Sunday, October 21, 2018

13th Class: Game Consensus

Today we want to look at how some of the material we've been discussing has a practical application.  To begin a brief overview, we began with the question, what parts of the game are absolutely fundamental, regardless of the participants and their impact on the material?  We then discussed the methods by which we prepare ourselves for playing the game, employing research, estimation and planning, resources and education, then practice and rehearsal.

Afterwards, we examined the process by which an uninformed player of the game becomes competent, then how a competent player becomes an expert ~ and linked to that, an examination between subjective and objective evidence and its influence on our thinking processes.  We then discussed methods of determining the values of subjective evidence, as a means of pursuing objectivity where none exists, through conventions, preparations and mentorship.  Our next three classes dealt with popular theories of RPGs: storytelling, heroism and episodic game-play.  Then with our last class, we pursued the fundamentals of meaning-making, in which we spoke about the meanings we make for ourselves, that serve as a stand-in for knowledge, when making decisions about presenting role-playing games.

Our intention today is to show how preparedness readies us to be mentors, through our understanding of the principles, language and distinctions of RPGs, that in turn places novices on a strong footing to apprehend the game and make themselves capable of the social interactions that take place at the game table.  This is not only a matter of creating new gamemasters, but also through improving the comprehension of the game players themselves, enabling them to know more thoroughly the game they are playing, through the eyes of the person running the game.

This is all important.  All the participants, and not just the Dungeon Master, need to understand every facet of what is happening, all the time ~ just as the participants of any recreational joint activity are given full and complete information about all the facets of any particular game, sport or recreation.  We inform others interested in fishing where the fish are, what the rules surrounding fishing are, what lures and available means of fishing exist and we do so cheerfully and without reservation.  Likewise with participation in a team sport, or when we sit to play a board game.  Socially we consider the social process of meaning-making includes full disclosure where the rules and opportunties are concerned ~ we only conceal our individual strategies and tactics.

As individuals, it falls upon us to explain concepts and limits to other players freely.  We do so because the activity is communal and friendly.  We do so because fellow informed players who learn the game we play waste less of our time asking questions, making confused and erroneous choices, failing to take part in discussions because they don't really understand what's going on and ultimately choosing not to take part again, either because they don't "get it," or because they are ashamed to admit they need help.

It does nothing for us not to explain how specific tools, weapons or spells work.  We have nothing to gain by insisting that players teach themselves, to "prove" themselves worthy of our games, as though the goal is to demonstrate commitment to an ideology rather than active participation.  It does nothing for the DM to reserve knowledge about rules from the players, as an "edge" that gives the DM more power to pervert the game in the DM's favor, as though knowing what the rules are exists as a challenge to the DM's power, rather than a means of facilitating easier and better game-play.  A lack of clarity among players and DM is tiresome and destructive to game play.  A social agreement upon the rules ~ all the rules, all the time ~ creates momentum, trust, unified goals and streamlined play.

Where possible, we should take the time explain the terminology used throughout the game, suspending the game as necessary.  If need be, we can invest some time explaining the relationship between the terminology and how the players view the matter being represented - for example, what a "hit point" is in the game we're running, and what it represents.  We need to obtain a consensus on the use of each skill used by the players, what it does, how it works in this campaign, what limits it has ... and then expand that practice to all the aspects of the game.

In some sense, this is like the "session zero" that is postulated by some participants ~ but we really need to go further.  Role-playing games change progressively as more skills, powers and levels of status become available to the players, so orientation needs to be a constant part of the game process.

Where a consensus cannot be reached; where discord repeatedly disrupts the game over a point of the rules or a point of character building, or with role-play, then discard that rule ... disallow that means of character building ... and reduce the use of role-play.  We cannot stress this enough.  Meaning-making demands social connectivity and relative thought processes, in order to produce a symbiotic thinking apparatus that enables all the participants to share the experience.  If discord keeps popping up, it is a system error.  The system is driving the participants apart.  The answer is to change the system ~ either replacing it with something better or removing it's necessity.  Organizing thinking among the participants improves the subjective experience for all, because it is the same subjective experience.

By investing comparatively little time in making all the participants aware of the game's precepts, we reduce opportunities for gamesmanship.  Gamesmen take advantage of conflict, distraction and antagonism to "break the flow" of the activity.  "Flow" is the mental state of operation in which a single person, or group of people, are fully immersed in an activity to the point where they are fully absorbed.  A common experience where flow occurs is when one's sense of space and time is lost.  Hours go by without consciously experienced as one does when participating in activities that are dull, repetitive or taxing.

Breaking flow is the act of disrupting immersion by tactics such as asking questions that have already been answered, demanding approval or attention, making comments or refences to material that are out of context, dragging out a decision that needs making, adding unnecessary noise, giving purposeless or directly destructive advice, speaking out of turn and so on ... all elements which are advantaged by unclear semantics in the rules, practices that spark conflicts and multiple interpretations of the same game element.

When explaining the rules and precepts of a role-playing game to the participants, the least likely person to appreciate the effort will most likely be the player who feels they "already know the answer" ~ which precludes the certainty of consensus ~ or who feels that the practice is a "waste of time."  This last clearly indicates that one participant at least is not seeking the social aspect of game play, but is instead already angling for advantage against the others.  The most troublesome players will most likely resent any methodology, most of all one that brings the less prepared players up to speed on aspects such as character abilities, options and ways to strengthen their character's effectiveness in play.

In particular, many DMs will resist enhancement of their own players on these lines, being themselves anxious to advantage their own understanding of the rules while undermining the understanding of their players.  Such DMs will resist any attempt to gain knowledge from the player's perspective.  DMs of this type should be recognized early and avoided.

Very well.  With our next class, we'll be discussing the group dynamics of play, covering group strategies, learning through game play and the manner in which brighter more experienced players can be encouraged to "apprentice" players of lesser calibre.

Consensus isn't easy.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

12th Class: Meaning-Making

In each of the three theories discussed so far in this class, including other theories we might have mentioned, the interpretation in each case relates to the way participants learn to manage role-playing games.  RPGs are interpreted as story-driven because they draw on the story telling process that has always been there in our communications with each other ~ but role-playing seems to enhance that importance.  RPG players are interpreted as heroes because positive games result when we act morally and with respect towards others ~ which has always been true, but role-playing seems to make this more evident than usual.  And RPGs are interpreted as goal-driven because we have always strived towards goals, largely by describing our personal narratives in purposeful ways rather than as unpleasant random statements.

Role-playing games simply reflects normal human behaviours.  We are story-tellers, whenever we communicate or express what matters to us.  We may not always pursue an heroic course but we know perfectly well what's expected; and when in the company of others we present ourselves as the sort of people who would do what's expected.  And we are goal-oriented; in many ways, our biology makes us so.  We are not interpreting the game with these ideas.  We are interpreting the way we play the game.  We are holding up a mirror and thinking it is something else.

We should not interpret this as a negative approach.  It is, essentially, what psychologists call "meaning-making," a process that we develop at the youngest age, which we carry with us continuously, as we seek to make sense of situations, relationships or ideas we don't fully grasp.  We look for frameworks that will help us understand these things; and like our Novice learning an RPG, we start with conventions as children, then move onto axioms we create ourselves and finally, if we are so motivated, we begin to see how other people view the world and establish precepts that enable us to make decisions from multiple possible options.  This is how we as humans become proficient as humans.

Let us step back and consider an early issue that arises as we first become acquainted with role-playing: our relationship to the rules of the game.  Initially, due to the number of rules involved and our lack of experience, we will view the rules with a "surface" interpretation, much like studying for exams that demand quick answers.

We focus on the words, accept each rule as written, with some assumption that it will become clear later.  We view the individual rules as separate bits of data, having little to do with one another.  We give considerable credence to the rule source; we interpret the rules as the meaning, bestowing innate, inviolable knowledge to the writer of the rules, presuming that the writer cannot possibly have failed to make the meaning clear when wrestling with the language.

This surface learning begins to break down when others in our association begin to interpret the rules differently than ourselves; and at once we set up standards by which the rules ought to be interpreted, which in turn become conventions for new players.  We are making meaning out of the rules in a way that satisfies the immediate needs of the game, but fails to engage with deeper issues and concepts that underlie the rules ~ the very purposes that the rules were originally written to serve.  We need to ask ourselves, were the rules written to establish the rules themselves, or were the rules written to enable the full dimensions of the game to be played?

With experience and awareness of how the game's rules apply in a wide variety of situations, we begin to understand that the meaning of the text is deeper than the words used to describe it.  We recognize that learning the game is a conscious agent of understanding the rules in an holistic sense ~ how the object of the game depends on a wide view, where the individual rules are not isolated but in fact relate to each other in multitudinous ways.  We seek to compare our interpretations with the semantic message-making of the rules as written and integrate both into our game play (possibly making new interpretations or rewriting the rules), creating axioms.  And finally, we test our interpretations on players during games and either reinforce our axioms or revise them.

For most people, this is done entirely without conscious awareness of the process. We only discuss the process here in order to understand it, and through understanding make ourselves more aware of what we ourselves are doing, and what others are doing when they communicate with us.

The rules of the game are merely one small facet of the meanings we create for ourselves while comparing what we're told, or what we read, with our own deep investigation into the fundamental material used to communicate RPGs.  Deep learning leads to meaning-making that produces stronger practices and more relevant advances in game play (it does with all other human activity as well).  Deep learning encourages closer examination of the sources, which leads to strategies for an even deeper and more holistic approach to meaning that we make out of the game.

With the last three classes, I have been emphasizing that what we believe about the game, as expressed in various theories, is subjective and is therefore not knowledge, which requires objective proof.  At this point we need to ask the question, is meaning-making knowledge?

No.  It is not.  Meaning-making is also subjective and we should not mistake our interpretations of the materials as knowledge-making.  It would be fully possible to concoct meanings from a given source material with a highly obscure or highly prejudiced sensibility, ending with a viewpoint or values that were extreme or even perverse.  In our experiences with the internet, we have all seen many such examples ... we need not list them.

What makes meaning meaningful is that it has the potential to be shared.  Our perceived reality must be communicable to others, to give it any legitimacy.  The reason why we draw on studies and resources for this class comes from our recognition that others have produced ideas and theories that sought to be recognizable to others in the same field, who were examining the same materials and arriving at approximately the same axioms to explain the various facets behind human behaviour or comprehension.  When we make meanings that approach a positive self-concept, others respond to the values of that concept and re-evaluate their own approaches along a continuum between interpersonal behaviour and intergroup behaviour.  This concept defines what we think of as social identity theory.

Without the possibility of knowledge making, given that objective proof of our interpretations has escapes human abilities for the present, meaning-making along that continuum is the best we have.  It is not enough for us to make meanings for ourselves.  We are prescribed to create meanings that others will find valuable; and to express those meanings in a manner that will enable others to build on our interpretations in a positive manner that can then be carried forward by other persons and later generations.  In this sense we move the process towards knowledge, even if knowledge itself is outside our abilities.

With our next classes, we'll be investigating meaning-making strategies for game play that semantic, interpretive and holistic in nature, before moving onto lectures where we'll be discussing a base understanding of key structures and functional design of role-playing games.

I'll just remind the class that the mid-term exam in coming up with our 16th class ... and that studying early should be something you'll consider doing.  We'll talk about the particulars of the exam soon.

A little early for Christmas, but the right sentiment nonetheless

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ray of Enfeeblement

Giving some oomph to this long-considered weak spell:

Range: 10 ft. +5 ft. per level
Duration: 1 round per level
Area of Effect: 1 creature per level
Casting Time: 1 round
Saving Throw: negates
Level: mage (2nd)

Weakens an opponent by striking them with a magic ray, emerging from the caster's hands or eyes.  If the struck creatures fail to make saving throw, their strength will be sapped at once, causing 1 round of dazed weakness equivalent to the creature being stunned.

The strength lost will equal 2-5 points, +1 additional point per 2 levels of the caster above 3rd.  This would mean that a 5th level caster's ray would reduce strength by 3-6 points, a 7th level caster by 4-7 points, a 9th level caster by 5-8 points and so on.  The ray of enfeeblement is particularly effective on creatures with great strength, such as giants and warrior races.

When employed against creatures that crush or squeeze their opponents, whose exact strength is unknown, such as apesboa constrictorscouatl and the like, the ray will lower the damage done by these attacks by 1 point per strength lost.

Creatures can be drained until they are at zero strength but no more.  Creatures so affected cannot move or act, and have not even the strength to speak.  They must wait until the effects of the spell pass before regaining their strength.

Strength that is lost is regained at a rate of 1 point per round after the ray's effect has passed. Therefore, if a 3rd level caster were to affect a hill giant with a 19 strength, reducing that strength by 4, the giant's strength would be 15 for a total of 3 rounds (while the spell was in effect).  It would then take four rounds before the giant's strength would return to normal.

The ray of enfeeblement ignores percentile strength.  Those with an 18/percentile strength are considered to have a strength of 18 ... and when regaining their 18 strength, the percentile is assumed to have been regained also.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

11th Class: Game-Play

With our last two classes, Storytelling and Heroism, we discussed theories that contributed to player well-being and motivation.  Today I'd like to talk about a theory of game-play, suspending for the moment a schematic discussion of how moment-to-moment game play might be resolved, and instead discuss a theory that arises among role-players as they progress from Novice to Competent player.  That theory would be that the best campaigns or adventures are fundamentally goal-oriented.

Let's examine what I mean by "goal-oriented."  The imagination might leap to the most immediate example, the expectation of a party bound on an adventure that produces at the moment of success the substance of Joseph Campbell's elixir, enabling greater knowledge, insight, reconciliation with a lover or some equally necessary treasure to the so-called Heroes' Journey.  But here we limit ourselves if we consider merely stories that begin with a hero setting off on a quest, achieving that quest and arriving back home.  We have many stories in our lexicons that resolve themselves as simply, such as romances, court intrigue, mystery stories, comedies and tragedies, all of which are compelling and none of which depend on a concrete resolution.

We might base a role-playing campaign on any of these, though admittedly some would find fault with some of these examples ~ and we should understand that this fault finding is subjective, and not indicative of impracticality where role-playing games are concerned.  Many role-playing games explicitly examine alternative stories as a basis for game-play.

However, we must take note that all of these games are necessarily goal-driven, because they are fundamentally episodic.  They have a recognizable beginning and an end ~ and as such, "adventures" and "alternative" role-playing campaigns are largely bound by the broad strokes of Campbell's thesis: we begin with a call to adventure, we motivate the players towards a goal, the players set off, they are tested, they are rewarded, they return to the ordinary world and await for the next episode to begin.

Or to rephrase it in game mechanic terms, the players sense what is happening, view the model, evaluate the situation, make plans, act ... and then begin the process again with the next episode.

The example on the right is a further example of the same principle. Though we examine the various subjective aspects of what makes "good" or "awful" game-play, we recognize instinctively that the play itself is episodic.  The reason is plain to see.

To begin with, our game experiences were initiated with games far simpler than role-playing, almost always with characteristics that included "winning" and "losing."  And all of those games were distinctly episodic in format, and almost always in a format that enabled play from the beginning to the end in one sitting.  It is natural that we would see RPGs as an extension of that episodic format, even if a given scenario stretches out over several game sessions.

Additionally, when considering what a game scenario ought to be, we return to storytelling ... and again, virtually every example we have of a story is episodic.  A book may take many sittings to read, but it, like a movie, a play or the recounting of personal events by a friend, has a recognizable beginning and an end.  Long before becoming involved in RPGs, we have already heard many thousands of stories and are thus primed to think naturally in parcels of time when attempting to express ourselves.

When discussing stories, we talked about how good stories obtain the attention of our listeners and make a collection of facts easier to hear and remember.  We have all experienced situations where a speaker seems to ramble at length about a group of disconnected ideas and events, the recounting of which seems random and without purpose.  We can barely keep our minds from wandering, while wishing to press the speaker to "get to the point" ~ which can be difficult if the speaker is an employer or a lecturer, where self-interest or social propriety disallows such an approach.  When thinking of an RPG without a strong, worthy story at its core, our minds travel directly to some situation where we imagine a DM reading off lists of disconnected values, like an accountant droning upon our tax receipts, or the pursuit of a mundane collection of activities, such as an RPG called, "House and Handicrafts."

The necessity of an episodic, story-driven campaign scenario is so powerful that we're bound to think that it's presence cannot possibly be a theory.  Yet, again I will remind the class, what have we objectively proven?

Granted, we are raised on an episodic portrayal of events.  We have adapted to it, we have embraced it ... and through personal experience we have witnessed examples of the contrary that confirmed that we have taken the right path.  Subjectively.  We have not, ourselves, examined at length and over an extensive period of time any personal alternative, nor have we demonstrated with anything except our value judgements that RPG campaigns can only be effectively run in the manner of adventures and other episodic formats.

Remember that when we discussed the path from competency to proficiency, Dreyfus wrote about how proficiency meant being able to discriminate between a wide range of choices regarding what might be true and what might not, in order to explore a situation in depth and arrive at a decision that took all the facets of the study into consideration.  That is why we make the distinction between a "fact" and a "theory."  Not because the theory can't be held to a practical standard, or employed with day to day use, but because it can't be measured directly against other possible theories that might also be employed, if we were to open our mind wide enough to consider that there isn't just one subjective viewpoint ~ our present one ~ in the offing.

For our next class, we'll be talking about the origin of these theories and why they seem to make so much sense that we're loathe to consider any alternative, as we discuss meaning-making.

Monday, October 8, 2018

What to Do, What to Do?

I was asked this question in Quora today, but I've decided that I hate Quora's restrictions on links and such, so I'm going to answer it here.
What are some ways to help a GM who is running an adventure you've written to improvise the rest of the adventure if a PC takes an unexpected action?

Truly a remarkable example of cluttered thinking at it's very, very best.  Not only do we have GMs who are put in the position of having to control the game participants when the adventure is broken by players daring to show independence, now we have a game designer who wants to help the GM when the situation arises.

My answer?  Stop thinking you can control everything.

For years I've been reading DMs on Reddit and elsewhere posing situations and asking questions about players "breaking the game" by doing something outside the adventure's schematic.  It wouldn't be hard to see this as a real problem of games, something along the lines of a catholic minister asking his bishop, "What do I do when the parishioners start thinking for themselves," or a rapist asking, "What do I do when the victim won't lie still?"

No action that a player takes in a campaign should ever be "unexpected."  That's my philosophy.  Players should always be expected to act in a manner that is free from outside control and influence, on their own initiative, in a manner that is allowed to be pursued autonomously and which happens in accordance with the players' desires.  The only curb on player behaviour should be the natural consequences that arise from the level of civilized society that has been impressed on the players as existing at the time of their actions, so that the players can decide ~ for themselves ~ if they can avoid or handle those consequences.

Those consequences should be obvious to everyone participating.  If I murder someone in an RPG in an open street, whether it is during the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the 19th century or the era of Buck Rogers in the 25th century, I and everyone I'm playing the game with ought to be shrewdly aware that a) someone is going to witness it; b) witnesses are going to talk to the authorities; c) the authorities are going to seek redress to the extent of their abilities; and d) that redress is going to depend on how powerful the authorities are.

All of that has fuck all to do with whatever adventure is happening or what the DM had planned for the next session.  It could be that some element of the adventure that was in the DM's mind might be affected by the murder, but again, that effect ought to be completely logical to everyone playing.  If it is not, if the DM is adjusting for some dumbfuck adventure that was written by someone else, then the DM has a head up an ass someplace.

Improvising is fine.  The action I took, killing someone in an open street, just started a whole new adventure, one which I obviously preferred to have when I made the conscious decision to commit murder.  And the DM ought to have considered long in advance that someday a player would do such a thing.  How?  Because we live in a world where people kill people every day, and it is hardly a huge shock or surprise that it happens.  Maybe not in front of us, I'll grant.  But given that the players of a game are carrying weapons all the time, and know how to use them, and have in the past, it isn't exactly a long stretch to figuring out that the guy in the street isn't exactly inviolable.

I hate when DMs make up their minds what my player will or won't do, simply because they want to be "set managers" of the tiny, tiny theatre they've concocted in their imaginations as the whole of acceptable human experience in an RPG.  And I equally hate players who happen agree to exist in such a tiny, tiny theatre.

Thank you, I'll embrace the whole human experience.  As it happens, I probably wouldn't commit an open murder.  I played that adventure a lot when I was 15 and 16 and it's somewhat juvenile now.  My capacity for doing the "unexpected" is, I'll have the reader understand, pretty fucking extensive ... so a DM with me in the campaign better buckle in and expect everything.

I don't play because I don't find DMs like that.

Except in a mirror.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Structured Activity

Life is boring.

I hear this invoked when defending the structure of role-playing games in every conversation.  Role-playing games have to be escapist because life is boring.  Role-playing games have to be about adventure and excitement because life is boring.  Role-playing games that are not about being heroic are equivalent to staring at, oh, something like tax forms, because life outside of adventure is boring.

I get it.  For a lot of people, life is boring.  We work repetitive, monochromic jobs with dull monochromic people, who do not change from day to day but repeat the same characteristics ... and there's never any achievement, or reason to be heroic, or element that causes us to think, "Wow, I really made a difference today."

We see this as we want to see it:

There are millions of people who lead very fulfilling, purposeful, busy lives, who do not find their day-to-day at all boring.  We like to think that most of these people must be wealthy, but in fact most of these people are simply engaged in doing something they like doing.  They're not "escaping."  They're pursuing.  They're running towards life.  They've made up their minds not to continue doing things they don't enjoy, so that they don't get up in the morning and think, "My life is boring."

They've examined their weaknesses and set out to compensate for them.  They've set out to learn whatever they need, overcoming their lack of education.  They've organized themselves and their relationships to make room for positivity, growth, support, understanding and direction.  They've worked their boring jobs to pay for it, then they've quit their boring jobs.  They've changed.

I refuse to believe that I am duty-bound to give any credence to people who feel a role-playing game must be "this" or "that" because their lives are boring.  That's not an argument.  That's an excuse.  My life isn't boring.  Harried sometimes, and lacking in some things, but certainly not boring.  When I wake up in the morning, and get myself together, I have things to watch, artwork to consider, a partner and a daughter to converse with and hug, music and films for entertainment on the bus, necessary work to perform for income, future plans to make, a difficult blog post to structure in my mind, a loving partner to come home to and lay in bed with and snuggle, games to work on and words to write ... and none of it is "boring."

Some of it I like much, much more than other things.  I would rather my personal writing paid the income that my job pays ... but it is fun to write about costumes and talk to people on the phone about what sort of costume they're trying to make for Halloween this year.  It is reassuring to help people and make them laugh at the absurdity of things they plan to wear.  It is fun to write posts and reach people's mental interests.  It is fun to snuggle.

I do not play D&D to escape anything.  For me, it is a structured activity.  I play it to pursue my intellect and my imagination.  I'm not afraid of life.  I don't need to shout at others not to spoil my form of escape.  I'm not that fragile.

I refuse to limit my game design for people who are.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Preservation (spell)

Just a little fun.  I've been rewriting 1st and 2nd level magic spells for my wiki and thinking on ways the spells could be adjusted and applied so that they are more interesting and slightly more practical.  The spell "preserve" has never been a particularly interesting spell, but I think I've put a spin on it that makes it interesting enough for this blog:

Range: touch
Duration: one month
Area of Effect: 1 cub.ft. per level
Casting Time: 1 rounds
Saving Throw: none
Level: mage (2nd)

Enables the caster to affect organic materials of every kind so as to remain fresh and whole for the spell duration, as though just harvested, cooked or baked.  Further, the affected matter will retain the temperature it possessed at the moment of casting: thus coffee or tea will remain hot, a cooked biscuit will continue to steam, a block of ice will remain frozen and so on.  Note that the heat released from an affected object cannot be used to chill or heat inert matter.  A plate sitting on top of a preserved cup of coffee would not be heated.

The heat or cold of the preserved matter will affect living senses, however.  A bowl of preserved soup would still warm and sustain a living body, a glass of cool water would still relieve a hot day and be pleasant to drink.  A pot of hot stew could be carried, as the pot would lose its heat once removed from the fire, while the affected stew would not.  Other circumstances may need ruling as they come up.

The spell can also be used to preserve a severed limb, or a body so as to extend the practical usefulness of the raise dead spell, or to preserve ingredients needed for laboratory use.

The spell will not preserve magically affected liquids or items, such as firewater or magic stones.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

10th Class: Heroism

With our last class, we discussed how participants of role-playing games pursue storytelling in terms of the value it holds for them, which is something learned from experience while playing.  An individual's value judgment is a personally assessment of something that is good or bad in terms of that person's standards and priorities.  Value judgements and experience matter, but are not necessarily correct where knowledge is concerned.  This is a point we will examine more closely later in the semester.

Today, let's examine another widely held value judgment, also arrived at through extensive experience from playing: that the player characters of role-playing games are extraordinary people, whose bravery and resolve encourages them to be heroes against forces that would terrify most.  To understand why, we need to examine the motivations of players who choose to perceive their characters as heroes.

What is heroism?  This is not a simple question.  Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, has spent more than a decade studying heroism and has established four recognizeable signs of performed heroism:
"First, it’s performed in service to others in need ~ whether that’s a person, group, or community ~ or in defense of certain ideals. Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty. Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice. Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act."

Suppose we take a moment and consider how an Advanced Beginner's DMing efforts might act contrary to the above ... explaining, in the process, many game worlds with some of us will have personally experienced, particularly in our early years of playing.

Our Advanced Beginner might tolerate players who do not act in the service of others, but only for themselves ~ whether against the other players, or the non-player characters under the DM, or even against the DM personally ~ in pursuit of their selfish desires.  Our Advanced Beginner might feel pushed to participate as a DM involuntarily, because no one else will play; while some players might feel they're coerced to play a particular kind of game or rule-set, because no other option for play is available.  Our Advanced Beginner may steadfastly refuse to make any concessions, or changes to their campaign, or put any personal sacrifice or preparedness into the game session ~ even a few hours time, to make the game better, may be considered a sacrifice too far.  Players, likewise, may resent having to sacrifice their personal time to redraw their characters, or properly keep notes as to their advancement, or arrive on time, or any of a hundred other personal sacrifices that make group activities more pleasant.  And finally, all the players may constantly gripe and insist on more and more gain for their characters, a constant flow of greater rewards, to make playing the game for them tolerable.  Such players may even threaten to quit if the rewards of the game do not meet their standards.

All together, this behaviour becomes unsupportable, destructive, even vindictive over time.  Some groups nonetheless stagger on under this burden, supported by the unhealthy combination of a self-aggrandizing DM and selfishly motivated socio-challenged players.  Most Advanced Beginniners, however, get a taste of a different game identity embraced by a competent DM, and cease to reproduce the style of play in their own campaigns.

Consider:  if the game story and adventure is geared towards the service of NPCs in need, this provides the players with a set of ideals that are clearly recognized as heroic.  Non-heroic principles are easy to recognize ~ players who fail to answer the call to advanture, players who fail to recognize the wisdom of a mentor, players who play for selfish pursuits ~ these are clearly not the sort who are going to heroically help a village throw off its oppressors.

Heroes will view the opportunity to help the village voluntarily, as Zimbardo stipulates.  They will even go beyond what they are asked to do, willingly doing more than preserving the village, they will lay down their own lives if that's what it takes to make the village a thriving and happy place.  No heroic player would refuse to do so ... and so that helps bind the party together towards a single goal, a single purpose, which eliminates much of the selfish infighting that would go on at the sort of table that an Advanced Beginner might tolerate.

Nor would lives alone be the only sacrifice the players might be willing to make.  As heroes, they would impoverish themselves rather than hold back wealth from the needy.  They would soil their reputations rather than let one person suffer in their stead.  And they would do all this, just as Zimbardo points out, with no personal expectation of gain.

This last greatly eases the pressure put on a DM to constantly award more and more treasure.  As treasure and advancement become less and less a part of role-playing, the selfish motives to gain either are stripped out of the game and what is left are players acting together to achieve personal redemption rather than personal gain.

If we compare this to the stories we tell, as noted in the source material for the last class, Dan McAdams and Kate McLean argue that redemptive stories lead "to a demonstrably 'good' or emotionally positive outcome" for the participant of the game ~ providing us with legitimate evidence, through research, that acting the part of a hero, and believing that it is motivated by an emotionally healthy impulse, provides greater mental health for the participants of game play.

The Party as One Mind
All these things together provide a strong argument for the characters rightly being heroes in a role-playing game.  Heroes work together and make good parties.  Heroes contribute to the preparedness of the DM in that they willingly participate in the adventure the DM presents.  Heroes ask less for themselves, reducing the need to build campaigns around the glorification of wealth and power.  This makes more stable games, where the players adapt to playing at a certain power level for long periods.  Finally, the absence of heroism produces patterns of behaviour that are unhealthy, divisive and campaign wrecking.

It is natural, therefore, that as games advance towards competent play, DMs would encourage players to act in an heroic fashion.  And players, having experienced non-heroic games, would be appreciative of the dynamic of heroic games and therefore embrace them.

However ... the positivity of a redemptive story as described by McAdams and McLean is not limited strictly to moments of heroism.  Any person may feel reinvigorated and redeemed by any positive choice they've made regarding any moment or event they encounter.  Heroism is, yes, redemptive; but redemption need not necessarily be heroic.

Heroism is, like storytelling, a matter of personal experience with a method of role-play that works better than non-heroic play.  This does not follow, however, that heroic play is necessarily the only possible model that challenges non-heroic play.  There is no reason to assume that heroism and the lack of it is a black-and-white model.  After all, we do not live in a world of only heroes and villains.  We all have the capacity to be heroes, and villains, from moment to moment, without being defined as either emotionally.

Which is why we say that Heroism is a theory of role-play.  The argument that the players ARE heroes is subjective and without basis of fact.  What evidence can we show that absolutely supports the claim?  None.  So once again, as with story-telling, we must acknowledge the practicality of supporting the players' choice to be heroes, but we must not conclude that heroism is necessarily a fundamental part of gameplay's structure.

Thank you, that's all for today.  Please read McAdams and McLean's essay all the way through if you have not done so already.

Halloween and the Movies

As I'm not getting much written for the blog, I might as well include a piece I wrote for work.  I confess, it's heavy-handed, and a hard sell at the end; but perhaps the reader might recognize my style.  I didn't edit it on the website, or lay it out ... work likes the copy, but I wince myself.  Still, it's all true, even the hard sell.  I'm in the middle of it now and I can confirm the details.

Throughout the history of Halloween, going back a century or more, among costumes there have always been a few standards that we all recognize witches, skeletons, ghosts, clowns, knights, devils or pirates, plus a few others. These icons have been with us for ages, a collection of roles that reach far back into our collective conscious. Some reflect our darkest nightmares.
But in the last hundred years, our tastes for horror and for dressing up have witnessed many changes. It began slowly at first. As horror literature and science fiction was translated to film, we found universal images for new roles: Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Werewolf and the Invisible Man, among others. These took hold of our fascination and, as the movies changed, we changed along with them.
With the rise of television, in the post-war period, we saw new stories. We found images in the movies for soldiers, doctors, cops and cowboys … and spacemen of course. A whole new groundswell of costume ideas found their ways into the lexicon, which rose and grew throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
But with the 1970s, a new groundswell began, far below the radar of the ordinary Halloweener. In the mainstream, comic book heroes began to make their mark, the list of which is recognizable to everyone today … but an underground movement was brewing that would turn the costume world and it's head and expand the wearing of costumes far beyond a single night in October.
Cosplaying had originated in America as early as the 1930s, with increasingly larger conventions to celebrate costume wearing. By the early 1970s, fanzines, comic companies, scream queens and photographers were remaking costume history.
With the explosion of fandom that begin with the release of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, audience audience members dressed as characters from the movie with obsessive commitment – often every night for years at a time, as the decade ended.
At the same time, a different group of dedicated groupies, calling themselves “Trekkies,” began to gather with greater and greater frequency, with love for the Original Star Trek series that had been canceled in 1969. The fervor of these fans would, within a decade, drive Hollywood to relaunch the classic series, the first example of costume-conscious players to force a change in movie making.
It worked because Hollywood was looking for anything that would look like a blockbuster. Star Wars, and then Indiana Jones, changed the industry – and dedicated fans were making their own costumes based on the movies before pre-made versions were launched. In fact, all through the decade that followed, the costume industry struggled to find its footing with the staggering rush of possible costume ideas that the public began to demand.
Quietly, a few filmmakers making low-budget independent movies were changing the way we would see horror. Amidst the growing lexicon of movies, Halloween exploded on the scene, followed by Friday the 13th and other slasher films. Franchises were born and trick-or-treaters wearing hockey masks and carrying blunt instruments of every kind mushroomed. Along with Indy's hat and Luke's light-saber, the costume wearing universe had found a whole new level.
To keep up, the costume industry had to change. More and more demand for movie costumes, along with sources from comics, TV, books … and then video games, which was another level still, pushed manufactured costume demands to the absolute limit.
And what a limit! Every new exciting blockbuster or television series creates yet a new overwhelming demand for new costumes of every imaginable form. With satellite television, Netflix, direct to video and gorilla in the room, the Internet, we are literally adding hundreds of fresh costume ideas to the pile every single year.
None of this scares us, however. Here at the Costume Shoppe, we are making Halloween, and the whole year round, push the very envelope of costume availability. It's a wild ride every October and we are on top of it! It's a ride we love. That's why we have 15,000 costumes and 6,000 accessories available for purchase, covering hundreds of genres, from the smallest kids to adults. We have costumes for pets! We're the largest costume shop in Western Canada and we have the most.
We've gotten here by meeting the challenge and then going a step further. We're pleased and passionate and proud of what we do. Yet this isn't the finish line. There's only the future, as we grow bigger and better to meet it head on.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

9th Class: Storytelling

With this class, I feel it is time to discuss some of the theory that has grown around role-playing games, as we hear expressed whenever we seek out information about playing.  One such theory is the identification with the DM as a storyteller ... and consequently, with campaigns being founded upon great stories that the DM creates, which are then expanded by collaborative storytelling carried forward by the players, which is supported in part by the creation of backstories, the history and motivation of the character prior to the start of the campaign.

Let us consider for a moment the Novice participant moving towards a greater understanding of the game, graduating to Advanced Beginner.  As more games are played, the DM acquiring experience will find that much of the game running process includes giving information to the players so that they will: (a) understand what is going on; (b) envision a place as described; (c) create an intended emotional response; and (d) provide ground work for the players to make decisions which move events forward.

In storytelling, this information is called "exposition."  Exposition can be provided in a number of ways: through direct description of things; through direct dialogue given by non-player characters; with images; and with body language to convey importance.  Most importantly, we must all note that the very best exposition is that which is told in the form of a story, rather than just a list of facts.  We are more likely to be invested in a story, we are more likely to remember the parts of a story (because they fit together), and we are more likely to gain pleasure from retelling a story that we like.

And so, from personal experience, a DM who is practicing the game as an advanced beginner will naturally seek out ways to transform the exposition that must be given to the party into patterns which we would all recognize as stories.  Quickly, a positive feedback loop results.  DMs try harder to tell better stories, or find better stories, and players in turn respond to these better stories positively.

Before continuing, let's take a moment to understand what the better story accomplishes.  The DM has a set adventure in mind, which has come about through preparations the DM has made.  The adventure is itself a story: a group of creatures has taken an action that threatens some element of the setting, and the expectation is that the players will be commissioned to put an end to the threat.

However, prior to the players accepting the commission, they must be coaxed out of inactivity, so that they will take action.  They must be inspired.  They must feel that this commission is of some importance to them.  It is clear the commission is important to the DM; the DM has created the adventure.  But having not yet seen the adventure, or knowing fully what value the adventure holds, the players are naturally filled with resistance.

This resistance must be overcome.  The DM can plead with the players, asking that they simply accept the commission because the game requires it.  The DM can demand and threaten the players with in-game punishments, holding their feet to the fire by creating villains who will kill the players if they don't act.  The DM can threaten not to DM.  Each of these tactics, however, will tend to create negative feedback, in that they will be seen as manipulative and ethically irresponsible ~ and they will encourage like behaviour from players who concede to DMs who employ these tactics.  If the DM can threaten not to DM, that we as players can threaten not to play.  If the DM can plead with us to take part in his adventure, then we can plead with the DM to feed our own demands.  If the DM holds our feet to the fire with threats against our characters, we can kill the DMs treasured NPCs whenever it is plain the DM has pride in them.  And so on.

A proper story, however, has the power to inspire a player to take part because they want to.  An inspiring story appeals to emotions, which the players want to express and be a part of, feeding their curiousity, their sense of self-expression, their empowerment and their quest for an interpersonal connection.  As a story relayed by the DM touches on some personal story that a player possesses from their own life, a positive connection is made which then becomes a catalyst for agency and a desire for achievement.  Stories compel these responses ethically, because the participants respond pro-actively.  They don't need to be pushed.  They will rush forward.

By the time a DM becomes competent, they have already told hundreds of stories of their own making, and repeated thousands more that they have repeated from another source. What's more, the best stories remain in the DM's mind, influencing other stories the DM will tell and bearing with them a strong sense of nostalgia that will serve as a beacon for what kind of stories ought to be told.

The appearance that stories create better games seems so obvious to a competent DM as to seem self-evident and absolutely beyond doubt.  It is obvious.  And yet, at the start of this class, I described storytelling as a theory.  What makes it a theory?

To begin with, storytelling has nothing specifically to do with role-playing games, except that we as humans play role-playing games.  Human beings are natural storytellers, and we do it constantly and all the time, in every encounter we have with others and in every instance where we think things to ourselves and try to give those things a structure and a meaning.  It is impossible to think rationally as a human without telling a story of some kind.

The argument that telling a story creates positive feedback from players is only true because telling a story always creates positive feedback ~ once we learn to tell stories well.  We learn as young children to create stories to make friends, to get out of trouble, to get the things we want, to settle differences and to express both our true and our false feelings.  We transform living in time into episodes that we integrate with meaning, and then we combine those meanings into our own life story, which in large part we only tell ourselves.  With stories, we construct periods of regret, shame, doubt, resistance to new ideas; and we construct moments when we redeemed ourselves, where we acted bravely or empathically ... and in every case, some of these constructions are true in the minds of others, and some of them are not true.

But the best stories win us partners in life, friends, loving children, trusting employers, community awards and self-respect.  Whereas the worst stories ~ and we all have them ~ propel us into depression, despair, self-destruction, abuse of others and potentially suicide.

If storytelling in every day life is the difference between how we behave as people, and how others behave towards us, why should we presume that a role-playing game would not function according to those same principles of psychology and biology?

Storytelling as the be-all and end-all of great role-play gaming is a theory because it is arrived at entirely through subjective analysis.  We cannot get there objectively ... and as we've already discussed, if we do not arrive at a position objectively, it is not knowledge.  Storytelling can appear to be a path to great role-playing, but we need to ask ourselves:  does it appear that way because of the game, or because of who we are as human beings?  Does it necessarily follow that because we are treating our fellow human beings better, that we are playing a better game?

There is no answer to that.  Which is why I don't say that storytelling isn't very important to the way that a role-playing game is played.  We don't know, because given the lack of hard evidence, we can't know.

This is not a bad thing.  It is a weakness to take things utterly on faith ~ and there are very many who, having experienced the positive feedback of storytelling, are very much prepared to take it on faith alone.  But faith is not knowledge.  We need to look closely at storytelling, deconstructing it and examining all its elements, if we wish to advance our understanding of that facet of gaming from competency to proficiency.

Until the next class, then.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

New Master Class Post

This post, Rewarding Players, is the shortest I have written for the MasterClass blog, just 2,600 words.  I wanted to put more into it, but the subject material simply didn't have the legs to let me riff for the desired 3,000 word minimum.

Sometimes, however, a post doesn't need words.  It needs an idea.  The idea here is that players are owed by DMs when they play well.  And a DM in that situation has an obligation to pay up, ethically and honestly.  Paying up doesn't have to mean pouring out a dumptruck of treasure and ensuring everyone goes up a level ... but it does mean rewarding the players in a way that matters, not only to the campaign but to them as People playing in the campaign.

Anyway.  This makes one post for September, which will be the only one as I explained earlier.  The next one, my last one for the foreseeable future, will not come until after Halloween, and potentially weeks after Halloween.  But I'm assured by my readers that we are well.

Enjoy the new post.  I'm here if anyone has questions.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


I promised myself I'd write a post today no matter what.  I wanted to write another RPG 201 post, but that's not quite coming together so instead I'm going to pick around the edges of it a bit.  Sometimes, thinking through writing is all I need.

My goal for the next four classes, nine through twelve, is talk through some of the theories related to how role-playing games work.  I feel I've established a grounding for processes, how expertise is acquired and how to approach a deconstruction of the game from an objective viewpoint ... so it stands to reason that we need to move forward into role-playing itself, to define how we see it and what is generally believed to make it work from the point of view of both the DM and the Player.

It seems strange at this late date, but I'm having a little trouble defining the goals of the whole course itself.  I am thinking of it, generally, as Introduction to RPG Mechanics ... the way it is done or operated, the practicalities behind it and the manner in which it causes participants to behave.  In that sense, it is also an Introduction to RPG Design ... except that I'm not talking Game Theory and how to design a "role-playing game."  Design is involved, but only in a meta-sense.

There are four theories I mean to discuss: the game as storytelling; the players as heroes; adventures written as quests; and role-play as the central purpose of the game.  I call these "theories" because none have been factually proven by any clinical research of any kind, but they are held to be true somewhat universally throughout the role-playing community.

I have written posts disparaging all of them ... but that is not my purpose with this course.  Instead, I want to deconstruct each theory from the perspective of explaining why they are held to be true, and why that belief carries a conviction that subverts any attempt at examination.  Most role-players would be hard pressed to admit that their impression of these things ~ stories, heroes, quests and role-play ~ is founded on a complete lack of evidence.  In fact, it would seem, for very good psychological reasons, that these things are all drowning in blatantly obvious evidence, which most readers would be able to point to at a moment's notice if the topic came up.

Except that all the "evidence" is subjective evidence.  In other words, not evidence.  As I explained with my last class.

So this is a tall order.  I have it structured in my head but the words themselves haven't had the time to ruminate their way off my fingers so the process of getting it written hasn't happened.  Sometimes writing is like having a room full of legos but we haven't decided which end of Verne's Nautilus we're going to start building first.

Today, I had an odd request at work, where much of my job has become explaining to callers what costumes our store has in stock, if at all.  I get a lot of requests for adult costumes for kids, many of which we have: like an Indiana Jones costume for a kid or a Tyrannosaurus costume for a kid.  Today, I had someone ask about a kid's costume for an adult - specifically, a carebear costume in an adult size.  It is a world gone mad.

I spend my days also writing about WWE costumes, or LOL Surprise costumes, or disco lady and material girl costumes, or Oogie Boogie costumes.  Three months ago I had a job where I made the same soup every shift without fail ... now I'm writing at length about a sexy nun costume full of double entendres, and five minutes later I'm writing about a puppy costume for a 12 month old child.  It is indeed a world gone mad.

So I'm having a bit of trouble putting together the legos to explain why storytelling for role-playing is a self-fulfilling problem solving mechanic for illusionary problems, yet a crippling blind spot where it comes to moving from the pedantic thinking of someone competent into the progressive thinking of someone proficient.  I'm thankful I've had the time to describe the terms; but there's a long way to go yet.

I'm on it.  A bit distracted, and bound to be more distracted before Halloween ends, but I'm on it.  To whet your appetite I'll leave you with this graph about narrative identity and it's relationship to the process of getting acquainted with a new job.  This has direct bearing on what I just said about story telling in role-play.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why a University Class at All?

Given my recent work on these RPG 201 posts, I think it's fair to ask the question, am I a mentor?  I know for a fact that some would say "yes," without hesitation.  Others might say I had important things to say or that I was useful.  And still others would answer emphatically, "No."

Frankly, it doesn't matter.  As my 8th Class argues, every voice is suspect.  Every voice, regardless of the status, regardless of the number of years behind it, regardless of the accreditation behind that voice, has every chance of being dead wrong about some, most or all of what it claims.  That is why we create boards that evaluate professions after it's members have reached the last measure of their educations, or the pinnacle of their careers.  Because people, even the proficient and the expert, fall into patterns of thinking that lead them into bad habits and potentially abusive, misleading and criminal behaviour.

Despite what many people think, even after you get your papers, there is no free ride.  If you're not consistently responsible and above board, people will notice and you will lose your credibility, your status and your right to practice.

That is why I would be the first to argue, resist what I'm telling you.  Resist it.  Don't accept it as written.  Test it, examine it with your own experience, research it from data you find both inside and outside role-playing games and come to your own conclusions.  I am not describing my right way.  I'm describing a method for the reader to use to find the right way.

This does not mean there is no right way ... and it especially does not mean that any way is right if it is the right way for you.  I don't want to explain that.  If it's not self-explanatory at this point, it isn't worth my effort to flog why.

The goal is to build a premise for how RPGs function within the framework of other established fields.  RPGs do not exist in a bubble onto themselves.  The principles surrounding participation between DM and Players obey the same social conditions that affect all group dynamics, all power dynamics, all motivational dynamics and all other human activities.  As a DM, we face the same trials that a manager faces in handling employees; we face the same limitations in how much data we can manage at any given moment, just as a firefighter or a soldier manages; we possess the same base instincts and needs as any other person acting within a family, a tribe or a clique.  The guiding principles underlying role-playing are not a science onto themselves.  Role-playing is not "unique" where human-to-human interaction is concerned.  It is merely a different venue.

That's been the trouble to date. There's been a deliberate attempt to "pretend" that RPGs somehow operate according to internal rules that are utterly removed from human experience.  As if, sitting at a table to play D&D, we're not dealing with the same human emotions we would find at a game of poker, or RISK, or a wargame like Battletech.

We're human.  We have to deconstruct RPGs along those lines, to see how they're put together apart from the rules of the game.  Why do we like these things?  Why do they create the impulses, the obsessions, the eventual ennui, that RPGs create?  What parts of the psyche do they feed and what parts do they corrupt?  These are questions no one is asking, because there's a quiet resistance to seeing that RPGs fall into the orbit of human experiences.

As if somehow, admitting the fact would somehow cheapen RPGs.  I don't agree with that.  I believe that by measuring RPGs, and the behavior of the participants, as we've learned to measure every other human activity, we teach ourselves what to expect and how to understand our motivations, our shortcomings and our means of self-improvement.

What did he mean, "some?" Pray tell me, what parts do not fall into the purpose of those exercises? What parts of "role-playing games" are not governed by the same goals behind clinical and academic efforts as encouraging emotional, uncertain people to role-play out their experience?  Was he being deliberately obtuse, or did he really think that D&D consisted largely of people doing things disconnected from everyday human response?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

8th Class: The Pursuit of Objective Knowledge

With our last class, we made reference to the inability of educators to create any legitimacy for the teaching of critical thinking. We discussed subjectivity, making the point that while it was an important part of a human being's nature, subjective awareness of things is not knowledge.  Knowledge, we said, is objective.

From the above, however, we should conclude that no one has the ability to tell another person, "think objectivity," which is substantially no different from asking someone to think critically.  How, then, do we follow through on my promise with our last class to discuss ways in which Novices can adjust their games in an objective manner?

To understand this, let's look more closely at the conventions we discussed in our 5th class.  A convention is a set of agreed upon standards that have developed over time as a shared value upon which a large number of persons agree.  Shared values occur because a particular viewpoint, the origin of which may be obscure, tends to make sense to a large enough group of persons that it becomes strongly suggested as a guideline that most, or all other people should follow.  Depending on the context, we might refer to such conventions as "common sense" or "tradition."

Conventions come in many forms
Notions gain the support of a large number of persons also share a relative objective status.  A convention comes about from no single person's subjectivity.  Repeated observation and acceptance of the convention by multiple persons suggests that it has a validity that goes beyond what can be perceived, felt or imagined by any one person.  Therefore, we might argue that following conventions is good practice ~ and many people argue exactly that.

However, while we might argue that convention bears consideration and may be a pathway to facts and truths, the mere fact that many people believe a thing does not make it so.  Human beings are of a kind in many aspects; and being like creatures, with like hormonal natures and like experiences as they age from children to become adults, can easily come to the same consistently wrong conclusions about a thing than arriving at the right ones.  Conventions about most things are almost always exploded in any subject material where experimentation and scientific method can be applied.  The history of human progress has left thousands of previously held conventions in ditches on the side of the road as knowledge has been expanded.  Of course, as human groups, we're always ready to make new ones.

That said, where conventions exist, it is good that any novice be aware of them.  The conventions in RPGs persist because new DMs who are picking up the mantle of the game are pleased to adopt standards that will, initially, simplify their games.  Our role-playing Novice will do better to follow in that practice in order to swim and not sink when beginning to run.  So our Novice rolls characters as expected, encourages story-making, buys modules, watches Critical-Role on the internet for ideas and functions as we would expect most DMs to function.  This is perfectly normal behaviour.

Just as conventions are created from many sources, we prepare
ourselves by investigating a wide range of conventions
Because we cannot trust conventions, however, our Novice will do well to seek another objective means of determining truths from falsehoods.  We discussed one alternative in our first week of classes.  Through various forms of preparation, particularly research and resources, our Novice can personally investigate each convention through the eyes of multiple persons and sources, both inside and outside the RPG community.  For example, ideas like "alignment" or "combat" can be explored at length in psychology or military history textbooks, and through personal interactions and experimentation well out of the RPG arena, in a vast number of ways.  By physically and personally exploring the use of weapons, say through the Society for Creative Anachronism, our Novice can gain insight into different points of views and conventions, which can then be compared with those conventions that exist in role-playing games.  Gaining a choice of which set of precepts to believe, coupled with subjective experience, our Novice can decide which ideas and philosophies seem most effective where applied to game-play.

This still does not amount to an objective experience, however.  The decision is still largely a subjective one.  Our novice can easily be enamoured by what's new, rather than what's best.  We will often sacrifice old ideas because something fresh is exciting and compelling.  We can't be completely certain that any decision being made is, in fact, objective.

As well, our Novice has a limited amount of time and capacity to personally investigate every convention that exists, in order for such a choice to be made.  Very much time can be spent trying to research or examine things, only to come up empty, which can be particularly frustrating for our Novice, who has little background in what to search for or where.  So while preparation is potentially a great addition to the process of objective thinking, it brings its own problems.  The writer of a book can easily be subjectively or conventionally wrong about whatever is being written.  It is hard for a novice to tell.

With so many conventions and possibilities, we need people
who have been there to help us find the right path.
To empower our Novice, we need a 3rd entity: a mentor of some kind.  A mentor has already been where the Novice is.  A mentor has navigated the various conventions and attempts at alternative points of view that our Novice wishes to have ~ and so a mentor can point our Novice in the right directions, to read the right books, to understand where conventions fail to hold up in the long run and to see which conventions will likely maintain their validity over time.

Like conventions and forms of preparation, however, mentors also have their drawbacks.  A mentor may very well be prejudiced against certain ideas, or resistant against some facts, or simply motivated by some human quality to spread misinformation or ignorance. Not every self-proclaimed mentor deserves recognition as such, but for our Novice, again, it can be hard to tell one mentor from another.  Where it comes to knowing what to believe, or how to play, or how to prepare for that play, our Novice can easily reach out to any voice willing to hold our Novice's attention long enough to inculcate a misguided or self-serving agenda.

Therefore, while a mentor might offer an objective viewpoint, we can never be sure which mentor is true and which is false.

How, then, are we to pursue an objective viewpoint?  There seems no way to remove ourselves from the pitfalls of someone's subjectivity, no matter what we do.  Take heart, however, in the knowledge that this is how it has always been ... and that the solution is simple.

Diligently check each source of potential discovery against every other source, and see if it measures up.  We have four subjective sources: personal experience, convention, mentorship and preparedness (through research, resources and other means).  Whatever any of these sources might suggest ~ including, most of all, personal experience! ~ do not trust it until you have confirmation from all three of the other sources.  And even then, hold that knowledge in reserve.  It might still be wrong, as you haven't yet found the proof that explodes it.

What this means for our Novice is this: the pursuit of knowledge requires that we presume, all the time, that we are probably wrong about everything we believe.  We must not believe things because we are certain these things are right ~ but rather, because these things we believe are the best we have, right now.  Give us evidence, provide the right proof, demonstrate in defacto manner that we have reason to believe that we've been wrong, and we'll admit it.

Until then, whatever you tell us, we're going to turn it sideways and look at it from every angle, comparing it to everything we've learned thus far, then decide for ourselves what is the best thing to believe.

This does not come easily.  Most persons cannot bear a condition that acknowledges the possibility of error in perpetuity.  There is great comfort in being right; even when rightness is impossible, and must be steadfastly taken on faith and faith alone in order to make it so.  It is a peculiar person who can resist the appeal of certainty, even if all certainty is a lie.

Yet, for our Novice, it is best to gain good habits early.  The best habit for our Novice is to question everything.  Why is this a convention?  Why do these things I've discovered not agree with things others say?  Why is this mentor telling me something different?

Our Novice has to keep asking until the answers become consistent, whatever the source.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life Shifts to the Left

Let me start today by saying I'm sorry.  In the interest of my sanity, and in putting energy towards things that will serve me best over the next year, I am forced to put my Masterclass blog on hiatus.  This follows my online campaign being put on hiatus, and the podcast never materializing, and a host of other things in my life that have been shoved to the side as I adjust my lifestyle.

Until just recently, I had a lot of time. I was working about 15-20 a week, with a 1-hour a day commute (round-trip). Now I am working 40 hours a week, with a 2.5-hour commute. And with Halloween coming on, the costume business is about to go turbo. Workload has increased about 20% across the board comparing this week to last week, and it is going to go on like that (and worse) through the next seven weeks.

I have written an email to those persons who are, right now, supporting my Masterclass and expect two posts for same this month of September.  I have explained that those posts will be written ~ I just don't know when, exactly.  I'd like to work slowly, a bit each day, and get them completed before things get completely crazy with October ... but in any case, anyone who has supported me thus far will continue to have access to the Masterclass blog, because that is my commitment and I will keep it.

However, after those two last posts, I will not be writing more for it in the foreseeable future.  My circumstances may change and I may pick them up again ... but not without much more time at my disposal.  Rest assured, if anyone wants to stop supporting me over this issue, those people have my absolute respect and understanding.  You should not feel any need to support anything that you do not feel compensated for.

It takes anywhere from 10-12 hours of hard planning, thinking and writing to put one of those 3000-4000 word posts together.  In comparison, it is about 2.5 - 3 hours of far less effort to write one of the RPG 201 posts (which I plan to continue to post on the free blog).  It isn't just the time; it is the effort, the painstaking concept of it, that wears me down.

I trust this is forthcoming and honest enough for my readers.  Please continue to watch this space.  I may get thin until after Halloween is over, but I'm not going anywhere.  I'm just writing less.

Friday, September 14, 2018

7th Class: Subjectivity and Objectivity

Following up on our last class discussing the five steps of learning, we looked at Hubert and Stuart Dreyfuss' discussion of mistakes and learning from them.  As a part of that, I spoke on the need to reflect upon the decisions we make as DMs, evaluating the effectiveness and the rightness of those decisions, "without assuming our [original] judgment was correct."

Before continuing, we will need to look at what it means to reflect upon actions that we've taken, or upon anything else that we may not fully understand.  This process is called "critical thinking" and is a fundamental principle of all scholarship and knowledge.  But while it has been seen as a primary skill in learning anything, there is much doubt at present that critical thinking is something that can taught.  In Daniel T. Willingham's seminal work on Critical thinking, he asks and answers the question,
"Can critical thinking acually be taught?  Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.  People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking it not that sort of skill."

We should find this interesting.  Suppose we want to progress an individual ~ we'll call him Jim ~ from competency to proficiency as a DM. We cannot, as demonstated, teach Jim how to think critically, and then apply that critical thinking skill to role-playing games so that he becomes a more adept role-player.  Thus we are left to ask, what can we do?

We can explain to Jim that, from the time that he was a novice, that most of his "knowledge" came from things that he perceived as he experienced the game being played, as well as his emotional responses to that play, and finally to his imagination ~ the set of things that were not concretely real, but that he added personally to the game's play as an augmentation to his direct experiences.  We all do this.  It is our biological nature to take information gained from our senses and our responses, and transform that information into "common sense" axioms, even before we've ceased being a novice.

Let's take an example.  In our second class, I listed a series of things that a DM or Player might research as a means of preparing to play the game better.  One of the things on that list was (d) solving problems related to group dynamics, by asking questions of the players to determine how best to get a disparate and unique group to work together.

Suppose Jim, as a Novice, begins asking such questions.  When Jim receives answers, he naturally hears the words and reads the faces of the players, then "feels" something about what was said, and finally creates an answer from his imagination.  Because he is a Novice at the game, these are the only skills he brings himself ... and it can be seen fairly quickly how Jim is going to get himself into trouble.

Jim has little to no experience at all with the game, so when he is surrounded by Players and a DM, he is out of his element.  He will tend to make the same personal judgments about a Player's motivation in the game as he would about any person acting in any other circumstance.  Likewise, his feelings about what is said will be the same feelings that he might apply to a person's behaviour in the workplace, or at a bar, or while walking down the street.  Seeing someone get overly excited about, say, a pile of imaginary gold pieces, might cause him to have very different feelings about the experience than a long-time player would.  And when applying his imagination to what his feelings mean, or what his senses tell him, he would likely jump to conclusions that an experienced player would never entertain.

Jim might be the sort of person, with the sort of background, that enables him to "get it" instantly.  I did.  But he might just as easily not be ~ and thus we can understand why many people who first encounter a description of the game are ready to turn up their nose and move off.

Let's say, however, that whether through instinct, or through a willingness to experience more play, Jim acquires that set of conventions that lets him expand his outlook.  Yet as he progresses from Novice to Advanced Beginniner, we should understand that most decisions he will make about which conventions can be ignored, and what parts of the game need to be changed, will be based on his perceptions, his feelings and his imagination.

While very important to our make-up as human beings, we have to understand that these things are not knowledge.  They are beliefs.  They are a subjective judgment about things ~ and while these judgments have value to the individual, we further recognize that all persons have these judgments based on their own personal beliefs, which are therefore different from one another.

Reaching a consensus about subjective beliefs is far, far different from reaching a consensus about knowledge.  When Jim says, "My pencil is broken," this is a demonstrable fact that witnesses can examine and identify for themselves.  Unless the pencil is sharpened, it has no value as a pencil.  But when Jim says, "I don't like the way this pencil feels in my hand," there is no consensus on the pencil's value.  Jim is still able to write with is, as is everyone else; and each person will have their own personal take on the value of the pencil, none of which can be identified as a factual value.

When Advanced Beginners set out to alter and adjust an existing set of conventions, they appear to be doing so based on what they would describe as their experiential knowledge ... but it is, in fact, a personal set of values based on what parts of the game matter specifically to those persons.  Jim decides to change the rules surrounding, say, Alignment, because he doesn't like Alignment, not because the conventions around Alignment are necessarily ineffective.  Jim is not learning more about Alignment and how it works in the game; Jim is learning that he can change parts of the game in order to suit his whims.

This is not how Jim would describe it, however.  From Jim's perspective, these changes are "necessary."  It is "clear" that without the changes, an "improved" game wouldn't be possible.  Jim is still describing a pencil that doesn't feel right in his hand.  His explanations for the change are not grounded in demonstrable facts; others must take his word, relying solely on his subjective opinion (or coincidentally, on their own), if they are to agree with Jim.  Neither Jim nor those who agree with him can point to a set of facts that would convince everyone to plainly see that Alignment is ineffective as a game mechanic.

The alternative position to judging something subjectively is to judge it objectively.  Objective reasoning argues that something is true only if it is universally true ~ that is, everyone is subject to that truth even if they can't perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it.  Objective truths, or facts, arise from investigation that can then be proven by methods that are indisputable.  If there were something evident about Alignment that caused every person experimenting with it to observe the same reactions, experience the same responses from players, and note the same patterns of behaviour in accordance with Alignment, we would soon develop a convention that would be imposed on nearly every game: don't play with alignment.  I say "nearly every game" because even when confronted with facts, some people stubbornly persist at things.

Suppose Jim continues to play his games in a subjective manner, becoming a DM with the certain feeling that every value he has in playing the game is the "right" value.  As he becomes competent, he will rigidly close down every option of play that he finds personally in conflict with his sense of right and wrong.  This rigidity will steadily, with experience, remove all options from the manner in which he plays ... in which case, whenever he plays, there will always seem to be one clear and perfect option, no matter what has to be decided.

Because this bears a similarity to the Expert described in our last class, who does not make a decision among multiple options, as a Proficient Player would, it is probable that Jim will begin to self-describe himself as an expert.  Like an expert, he sees a problem, he understands immediately what he must do to address the problem, and he solves it.  Except that he does not solve the problem for anyone else. He only solves the problem for Jim.

Dreyfus is quite clear on this point.  Expertise is gained first by fully understanding the whole panoply of options that potentially exist: playing the game with or without alignment, and a myriad of splintering degrees to which alignment in all its possible forms might be structured in order to give the best possible repeatable result for the greatest number of persons.  That is the fundamental of social science, where absolute facts are difficult because of the complexity of human beings (as opposed to pencils).  It is only with great awareness of the various possibilities that the Expert emerges from Proficiency.

Rather than attempting to reason our way through our games with "critical thinking," we need to understand constantly that whatever we believe, whatever methods we use right now to run our games, whatever effectiveness we may have had in the past with our foregoing strategies, we are still in the wrong about something.  The fact that we can perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it, is immaterial.  We know we are in the wrong because we haven't yet shown everyone else in the world how we are right enough to be followed exactly in our behaviour.

Being in the wrong is not a bad thing.  It is a good thing.  It means constantly and vigilantly looking for the value we hold, that we are wrong about.  We don't tire of looking because, first, we know it exists, and second, because diligent searching has found wrong things about our values in the past.

We're just not always willing to accept being wrong, even when we change to account for it.

With our next class, we'll try to evaluate some of the ways that Novices can employ to adjust their games in an objective manner.