Friday, June 22, 2018

What Concerns Me with NPCs

This is not a Master Class post.  It describes a tangent that came out of the last teaser I posted for the Master Class, NPCs Lie.  At the front of that post I wrote that, "role-players who must treat every encounter with excessive dramatic importance" frustrate me.  I then gave an example of a group of cotters met by the players ... leaving off the player's reaction deliberately, as the post itself is a teaser.

Forget what that reaction is.  The tangent was proposed by a comment I received from Homer2101, who had not read the full post (so it isn't relevant to this discussion).  The comment started,
"A real traveler coming upon some cotters has the benefit of about fifty million years of evolution plus a few decades' experience in local social expectations, when intuiting the correct course of action in a particular social situation. A player sitting at a game table has none of those benefits. The player sees an action (NPCs going for weapons) but she cannot reliably divine the reasoning behind it. To her the NPCs are black boxes. The same forces that cause otherwise-normal people to behave like fuckwads on the Internet, make it very difficult for players to intuit the appropriate course of action when interacting with NPCs.
"Clever players try to guess what the DM is thinking."
Homer then describes solutions that might be employed to solve the problem he identified.  That's fine.  I've tried some of them, I don't think they work, that's opinion, it's not relevant to this post either.  I answered Homer in the comments of that post, and among other things he replied with this question,
"... distilling ideas into discrete numbers has some advantages, which you are probably aware of. So What makes an NPC's relationship with the players different from combat, trade or knowledge?"

Okay.  There's the background.  I'd like to deconstruct this.

I don't accept that a real person in a real place has special intuition in problem solving that a role-player doesn't also have.  This, in fact, is the fundamental psychology behind the invention of role-playing as a therapeutic technique, one that long predates its use in gaming.  A player sitting at a game table ALSO has the benefit of evolution; not just the 50 million years of mammalian development, but centuries of experience with fictional development, theme, motivation, character and resolution.

I don't accept that only clever players try to guess what the DM is doing.  I think all players do this, with varying amounts of success.  It's a part of our human nature: guessing what other people are thinking.  Not just the DM. Everyone. It is what we do when we interact.  It is what the reader is doing while reading these words: "What is Alexis thinking?  What is he trying to get across?"  Our ability to do this with anybody we hear or read is not, I think, a special element of what clever players do.  Clever players are possibly better at it.  Or read another way, clever players consciously do something that everyone else does habitually.

Is that superior?  Or is that a way of overthinking?  My experience as a DM is that players who push to circumvent my thoughts by guessing ahead of me are usually a very large problem in game play.  This is part of the issue I proposed at the start: that savvy players treat every episode of NPC interaction as HUGELY important ... largely because they take the position that if the DM put this cotter's village in front of us, it must ~ MUST ~ mean something.

If it doesn't, all that DM's mind guessing will likely find a plan where there is no plan.  And that is a problem.  In my game, I'm likely to put a cotter's village in front of the party, because they've chosen to visit a place that would logically have a cotter's village.  And that is my thinking.  Like saying, if you're in a neighborhood with homes, there's probably a convenience store.  The convenience store isn't relevant to what's going on with the game.  No one at the convenience store has information for the party.  It is a convenience store.  And that's all.

I can create parts of my world all night long that way, without anything having "meaning," because my world is a sandbox.  Not a pre-made adventure, with NPC's waiting in a Truman Show manner, ready to play their part when the players walk by.  I'm good with my world being that way.  That's fine with me.  That's how the real world works.  No one at the local convenience store cares who or what you are, or what your plans are, or what adventure you're on.  It is up to you, the player, to show how what matters to you needs to matter to them.

If you won't do that, or can't do that, they don't care.

What makes an NPC's relationship different from combat, trade or knowledge?  The latter three are game metrics ~ performance measures of a player's activity or performance, at something the player attempts to achieve or succeed at.  Combat is a metric that measures the player's success at surviving battle.  Trade is a metric that compares the player's wealth with what the player can buy.  Knowledge is a metric that defines the player's performance at knowing things, both abstract and concrete.

The NPC is a not a metric.  The NPC's relationship with the player CAN be treated as a metric; gawd knows, I've tried to do that.  But a relationship is a correlation of statistical dependencies and associations, some of which are causal, some of which are reactive, but mixed in with motivations that might come from anywhere.  Relationships are not measurements.  Some might feel that they can be measured, but they themselves are not, like combat, a method OF measurement.

What the DM is thinking in creating an NPC might be, hell, anything.  We're just used to thinking that we can guess what an NPC thinks because the endless stream of modular adventures that have been thrust into the culture all have that Truman stank connected with them.


The NPC exists because the player exists.  This is, we have been told, the ONLY reason the NPC exists.  And in that argument, the NPC does seem like a metric.  It allows the clever player the fundamental a priori argument that I've already stated: since this NPC exists, it must therefore serve the player.  I have to figure out what that is.

But this is actually bullshit.  If I don't accept the premise as a DM, you as player have no leg to stand on.  And I don't accept the premise.  The NPC does not exist to serve the player.

Now, in recent building block posts, I have written that the NPC ought to provide a service for the player.  This is true.  The convenience store provides a service. You can buy things there.  This does not mean the convenience store serves you, as pawn in your life's game, as the old man who approaches the party does in a typical store-bought game adventure.

So.  I'm not very concerned about the NPC's relationship to the player. The player has to create and build that relationship. I only supply the NPC ~ and the NPC's motivations might be anything.  Literally anything.  How many people exist in the world, and what is the number of their collective motivations?

I'm not very concerned with the players taking the appropriate course of action.  There is no appropriate choice.  There is no inappropriate choice.  I'm not frustrated by players who don't take the appropriate course.  I'm frustrated by players who treat every encounter as though there is one.

I'm not concerned about clever players who try to guess what I'm thinking ... except that they keep thinking that I'm thinking something that I'm not.  Or worse, that I'm thinking what I will never, ever think ... that this NPC exists to serve the player.  If clever players would open up their minds and actually consider what I might be thinking ... they'd learn to be less concerned with that, and more concerned with addressing what's happening.

What's happening is much more interesting and concrete than what might be happening.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Story Behind the Senex Rewrite

This post is about business.  Perhaps someday you'll be where I am, and have to parse out something like this yourself.  I have been a tortured soul for several days now, looking for the ethical path.

Some months ago, with inspiration I wrote a post deconstructing the actions of players in my online world, carefully explaining my methodology as a DM, my motivation and expectations from the players, and why I thought the players reacted as they did.  I had never written a post like this.  I had not conceived of the idea until a few hours before writing the post.

The post was 5,600 words and was a lot of effort to write.  It was detailed, finicky work, with lots of consideration for providing a fair and faithful representation of my own feelings at the time and the desire not to offend.  I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of it.

The post was immediately very popular.  The first four comments on the post all said MORE.  And the fourth comment, from Samuel Kernan, suggested pledging for more such content, at a $3-$5 range.

So I wrote another post, similar to the first.  And that was very popular, too.  So it occurred to me to take Samuel up on his suggestion and set up a schedule for writing these posts, relating it to Patreon and putting it behind a paywall.  And as a matter of fact that also worked.  My Patreon account jumped more than a hundred dollars a month in pledges.


Good.  But I'm no dummy.  I saw immediately that there would be two problems that were going to arise.

First, the posts were burdensome to write.  Two a month, with a set minimum of 3,000 words, was going to be a heavy workload and they have been.  No complaints, but I have had to account for the time and ensure that both those posts have been completed before the end of each month.  Without question, after writing 13 of them now, it is work, no different than any other job might be ~ and in the short run, not at a high pay grade.

Second, I was utterly dependent on the existence of the campaign blogs having already been written.  Without that content, in the Senex and Juvenis campaigns, there was no "great new idea" for Patreon.  I relied on those campaigns to make the plan work.

However, I had never made a secret of the fact that I was running those online campaigns for the sake of my reputation and ultimately as a means of drumming up financial support.  Before I could tell people how to run D&D, I had to be SEEN running D&D, and well enough to justify people in believing what I had to say.  And it worked.  In nine years of running online games, I haven't seen anyone online argue that the campaigns proved I was a bad DM.

Which brings us to last month, when I discovered that the names on character contributions had been replaced with "anonymous," effectively sabotaging the value of those campaigns as readable commodities.  Whatever the reason, this was a massive threat to my new business model.  Without the campaign in existence, I was sunk.  So I took action.  I removed the Senex campaign from the public, placing it into private to protect the content.

I explained online what I thought was happening: that two players had deliberately sought out to disrupt the content by deleting their nicks, specifically Andrej and Delfig.  I immediately got push back from James Clark, who played Andrej, denying having taken any action.  He explained that he had lost the original Andrej account, etc., as a possible explanation.  The only thing is ... all of those accounts had been there 14 days before.  I know.  I had read them.  I was not prepared to believe this sudden change was coincidental.  I'm still not.

One commenter, Daniel Oliveira, suggested a possible explanation: and that might be the case.  I did not see that, however, as something that changed the threat level.  I had created something good, which the readers were decidedly supporting.  I was not going to risk that on the explanation of a stranger on the internet.

Still, Daniel's final words rang my conscience and I did not forget it:
"Hope that you put the Campaign Senex blog back online. I've found your blog 40-something days ago and I'm reading it all, chronologically, from the very start. So I'm fucking curious to finish reading the campaign."

And I did not like writing the second post of the masterclass blog last month without having that Senex campaign to link up with for reference.  So I ruminated.  And ruminated.  And considered what I could do about it.

So at 4:30 PM, lying in a cool bath on a hot day, I reasoned with myself that I could rewrite the whole campaign, editing it, so that it could be preserved without any worry that someone with a grudge might someday come in and delete comments they had made six years ago, because I had misrepresented them in some way.  I didn't like that.  I worked damn hard on those campaigns.  I feel, rightly or wrongly, possessive of them.

At 5:00 PM on Monday, I started editing the first post of the first campaign, which I originally published on this blog, before ultimately creating a new blog just for the campaign.  I set myself a blog size of at least 10,000 words for each "campaign post."  Six hours later, I was still putting the posts together, managing to edit, organize, format and parse out a little more than half of one such post.

The work, I found, despite my zeal in undertaking the task as soon as I had conceived it, was excessively nit-picky.  Players were chucking all sorts of garbage into their game comments, jokes, odd bits of grammar and punctuation that had to be puzzled over, stating things out of character or excessively in character, all the usual things players do in a game.  I was anxious to be true to the material and yet to make the material more relevant to my fundamental needs: to have a resource that I could count on for further deconstruction essays, for those loving such essays.

As the work went on, however, soaking up more and more time, I could not help wondering, "Why the hell am I doing all this work?  Does anyone even care?"  It was pretty easy to go back and see that none of those old posts are getting much attention these days.  One page view a week is a big deal.  And so in the midst of the work, I found myself questioning the work ... which is perfectly normal for any monumental task.  Particularly as I discovered that it took no more than five campaign posts on the blog to fill out 11,500 words.

There are 467 posts on the Senex blog.  Think about that a moment.

Editing the whole campaign is a GIANT task.

So I began to wonder.  Do I post this on the Tao of D&D blog, where it can be read by anyone, for free ... or do I post it on the Master Class blog, behind a $3 paywall?  I hemmed and hawed about it all through Tuesday.  I shut my online Juvenis campaign down early on Tuesday because I was so tired from the work and the thinking that I had to crash that afternoon.  I talked the question over with my partner.  I talked the question over with my daughter.

Ultimately, the decision was made on this basis.  The rewrite had one relevant purpose: to sustain the content that was going to be appearing on the Master Class blog.  Therefore, it effectively IS the Master Class.  Given the amount of work it was going to be to edit it, I felt it fair to support the paywall ~ however people might feel about paywalls.  I was working.  I felt it was fair that it should increase the value that people who were supporting me on Patreon would get for their money.  With this reasoning, I published the post Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning, I got a message from James C., who ran the character Andrej, one of those that went anonymous.  The message was not sent to my email, it was posted as a comment on google+:
"So as if publicly accusing your former players (me among them) of inexplicably deleting their names from countless old posts wasn't bat-shit crazy enough, you've now decided to edit the content they helped to create without checking in with them (again) and put it all behind your paywall? It's your blog, and you can do what you want with it, but my advice to you, moving forward and for the sake of both yourself and your current players & collaborators (Juvenis campaign), is to treat them better..."

Okay, there's anger there.  I concede that there was public accusation.  I concede that I am probably bat-shit crazy.  I don't think either is necessarily unfounded, considering this is the Internet, and that I've had some genuine, sustained online hate directed at my thoughts and decisions.  But I'll grant that I am operating without certain information and it has been for that reason that I took some of the more egregious accusations I made off my blog.

However ... I did not "check in" with this player before taking action because this player was in no way connected with any of the material that I posted on Tuesday.  He had not joined the campaign as yet, and therefore was not relevant to the decision I had to make Tuesday.  Granted, if I follow through with my plan, I will eventually add the content he helped create, and I am sure this is how he saw it.  So he has a reasonable expectation that I am bound to edit ... mmm ... around 80,000 words of campaign content first, so that I can then start to edit the content that included him.

I'm also sure that he isn't considering the amount of work involved with painstakingly and accurately re-editing the content of multiple contributors, as opposed to one contributor who wrote ten comments without much long-term consideration about how those comments might someday be used to educate others.  Which I am doing.  Which may, or may not, be my privilege.  It's a grey area.  Someone could, I suppose, sue for a % of my Patreon.  I don't know.  I know that I'm not going to restore the Senex campaign as a public platform and I know I'm not going to edit this much content for free.  I have limits on how generous I'm prepared to be with my time and my expertise.

I suspect that the mere fact of the publication Tuesday, and the lack of comments about it, has some people ... questioning my motivation here.  So I have tried to write a post explaining my position, and why more of these Senex rewrites are bound to appear in the future.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Senex Campaign 1: First Day in Dachau

After much thought, I've come to a decision about the Senex Campaign, which I took off-line some weeks ago.  I have decided to write it out, so that it can be preserved as I feel it ought to be preserved.

This gives me an opportunity to properly edit the content.  First and foremost, to remove immaterial content, such as comments about availability or status.  To clean up the grammatical and spelling errors.  To sort out discontinuities, particularly the temporal problem of players happening to comment long after a question was asked or already answered.  I can remove comments that went nowhere.  Or rather rude comments that added little to the overall experience.  And I can clarify wherever that might make the message clearer, even if the players at the time were forced to suffer my limitations.  Hell, I can even replace old diagrams with better, more aesthetic versions, if I so choose.

So here I start that process, with the player's first days in 17th century Dachau.  And slowly, steadily, I can complete the whole campaign, beginning to end.




Starting the Campaign

Note: "OOC" = Out of Campaign

It is early afternoon on a Sunday, May 5, 1650. Four of you are resting yourselves on the porch of a town gasthaus, The Pig, at the corner where a narrow lane meets with the town square. You’re waiting for your friend Kazimir to arrive. Not long ago, you watched the usual scattering of most of the citizenry from the town cathedral’s doors from your usual place across the square…whereupon the gasthaus threw open its doors for business. A number of stalls and tables were quickly erected by teams of young boys in the employ of their merchant masters, a goodly number of them against the side wall of the church, where you can the usual piles of vegetables and sacks. Various less blessed members of the town are picking them over, haggling with the sellers and stuffing their bought wares into sacks to be hauled off to the various common quarters of the town.

The bartender, Helmunt, fills your drinks at no charge. Upon an agreement, the four of you have been given the privilege of drinking free in exchange for your endorsement, your willingness to put an end to any trouble and the simple fact that you represent the higher end of Helmunt’s clients. He has hopes that your presence on his front stoop might expose the quality of his kitchen to a few of the better members of the town.

You’re bored. This has been the routine for nearly two months now. You four, Tiberius, Josef, Delfig and Anshelm, met on a cold morning in mid-spring (for the region), finding yourselves all stranger, fairly compatible with one another and equally of the opinion that many of the vicissitudes of life are unappreciated by most. At the moment, however, you could stand a few more changes than there have been.

But it is a fine day; May Day celebrations were four days ago. The Bishop of Friesing, the nominal lord of the town, along with Dachau’s burghermeister, gave a fine festival--and since, all of you have been fairly restless. The discussions around the table have suggested a number of reasons for this…that you can’t stay in this dull town forever. That it is these ridiculous Catholics with their fascinations with guilt and sin. That a small taste of the outside world has whet your appetites. But what to do now is left to your minds to conceive. So far, there has been little luck there.
Delfig Kôlhupfer, the Bard: Has anyone visited The Pig that would have given us reason to think they might have something interesting to talk about? Was anything said or done at the May festival that would have be interesting to follow up?
Is there anything interesting in terms of other ‘strangers’ being in town?
I’ll most likely be idly strumming my lyre and humming, seeing if anyone is interested in a song (and parting with a few coins in appreciation.)
DM: No, no and no.
Anshelm Helbelinc, the Thief: I spit and gesture at the marketgoers. “Like little rats, out and back to their holes.”
I reach for my snuff box. Is there anything unusual going on among the merchants and common folk? Any unusual people? Even if it’s not unusual, does anyone look like they’re casing the crowd for an easy mark?
DM: No, no and no. Gentlemen, this is not a ‘story’ campaign. There’s no rule, no plan, no set-up. Nothing will be handed to you on a plate. You will have to make a decision about what you, as a group, want to ‘do,’ and then set about doing it.
I know you’re not used to that. But sadly, there are no ‘unusual’ people. You might see the church’s head deacon poking about the chicken cages at one of the stalls.
Josef Mieszko, the Cleric: I’ll ask Helmunt the next time he comes to the table if he knows of any legends or rumors of the town or vicinity where profit might be gained by adventurers such as ourselves.
Tiberius, the Mage: “Gentlemen …” I take a slow swig of my drink. “We’re all bored. No disrespect to our fine patron for the free beer, of course.” I salute the owner. “But, why don’t we hire ourselves out to one of those merchants and see if we can’t see some real action?”
Anshelm: “Eh, why shouldn’t we? It’s better than chasing errant rats back to their hiding holes. Should we wait for friend Kazimir?” I continue scanning the market crowd while speaking. “Not sure I like the look of any of ‘em, though...”
[OOC: This doesn’t mean that Anshelm’s against it; he just doesn’t like people in general]
Delfig: I nod to myself as I remember a request. I dig into my pouch, fishing out four silver pieces and tossing them to Josef. “I know I’ll see that again ... especially when we get off our collective asses and start seeing what we can see.”
Josef: “Thanks, Delfig.”
Delfig: “Lets wander about and see what is happening.”
With that, I will stand and start walking about the marketplace, strumming my lyre. If any seem interested, I’ll greet them and play a bit if they seem interested. I make sure to approach the various merchants, nodding and smiling, calling out a friendly greeting. If any seem inclined to talk, then I’ll start a conversation with them, inquiring about any local news or if they have any sort of interesting work to discuss.
Anshelm: “Well, I guess Delfig’s made our decision for us. A pretty song, at least.” I follow the bard into the crowd.
DM: People show a vague interest in Delfig; but of course, they’ve seen him before, doing exactly this most every day; and frankly, there are better bards in the town.
Delfig: If there’s nothing of interest around the market and everyone seems boring, I’ll go back and join Josef and Tiberius and suggest that perhaps we go for a walk away from town along one of the roads. Maybe it’s time for a road trip to Ingolstadt.

While Delfig and Anshelm wander out and back, Josef and Tiberius make their own plans.
Josef: I’ll go to the grocer and purchase some rations, and then return to the gasthaus.
Tiberius: I get up as well, and search among the merchants who have the more expensive wares, asking if they need any guards for their caravans.
DM: Helmunt the bartender, having overhead Tiberius’s suggestion, will stop Josef and Tiberius just before they go.
Helmunt (npc bartender): “Are you bonded to the merchant’s guild? Would it be possible for me to post a small notice in favor of my establishment?”
Tiberius: “An excellent idea, my good man.”
Josef: We’re not bonded, no. But perhaps we should go to the Guildhall then to sell our services instead of frightening the fishmongers and fruit vendors!
DM: Helmunt is confused by Tiberius’s answer. He looks askance at Josef.
Helmunt (slowly): “Would you be hired if you were not bonded?”
Josef: My guess, Tiberius, is that we’d be on our own with the Merchant’s Guild. There must be a guildhall somewhere. I’d not be opposed to hiring on to a march to Nuremburg, either.
Tiberius (not answering Helmunt): I ask Helmunt the location of the guild hall and start there.
Josef: “Tiberius, wait! I’m not certain that such a place exists. Thinking about it, it seems that perhaps we’d have a better time talking to one or a few of the shopkeepers who provided us our gear of late. It seems it would be one of these men, who actually deal in goods brought into town, that might be inclined to bond us.”
Tiberius: “Okay, let’s do that.”
DM: You need not ask. The merchant’s guild hall is the large three-story building across the principal square from the cathedral.
Josef: Perhaps the apothecary is in need of some materials - I used to engage in similar activities in my youth. Or we could go hunting, and sell pelts to the furrier. Oh heck. “Let’s you and I, as learned men Tiberius, inquire at the Merchant’s Guild.”
Tiberius: “Then, we’re agreed.” Setting down my cup, I walk over to the guild hall with Josef.

The details of the characters’ actions are interrupted as the players have a discussion about merchants and their interests, learning something about the trade in Dachau.
Anshelm: How often do merchant caravans enter or leave Dachau? Is anyone selling any sort of luxury item, something that might attract the attention of highwaymen, etcetera?
Josef: I wonder. The roads here seem safe - I wonder how much need there would be for such protection as we might provide. Still, money is money - and I have precious little.
DM: The principle trade route reaches from Italy through Innsbruck in the south, to Northern Germany through Nuremberg, north of Dachau. Beer, precision tools and metals tend to move south; fabrics, spices, incense and perfumes tend to come north. Everything attracts the attention of highwaymen. The roads are not that safe.


continued elsewhere ...

This is just a small part of the first day, and the first of many such posts.  I am going to divide them into posts of 10,000 words or so, and put that content on the Master Class blog.  After all, the primary value of these posts to me is as source material for those deconstructions.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, but you must do it soon if you wish to see this post before August 1st.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Point and Click ~ Remaining Dev-6 Graphs

Father's Day and I am happily sitting at home working on projects that I love.  I'm not a fan of the day; I don't make my daughter cater to me, which puts her in the position of having to cater to her in-laws instead.  Which is a shame, but ... c'est la vie.

I'm completing the remaining knowledge tables that apply to regions with a 6 Development: animal husbandry, archery, mining and the wheel.  Here's the four of those things, all at once:

Animal Husbandry



Archery


Mining



The Wheel




Saturday, June 16, 2018

NPCs Lie

I want to say as a DM that there is little that frustrates me as much as role-players who must treat every encounter with excessive dramatic importance, that see every NPC like a pantomime villain or themselves as the center of the setting's universe.  Of course, this is trained into players, who are the center of the universe as far as most settings go.  It is no mystery for a player that the king of the country wants to meet with them personally, or that some powerful wizard has taken the time to choose this particular no account group of wanderers for the most important adventuring business imaginable.  The tropes surrounding role-playing are as anvilicious as they are common, particularly in that savvy players ~ most of all ~ come to expect the anvil to be dropped right on their heads, all the time.

So much that they can't help themselves from looking straight up at the DM, waiting for it.

This is a trial and a half if the goal is to run a nuanced, subtle campaign where the NPCs have their own lives, their own agendas, and couldn't care a whit for the party's involvement ... in fact, the party's involvement is often directly not desirable.  Yet with some parties, as the DM sets up the scene where the townspeople all appear to say, "Get out, you're not wanted here," we can count on the players to hear that with a *nudge nudge* *wink wink* no matter what we say or how we say it.

This is probably the hardest issue I have with experienced players.  It is a problem I never have with newcomers.  This tells me that it is a problem that is trained into players, most likely by badly designed adventures, supported by poorly written exposition to enable the most cliched of motivators.  The ever-present MacGuffin, for example, that we cling to as DMs because it's easy and players understand it.

All too often when we don't use a blunt instrument to put the adventure into the player's skulls, it just doesn't get there.

Antoine le Nain's Three Strangers

At the start of my online campaign in 2009, members of the party stepped out of the town of Dachau and into the nearby countryside.  Whereupon I described this simple scene:
DM: You find a small collection of eight cotter's shacks, cotters being landless people allowed to occupy the lord's land in exchange for their perpetual labor. This being Sunday, none are at work in the fields, but are instead commanded to not work at any activity.
Despite your efforts to remain hidden, your darker appearance against the white boughs is noticed rather quickly. Several men, who had been lounging and waiting for the sun to fall, rise now, grasping the nearest club like object to hand and stand staring at you distrustfully.

Here we have a perfectly reasonable reaction on the part of the cottagers.  This is their home.  It is Sunday and they are surrounded by their families.  Strangers show up, armoured and with weapons, in a place where no one with the money to buy armor has any reason to go.  Of course they're going to be distrustful!  Of course they're going to be sure they have hold of a club or two.  Being that its a party, there's no livery on these strangers, no indication that its the guard.  The party could be anyone!


continued elsewhere ...

This is the first of two such posts I will be writing in the month of June for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, but you must do it soon if you wish to see this post before August 1st.



Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.

Working ...

I just want to drop a note to say that I'm working on the masterclass post for mid-June and should have that post up by tomorrow.   I want to give it my best effort and I am rethinking some of the ideas inside the content.

I'm also preparing for a podcast I've been invited on, that's being recorded tomorrow.  I'll keep the reader posted on that, of course.

This is just a matter of several things coming together at the same time, making my mid-June somewhat pressed for time.  Rest assured, the content is coming.

In the meantime, as I met a player of D&D who had not seen the D&D content that appeared on Sixty Minutes in the 1980s, I offer this:




Thursday, June 14, 2018

Agriculture Graph


When I started this process, I thought the layout was going to be nit-picky and arduous, but to tell the truth I'm rather enjoying it.  Most of this research was already done; so most of what I'm doing here is reformatting ... but I am finding that process more relational and comparative than the collection of notes that I have.  True, the notes are more copious, as is the source material for this.  But working on the charts has been fun.

Agriculture comes into existence with development 6; before that, it is technically "gathering," which is covered on the hunting page.  I have four more of these, before going back to my description of Stavanger ... but even then I have ideas for more visual aids on these same lines, that I look forward to working on.

I am experimenting with different backgrounds.  This seems too washed out for me; a more stark design is called for, but I haven't settled on what that would be.

Incidentally, when I do get to development 7 cultures, and that is in the future, I'll be expanding on all these pages and adding still new ones.  It's all very interesting for me; it locks together several juxtaposed pleasures: history, visual design, game play and worldbuilding, as well as raw creativity.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Mysticism Graph



This covers details on development-5 cultures in my game.  For those who might be interested, you can find further information on shamanism and animism on my wiki, as well as wild magic.  I do recommend searching tokens, totems, ancestor shrines (African) and ancestral shrines (Chinese), the manner in which frankincense is cultivated, sacred places, geoglyphs and sacred isles.  All of this makes good adventure fodder, whatever world you might happen to be running.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Hunting Graph



Like the fishing chart, we have the collection of building blocks for the wilderness, in which predatory hunting is the only "knowledge," participated in singly or in groups (such as by wolves or other carnivorous family groups).

Hunting expands technologies and that makes more building blocks at the very bottom level of development ... and that in turn changes when hunting is adjusted by the presence of archery, animal husbandry and agriculture.

I swear.  I'm showing these charts around to my immediate families and players and all I get back is a blank stare and a vague compliment.  I feel like Syndrome.

Fishing Graph



My biggest issue with the development system is keeping the content straight in my head, so that I can tailor changes that enter in with new developments.  Everything in the diagram above is related to just fishing knowledge ... though certain things throughout might be applied to other things, such as bows for hunting or boats for military raiding.  The goal here is only to provide a visual relationship between the actual technical knowledge, what physical things that creates, how that affects culture, what improvements exist, what trade references the improvements derive from and what building blocks are created by the composite of the above.

The table isn't complete, even for the development stages meant.  This includes merely that which I've been able to think of, or which was tagged by something I researched.  There's always room to add something else if the notion of it presents itself.

Just a quick run-down.  References are invented products that are integral to my trade system.  Hexes that serve as physical locations for the presence of these references are called "improvements" ~ which are a special form of building block, which I have been describing at length for many weeks now.  Improvements increase the amount of food, labor or wealth, as well as more esoteric things such as culture, health or happiness, depending on what the reference is.  Most hexes, regardless of possessing an improvement, will have some degree of food, labor or wealth production.  Improvements just improve that.

Building blocks largely derive from technology; but may potentially derive from anything.

Here I'm dividing "knowledge" from "technology" so as to distinguish what is known from what is built with that knowledge.

Finally, cultural aspects derive from the use of technology or knowledge.

Beyond this, I think the table above is self-explanatory.  Please do not hesitate to ask questions about it.

I plan to begin constructing tables like this for every type of knowledge that applies.  So far, apart from fishing, I have introduced hunting, meditation, agriculture, animal husbandry, archery, mining and the wheel.  I then intend to update these as I progress with development stages, while continuing to add more sources of knowledge.  So I have a job ahead of me.

I was originally trying to build the table above in excel; but it was simply getting visually out of hand.  I am hoping this more graphic example is clearer, more flexible and ultimately more readable by people who don't have the benefit of reading my thoughts.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Starvation & Half-Rations

Recently, the online party in the Juvenis campaign miscalculated the depth of the dungeon they were entering and found themselves unexpectedly short of food ... and to deal with the problem as a DM, I found myself turning to a very old methodology that I'd developed more than two decades ago.  All this time, I had never actually built a set of rules to manage starvation.  As I write this, the trial has passed for the party, but I find myself wanting to settle on a hunger-starvation system nonetheless.

The principle problem is that it can take humans an extremely long time to die by starvation, particularly if they are able to get at least a little food.  For example, 19 men survived a journey of 1,500 miles on an ice floe for six months at the close of the disastrous Polaris expedition, from 1871 to 1873.  These are men who had been on bare rations for a year prior to the loss of their ship Polaris, who survived by straining just enough shrimp from the sea to give them each as little as an ounce a day, supported by the killing of a very rare seal, which might be gotten once in three to four weeks.  And a seal does not go far between 19 men.

Some people do just give out ... but many will survive, though they may not find the energy to act.  The goal, then, is to not to build a system of saving throws, in which the character simply dies, but a slow, grinding means of eventually killing a character off, while giving the potential for that character to survive a long, long time.

My idea is that the character would suffer acutely right at the start.  That going without food initially has a severe effect, dropping the character's ability stats badly on the first day of feeling the pinch, and an equal amount on the second day.  However, while this penalty doesn't go away, the severity of the increase diminishes as time passes.

Suppose the character is reduced to acting on half rations, and we want to know precisely what sort of effect that will have.  I propose the table on the right as an initial proposal ~ there's more to come on the subject, but I want to be sure this part is understood first.

"Half-rations" is defined as an insufficient amount of food, below the amount that is required, but more than half that amount.  If we suppose the character needs 2 kg of food in a given day in order to do heavy work, spread between two or three meals, then half rations would be anywhere between 1 kg and less than 2 kg.  How much less is really up to us; but for game purposes, we don't want to reward the clever player who figures out that we will handwave two grams below the amount needed.  We should then consider the numbers to be absolute.

Still, if we want to quibble, there's room for it on this table.  If a day of half rations lowers your ability stats by 10%, we can argue that 1.9 kg should reduce the stats only 1/10th of 10%, or a mere 1%.  It depends on how fine we want to split that hair.  We can argue that even 1% less than a 17 is 16.83, which we can state is a defacto 16 for game purposes.  That would discourage players from splitting hairs ... but we can go full game, too, and say that any deficiency in the amount of food is enough to cut stats the full 10%.  I personally lean to this approach, as I just don't want to reward cheap players.

Okay, let me explain the table.  As I say, that 1st day hurts, as does the 2nd day.  Both see a severe drop in the character's stats.  But then the idea of living with hunger begins to take hold, so that the 3rd and 4th days cause an additional penalty of only 5% each.  The 5th, 6th and 7th days add a penalty of only 3.3% each.  And finally the 8th through 12th days cause further penalties of only 2% per day.

I am extrapolating this on the Fibonacci series (endlessly useful), so that further 10% segments are successively divided by 8, 13, 21, 34 and 55.  Altogether, that would create a starvation that would kill everyone in 143 days, or just under five months, somewhat crueler than the measure of the Polaris expedition survivors, but in line with other, similar experiences, such as Shackleton's adventure or John Franklin's first expedition ~ the one he wasn't lost in ~ overland through the Northwest Territories.  However, this doesn't take into account the effects of eating less than half rations.  How would that work?

My choice would be to count quarter rations up to half rations as two days of starvation; and then to count one-eighth rations up to a quarter rations as three days.  Anything less than one-eighth would count as four days.  That would bring starvation around a little faster than the Polaris expedition, but then we're not dealing with the healthier 19th century human.  In any case, one could live a long, long time on one-eighth rations.

My food rules say that a sedentary character, one who needs to do little more than rest, make food for themselves and manage the small duties of living in a camp, must eat two pounds of food a day (my 17th century system uses imperial units).  One-eighth of this is a mere 4 oz. per day.  If the character tried to do hard work, that would require twice as much; and if the character were to take a part in battle, three times as much.  But let's say we're sedentary characters, with little food, waiting to be rescued before we all die of starvation.  Or by some other means.

How would this work, exactly.  Well, that's a very long table ... but let's go as far as 33 days.  From day 13 to day 20, the character is losing 1.25% of their stats each day, and from day 21 through day 33, the character is losing only 0.77% of their stats each day:


Here we can see the days of reduction to stats applied to a real character, that of Rob Munro the Scot from my Juvenis campaign, a druid.  The numbers drop precipitously at the start, quickly flattening out at the high scores drop into the sixes and sevens after two weeks.  The reader can see that I've highlighted the ability stats as they drop, in lighter orange for the most part, and under the dexterity at one point, in a darker tone.

The first shading indicates the point at which the druid no longer has the necessary stats to act as a druid.  Being old school regarding D&D stats, the druid needs a 12 wisdom and a 15 charisma; and every other stat has to be 6 or higher, as the old Player's Handbook indicates.  Here, the character's wisdom, dexterity and charisma all fall off the minimum on the third day.  That is sobering.

On the 19th day, the character's dexterity falls below 3, typically viewed as the minimum roll for any character.  I see that as significant, as the point in which the character must make an ability check to perform any dexterous activity, even walking or feeding themselves.  And since that check is going to fail 90% of the time, this particular character is going to suffer very badly from any long-term starvation.  That 7 dexterity is a harsh disability.  Still, there's nothing that says a check to see if the character could walk can't be done as often as necessary, noting the time this would spend as the character eventually got the strength to rise, only to collapse again a few rounds later.

That brings me to the subject of ability checks in general.  When the party was starving in the game of late, I had the active members all make an ability check against a random stat, once per day.  For example, I had the druid here make a check against constitution, which the character succeeded.  On some level, because the characters were following a route through a familiar, cleared dungeon,  I could have asked for more than one check (as it is a dangerous place) ~ but normally, I wouldn't ask for any checks unless the players did something purposefully dangerous.  My logic was that they did not "feel like themselves," and that this justified at least one check.

I think I'd increase the number of checks being made per day over time: perhaps 2 checks per day on the start of the fifth day, then three checks starting on the 9th day, and so on.  After a while, though the characters could manage to stay alive, they'd yet become virtually helpess ... particularly as every stat dropped below a 3.

That 3 could be treated as another threshold, where constitution was concerned.  Breathing is a constitutional action.  Just as the heart beating is a strength issue; or being able to think is an intelligence requirement.  At some point, having to be constantly making a roll for these things ought to end in the body just giving up the ghost.

The question is when, or how.  I haven't quite worked that out yet.  I like this scheme so far ... but it still has holes that I need to fill.


Friday, June 8, 2018

Authentic RPG Podcast, with JB



Introducing another episode of my first series of podcasts, with JB from the B/X Blackrazor blog.  JB has been blogging for nine years and playing just about as long as I have.  I get more viewers from his sight than from any other site on the web, 'cept straight from google.  He's an ardent supporter, a regular reader and commenter and in this podcast he does most of the talking.

Please raise a glass to JB's efforts, enjoy the podcast and take a moment or two to consider whether or not you'd like to get involved with my second season of podcasts, which I'll be explaining in about two weeks, when I publish my last podcast of the first season.

I'm sorry that these have gotten further and further apart.  I think with my personal style, I'm comfortable with putting out a podcast when it is done, and not when a schedule dictates.  I guess I'm just too much of a Bohemian to respect schedules.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Stavanger Development 6: Introduction

If you've not been following along with this series, you'll want to start with this index post, with a list of the foregoing content relative to what's written below.

I can't say how much readers would like me to continue expanding on the Stavanger village adventure, regarding the wolf, the Sand clan, the shaman and the chief.  If that's to your fancy, let me know and I'll write a post outlining the rest of my plans there.  If I had a prize to give, I could create some sort of challenge to come up with the best set of possibilities ... just now, I'm anxious to move on with the next part of my program.


The year is 1237.  The settled lands and population of Rogaland have expanded considerably over the past three and a half centuries.  Stavanger itself is now a town of 1,628 people.  The whole population of Rogaland has tripled, to over 3,900.  New clans have come into existence; old clans have expanded their importance.  Rogaland is now considered to have a development of 6.

How, I'll ask, should we contrast the above with the previous map?  It isn't enough to say there are more people, or that three and a half centuries have passed.  What exactly does that mean?  How has Rogaland changed?  What about it matters to us as DMs, and the way we're going to run this region?

These are questions I've been asking since 2015, that I've failed to succeed answering in two previous attempts. I have better answers now, from research that I've done, but the answers are deep, complicated and far reaching.  And this still isn't a land of complex development.  But the full measure of that will have to be managed at another time.

My starting place has been the technology growth itself, so I will start there.  In the past 345 years, Rogaland has developed agriculture; animal husbandry; archery; mining; and the wheel.  They did not invent any of these; but their use has spread into the region, so that these things are typical now, complete with social effects and the knowledge that comes with knowing how to do these things.

Let's look at these things one-by-one, starting with the old technologies of fishing, hunting and mysticism.

Fishing has changed.  Where once the settlers simply did their best to catch the fish that were there, using primitive boats, now the boats have expanded into Viking warships ... these, however, at least in Rogaland, lack good sailing technology.  Some adventurers from Rogaland have raided outwards in these last two centuries, but primarily the coasts of Denmark and northern Germany, lands that can be reached by coastal journeys.

Some old fishing grounds are played out.  However, better and stronger boats now enable the residents to reach further out from the shores, finding other fishing grounds in deeper water.  The old Stavanger fishing ground continues to sustain the population ... however, common practice now selects stocks, in order to ensure a larger stock of fish.  Inland, the widespread presence of the bow (see Archery, below) has resulted in widespread bowfishing ... which is now seen by some as a recreational activity, rather than the old desperate efforts to ensure food for the clans.  With agriculture (see below), food is plentiful; so some activities have taken on a new bent.

Hunting, for example, is not what it was.  There are still bands of pure hunters, particularly in the wildest areas, but far more meat is now obtained by professional hunters, who use the bow and improved techniques to track and kill game, which is then sold in the village of Treborg, in the northwest, or in Stavanger, or to some of the larger rural clans.

Hunting has developed a new purpose, as well: the importance of keeping wild animals from feeding on croplands, or encroaching on civilized areas.  These things combine to initiate the development of the ranger class, who operate as scouts and foresters, learning to know the wild and protecting civilized places from it.

Mysticism is a strange adjustment.  Rogaland has been declared Christian.  The Christian church of St. Svithun's was completed some 90 years ago.  But is Rogaland really Christian?  Or is that in name only.

My call is that the religion is meant to be Christian, but like most fundamentally pagan cultures, the old ways continue to possess the minds of the people.  This dichotomy is called "folk religion."  A certain class of persons in the region do believe in Christianity; but the majority hold onto their pagan beliefs, ideals and cultural touchstones.  Most in Rogaland will never have seen St. Svithun's Domkirke in Stavanger.  To them, it has little meaning in their lives.

At the same time, however, the shaman seeks to withdraw from this mix of expressions, seeking greater unity with nature and a more enlightened perspective.  This is the beginning of the druid class.

Agriculture is the most notable development.  It is hard to fathom what a game changer it is.  It greatly increases food supply and makes the population sedentary instead of moving.  This advances the permanency of housing; and the elaboration of rooms designed for different purposes within the house.  The year becomes cyclical based on the requirements of agriculture: planting, harvest, different crops grown at different times of year and so on.  The crops need tending, which creates a different social structure from the previous clan life. Where before, everyone shared, no matter who obtained the food, now the principle is everyone works for their share; those who refuse are exiled.  The need to control and manage labor creates a structure for controlling and managing disputes of all kind.  Division of fields creates notions of property and private ownership.  These are considerable changes guiding a culture than what we saw with Stavanger in 892.

Animal Husbandry, too, increases the food supply, adds to ideas of ownership and helps specialize part of the population as herders, fence makers, protective hunters, tanners, leather workers and butchers.  The proliferation of animal products increases the need to trade for other sorts of food, creating a bartering economy ~ where regular exchanges, rather than individual negotiations, are common.  We always provide a certain amount of eggs or milk through the year in exchange for our stipend of grain; such-and-such an amount of leather is always exchanged for this much fish; and regular tributes in foods and products are given to members of the community who have certain entitled positions.

Horses are raised for transport, but not for war (not yet), in some cultures associated with the wheel (see below).  Dogs as companions, (but not war dogs) with minimal herding skills,  are bestowed as puppies throughout the clans, sometimes between clans.  Buildings protecting and controlling animals (sheep, pigs, fowl, goats) create "yards" around houses, further enhancing the idea of privacy and ownership.  This privacy begins to disrupt clans, as immediate families become more precious than extended families.

Archery is practiced for a number of reasons; defense and hunting, yes, but also for sport and as a competitive activity.  Contests inspire seasonal festivals, supported by the agricultural cycle, as gatherings for mass consumption of food, or the effort needed to plant many fields, naturally bring whole communities together.

Mining encourages individualism, as single persons separate from the main community to seek gems, placer metals or ores that can be exchanged with foreigners in Stavanger.  This is a whole different economy; while the residents of Rogaland in 1237 have no need for such things, being unable to smelt metals, and seeing gems as merely objects, such things can bring in very small supplies of outside goods, which will be possessed by a few but not by the majority.  One fellow in a clan may have a sword or a metal-headed spear ... but most would be limited to wooden weapons.

The mule does not exist, but donkeys do; and primitive sluice boxes are within the ken of the region's development.  There are no laws that govern mine extraction or taxes, but little protection exists for prospectors who work alone in the wild.

The Wheel creates changes of its own.  Carts are built, causing the proliferation of cart tracks between close communities.  Being that Stavanger has no overland connection with any other village or town (Treborg is more easily reached by water), cart tracks are few.  Some would exist around both Stavanger and Treborg.  Carts are built by carters and wheelwrights, further increasing the barter economy.  The use of donkeys and horses to pull carts increases the transfer of materials and communication.  Along with better water craft, the region of Stavanger is more closely in touch, both within and without the community.

The region of Stavanger is not developed enough to have a monarchy ~ it is too primitive and rural to sustain a local lord.  Rather, it would be a tribute province of outside kings.  So long as a certain amount of tribute is produced each year, to be collected in Stavanger, the local customs and privileges would be more-or-less ignored.  There simply isn't enough wealth to encourage an outsider to more purposefully fleece the population.  Even the agriculture isn't excessive.  There are no kilns to make bricks and no central planning to create public buildings, like granaries.  Instead, it is a quiet, primitive country backwater, but obviously much improved these past three and a half centuries over what it was.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

10 Years

On May 28th, 2018, this blog passed its tenth year of existence.  More than 2,600 posts, more than 2 million page views, quite a lot of flame wars that are now falling further and further in the past, several efforts to sustain a wiki and an ongoing campaign to change minds about the game and what it's capable of giving.

Strange to think of the size and scope of this thing.  I used to regularly get readers who would let me know they were reading the blog from the beginning.  That's not happening much, lately.  I wouldn't recommend it.  My best stuff is definitely in the last four years, plus what readers have voted on as worth reading.  Most of the rest is lashing out, mumbling, struggling to make things clear to myself and a whole lot of attempted ideas that crashed and burned.  But ... it is all part of the process that leads to having a clear vision.

It takes me about an hour to write a thousand word post, a bit more if there are plenty of links or research involved.  2600 posts at 600 words a post (which, for me, is very conservative) is 1.56 million words ... or 1,560 hours, all by itself.  Triple that to account for thinking about this blog, posts that got ditched rather than completed, time spent in the comments section, plus the actual slower pace that I probably had when writing here and we're half-way there to the ten thousand hour rule for blogging.

I fully expect to still be doing this ten years from now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Super Smash Bros.

I scour the internet and youtube continuously for people who will impress me; and when I find such a person, I consume every single thing they've produced, whether or not I like the subject matter. Once I've identified a person as smart, I don't care what they talk about.  I know they're going to teach me something.

Recently, that person was Ian Danskin, or as he is known on twitter, Ian Goddamn Crosby Lexicon Barnfire Danskin, the creator behind Innuendo Studios.  Of things I have no interest in, Danskin's videos have covered the film The Handmaiden (NOT the Handmaid's Tale!), Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game the Walking Dead and, relevant to this post, Super Smash Bros.  Nevertheless, I have watched every video, and learned from every video, because if you're smart, I will let you talk about stuff I hate.  And I hate Smash Bros.  But that isn't important.

Watch this video. Yes, ALL of it.



I want to start with this quote, from 4:48 into the video:
"Chris DeLeon has a series of articles and a degra-talk about the idea that sports and board games have rules ~ but video games have laws.  That in soccer, you don't touch the ball with your hands because you've agreed not to, but in FIFA, you don't touch the ball with your hand because it's impossible."

Now, that is straight to the heart of it, and clearly Chris DeLeon has this wrapped. [side note: DeLeon previous residence was the Georgia Institute of Technology, the location of Ian Bogost, the brilliant fellow I consumed everything from last year; smart people talk to smart people]

But I want to add one more of my own:
RPGs have permits.  In role-playing, you don't touch the ball with your hands because the DM doesn't let you.

Think about that a moment.  Most people you will ever talk to will interpret that as, "It's the DM's world, and whatever the DM says, goes."  And if we, dear reader, think that's what I'm arguing, we're probably the sort that believes a judge in a court of law can do whatever the fuck they want.  Which is not true.  There is a great deal of nuance in what a DM permits.  If it is all arbitrary, because the DM thinks arbitrary is just fine, we're going to find ourselves playing a pretty shit game.

The attempt to argue that the DM should always say, "Yes," argues that the DM should be more permissive, more considerate of the player's position, more yielding to the player's expectations and innovation.  If the player tries something really interesting ~ regardless of its practicality or sensibility, which are subjugated to the god of fun ~ then the DM ought to say, yes ... just as a legal judge is bound by laws that restrict the decisions that a judge can make.

I can agree with that.  But the way it is proposed in practice is an exercise in flimflammery.  Take the case of Matt Colville that I discussed last December, that I will update to the Stavanger adventure I have been discussing lately.

When I say, I'm not running a railroad, a great many readers will jump to the same conclusion to which Colville leaps. They think I'm saying, you don't have to hunt the wolf.  You don't have to take the token from the shaman. You have a choice.  And because you have a choice, it isn't a railroad.

This perspective is a huge steaming pile of utter bullshit.  Because this is not how a world should operate AT ALL.  Not remotely.  Because the village of Stavanger ISN'T an adventure.  It's a village.

Yesterday I got a message from an old reader, Carl, that I haven't heard from for a while.  I thought he'd quit reading me.  Carl somehow got it into his head that the subway boardgame image in that post was what I was going for in the last post and NO!  No, no, no.  A thousand times no.

This is the head-in-the-sand insistence of those dumbfucks who run the WOTC, who think that players arriving at the village sets the adventure in motion and, lo and behold, they can choose what they want to do, inside that adventure.

Let me pull you back to the smash brothers video, at 5:55:
"The thing about systems is there's what the system was meant to do, and then there's what the system can't stop you from doing.  In Smash, an advanced technique like say, a shield drop, is put there by the designers ... but things like pivoting, wavedashing and D-sinking are not.  These things were not designed; they were discovered as accidents of the system.  And they often take phenomenal skill to execute reliably because it's something the game doesn't actively want you to do ... but they are just as integral to competitive play as the things designers put there on purpose."

The only reason your brain isn't shattered by that (and some, given just this much context, are right now reeling with the realization), is because it has never occurred to you, or to anyone, that this applies in exactly the same way to RPGs.

The designer creates the village of Stavanger, and the designer puts in the chief and the wolf and the shaman, but that's just the stuff that is going on in the village when the players happen to show up.  The players don't have to do it, right ... but in a legitimate RPG, where the DM plays the actual GAME, and not the piece of sucky crap the company wants us to play, the players are entitled to do what the fuck they're able to do, because the rules don't stop you from becoming someone with their own agenda in this mix.

Suppose I am running in your version of this Stavanger village, and you've created this nice pat adventure for me, and I ask you, "How is the leader of the Sand clan determined?"

And you as DM say, "Um, uh, it's hereditary."  To which I answer, "This is a goddamn primitive culture, one that doesn't even owe any allegiance to a king, because this is Norway in 892, and you're going to tell me that the clan is led by whomever is born to the job?  Bullshit.  I'm a member of the Sand Clan.  I have the same rights as any other person in the clan.  You tell me that Yelana is the clan mother.  Who is running these people?  I want to know my path to making myself the leader of my own clan."

And now, the DM's adventure has ceased to be what's happening here.  Because I'm in charge, NOT the DM ... just at the great players of Super Smash Bros. are the Five Gods, NOT the game designers.

This is what you, as DM, have got to get into your head.  YOU are not the player.  You are the designer.  And if the player wants to turn that design on its head, in a way you didn't think of, but kicking your pat adventure into the garbage can and starting one of their own, then buckle up, baby ... you're going for a goddamn ride.  Because now it is your job to design your game to LET the player challenge the leadership in the Sand Clan, in a way that preserves the game, and lets Pivoting happen, so the player can enjoy a little competitive play on a high level.

Don't tell me that your players don't know how, because no one knew how to wavedash or D-sink once upon a time ... but they learned, because no one could stop them.  And let's not forget the words, phenomenal skill.  Yeah, you're damned right, it wasn't easy.  But they still learned how to do it, didn't they?

But they haven't in role-playing, because DMs the world over and the fuck-fuddled company did. not. let. them.  Because RPGs think we're giving players a choice by letting them play Falcon, Sheik or Marth ... but Red Yoshi?  No.  No, we're not going to let anyone play Red Yoshi.

We've got to realize here ... Super Smash Bros., for all it's excitement, is an incredibly limited intellectual game, with an incredibly limited set of possibilities, compared to role-playing games.  The number of potential Red Yoshis in existence in a D&D game is literally infinite.

If you're a DM, used to playing the company way, that ought to scare the shit out of you.  And it ought to shame you.  It ought to stick in your craw as you realize, fuck, what have you been doing with your game?

I'll bet ... I'll just bet ... there are more than a few of you who will say in your heads, "Fuck you Alexis."  And quite a few who will try to argue, "But I like my game ..."

Uh huh.  Sure you do.

You're not even ready for Smash Bros. yet.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Shaman's Block and More

If you've not been following along with this series, you'll want to start with this index post, with a list of the foregoing content relative to what's written below.

Before continuing with the Stavanger 9th century adventure [content below], I'd like to press the subject of game feel and tragedy a little further.  The reader may remember I drew out six mechanics relating to player participation: agency, response, context, sensation, meaning and boundaries.  I recognize that it is difficult to keep these things in mind, as it is with any list, just as it is hard to remember the seven rewards that we want to provide players (wealth, toys, power, status, novelty, enlightenment and purpose), or the four points we want to provide for building blocks (service, personality, adventure and value).  I count 17 terms that the reader was unfamiliar with just a month ago and, no doubt, it is next to impossible to keep all these things in one's head at one time.  Add to that the 24 petards and it is enough to make anyone throw their hands in the air.

I suggest deep breathing.

For years you've been looking for frameworks that would help you better construct adventures. These are the frameworks.

Let me quickly paraphrase what we've established with this recent Stavanger adventure.  The chieftain wants to expand the village; he is dealing with four recalcitrant bully boys; the bully boys may or may not have been lax in their work, resulting in the death of a child, who was killed by a wolf.  The wolf has been caught by the shaman.  The shaman has organized a hunt.  Whoever kills the wolf will sleep with the dead child's mother and a new child will be born.

This, as far as I know, is a novelty in terms of player reward: a kind of adventure introducing problems that haven't come up before.  Are the players offended at the idea?  Possibly.  Would they take part if they did kill the wolf?  Some players, definitely not; others, perhaps.  Few, I think, would be champing at it.  But even if the idea is offensive, it is still new.  The players are not being denied their agency.  In fact, they are being given an opportunity to establish their agency.  They can say, No.  And face the consequences.  Those consequences being uncertain, given that the whole village seems ready to take part in this adventure.

So the player's response is in jeopardy.  They may, if they wish, escape from Stavanger at once and set out for another place ... but any party of mine, having played in my world for even a few sessions, knows that there's just going to be another similar dilemma put in front of them.  We cannot improve our lives by running away from difficult-to-thread situations.  Run away, and any reward is lost.  Rewards come from the party making up their minds, standing their ground, taking the consequences, and winning through.  They may choose poorly ~ but that is the risk inherent in this game.  Here are two, perhaps three, questionable options, any one of which could lead to tragedy.  Choose.  Respond.

The players will naturally seek context.  They are told by their family to see the shaman.  So we describe the shaman's block.  This is the last block I'm going to create an image for; by now, the reader gets the idea.

The shaman's lodge, as I said earlier, is occupied by the lowest residents in Stavanger. These are people without clans, whose people have almost entirely vanished, or who come from outside Rogaland, though likely not further than neighboring Agder, or Hordaland, that surrounds Bergen ~ which I've twice confused with "Haugaland."  Fixed those instances on the blog now.

These hangers on have no real influence, and are entirely dependent on the shaman.  Effectively, they exist as a cheerleading squad for the shaman, and as protection.  A player wouldn't be able to lift a spear in the shaman's presence without being mobbed.  A hit on the shaman would find a follower in the way ... making the shaman virtually invulnerable.  The personality of the hex IS the shaman; somewhat spiritual and quietly fanatic (no one speaks until the shaman does).

The shaman knows everything that goes on with the adventure, but what he chooses to tell depends on how the players affect him (basically, how well he is treated, how polite the players are, how smart are the questions they ask and so on).  In this case, it doesn't matter how much the shaman tells the party ~ knowing everything won't spoil the adventure.  But I would hold back information if the players did not ask a particular question, or if they were oblivious, or they were rude.

We could make the shaman oppose the chief's agenda, but we don't actually need that conflict.  And it is cliched.  The shaman would love to see the players kill the wolf, and here's why: if a player, as a hero, is the father of the future chief, that chief will be a mix of the Haralds and the Sands, but because the players are outsiders, the child will be somewhat unique.  So it is the shaman's agenda to say that he foresaw the arrival of the players [he's lying], that they were meant to kill the wolf [he hopes] and towards that end, he will give them a token that will ensure that if they take part, the bearer of the token will be the one the wolf attacks.  This isn't true, but the party will think it is true, particularly since we as DMs intend to attack the party with the wolf.  But afterwards, the party will find the token has no magical value.

The Shaman does not intend to have the hero player sleep with the dead child's mother. This will be planned so that the father sleeps with the mother, but it will look like the player did.  This will be the case no matter who kills the wolf.  The chief, and the village, will believe the falsehood.  However, it will be easier to convince the party, a group of outsiders, to participate in the ruse.  The shaman will provide a +1 spear (reward: toys) for the brave player who will carry the token.

So now the players will receive wealth if they kill the wolf (gifts), status from the chief, a toy from the shaman ... and they have context as to what's going on here.  The shaman will warn the party that if they do participate, there may be conflict with the Orre clan, so "Be careful."

Let's look at the whole village again:


What is the party's sensation, then?

Throughout all that happens, we want to emphasize how it feels to be in this village.  Look at the trees surrounding the shaman's lodge, how relatively peaceful and isolated it is ... and how quiet and contemplative.  Remember the sound of the wolf's jaws and the cage as the wolf hurls its body against it. The wash of the waves on the shore of the lake, the glint of the sun as it reflects off the water.  Think of young cousin Alfdis's eyes as they stare at the party, being touched by the amazing existence of family who come from so far away, a place Alfdis has only heard about.  Think of the chief's gruff voice; the shaman's gentle, patient tones; mother Yulene's snapping at the children while complimenting the party.  THINK of the actual scene, how it would be, how it has to invest itself into the minds of the players.

We have a tendency to think we need great sweeping descriptions of Stavanger, but we don't!  People remember small things.  How cold the water is.  What does the turf covering the roofs of the dugout houses smell like?  How dark and juicy does the cooking meat look like?  How does a pouring rainstorm change the grassy, stony compounds?  How does it feel to wrap one's own furs tight around oneself, in front of the campfire.  Think in small details, then say them out loud when they occur.  You won't be good at it, not at first.  But if you get one good one in per session, players will remember that one good one and forget the rest!

Now, this adventure.  What does it mean?

That's tricky.  We can couch this in a number of ways ... how the events will be remembered by the party, how it will give them experience and tools with which to become stronger and fight their next adventure; we can fit the next adventure somehow into the details of this one, so that the "meaning" is that it made the second adventure possible.

But there's are higher meanings, too ~ I mentioned one already.  There's the notion of facing down a difficult situation and overcoming it, and how that makes the player feel, as opposed to getting out of town when things offend or look hazardous.  There's the sense of seeing the fictional townspeople, who don't actually exist, as existing anyway, because it is immensely satisfying even to pretend that we are doing things for other people (the oxytocin hit is the same).  If we can relate to things like that ... then we can see, as players and as DM, that the adventure becomes about how this series of events will affect the village.

And this is how purpose evolves ... when players feel a direction emerging that doesn't start and end with, "What do I get out of this?"

That brings us to boundaries.

The village, and the immediate wilderness, is a boundary.  Leaving the village before resolving the adventure is a punishment only in that the players won't get the reward.

But IN the village, they must accept the rules of the village: that there are other clans, that will try to block their intentions.  That other members of the village have agendas of their own, unknown to the chief and the shaman.  That the wolf is an unknown variable.  That other unknown variables might be anywhere.  Staying in Stavanger, knowing that there's an adventure in play, puts the players at risk of ... well, anything we might create.

These are the boundaries the players have to win through.  Why would they?  Why do we play games at all?  Consider the video games that you, the reader, personally like to play: side scrollers, first person shooters, puzzle games, whatever. You drift to those games, specifically, because you like the particular boundaries they create.  How many shots you have, how fast you can run and how hard is it.  The agency, yes, carries weight for you, but you like games with a certain kind of boundary.

Role-playing is the same.  If your DM fudges, and you like it, that has to do with the boundary to your play that satisfies you.  If you like the boundary including a virtual guarantee that you'll survive the adventure and succeed at it, and it is enough to go through the motions, because it is interesting for you, fun, pleasant, relaxing, then you'll keep playing those games.

Me, I like games where the boundaries are unpleasant and off-putting.  Where I feel like I'm making progress, and I'm not moving in a circle, or staring at an insolvable problem, but the progress costs.  I like games where the boundaries are not immediately visible.  Where they are virtually inexhaustible in their design.  Where after playing the game for 40 years, I'm not exactly sure where all the boundaries are.  Not yet.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Wilderness Problem

The other day, Pandred left me a comment on the Sand's Block post: "I'll be honest I'm at a loss how I'd even begin to run such an area ..." that has left me wondering about my agenda.

My goal is not to create impossible-to-run scenarios that highlight my personal creativity, which has been developed over many long decades of eschewing public discourse and human interaction in favor of writing in a private domain while reading writers who preferred to live and die in a private domain ~ which is absolutely nothing more than practice, practice, practice.  Anyone can do it.  It just takes 30 years.

What I'm trying to do is to make the reader understand that a world-building process is not in the making of the whole world, or in the high-flying conceptions that so many role-playing designers try for, such as having all the people in the world believe in some notion about old gods someday arising and killing everyone, or that the world is divided into set groups of people with calcified social moralities that clash in great swoops of important world-changing battles ... but that actual world building is creating that tactile experience, that game feel, of actually living in an environment that can be reconciled with our day-to-day thoughts, making suspension of belief and immersion possible.

Listen, I know that many people don't like me, that I am arrogant and abusive, that I'm impatient, that I use words to cut people and that I am very opinionated ... but if you want to make your world better, you have to get past that and realize that what I'm telling you is what you need.  You're not going to hear this anywhere else.  No one else is writing about this.

D&D is a highly personal form of human interaction, scaled down to the fictional characters who directly connect with other characters and the setting in which they exist.  To make that setting seem real, you've got to grasp what "real" is.  You, dear reader, a human being, are not actually capable of grasping the world as it exists, except for how the various medias you consume appear from your limited, monkey-brain perspective.  You, I, and everyone else can grasp intellectually that these things are happening, that the world outside our personal experience exists, but you cannot subsume that into your emotional consciousness in any real way.  The events and art you're witnessing, that's telling you about things, only exists to you as wallpaper ... unless it is happening to you, personally.  In which case, if you were actually a part of all these events, you would understand too clearly how the media is wrong about everything.  It's packaged, prefabricated for your enjoyment.  It isn't real.

When you make your world, your tendency will be to create the prefabricated package, because you've been taught from a young age to see the package as "more interesting" than the real world.  The real world is going to work, opening the fridge to get food, getting in your car and driving, going to sleep at night ... and hundreds of other things you've done thousands of times.  This repetition dulls.  You don't want to create a dull world.  This drives you to try to create the media-fueled fakery that sounds really good on paper but just doesn't run well when you try to DM the hugeness of that conception.

You can't manage that conception in every interaction, in every possible incarnation ... and so it ends up being phony and false, which you're frustratingly conscious of, which taints your game-play and undermines your confidence as a DM.  Each and every time you try to "create a world" as though it is one great conception, you fall on your face ... because "a world" is more complicated than your monkey-brain can handle.  You weren't built for it.

I went looking for the example but the video seems to be lost. When John Stewart stepped away from his show, he walked the camera through all the back rooms of the studio and introduced the hundreds of people who were involved with writing, producing, researching and developing the show.  Behind the false front of one presenter, creating an easy to understand package, were tens of thousands of weekly conversations between an army of people we never got to see ... because this wasn't necessary for the package.  But when we set out to make a game world, we're now responsible for all that.  And trust me, we're not up to it.

For the D&D universe, this limitation has created a cliched standardization of game moments and events that have become embraced through repetition ... what we are most prone to recognize when we think, "Dungeons and Dragons."  The trope starts with a desperate attempt to capture the "feel" of the game with images and low-quality CGI, intended to impress with their packaged idea of what we imagine in our minds as the "thrill" of being a terrifying, murderous killer, with axe dripping blood ... but this fakery quickly descends into the actual reality of sitting around a table in anachronistic t-shirts, water bottles, prop mugs, painted miniatures and general clutter.

A world where even famous players of the game, whose careers hinge on their participation, sit around looking bored.



This is your game.  Not the bullshit imaged package that is used to sell you, that's been around since the original books, through pictures, tried to depict what the game should look like or what it was about.  That was marketing.  Your players are these five people (or six) sitting here waiting to be told what they see, and what they're supposed to feel.

The pressure on us as DMs is to make paper and pencils, imagination, possibility, doubt and fear feel good.  To enable the process of players feeling happy, or disoriented, or tense, we have to create something with which they can directly relate ~ not vast ideas like trade routes or world maps.  Those things exist for us, the DMs ... not for the players.  The players want something they can ... touch.  That they can directly understand, and manipulate, and ultimately change, so that it becomes something else.  This gives the player a sense of empowerment.  This makes the player feel engaged.

Game feel is about making the players feel powerful; or reminding them that they are not.

This is what I've stumbled across as I've worked through the fabrication of these building blocks on this series of game posts.  How does a space this small, that can be flat-out run across in just twenty seconds, exist as a living, thinking, relevant space in which the players participate as characters, both enabling them and potentially humbling them?  How do we, as DMs, think in such small spaces, when those small spaces are not dungeon rooms?  We're so used to putting the players in a 20 foot square box, adding monsters and shaking the box to make game play happen.

What I've done is demonstrate how the direct, full-on world operates in exactly the same way as the dungeon, by shrinking down the HUGE space of the world into these little boxes that can be ... understood.

Naturally, this is going to smash all conception of how to run such a place, as Pandred noted, because no one else, anywhere, is seeing the world this way.

Sorry for the emphasis.  I'm excited.  This shatters all conception of how the game is played.  After many long decades of fighting with it, I feel I have solved "the wilderness problem."  How do you run in the wilderness?  Build it so that the size fits the player.  Define what is relevant about a piece this size.  Then do it again.

It is all new.  And frightening.  It is enough to make a DM lose their sense of direction.  And perhaps, I am thinking, that is a problem.

My position here is weird.  Most DMs are oblivious to the wilderness being "a problem."  The wilderness exists as space that has to be crossed between dungeons, and that's it.  As you and I conceive it, in the real world, as that immense, inconceivable space that we would not want to be lost in, the wilderness in a fantasy world is just empty, blank space.  It is like the filing cabinet in which all the cities and dungeons are stored.  Like most other games, that space is irrelevant.



The contrary will seem wrong, or irreconcilable with their pre-conceived packaged ideal.  Comparing the above image is fundamentally no different than the WOTC's version of what a "game map" should include.  Names, circles, orientation ... and done.

I proposed that a world could be made out of recognizable, cookie-cutter building blocks, but with this recent Stavanger village series I'm turning that on its head and arguing how an individual block can be made thoroughly unique ... and with that, I fear I am leaving some readers behind.  A lot of readers, I worry.

Perhaps I'm going too fast.  Just now, I'm not sure of any other speed I can go.  This is as new to me as it is the reader.  A month ago I had no idea I would wind up here ... but that is why I start these series in the first place.  By making myself think something through, by explaining it to someone else who is not a part of my thoughts, my thinking clarifies and creativity kicks in.

We just have to see where this takes us.