess fascination despite repetition, while others grow wearisome almost immediately.

Let's compare again the experience of going to a restaurant with the experience of commuting to work.  Clearly, the restaurant experience remains a pleasant activity for decades, while commuting loses its appeal almost immediately.  The differences are obvious, yes; but let's try to identify those differences so that we can see more plainly how the different scripts affect our engagement.

When dining, we expect to enter a pleasant, warm, eye-catching environment, one that is clean, peaceful, unhurried and attended by people who seem to care about our presence, even if they don't.  We are given a selection of foods; the food itself is designed to produce a pleasant response; we are amused by the company that comes along with us, by the newness of the restaurant if we haven't been here before, or often, and the knowledge that if something isn't to our liking, we can complain and expect to be heard.  The overall experience encourages us to indulge ourselves and feel pampered; and for that, we're willing to part with a significant amount of money.

Of course, some restaurant experiences are less pleasant, but there the benefit is that we are eating to save ourselves time, the food and surroundings are less appetizing but, in turn, it costs less.

Commuting, on the other hand, is not optional.  We must go to work. We may control the atmosphere of our vehicle, but we do not control the environment as we get to work and we know no other driver cares about us.  Commuting can be tedious, confrontational, occasionally dangerous (as we are reminded when we pass accidents) and is a method by which we spend money so we can go to a place to make money.  We cannot change our route except at the expense of time and money, so we don't.  If we are not alone, we are imprisoned with others in a poor mood.  In general, no one is made happier on the journey as the workplace is neared.  There is no reward for commuting except that we count it as the first part of our day being done.

Some experience a better commute; some ride transit rather than drive, saving money and putting up with strangers in order to reduce the pressure of having to concentrate on the road.

Very well, what key differences vastly improve the dining experience?  Choice to start, closely followed by company and the knowledge that your wants and concerns matter.  The company ensures a positive, associative conversation that might freely go anywhere, without the encroachment of anxieties or upcoming responsibilities.  Let's draw the line there.

Within any of the scripts played during the course of an adventure (and we may choose to see the whole adventure as a large single script if we wish), there are elements of choice, company, attention for the wants and concerns of the participants, opportunities for pleasant conversation and the relief of anxieties.  There are also conditions that make parts of the game tedious, that can make a given part of the adventure an unpleasant slog, the feel that time is being spent without much return and moments when we are trapped with others in a poor mood because of how the game has gone for them (or their attitude in it).  These are mixed together and, unless managed, pleasant, positive aspects of the game will be distorted and undermined by negative, unpleasant elements.

Nothing is here by accident.  Considerable thought has
gone into every element.
It isn't enough to build a setting or hold a session.  Like managing any space or experience, the players have to be settled in their places and addressed with concern, adjusting their focus deliberately and patiently, not suddenly commanding their attention and creating unwanted resistance.  The first moments of the session have to be presented with the attention of a server, asking the diners what they want for dinner.  The players must be given time to shake off their everyday lives; then we can read them the menu.

We don't make a setting based on whatever works or what's recognizable any more than a restaurant serves "food" that's "cooked."  Specific ideas are chosen, enormous effort is taken to identify every single nuance of the process, including the DM's presentation, the surroundings, the method by which the fare is delivered to the participants and an honest and sincere concern if the players "like it."  To ensure the best possible experience, we return again to our preparations.  Have we researched this?  Do we know what we're talking about as we describe a castle, an underground vault, soldiers readying to fight the party, the likely presence of magic and so on.  Are we just throwing shit in a bowl and calling it a meal, or have we legitimately invested ourselves into creating this sumptuous ten course meal with consideration and effort?  Have we planned more than just what we expect the players to do?  Do we have a plan B?  Or have we only one food on the menu?

Have you pulled every resource available?  Because if you haven't strained yourself, gone all out to create this experience, re-examined the various elements to predict the player's responses, you're not ready.  Talk about the adventure with a third party, someone who won't be playing and get their take.  Then change your approach to fit this new knowledge.  Find a degree of flexibility you haven't had.  This isn't your experience, it is theirs.  Don't presume that because you like it, they will like it.  You'll never get a meaningful experience off the ground that way; you'll be closed in a week.

Are you practiced?  Do you know what you're doing?  You need to be confident that the players are properly prepped and ready themselves, before this thing gets started.

It isn't enough to say these things.  Proper script-making expects that we should be versed in what's being presented and how each tiny element of that presentation matters in the overall scheme.  To elucidate on this, let's look again at the linear group of scripts we quoted at the start of this class:

Start game-play by selecting an authority whose presence adds more than the adventure's initiation; create in the authority some motivation that: a) is neither pure benevolence or villainy, but seems completely believable given the authority's position in the setting; b) assign persons of interest to the authority ~ family, friends, employers, enemies ~ whose presence will later become important in the whole campaign and may temper events happening in the immediate future.  Encourage the players to find their own personal reasons why they should be interested in the adventure, asking directly why they would enter into any adventure and how they would hope to be compensated, without deciding these things for them.

Create an environment in which the players can equip themselves, which determines what is available for purchase, why it is available, where it originates, why it is here, how does the seller justify these prices and how the seller may wish to influence the players in order to make them better customers and not resentful.  Create gear that will empower the players without overpowering them.

Create a journey to the adventure that is not a line on a map, but rather a physical and emotional experience, with NPCs, informers, enemies, shared information, hints, warnings, kindnesses and new friends that will inform the players about the setting by making them more familiar with that setting.  Give opportunties, and time, for players to investigate side quests without requiring them to do so.  Concentrate on describing these side quests as a future catalog for player interest rather than actively planning these quests out from start to finish.  Players will remember these places and will return willingly to what interests them without being asked.

Give more history to the place of the adventure than it's convenience as a place of adventure.  Space the history or detail out, so that the players collect clues as they go.  The history should have absolutely nothing to do with the actual adventure, but rather act as a mental side-quest, one that has completely escaped the present denizens.  Envisage this additional bonus knowledge as a means of creating interest in another adventure or as a means of maintaining the players' curiousity as clues arise.

More than creating a collection of monsters that differ by species alone, assign purpose to the monsters as well.  With intelligent monsters, assign specific motivations within the setting that these monsters would possess if the players were not present.  Determine what this place is like when it is not being attacked by players and then use means to pass this information to the players, so they can identify plainly how their presence is doing more than merely clearing rooms ... they are actively sabotaging active lives that were lived for a reason.  This level of detail will better measure the impact of the party's actions, creating further sources of knowledge, interest, curiousity and moments of clarity.  Where possible, the monsters' purposes can be vague, even strange or weird ... only to fall into place when more information is gather.  This creates a problem-solving feature to the adventure that increases the players' attention.

With the completion of the adventure, then, we will have learned about the place of adventure, we will have a better conception of the setting, we will have additional quests the players can research, the originating authority will be more human and therefore more accessible and the players will begin to motivate themselves towards actions, rather than being told what to do.

In creating any application, we want to do more than have the application perform a given function.  We want that function to create a behaviour in the user that serves our needs as designers.  This is the symbiotic relationship we want ~ therefore, we have to give that function additional levels of interest if we want to arouse the user's investment.

There will be one more lab in the course, then we'll turn our attention to creating rupture in the course of game play, afterwards discussing how to use that rupture to encourage players to build better characters.

Juvenis Poked

Because I said so in a comment, I believe that proposal was missed ... so I will make a small note here.

I am willing to begin running the online campaign again, under the following conditions.  First, I cannot run continuously on any given day, at least not for more than a short time and virtually always at random, until my circumstances change from what they are.  This will mean that we are making progress very slowly ... but it will at least be progress.

The last scene, moments before the
combat ended.
To do it, I will be checking the campaign regularly, no less than once a day and probably at least three times a day.  If you're willing to play at this speed, I would ask that you still check the comments at least once a day and subscribe to any new posts.  I expect players will be sporadic, so if you don't show up to make a comment when it's called for, I will progress the campaign at least a little bit every day without you.  That will be particularly nasty during a combat.  Something to keep in mind.

The start up will probably be a bit slow.  We could conceivably start today ~ but I do have some Christmas chores and other things, and I wanted to write my 20th class before going to bed.  So don't expect a heap-load of responses right off.  There's no hurry anyway.

Remember that I am totally disconnected for 10.5 hours every day that I work; this week, that's Thur/Fri.  I have Saturday off.

Carte du Multivers

I found this on Ozymandias' Crossing the 'Verse blog.  I like it a lot.


The detail is marvelous, the images are suggestive of how a map might be contrived from the image ... and best of all, there is a real sense of how one journeys from one plane to the next.  The astral conduits set my mind going, where as the transition between Prime Material and the Ethereal planes is coincidentally something I've had in mind for years, reaching back into the early 2000s.

Some of it strongly reconciles with Robert A. Heinlein's Number of the Beast, which is probably one of his more obscure books nowadays but which was in the '80s very well known.  Sometimes, being old, I feel like a crusty old bastard who remembers the Indian Wars of the 1870s talking to a bunch of doughboys who have just got back from the trenches in France.  It must sound strange for you young 'uns who don't remember anything before 9/11.  Anyway, the Number of the Beast posits a dimensional travel that proposes all the many universes fits onto six axes ~ and that the axes compound three dimensionally:
 

 ~ the number of the Beast.  This, Heinlein posits, enables real access to even fictional universes.  Heinlein then takes his characters Deety, Zeb, Jacob and Hilda, with their intelligent air car Gay Deceiver on a journey to places like Oz and Barsoom, as well as eventually meeting the authors Heinlein and Isaac Asimov at a party.  As Asimov was alive when the book was written in 1980 and the pair were good friends, I'm sure they had a laugh about it.

The map is of French origin, which is probably why it is done so well.  I'd love a more detailed labeled version ~ and might feel compelled to create one, if there was time to run this many games for this many settings.

Have you seen the very, very terrible film, What Dreams may Come?  Give me the power to create a universe like Robin Williams' character does in the film and watch the sort of D&D setting I'd create.

Hah.  Did I tell you my other name was Ego the Living Planet?

Here's a link to the map above and some description below.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Facets to Faith

Just time for a quick answer to this proposal from Ozymandias:
"I've adopted a system for clerical magic that involves a die roll. The target is based on the level of prayer or miracle you're trying to call forth; modifiers include class level, a bonus from Wisdom, and one or two others; but the big thing is that using "too many" spells makes it less likely that your next prayer will succeed."

I have a some issues with the idea, though I understand it is trying to impress additional "game" into the system and that can often have good consequences.  I don't want to dwell on these issues, just speak them quickly and move onto a finer point.

First of all, it follows the basic route that got 3e into trouble.  With recent research into scripts, I've realized that even if they work, they are soon very repetitive in structure.  It isn't so much that the character has to roll a die to succeed the spell, its that the die has to be rolled every time ... which a lot of times, becoming too many times and finally ceasing to add anything to the game.  The repetition of a script eventually produces a feeling of "meh" no matter what the roll is for.

Secondly, we're not making mages roll on account of faith, or fighters to see if they can swing at targets on account of faith.  The only reason to add this particular requirement for a cleric from a game stance is because the cleric's power needs a reduction; and I don't see that in the cleric.  The cleric is no an overbalanced character class.  So why add a car-jack to the momentum here?

Finally, I'm not a big fan of fail/succeed (+/-) die rolls, no matter what they're based on.  Combat rolls to hit work as a +/- frame because there are typically five or six rolls in a given round, and anywhere up to a hundred rolls scattered through a 10-round combat.  The +/- works because who fails and when, against whom, creates a random sequence of events, where no one completely fails because hit points soak damage long enough to let the character fail this round yet succeed the next.  The individual +/- rolls are largely inconsequential (except for the very few that aren't).  But a single roll to see if a spell fails or succeeds?  Too consequential to be ignored or compensated for.

Okay, getting that out of the way.

Let me talk for a moment about the post on faith.  Suppose the orc in the example was a player character, and had chosen to take the dwarf's hand.  How would I decide if that broke the cleric character's contract with his god or not?

We may suppose I'd decide one of two options: 1) that taking the dwarf's hand was the right decision, so the cleric's spell attempt succeeded; 2) that taking the dwarf's hand was wrong, that the character should have let go and perhaps trusted his god to save him; thus, the spell attempt fails.

Believing that either of these options is relevant is to misunderstand, in the extreme, how a cleric is judged.  It does not matter which the player character decides. It matters why the player decided that option.

I'll try to explain.  First, we'll rule that no matter what the orc physically does, the orc's god will remain steadfast in the orc's corner and the orc will remain a cleric able to cast spells.  The larger point is this.

Suppose the player says, "I will let go, knowing with absolute faith that my god will save me."  That is incredibly presumptive.  Suddenly, the player has decided that the orc's god is a personal servant, with nothing better to do than run around catching orc clerics as they plummet to earth.  Horseshit.  Orc clerics die all the time.  Perhaps this is the time for this orc cleric to die.  Perhaps that's the plan.  Presuming the plan, with the assumption that the orc cleric is going to get what he wants, that's the sin.  Pride.  Selfish pride.  That orc cleric lets go, that orc is going to hit the ground and die.  I would never, ever, ever, have the god intervene to catch such a selfish prideful cleric.

However ... if the orc cleric's people found the body and raised it, that orc would still be able to cast spells.  Falling 500 feet and hitting the ground is lesson enough.  Probably the orc will question the reliance on god's hands being there to catch him.

Now suppose the player says, "I will take the dwarf's hand, because I don't want to die.  Wow.  There's that pride again.  Total dismissal of the dilemma.  The only thing that matters to this cleric isn't what's right or wrong; the cleric is ready to snap up the first opportunity to live, whatever it takes.  Still, it would matter how totally dismissive the player was, and how obviously willing the cleric was to jump to the most self-serving conclusion ~ and perhaps go on and on about it.  Excessively.  If excessive enough, yeah.  That cleric is losing his spellcasting ability.  At least for a little while, probably until a hurtful sacrifice was made.  Like tossing his favorite +2 mace into the sea.

But suppose the player says, "Well, I'm not supposed to, and I don't feel very good about it, but if I have to stand being infected by a dwarf in order to continue doing my god's work, okay."  The cleric then, reaching the ledge, makes a remark or two about how unpleasant it was, how dirty he feels now.  He considers taking out a vial of unholy water to wash his hands clean.  He remarks that there's probably a penance he should make.  Then he tries to cast a spell.

Of course the spell works.

What matters is not what the cleric does, but the manner in which the cleric does it, how it affects the cleric, how the cleric reconciles it with his or her perspective, what amends are made to the god after the fact and so on.  The less the cleric gives a crap about all that stuff?  The less that cleric deserves to be a cleric.

There is more than faith in a religion.  There is duty too, and charity, and humility.  No one gets a free ride on faith alone.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Infravision (rule)

Because I did some work on the dwarf, I ran up against infravision ... and it reminded me that I have needed to write proper rules about that for a long time. So, some thoughts first.

For a long time, infravision has been a confusing and inconsistently applied rule meant to provide non-human races, particularly those used for character creation, a means of seeing in the dark that humans do not possess.  Coined from infrared, usually a misunderstood form of radiation that includes, but is not limited to, thermal radiation. Because of this relationship, and too many films depicting night vision and “heat-vision,” the clarity of infravision has suffered by this connection. I hope here to settle issues surrounding the ability and better define its use.

Inconsistencies

The first inconsistency is that explaining what infravision is requires the use of terms that would not exist in a fantasy or pre-scientific era culture. The words we’d use – radiation, wavelengths, photons, the visible spectrum, electromagnetism and electromagnetic fields, quanta, radiant energy, oscillations of fields, vibrational excitation and so on, all necessary to explain what infrared light is, are simply anachronistic in the game world and not particularly useful in defining game rules.  Nor is it enough to say, “magic causes it,” since we are left with the problem of “what” is actually caused? What exactly is the radiation that is seen, how does it originate and how do we measure it for game purposes? Without a strong background in hardcore physics, the best option is probably to say that infravision operates like perfectly normal vision, with caveats, and forget trying to measure what infrared light is.

The rules describing infravision quitting at a given distance, say 60 feet, has long been a point of contention. We have examples where human visibility is reduced, by the amount of light, fog or smoke, but as these things diminish at varying rates depending on the amount of light, water vapor or smoke, we don’t have any vision limitations that end specifically at a precise distance. How much is infravision diminished at 20 feet, or 40 feet?  We are left with the question, if there is more infrared radiation, how come this does not increase the visibility range of the ability?  Since the maximum distance named is utterly arbitrary, I say get rid of this maximum and simply say that a creature has infravision or it does not.

Next, we have this rule where “normal light” spoils infravision. This does not make sense. Even without the physics, it is plain knowledge that the infrared spectrum IS a part of normal light; it is the same light, just photons moving in a longer wavelength. We might just as well say that seeing the color magenta spoils our ability to see the color blue. Infravision should mean that the creature’s visible window of light is expanded and wider than the human’s window. This may be hard for us to comprehend with our limitations, but rationally a creature with infravision should be able to see all the wavelengths of visible light within its given range with equal ability.

This means that a creature with infravision, inside a circle of human-normal light, should be fully capable of seeing outside that circle without any effect on the creatures ability to see the infrared spectrum. I can see where some would prefer to preclude this ability, but consistency demands that we recognize the way that light works in this case or we rid ourselves of infravision altogether. The benefit is not such an increase over the original power infravision grants that it overbalances the game; there are certainly benefits that humans have that continues to encourage players choosing human as a race option for their characters. And if they do not, so what? The game remains the same.

Use

Very well, how does infravision actually work?

We have two lingering pictures of enhanced seeing in the dark that we’ve gleaned from films and television: night vision and thermal imaging. Thermal imaging reveals the thermal radiation emitted from sources. It is the way that I have personally used infravision for decades. Night vision is a technological means of enhancing very small quantities of light so that things can be seen in a clear, close-to-normal fashion (lacking the distinction of color). Animals that have better night vision than humans are able to see better at night because of differences in morphology and the anatomy of their eyes, which collect more light due to a larger aperture and a tapetum lucidum.

We might imagine something crossbred between these images, where the infravision-possessing creature’s brain translates the mix of thermal imaging and increased radiation detection into an image consistent with what a human sees … for no other reason than this ends any arguments about being able to “detect” emotional states or other details about the environment in a way the human does not. Except for a unique ability to see better in darkness, we don’t want to ascribe further knowledge collection to infravision.

I suggest that if any light source exists to a specified degree, whether it is a sliver of natural light through a door or an artificial source like a slightly glowing magic orb or a candle, infravision allows effectively normal vision equal to our ability when outside in broad daylight, including color. Just as a dim vampire light on a computer will eventually enable a human to see the whole room, the infravision-possessing creature will have this ability without a waiting period. I suggest the equivalent of 1 candlepower of external light within a distance of 60 feet. This measure of light is precise enough that as a DM, I can comfortably define whether or not it exists.  Note that the sky, whatever the conditions, would always fit this designation. The only other limitation to vision would be line of sight.

Any outside source of light that is less than 1 candle, whatever the distance underground, would be sufficient to provide twilight illumination. Such conditions would only exist underground. Because thermal radiation is part of the range of sight, and since the creature itself exudes sufficient thermal radiation, regardless of the actual subterranean environment, for the infravision-possessing creature to see, there would always be sufficient light for twilight illumination. Again, the only other limitation would be line of sight.

This is all I can think of at the moment.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Faith is Tricky

I'm writing this because a reader asked me to address the common notion connected to fantasy worlds that knowing that the gods actually do exist must mean that faith is not a basis for religion.  I can understand how a lay person might come to this conclusion.  The term "faith" is used most often in our media as "proof" that the Christian god exists ... and so if we don't need proof, it follows for some that we don't need faith, either.

I promised I would address this.  I'm not a believer in any organized religion ~ in fact, I'm strongly opposed to any legal protection for organized religions whatsoever.  It is one thing for an individual to believe in something ~ to my mind, there is no justification for the "freedom of religion" to mean that any institution deserves the right to exploit that freedom.

Still, I don't shy away from the study of religions, as I don't have to believe to know how they work.

The "reality" of the gods has no effect at all upon the cleric's faith.  Faith is much more than just believing in the existence of god.  It is also believing in the agenda of that god, and that you as a cleric understand that agenda well enough to do god's work.  As a piddling little cleric in an obscure part of the game world, you're not blessed with opportunities to speak directly to your god.  You depend on writings which, however labeled perfect for the dumb masses, are a miasma of confusion for the devout cleric who doesn't want to fuck up and piss god off.  You wish you had perfect clarity; what you have instead is faith.

Suppose you're a devout orcish witch-priest and your god Gruumsh, and you have a precious scroll written by Garnag the Excessively Pious that tells you, "Dwarves are hideous and all deserve death; to touch a dwarf is to be infected."  This scroll tells you that Garnag received his knowledge of Gruumsh from a vision that was given to him on 37 consecutive nights, whereupon he wrote the holy words you're reading as a witch-priest exactly as the visions dictated.

Now, suppose you also have a scroll written by Othmash Who Died as the Gem of Gruumsh, which were the last 1,010 words of Othmash as he lay dying, having slaughtered 200 orcs before Gruumsh decided it was time to raise his spirit to the afterlife.  And 17 of those words read, "The witch-priest of Gruumsh has no greater task that to remain alive until called to death."

Okay, got it?  Now, here's the situation.  You've gotten into a fight with a dwarf on a high place and unfortunately you've slipped on the poor ground and now you're hanging by your fingertips atop a 500-foot drop.  And the dwarf, being a goody-goody, is reaching out his hand to save you.

You know from Garnag that you can't touch that hand, so you wait for Gruumsh to do for you what he did for Othmash ... but you don't hear a goddamn thing.  And your fingers are getting tired.  What do you do?  What?  Do you infect yourself with the Dwarf's touch or do you throw your life away before Gruumsh raises your spirit?  Pick.

That's where faith comes in.  The faith to guess what Gruumsh really wants you to do.  Understand: if right now you're weighing the sacredness of Garnag against that of Othmash, you're choosing what you should do on the basis of two mortals, neither of whom are your god.  Are you really going to put your faith in mortals at this moment?

Theology is full of these conundrums.  It's what makes theology fun.

Now, I was also asked if spells are proof of god's existence ... and I suppose they are.  That is a very minor point.  The more important "proof" is that the god's giving of the spell to the casting cleric serves to remind the cleric that the god approves of the cleric's will.  Think on that a moment.  Your faith in your god, as the being that's got your back, is reassured every time you cast and the magic occurs.  You live in terror of the day that you cast and nothing happens.  On that day, you know you've angered your god by something that you've done.

So you make up your mind and you reach out and take the dwarf's hand.  The dwarf hauls you up and then steps back, letting you catch your breath.  Your godentag dangles from your wrist.  The dwarf hangs his hand axe on his belt.  Together you watch each other.  Carefully, the dwarf lifts a small bottle hanging on a string from his belt and uncorks it.  While he steals a drink, you decide to cast a quick cure light wounds on yourself.

How are you going to feel if the spell works?  What if the spell doesn't?  It matters.

It's a question of faith.  Making decisions on the ground level that will please or displease a god that hardly knows you exist.

Chew on that for a while.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Hippogriffs (per request)

A steed born of a mare and a griffon, noted for its speed, its furious demeanor when wild and its fantastical ability to remain in flight for long periods.  The beast is infamous for its part in the myth of Bradamante and Ruggiero, lovers who were adventurers in the 9th century.

It is said that griffons are known to naturally mate with mares, though rarely.  Though writers often make the mistake of depicting the hippogriff as a male, as described in Ludovico's Ariosto's poem, Orlando furioso, the resultant hippogriff is always a filly.  Because it is bore by the mare, a mammal, there is no egg; the hippogriff is born live, with soft claws and beak.  The young filly is meek and mild for the first few weeks, enabling a husbandman who comes across the animal in the wild to secure the beast in a cage before the animal's mood changes, usually late in the fourth week of life.  At that time the claws and beak harden and the beast turns extremely vicious; training the beast to accept a rider usually takes a year.  Attempts to breed hippogriffs in domestic menageries have failed.

Typically, mares of a distinctive type are led into the wild in mid-April into known wild breeding areas.  Griffons will often sense if the mare is truly alone, so the mares are usually abandoned.  These mares are searched for during the month of May, by which time pregnancy can be determined and the mares led home to give birth.  Hippogriff cots will sometimes obtain four or five offspring each season.  The typical lifespan of a hippogriff is 40 years.  Hippogriffs, like mules, are barren.

The hippogriff's front feet are heavy claws with edges equal to a slightly dulled axe.  The hooked beak is more powerful, catching its prey in a dropping, side-tearing motion that will throw stunned victims to the left or right.  If approached from the rear, a hippogriff will kick with its back hooves together, causing 2-20 damage on a single hit.  If using this attack, it will still fight with its beak but the claws will not be employed that round.

The wild beast will tend to fly skyward before beginning its attack, dropping from a height of 60 to 80 feet in a single round, diving at a single victim on the ground with both claws and beak with a +2 chance to hit (THAC0 14).  Hippogriffs do not carry victims off; they prefer to kill and then eat the carcass on the ground.  If stunned, there is a 50% chance a wild hippogriff will break off the fight and seek a meal elsewhere.

Hippogriffs are able to fly continuously for 6 to 9 days at a time.  They are curiously able to fly through spatial ether, so that they have been known to break the Earth's atmosphere through flight, with a natural ability to plane shift.  This is not fully understood.  Hippogriffs have been known to fly as far as the Moon, though there is no known example of the beasts flying further into space.

Hippogriffs can be trained and ridden.

See,

Bestiary
Flying Mounts

Stop

Fuzzy Skinner's comment on this post has been in my thoughts since it was posted early early this morning:
"Something like the X-card has its value at a convention game; people who have been through legitimate trauma shouldn't be forced to relive that trauma at the game table, and having an "out" is absolutely fine if there ultimately won't be any long-term consequences for anything."

I want to be careful and give this all the respect that it deserves, because Fuzzy is absolutely right ... up to where the quote reads "game table."  The experience of having a trauma reintroduced into your consciousness can be as shattering as the original trauma.  I want all my readers to know, I understand that.  Hell, I've lived it.

Still, I want the reader to consider that one word that haunts the middle of Fuzzy's argument, that makes all this so damn hard to manage in a social setting: "shouldn't."  People shouldn't be forced.  That's right.  They shouldn't.  Except ... and this is something that therapy starts by teaching you the reality of that desirable little word ... people will.

People who have suffered from trauma will be forced to relive that trauma again and again ... forced by strange little signifiers no one can guess at, forced by sounds, forced by the smell of a bit of food or released gas, forced by the date or the hour, forced by an inconvenient group of coincidental triggers ... forced.  Because trauma ~ legitimate trauma, as Fuzzy describes it ~ is a sort of memory creep that lingers just below the consciousness and waits until circumstances turn.  No one suffering from trauma is safe from that.

That's what counselors teach.  They teach that what you have to stop doing, every time you're triggered, is reliving the events that created that trauma.  There are ways they help you do that; strategies they employ; patterns of counselling that are designed to resolve issues until you can manage your trauma.  It's never the same for two different people, but counselors have scripts they work from that have been devised over decades of study and exploration.  It takes time. You have to want it.  If you give of yourself and you work, you can learn to manage the trauma.  You can't make it go away; but you can stop being at it's mercy.

What counselors don't teach is that other people are responsible for making sure you're not triggered.  The way other people talk, or behave, or the references they make, is not part of the control you have, or you will ever have.  Counselors take a lot of time to drill that into your head.  Other people are absolutely innocent where it comes to causing your trauma ... and until you understand that, and embrace that, you will never be in control of what has happened to you, or what is happening.

Creating a card that enables you, the person at the mercy of your trauma, to cut into and cut off the behaviour of other people is a destructive behaviour.  Not only are you committing your self-care into the hands of other people, perpetrating again and again your victimhood by naming innocent people as your persecutors, you are moving farther away from recognizing your own need in controlling your own trauma.  What's more, you're spreading trauma to other people ~ for every time you draw them into your denial, you make them part of your trauma.  You infect them with trauma.  They walk away with experiences of guilt, pity, confusion, self-loathing at having hurt you or caused you to grow angry or despondent ... and they don't even know what happened to you.

They cannot make a meaning from what they've done ~ except to chastise themselves, and others, into withdrawing from any subject that might cause distress to anyone.  And so the trauma spreads, until we are counselling each other, without any understanding of what we're doing, having no training whatsoever in counselling, how to "protect" people from trauma.  We can't.  No one can. That is not how trauma works.

This madness has become part of our constant dialogue.  We feel so much pain for the traumatized that we are traumatized ourselves by it ... and the traumatized get nothing from our guilt.

Let's stop.  If someone at your table is triggered; help them calm down.  Help them talk about it.  Help them go home if they need it.  But let's not reframe the world to further enable their pathology.  It won't work.  There are too many variables.  Let's get the traumatized some help and let's stop victimizing ourselves for being innocent.

X-cards are a form of flight and that is natural ... but NOT healthy.






















Christmas 2018

A year ago, in desperation I asked my readers to help me replace my computer.  It is never easy to ask for help.  Many, starting with ourselves, will chastise us for daring to admit we cannot do it on our own ... and the last thing we must never do is ask for charity.

It has been nearly a year, less a couple of days.  I have my computer, it is in fine form ... and I have a restored tower and keyboard as well, a gift from a friend in May.  Finding steady work at an interesting company, writing, managing people on the phone, I feel greatly restored from the physical labor I've had to do these last three years.  I receive compliments from co-workers and strangers alike; part of my job is to help people put together the costumes they'd like to buy on the phone ~ suggesting gloves and glasses for santas, an axe for a viking lord, the right wig to play Gene Simmons in Kiss, whatever completely odd thing that might come up ... and I talk to people all over the world when I do it.

So, in large part, I feel restored.  I feel that parts of my life are getting sorted, some things that have festered for more than three years.  George Bernard Shaw wrote in Major Barbara about the restorative powers of a good job over the balm of religion ~ and I am a G.B. fan.  Nothing cures woes like money.

Now, I don't have enough to give money; but I do have plenty of intellect and imagination, plus a will to be generous.  So come on, brothers and sisters.  This Christmas, you can help me out by finding a way to let me help you.  Ask me for something.  Ask for help.  Ask for an ear.  Ask me for a little labor if I know how.  Ask me for a blog post.  I'll do whatever I can to oblige.

My thanks to Akira Konno for the image.
And if there's nothing you can think of, please, take a moment and say hello.  Tell me something about yourself, in the comments or at alexiss1@telus.net.  Whether you've made a contribution to my Patreon or not, I'd like to shake your hand.  At least as much as my internet will allow.

If you have supported me on Patreon, whether or not you still do ... thank you.  Thank you more than I can say.  This is your chance to get a little something back.  Go on.  Ask me for something.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Game Lost

Quoting from B/X Blackrazor's recent blog post, Kids on Bikes, in which JB says,
"The designers' choice was to deliberately shy away from anything sticky or messy or painful.  The first page is devoted to 'setting boundaries;' it is, in fact the first true part of play ... and while I'm a fan of Ron Edwards ... for a game of this type I find it all ... well, inappropriate.  A game of this type should be pushing boundaries, not setting them."

 A part of me reads this and wants to go on a tear about the infantilisation of human interaction and why none of us are ever supposed to let the big bad world invade our comfort zones when we get together with our friends to play a game.  Supportive of that, I could probably pull together some films or books, aimed at either children or adults, where those subjects are brought up and dealt with, whereas in games we're still looking an interpretation of reality as close to the bone as Carcasonne's management of land in 14th century France.  Say it with me now: not at all.

But I have to grant that games in our culture are definitely not treated as art, or made to constructively address issues.  Artworks can afford to be unpopular.  A film can be seen by a few hundred or a few thousand people and still be a meaningful work.  Artworks only need attention.  Games need a culture ... without that, they are unsuited for anything but the trashbin.  Is it any wonder that a game company will do anything to avoid risking that culture by drumming up a subject that will make players uncomfortable?

That was not a problem in pre-PC culture D&D, which despite the efforts to flag game situations and discourage squicky subjects like sex (which is only a participation sport for everyone on the planet) possesses a legacy that won't be entirely quashed.  Naturally, we expect to see things like this turn up, where the game play culture being created contains expectations that as a DM you will "lead by example" and "model the behavior" of your game players:
“I’d like your help. Your help to make this game fun for everyone. If anything makes anyone uncomfortable in any way… [ draw X on an index card ] …just lift this card up, or simply tap it [ place card at the center of the table ]. You don’t have to explain why. It doesn't matter why. When we lift or tap this card, we simply edit out anything X-Carded. And if there is ever an issue, anyone can call for a break and we can talk privately. I know it sounds funny but it will help us play amazing games together and usually I’m the one who uses the X card to protect myself from all of you! Please help make this game fun for everyone. Thank you!"

It's easy to laugh at this because the roots of D&D were firmly established long before "the organizers" arrived.  The original game ideal and context was established in thousands of articles and hundreds of games ~ any kid, anywhere, raised in an environment with x-cards, can one day stumble across a Dragon magazine or a copy of Tomb of Horrors and realize suddenly that randomly killing everything and anything, including murdering prostitutes, was a socially functional experience for tens of thousands of players.  It didn't bother us.  It wasn't any more real than the massacre of whole armies in RISK or Axis and Allies.

For a modern game manufacturer, however, faced with a strike force of helicopter parents descending on game stores to help little Billy and Jody play D&D ~ or any other game ~ not having some standard in place is a terrifying prospect.  When we played in the 70s and early 80s, we were ignored by our parents; they didn't give a shit what we did in the kitchen Friday night as long as we were quiet enough we didn't spoil their Friday night TV line-up.  Hell, they'd go out to see a movie and leave a bunch of us 15-year-old prostitute slayers the run of the house.  Gamestore owners were trolls who rented storefronts that no one else would rent, badly lit and heated buildings with brick facing in rundown neighborhoods.  No parent ever entered a place like that.  If a gamestore ran a game night, no parent ever knew about it.  My friends Asif and Scott and John sure as hell weren't going to tell them.  Come 13, our goal in life was to find places to escape our parents ... we did not invite them to come along.

What here needs an x-card?
We appreciate that we're no longer in the grips of the Satanic Panic (and here's a great video talking about how it affected way more than role-playing games), but nowadays the game culture faces something much, much worse: parents.  Bereft of any guideline to properly prepare their children to face the real world, parents are desperately looking for any bubble-wrap that will protect their darling dearies against the terrible, awful real world.  My gawd, we can't have our precious dearest upset by things like bodily fluids, injuries and poverty in a role-playing setting!  Oh... My... Gawd.  We can't have ... yelling ... at a game.  We can't discuss disease, or dogs put in danger, or sharp objects or ~ heaven bless me ~ going to the bathroom [shudder] infecting a game my child is going to play!  I want my treasured Billy-boy to know he only has to reach out his tiny finger and touch a little safe card on the table to make sure all that ickyness goes away.  At once!  Only then can I breathe, knowing my Billy is safe.

Inventors of this nonsense are seizing opportunities to impose themselves in the place that religious nutjobs held in the 80s; the chance to spread fear that the game will damage the fragile little brains of children and that the children ~ and adults who are just as fragile ~ from these ideas that need not to exist in what some imagine game culture should be.  Games, if you'll excuse the expression, are meant to be fun.  Fun, clearly, as defined by teletubbies, rainbow brite, elmo and the care bears.  Oops, sorry, the satanic panic vid I posted clearly defined rainbow brite as Satanic.  You just never know.

This sensitivity of games, and game culture, is a serious reflection on my own arguments of games as artworks.  Artworks don't have to deal with any of this shit.  Of course, the fuckwits always try to get in the way, but they endlessly lose ground.  And history judges them harshly.

Games, on the other hand, continuously lose ground.  Where the Satanic Panic failed to restrain the course of rock music and literature, D&D did not recover.  It's still losing ground.  The game space is a political battleground where fun is imposed, not inspired.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

19th Class: Scripts

Rather than discussing the material in the 2nd Lab, let's first talk about script theory.  This was a concept proposed by Roger Schank in 1975, which he built into his book, Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures, in 1977.  The work covers a great deal of territory and it is interesting material for anyone interested in exploring contest in language understanding and pragmatics theory, but we don't need to address those subjects here.  Part of Schank's proposal, which remains relevant today, is that scripts are one way that we can understand how stories are created and how those same stories can be deconstructed and understood more clearly.

A "script" describes a small number of acts performed by an actor, or active person, upon an object or within an object space.  Schank's example, used for its commonality, is the script we follow when we interact with a restaurant.  The script contains specific characteristics: we enter the restaurant, we are shown to a table, we receive the menus, we're asked if we want drinks, we make up our minds, we order, we wait for the food to arrive, the food arrives, we eat, we ask for the bill, we pay the bill, we leave.  Whatever else may happen, even though steps may be skipped, this is what we expect when we enter a restaurant to eat there.

Scripts describe more than the procedure.  Through scripts, we understand the part we expected to play.  Whether it is the process of paying and entering a movie theatre, the commute to work, watching a game on the television, visiting a relative at the hospital, attending a meeting or whatever, we know from experience how we're expected to act, generally what we're expected to say and even how to feel.  When the lights dim at the theatre, we feel excited; during the commute, we grow bored or frustrated; we shout when a goal is scored; visiting the hospital, we mute ourselves, just as we do with a meeting when the boss speaks and we listen.  Most often, we don't consider the script-following habit; it is just what we do.

Since every part of our lives follows some kind of script, we can see that the activity of role-playing games also follow scripts, even though we are acting the parts through characters.  We meet with the opening of a dungeon, we discuss prices with the merchant, we argue with a guard, we prepare ourselves to rush a group of monsters ... these are all scripts.  We tell ourselves that role-playing is a "story," but in fact the story is a collection of scripts that have been strung together in a particular pattern.  The "story" is too large a concept for our primate brains to fully comprehend; so instead, as Schank theory argues, we whittle the experience down to scripts ... and then we play the part we expect to play inside those scripts.

We're familiar with scripts that are repeated often enough that they grow tiresome.  Commuting to work is famously among the worse, but it is also the reason why we resist going to the same restaurant, visiting the same spots for vacation or finding old content on youtube that doesn't sufficiently depart from scripts we already know.  As we discussed earlier, we deliberately seek rupture in our lives because it produces a new set of scripts, which we have to learn on the fly without warning, awakening ourselves from the morbid slumber of repeating the same familiar scripts we already know.

That doesn't keep some people from retreating into familiar scripts and resisting anything new.  Knowing the part that's expected, such as playing mahjong every Thursday for decades, can promote comfort, security, a sense of belonging and of family.  We may hate some repetitive scripts and embrace others.  There are people who appreciate the commute as an opportunity to read, contemplate, listen to music that they alone like and feel free from the combined rat race of the office and the oppressive responsibility of home.  What scripts we like and have ceased to like differs from person to person.

Participants who condemn "roll-playing," for example, have grown tired of scripts dependent on die use; while those who condemn excessive "role-playing" have grown tired of scripts surrounding talk and the art of persuasion.

Still, it is fair to say that any particular script that is repeated too often in an RPG will acquire a shroud of ennui.  Distinctive scripts that become especially tiresome or established are often called "tropes" ... and overuse of these can exhaust players and DMs alike.  When players speak about the game losing its appeal, we can be sure that they've become saturated with the scripts they've encountered, so that now they feel they are staggering from script to script without relief.  The argument that DMs "need a good story" is meant to counter this, but without understanding how a good story needs a set of new scripts ~ ones that will not confuse the player with their oddness, but will instead inspire the player to adjust to what's happening.  Without understanding exactly what is required (a "good story" is a vague, non-specific request), a competent DM hasn't the training necessary to produce the result.

A part of the repetitive-script problem is that when we shorten a script, or even the characteristic of a script ~ such as a rule like a perception roll ~ we increase the repetition of that characteristic and thus the weariness of both the characteristic and the script to which it belongs.  Any game element that the DM relies upon overmuch ~ which may occur because the familiarity of the element is reassuring and comforting to the DM, like the game of mahjong ~ risks eventual player burnout.  Likewise, the narrower the setting, the more pronounced the behavioral expectations of the players (that they be heroes, for instance), shortens the overall lifespan of the campaign.

Some players might not care; they like the scripts and they like playing them regularly.  Eventually, however, even the hardiest of DMs and players will begin to notice that their physical responses just aren't what they were.  The game becomes a matter of going through the motions for the sake of belonging.  The script of playing ceases to describe game play, but something else:

In the Innovation Lab, we discussed the importance of reducing dead time.  Running a tight ship, maintaining an order of play, reducing chatter, encouraging your players to plan before entering into actions can all sour in the face of scripts that have been played out already and are too familiar.  The players already know the plan; it is the same plan that's always used, because it always works with the combat scripts this DM runs.  The players chatter because they already know the script that takes place at the market between the most eloquent role-player and the DM.  There's no need to pay attention.  Jokes come out because they break up the same script where the DM introduces the players to the adventure, or where the mentor comes to give advice, or where the players supposedly fall into Joseph Campbell's abyss, or where the treasure is given and so on.  The players have been here.  It isn't new.  We shouldn't expect them to respond positively to a request to reduce their dead time.

Scripts reach a level of repetition that requires dead time, because the script of playing has become "how do we pass the time while the same scripts play out."  We don't come to play the scripts.  Our game is to carry forward our imaginative commentary on the scripts, not our engagement with them.  This is a process that can be seen plainly in the dialogue surrounding the popular web series, Critical Role.  The fundamental scripts the series presents are well-known and very familiar; the audience watches to see how the participants play the scripts ... not what scripts are played.

Comment is a passive response, an observation without direct engagement.  An immersed, innovative player is one that engages actively with the material.  If players are overly familiar with the script, there's no requirement that they innovate anything.  In preparing for a campaign, our research, planning, resources and so on should be directed towards the creation of dissimilar, rare scripts, that haven't been played exhaustively ... in our next class, we'll talk about what makes any script, in our lives or in gameplay, effective in drawing engagement and appeal for the participants of that script.